WASHINGTON — Many women who work outside the home, including those with helpful kids and husbands, have come up with a new housekeeping standard, according to sociologists and family relations experts. It's called "clean enough."
No crumbs visible around the toaster, it stipulates; just don't look under the toaster. The tub isn't grimy, but it doesn't gleam either, which is why God invented shower curtains. And you could knit a scarf with what's behind the refrigerator.
"Clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy," is the way that Elizabeth Sherrill, 52, of Kansas City, Mo., put it.
"Clean enough" is the inevitable compromise in a country where couples who spent 26.5 hours a week on housekeeping in 1965 now spend just 17 hours, according to University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson.
To put a finer point on it, women said their time spent housekeeping dropped from 24 hours a week in 1965 to 12, while men's increased from 2.5 hours to 5.
Something had to give, and it was standards. But the clean-house pressure stayed on women, said Marla Cilley, 52, the creator of a popular motivational Web site for women, www.flylady.net. "Women care more about their homes because it is a reflection of who they are," she said.
Not surprisingly, today's "clean enough" standard sits ill with mothers and grandmothers who washed curtains, scrubbed pot bottoms and put spring cleaning on their calendars.
Relief is on the way, said Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., in the form of baby-boom mothers, especially single ones. They juggled enough obligations themselves, Carr said, to be more forgiving of "clean enough" tidiness than their own mothers were.
If only women can make it until things calm down.
Lynda Mota, 47, a teacher from Onsted, Mich., said that when she was young, her mother used to threaten her with a belt if she resisted doing chores. When Mota married, the pressure persisted.
"My mother called me and told me she couldn't come over anymore to my home because of the mess," Mota said. "I told her that was fine, because I wasn't going to clean anymore so she wouldn't come over.
"Boy, was that a mistake! I missed out on some wonderful time with my mom because I was bullheaded."
Kate Curley, 52, a middle-school teacher in Westborough, Mass., said her mother tried to be tactful but slipped one day when she dropped by to visit.
"She started yelling for me, frantically. She thought that the house had been ransacked! There were toys and laundry and newspapers all over the place, the breakfast dishes were on the table and the place was a mess."
Tina Hopkins, 22, of Tampa, Fla., who like the other women responded to a query from McClatchy that Cilley relayed to Flylady fans, found that the problem was with her visiting mother-in-law, who initially praised her housekeeping.
"She spent the rest of the week wondering out loud if she was the only one who thought baking soda was an inappropriate addition to my loads of laundry or whether anyone else could see the streaks on the bathroom mirror."
According to sociologist Carr, the real difference is between an older generation of women who considered housekeeping their top priority and a younger one that considers housekeeping far less important than jobs or kids.
As Carr put it: "We've spoken to daughters who wanted their husbands to be good partners, do the dishes and cook. And their mothers would say: 'You better appreciate him. I hope he doesn't leave you because you are not cooking enough.' "
An Indiana woman, who identified herself in an e-mail only as Linda, reached an ingenious compromise: She hired her mother to clean her house.
"It gave her some spending money and I had a clean house without having a stranger in," Linda wrote. "I had the added bonus that my kids tried not to mess up what Grandma had cleaned."
Occasionally, a husband earned praise for pitching in.
"I married my prince charming and he does help," said Amie Haakenson, 36, of Anchorage, Alaska. "It's 50-50 easily here, with chores and things that need to get done. We have to; we are each working 50-50 of the hours."
But many women said that their husbands, particularly older ones, took to housekeeping the way cats take to bullfighting.
"The house is never as clean as the cars, which he keeps looking as showroom new," wrote Linda Seligson, 61, of York, Pa. "I often joke that I'd like to move to a motor home because he's fanatic about keeping anything on wheels super-clean."