Peg Bracken Versus The FLYlady

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When my older daughter was a baby, we needed a plumber for a broken faucet. The guy who came was running a probably-unauthorized side business hawking household products, and he pitched his product to me when he was done fixing the faucet: sink polish. “It’ll make your sink look new,” he told me enthusiastically.

I blinked at him in utter bafflement. “Why would I care what my sink looks like?” I said. “It’s a sink.”

Within a year — remember, I’d just had a kid, so eventually I found my way to the world of online parenting support groups — I realized why he’d pitched sink polish to me. He’d mistaken me for a member of the FLYlady cult.

There are three possibilities right now, dear reader: (1) you’re wondering what the heck I’m even talking about; (2) you started snickering the moment you saw the words “sink polish”; or (3) you’re furious at the idea that FLYlady is a cult. There is nothing cult like about those 81 e-mails a day, the badgering about sink polishing and shoes, the daily assignments, the testimonials. Nothing.

The FLYlady is actually a southern woman named Marla Cilley, and FLY stands for “Finally Loving Yourself” because goodness knows there’s nothing like doing all the housework for an unappreciative family to demonstrate that you are finally, finally loving yourself. She offers an organizational system, sort of, for all the thankless, endless, cyclical tasks of modern housewifery: cleaning the house, cooking the food, cleaning the house some more, exercising, and then cleaning the house yet again, because while there are a few single people doing this, and allegedly at least a few men, the vast majority are women who are cleaning, cooking, and caring for multiple children, a spouse, and probably a couple of pets.

I actually know some single people who use her system, but although I know several stay-at-home Dads who do the cooking and cleaning plus a guy who’s a child-free house husband, I do not know a single male person who does. My theory is that this is because none of the men I know are inspired and encouraged by perky e-mails full of statements like, “I can’t be there to give you a big hug, but I know how good it feels to see yourself in your kitchen sink. So each morning, this is my gift to you. Even though I can’t be there to pat you on the back, I want you to know that I am very proud of you.”

So yeah: sinks. She starts with your sink. She is obsessed with your sink. If nothing else, at the end of every day, you need to clean out your sink (which means washing all the dishes — I’m pretty sure that’s really the main point of the exercise, just getting all the dishes done and not letting them pile up), wash the sink, and shine it.

I did at some point try this system out. (Here’s one of the things about parenting message boards: they have fads. Fads I have seen over the years include Snuggies, not washing your hair, marble jars for child discipline, and turnips. Yes, the vegetable.) When I caved to the FLYlady fad, I spent a couple of weeks grumpily shining my sink and trying to declutter. It was, to be honest, kind of nice to get the occasional reminder to do chores I never think of, like cleaning out my purse. But it wasn’t just occasional reminders. I got e-mail after e-mail — go declutter! Go shine your sink! Are you wearing shoes? — all in the same sugary, overly intimate, almost-religious-but-not-quite tone finishing nightly with one that arrived at 11 p.m. telling me to go to bed. I finally unsubscribed and resolved to deal with this by seeking out friends with houses messier than (or at least as messy as) mine.

Peg Bracken would have understood.

A couple of months back, a friend of mine (also a writer and also a mom, although her kids are younger than mine) linked to an article about hating to cook. Someone in the ensuing discussion linked to a 1950s classic, the I Hate to Cook Book. Peg Bracken. I’d never heard of it. I pulled up the sample on Amazon and was so instantly enthralled by her voice (“The thing about these recipes is, they’re here! You don’t have to ferret them out of your huge, jolly, encyclopedic cookbook. And they’ll get you through the month!”) that I ordered a copy despite the fact that none of the recipes looked like anything I’d want to eat, and then went looking to see what else she’d written. When I saw she’d written a book called the I Hate to Housekeep Book, I bought that one, too. Because while there are definitely days when I don’t much feel like cooking, I really hate cleaning. And I was pretty sure Peg would not browbeat me for whining if I said so.

“There are three kinds of housekeepers,” the book starts out. “There is the spotless housekeeper, who won’t stop, and there is the spotful housekeeper, who won’t start. Then there is the occasional or random housekeeper, whose book this is.”

