At Large: Self-help for those with housework anxiety

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

Want to know what used to keep me awake Sunday nights? Socks. I'd lie there, breathing, thinking about how the next day when I wanted to put my clogs on and go to work, there would be no clean, matching socks. Feet-sweating, gritty-toe days make me feel out of control, like I'm in one of those dreams where you are driving a bus full of schoolchildren down a winding, mountain highway in South America, and then the steering wheel comes off in your hands.

At Large

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

Anyway, socklessness indicates a larger, systemic organizational problem, an emotional housework block. When the tide of laundry crests, the soap scum cakes the bathtub, and the dishes ferment in the sink, like Hillary Clinton, I find it too painful to face. Instead, I throw myself into philanthropic activities, like watching Annika Sorenstam play golf for three hours on TV or making pancakes. Later, I must lie in the bed I didn't make, wracked with housework should-have-could-haves.

I have friends who don't have this problem and it mystifies me. I look at their Monday morning matching socks with envy. Most of them are gay men, and their houses smell like aromatherapeutic candles. They use coasters and there's never a speck of dust on any of their retro kitchen appliances.

When I come home on a weeknight, fatigue grips me like a massive fist. All I want to do is read the New Yorker on the couch while picking greasy, grocery-store rotisserie chicken bits directly from the greasy, grocery-store rotisserie chicken carcass. I change into dirty pajamas and leave my clothes in a pile on the floor. Are there really normal working people, besides gay men, who have the energy it takes to maintain a house that can receive guests at any hour?

Anyway, all this got me thinking about a conversation I had recently with an older woman who called the Empire looking for a coworker who quit her job and is getting married. The old woman asked me what I thought my soon-to-be-hitched co-worker would do after the wedding.

"I guess she'll have to get another job," I said automatically.

"Or, maybe, she'll just be 'Sadie Sadie Married Lady,' " the older woman said, giggling.

After our conversation, I wiggled my gritty toes, and I couldn't help thinking about this Sadie Married concept. The term seemed sprung from a black-and-white sitcom, where women flitted about in high heels, their waists measuring 28 inches, their chests supported like warheads beneath their twin sets. Sadie Married has no children, she's a young, wet-eyed wife who loves to wear those yellow rubber cleaning gloves. She stands at the doorway waiting for hubby at 5 p.m. with a Manhattan and a pair of slippers.

I mused for a moment about what it would be like to be her. Every perfectly vacuumed carpet hair would stand at attention, saluting my homemakerly prowess. It couldn't be that hard, I decided. I made a resolution that for one week I would attempt to be more like Mrs. Sadie Married. I rose early Sunday morning and filled a hissing washer with dusty laundry. Then I got in the car, meaning to be gone only for a quick trip to the grocery store, but when I was out, I remembered I needed to make a little stop at the post office, Costco, the movie store and the gym. When I returned home, daylight was already slipping away, and again I found myself between dirty sheets, thinking about socks.

That's when it struck me. For the most part, Mrs. Married got mothballed with the advent of feminism, and all of us - young, unmarried working women - are more like Mr. Married, getting up in the morning, toiling all day, coming home. Only, there's no one waiting there with slippers and a Manhattan. Instead, there are the greasy bones of yesterday's rotisserie chicken, drying on the plate where we left them the night before. Somewhere along the line, I developed the expectation that I should be both Mr. and Mrs. Married at the same time, working all day, while simultaneously doing laundry, beating floor mats and cleaning moldy grout with a bleach-soaked Q-tip. Lying in bed on that failed Sadie Married Sunday, I decided I would buy more socks.

(Note: None of this explains the canniness of certain gay men in flawless housekeeping. Could it be, in an ironic twist, that gay men are the Sadie Marrieds of my generation?)

I should confess that it is Tuesday and my Sunday laundry load is rotting in the washer. Still, instead of having late-night anxiety attacks, I have been practicing guided visualization. There are just moments in our lives when we are short on time, and like that 12-step mantra, we must accept the things we cannot change. For me, I envision Sadie Married in a circle skirt, waving from the yard of a yellow house in the suburbs as time marches away, leaving her in the 1950s, and I sleep just fine.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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