The Housework Litmus Test

"My theory on housework is, if the item does not multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares, why should you?" -- Erma Bombeck

In her tongue-in-cheek wisdom, Erma Bombeck set forth a mantra that everyone loves and no one implements. She prioritized those things that are of utmost importance and threw everything else under the bus. So if we do what she said, then from this day forth we will be set free from the bondage and the drudgery of chores. Well, most of them. Right?

Let’s dissect this theory a bit further.

If the item does not—

MULTIPLY. Bacteria. Germs. Flies. Mold. Gremlins. Immediately vanquish all of the above as soon as they rear their ugly little heads, or face dire consequences.

SMELL. Gym clothes. Old leftovers. Diaper pails. Garbage. Tuna. Deal with them.

CATCH FIRE. If you don’t know what does or what will, I suggest you brush up on your safety skills.

BLOCKING THE REFRIGERATOR DOOR. Hot wheels cars. Tonka trucks. Green army men. Magnetic letters of the alphabet. Various pieces of children’s furniture. Random pets. Two words for these things: Step aside. Otherwise, you risk destruction underneath the feet of my man and offspring who frequently chant, “Need. Food. Now.”

But on the heels of these four categories of the theory come those words that make me blissfully happy…. "LET IT BE."

This idea is groundbreaking, ladies and gentlemen. Mostly ladies. But I’m not stereotyping, of course. What this means is that we now have a litmus test for housework. If the chore does not fall into one of the above categories, then forget it. Clutter? Harmless. Home improvements? Lowe’s stock will just have to take a dive. Toys strewn from one end of the house to the other? Just think of them as happy little reminders of busy children at play. Organizing closets? As long as the door shuts, no worries.

Ms. Bombeck’s sentiment is ridiculously funny, one that I would be thrilled to adopt as my own.

Ah, if only reality would permit me to do so.

I’ve read plenty of articles and books that embody all of the old clich├ęs…carpe diem, take time to smell the roses, enjoy the moments you are given because they are fleeting. Let the laundry sit, they say. Let the dishes collect. Let the house go to pot. It’s all okay, as long as you are enjoying your family. One day your children will be grown…and all that.

It’s well-intentioned advice, really. One day they will be grown and, as people are fond of saying, they will not remember if their beds were made or if the living room was uncluttered. They will remember whether or not their dad and I were available to them and were active participants in their lives. That is an indisputable fact. Erma Bombeck put her thoughts about housework in more cynical terms: “No one else cares, why should you?”

The fact is, they do care, though they may not express it. To frame it negatively, if the housework didn’t get done, then everyone would care. Just watch one episode of that pitiful show Hoarders if you don’t believe me. If we set the bar at only these four litmus-test categories, then Social Services would be paying us a visit. Every parent knows that running a household requires much more than determining what’s unsafe, stinky, or standing in the way of food.

The bottom line is, as nice as it is to minimize the mountain of tasks that every family faces, the mountain obviously remains. And the clock is always ticking, forcing us to find balance between what we must do and what we want to do. There is no easy fix, no brush to paint over our obligations with broad strokes.

But if you do decide to adopt Erma Bombeck’s litmus test, let me know. I’d like to know how that works out for you.

Assuming Social Services doesn’t get to you first.


  1. My secret vice is watching Clean House...then realizing that my house is pretty clean, comparatively. If you ignore the dust bunny camp under the sofa....and if you look the other way over the linen closet debacle...and don't even mention the books which have created their zip code. Otherwise, my house is clean-ish.

  2. LOL! Yeah, I don't think dh would like it if I adopted that one. :D

  3. If only.....ha! I'm with Joann....my house is "cleanish". There is a fine line though. If I let it go too long, it drives me crazy.

    Hope you are having a good week,

  4. I can relate to "clean-ish" too. Joann, you like watching Clean House for the same reason that I like watching Nanny 911...to remind myself that things could be MUCH worse.

  5. I don't know if I could use the household litmnus test. I would go crazy thinking about all of the stuff I needed to do. I loved a previous commentors remark about having a "ckean-ish" house. That could decribe my house. Cleaning is a neverending chore that I will never catch up on.

  6. Using Erma Bombeck's philosophy is what allows me to occasionally go to sleep at night with dirty dishes in the sink and not be haunted with guilt. To me housework is one of the most physical jobs in the world that is 90% mental. Some days I just need somebody to tell me it's okay to LET IT GO. All the rest of the days I am impressed with my ability to work full time, raise four children and keep my house pretty organized and clean. Yay me, and all the rest of us, who pull it off!

