Belfast Telegraph

So, is a cleaning lady the true secret to happiness?


Chore leaders: Lindy McDowell and Una Brankin have very different view on the need for a cleaning lady at home
Chore leaders: Lindy McDowell and Una Brankin have very different view on the need for a cleaning lady at home
Lindy McDowell is all in favour of having a cleaning lady
Well-organised: journalist Una Brankin

In a less-than-surprising turn of events, a psychology experiment has revealed that paying other people to do the household chores is linked to increased happiness. Our high-profile writers Lindy McDowell and Una Brankin weigh in on the subject of housework — a totally hellish ordeal or the path to Zen?

Yes, says Lindy McDowell

In a crushing blow to the greetings card industry comes news this week that the bluebird of happiness has finally been made redundant.

Our cute little feathered friend is no longer seen as our number one harbinger of joy.

And it's not that usual old stuff either, about dreaming your dreams, winning the lottery or just pigging out on Maud's ice cream.

According to new research, the secret to happiness is a cleaner. Or to put it another way, the key to contentment is somebody else doing the jobs you hate.

Who am I to argue with scientific evidence?

My problem is that there are so many jobs I hate, I'd need a recruitment company to supply me with the relevant ancillary staff.

And please, before we begin, spare me that old argument that there is something uplifting about cleaning and shopping and tidying and ironing. That the path to fulfilment is to release your inner Aggie and Kim.

That doesn't work for those of us who don't have an inner Aggie and Kim.

There is no joy in ironing. There just isn't. There is no bleaker sight in the world than a mountain of wrinkly duvet covers, a wonky ironing board and an iron sitting there hissing back at you in contempt.

There goes the next hour of your life. An hour you will never, ever get back.

And this, say the scientists, is key to their finding. Pay someone else to do it and you free up valuable time that you can use to... well... enjoy yourself.

But outsourcing the ironing doesn't always go smoothly. I used to send ours off to a local firm. Two sons, then at school, and a husband in office clothes. That's an awful lot of shirts. I hate shirts.

It cost a bit. So the old puritan in me started agonising that I was being lazy and extravagant.

We were getting work done on the house and I'd thrown some old stuff including my son's clothes into the skip out front (this was in the days before recycling).

One night the delivery man from the ironing firm arrived with our many shirts.

He'd called earlier, he explained, but we weren't in.

Then I noticed something really odd. He was dressed head to toe in my son's cast-offs. Good to see them given another lease of life, of course. But it was a weird feeling looking at a grown man dressed up as my 12-year-old.

He'd been through the skip, he informed me cheerily. He'd also taken the old computer. Hope you don't mind.

Lindy McDowell is all in favour of having a cleaning lady

After that it was back to the Rowenta Autosteam for me.

I don't have a cleaner. But if I could get over my concern about our house not being clean enough for a cleaner, it would be bliss.

Housework is just another word for drudgery. In real life dirt isn't like the stuff they have in the Flash ads.

It's proper grime that requires formidable effort. The woman on the Flash ad doesn't even break sweat.

And it is so time-consuming. To clean an oven takes an aerosol of napalm ('WARNING - wear rubber gloves'), the skin off your hands (I forgot the rubber gloves) and an afternoon which could more profitably have been spent in relaxation and Rioja.

Another thing ­­- shopping. I truly hate grocery shopping. I'm convinced there is a secret government department which is attempting to make us all cut back on spending by making the food shopping experience as tortuous as possible.

Self-service checkouts that don't. Trolleys whose wheels are possessed by an evil spirit and whose handles are coated in toddler drool. Plastic carrier bags you could spit through and outsize packaging that shreds the bags in seconds.

And please don't say 'online shopping'. I've tried it. An entire week of food, all with the next day's 'use by' date.

So, let's see, I'm up to three staff now - the cleaner, the ironer, the shopper. But here comes the tricky bit. The interaction. I'd have to work out a timetable for my staff. Show them what I want done. Presumably this is why rich people have butlers.

Put me down for a butler too.

Of course there is still the question of how all this will be financed? Maybe money doesn't buy happiness but we still need it to pay for those who do our dirty work.

So until I've cracked this one, I'm afraid the bluebird of happiness will have to steer clear.

I've enough to do already, without clearing up his bird droppings too.

No, says Una Brankin

Christine Lampard admits she likes to have her sheets changed daily. I’d like that, too — there’s nothing like the feel of fresh bed linen, but it would be a luxury too far in our house.

No doubt the former Miss Bleakley has a cleaner. I don’t, and I can’t imagine having one.

My husband once hired a cleaner to help out when I had to go away a few days a week for work. He’d have the house upside down when I came back and it would take me all day to sort it out.

The cleaner lasted one day. Even Declan noticed she didn’t move the furniture to vacuum behind it.

I’m not overly fastidious but I can’t stand dusty surfaces and fusty corners. Domestic chaos puts me in bad form. I like things to be organised and to have a place for everything, especially in small spaces, whereas the other half goes around leaving little piles of debris in his wake — coins, guitar picks and business cards, mostly.

Every time I set the table I have to clear away his laptop, tablet, notebook, earphones and various musical paraphernalia.

As one-third of the living room is taken up by guitars in unattractive black cases and boxes of CDs, I have recently banned him from taking over the kitchen table.

46@08_una brankin.jpg
Well-organised: journalist Una Brankin

This inclination towards order wasn’t there when I was a student, although I remember scrubbing a dirty carpet in a house I shared with other undergraduates.

As children, my sisters and I had our allocated chores to do every Saturday morning and we’d take turns at the mountain of ironing in the afternoon.

Back then, I detested housework as I found it monotonous in the extreme. But somewhere along the line, I became a devotee of the ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ stricture and began to find it quite therapeutic.

As long as I have the radio on, I can spend hours cleaning and tidying. Clearing out disorganised cupboards is particularly satisfying. I think I can sleep better afterwards.

Now, I’m not as fussy as my friend in Dublin, who makes me put my toast on a plate the minute it pops up for fear of crumbs falling on to the kitchen table.

But I can relate to the frumpy heroine of one of Anita Brookner’s early novels, who cannot resist taking repeated peeps at the cutlery drawer and cupboard she has cleaned and reorganised.

It must be some sort of control issue. Chaotic surroundings frazzle my mind. I can’t concentrate if I’m surrounded by clutter.

I’m distracted at this very minute by a heap of my mother’s handbags on the dresser of the spare room I’m in at home.  She’s an inveterate hoarder and gives off about not being able to find anything after I’ve tidied up.

To be fair to the doomed cleaner, she did tell Declan in advance that she couldn’t touch any personal effects, which put half the house out of bounds after he’d been let loose on it. And to give him his credit, he does clean as he goes along when he’s making the dinner.

Although I like to keep an orderly house, I’m not keen on cooking and don’t get the sense of achievement others do from slaving over a hot stove.

I’d rather do the dishes afterwards, and by hand. I hate dishwashers — if you have to rinse plates, saucepans and cutlery before loading them in, why not just wash them? I’d make an exception for glasses and cups, though, for smudges and tea and coffee stains.

In the final analysis, I also see housework as a form of physical exercise.

I remember reading a magazine interview with Diana Ross, in which she claimed to like cleaning the house as a way to keep fit. I’m sure she has a few thousand more square feet than me to keep her in peak condition and I doubt she’s polishing every inch of it.

But since reading the article, I began to become aware of the benefits of all the stretching and bending while mopping the floors and dusting the curtain poles, which I much prefer to tackling the instruments of torture at gyms.

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