Random housekeeper. The FLYlady’s term is the “Sidetracked Home Executive” (she actually got a lot of her methodology from a book called Sidetracked Home Executives: From Pigpen to Paradise, but the Sidetracked Home Executives authors suggest you make a to-do list using 3×5 index cards rather than signing you up for a daily deluge of e-mails.) One of the basic problems of housework, aside from it not doing itself, is that in most houses there are always dozens of things that need cleaning, putting away, or fixing, and it can be hard to prioritize. (Do you clean the thing that’s the dirtiest, or the one that’s the most visible? Put away the thing you’re most in danger of misplacing, or the thing you’re most in danger of tripping over?) The FLYlady tries to eliminate the problem by giving you a system. Peg accepts you are you are — disorganized, clutter-prone, far more interested in any other activity than cleaning — and offers up a handful of simple rules to make the best of things.

For instance, here’s Rule #3 from her basic approach: “Each time you give the house a good going-over, start with a different room.” She goes on to explain that since of course you’ll peter out, at least if you’re starting in a different place each time, you’ll get a different room really clean each time. Brilliant. This is actually a genuinely good idea, one I resolved immediately to implement. Rule #5 is, “Act immediately on whatever housewifely impulses come your way” and the example she gives is spotting a little smear of jam on the wall. Far better, she assures me, to just grab a damp sponge and remove it on the spot than to promise yourself to come back later with a bucket of sudsy water to clean things properly. She is dead on about this: there are things I have looked at every day for the last two months, always intending to come back to them but never actually doing so. “Forget the old cliché that anything worth doing is worth doing well,” she concludes. “This isn’t true.”

She goes on to suggest you stop to think a bit about who exactly you’re keeping house for. Not for your friends. (“You never heard a woman say, ‘I simply adore Marcia, she’s the most meticulous housekeeper!’”) Or your children or spouse, who don’t care. You’re keeping it clean for yourself — so, she almost but doesn’t quite state outright, downgrade your own standards a bit and clean less and it’ll all be good.

The I Hate to Housekeep Book was published in 1958, so the retrograde gender assumptions were pretty much par for the generational course. (The index has a single entry under “husbands,” which leads to the statement, “Only you know what your husband can be talked into doing. If you come, as I do, from a long line of Southern belles who feel that it is someone else’s job to empty the wastebaskets, you may be able to get this fact across to him. Then again, you may not.”) Of course, FLYlady’s gender assumptions are the same; any man who does find perky nagging e-mails inspiring will have to wade through lots of stuff explicitly directed towards women. (For that matter, lesbians and single women who sign up for her e-mails will see lots of references to husbands, and those without children will see lots of references to kids.) Which isn’t surprising — studies agree pretty consistently that men are doing more housework than they did in the 1960s, but that women are still doing most of it.

This is undoubtedly part of why one of the FLYlady’s firmest rules is, “no whining.” (Back when I subscribed to her e-mails, you could, if you wanted, whine in an e-mail to her, with a subject line that said “whining” in it, and she would delete it unread.) Her website includes a little poem about how people who are whining ought to be shining (“shinning,” actually, but I’m sure that person meant “shining”), a “No Whining” sign and a testimonial from a wife about how the “no whining” rule improved her marriage.

I should note that it’s not that I’m a fan of actual whining. The problem, though, is that in this framing, any complaint is defined as whining, even if the complaint is, “my husband agreed to wash the dishes, and didn’t. And has now gone to bed, leaving the dishes piled up.” If you’re a good FLYbaby, you uncomplainingly do those dishes and shine your sink before going to bed. Remember, you can only change yourself!

Peg Bracken discusses relationships with husbands very little. She herself, however, had four over the course of her lifetime. Her first ended in divorce. So did her second, after the jerk she was married to looked over the manuscript of The I Hate to Cook Book and said, “It stinks.” (“that was more or less the beginning of the end,” their daughter said in Peg’s obituary.) Her third marriage ended with her husband’s death; her fourth marriage, with her own.
Where the FLYlady’s tone has always made me feel like someone is scolding me in the most passive-aggressive way possible (“I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!”), Peg’s tone makes me imagine someone who wants to hand me a martini, sit down, and add her own complaints to mine. She’s certainly willing to dispense helpful advice (“If you are only spasmodically artsy-crafty, throw away that third of a jar of puce paint when you’re done with your current project. Otherwise these cans multiply like termites”) — but the main thing she cares about, when she’s over at your house, is not the condition of your sink but where you keep the gin and the limes.

If only I could sign up for daily e-mail messages from Peg.

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