  7. Yeah, I hate to admit it... but it was stressing me out to read the beginning and think of letting the clutter be! Sad, but true. I function much better with the mess picked up (well, all but the piles to the left and right of my laptop as I type this... that's my special "messy place") ;)

    Thanks for ending this post allowing freedom to tidy up. :) lol

    ♥ Michelle

  8. I like things picked up! Just don't wanna! Thanks for the post! Visiting from FMBT

  9. Well said, Colette. You ARE on my "most admired persons" list. By all means, we must let it go some days. But the option of letting it go indefinitely sadly does not exist. ;) Alas, that's what the Hoarders do. LOL

  10. New follower from Tuesday Tag Along.

  11. Those "Clean House" "Hoarders" and "Nanny 911" probably do everybody a service. (apart from giving us the heebie jeebies!!)

  12. Great post, Jennifer, I truly enjoyed this one :-) I am an OCD housekeeper! That hoarding show is revolting to me - lol (no slams against hoarders, it's just my disease goes the other way). I've read many, many, many books, articles, blogs, quotes, etc., and feel that I have come a LONG way with keeping a clean house. Mine has been downgraded from, sterile-model-home TO kinda-lived-in-you-can't-see-the-dust-in-a-magazine-picture home... I have learned to relax in a less than perfectly clean home and now our girls are old enough, and adept enough, to help the work go faster, which means we can spend even more time together. Hooray for progress! Thanks for sharing.

  13. I just moved into a new house and am still getting out of my old apartment. I am appalled at how cluttered and dusty I let the apartment get. I am working hard at keeping the house in top shape. I just cannot function in clutter, messiness, or disorganization. I agree w/you!! (and I don't have any kids, either!! Just hubby and me; how did I let it get so bad? Oh, I think it was because I "didn't own" the apartment, therefore, I didn't care as much as I should!)

  14. I'm so glad I stopped by your blog this morning! Thanks for commenting on mine about the loved & trusted friends! We actually have 2 "Bear-Bears" as well and they both look just as "loved"!

    I LOVE this post! I couldn't agree with you more! I'm a grown adult and I remember how clean my Mom always kept the house and loved it! I think everyone is happier and functions better in life in a clean (visibly so) home!

    Great word!

  15. Thanks for joining in iFellowship! We always love to see your link up. I love your blog! Thanks again.


  16. There are days I live by this rule and I always seem to pay for it later. We all get through the day much better when all is in order. Great post!

  17. I can't let things pile up, it makes more work that way. If I do something every day then it is a little each day rather than an overwhelming mess. I love when things are in order it seems to make everything flow better.

  18. Hello! Popping in from iFellowship at Seeds of Faith Women! Hope you find time to stop by Homemaker Honey and say, "G'Day!"

    Enjoy this day the Lord had made!
    Homemaker Honey

  19. great post! Gives you a lot to think about! Stopping by from iFellowship!

  20. Me! ME! I can use that litmus test! BUT - I am an empty nester whose husband is a neat-freak with OCD. I adapted by eliminating every extraneous thing in our home. I loved your post - your humor is motivating.

    I dropped by to visit your blog on the recommendation of iFellowship and will now look forward to the blessings of being your newest follower.

  21. I dont think i could relax if i follwed this theory. Im all for enjoying life but still like a tidy home xxx

  22. I just found your blog on Allied Moms, and I'm HOOKED! I love your style, your outlook...everything! Happily, your newest follower.

  23. hi new follower from the friday blog hop. Look forward to reading your blog more!

    Id love you to follow me back @ http://twochildrenandamigraine.blogspot.com/

  24. Hi visiting from NFF! Great post, hmmm it depends I am someone that can let things slide if its not urgent sometimes and not be bothered but usually I like to have it all tidied up.

  25. That is too, too funny and too, too true! lol! Check out my friend Leah's post from earlier this week...it goes right along with yours! :) http://beyerbeware.blogspot.com/2010/07/beware-this-is-going-to-be-messy.html

  26. What a wonderful and fun post! Thank you for sharing. I came over from NFF and really enjoyed looking around your blog :) You have a really amazing and wonderful way of writing. I look forward to reading more!

    Have a wonderful weekend,

  27. Yeah, it seems we are soul sisters. Thanks to Going Jane for telling me about your blog. Check mine at BEWARE: This is going to be messy

  28. Just coming by from the Friday Follow! I absolutely adore Erma Bombeck! Her take on life is one that can always bring a smile to your face! Looking foward to following you!

    Lucy's Human

  29. My house was a wreck today because both my husband and child are sick. A friend stopped by and I could tell from her raised eyebrows look that she didn't approve. I wonder what she would think if I took up that idea. :)

  30. That is my FAVORITE quote from Erma!!! What a great post. Thank you so much for such encouraging words. Housework can truly be detestable to me at times. :)

  31. hey there, i have an award for you!!! couldn't think of one more deserving than you!!!

    Underneath His Wrapping

  32. Love it. I am following you back!

  33. Oh I love your advise!!

    I found you through Allied Moms... I'm your newest follower now :)

    Have a great weekend!

  34. ha! love this :)
    hopping over from Trendy Treehouse.
    Happy Friday!!


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