Waxed legs come before housemaid's knee

Click to follow
THIS IS the time of year when I am always flooded by a desire to clean everything: myself, my house, my life. Last March I was eight and a half months pregnant, and expended a great deal of energy washing down walls and sorting out my desk and throwing away hundreds of useless bits of paper. This March, I haven't actually done any spring-cleaning, but I wander around the house two or three times a day making futile plans about scrubbing the skirting boards. Then the baby starts crying, and I think, I'll start the cleaning tonight when he's asleep and afterwards I'll shave my legs and apply a rejuvenating face mask. But when he goes to bed, these good intentions slip away as I lie prostrate on the sofa examining the strangely dusty living-room ceiling.

What I'd really like is for someone else to do it all for me. My current favourite fantasy is to escape to the Seychelles for a month, which would take care of my neglected body (a light tan covers a multitude of sins); meanwhile, our house could be completely redecorated and then cleaned from top to bottom.

And to coincide with our return, I'd have been miraculously transformed into a cross between Mary Poppins and Wonderwoman: the sort of person who washes the curtains and sheets every Monday; dusts on Tuesday; bakes bread on Wednesday; polishes on Thursday; scours the kitchen on Friday; and then cooks dinner for 12 on Saturday. (And Sunday? On Sunday I would turn the garden into a vision of green loveliness.)

The trouble is, this is an absurdly unrealistic fantasy, for though I am not a happy slut who cares nothing for tidiness, neither will I ever be an efficient housekeeper who is energised by bringing order into chaos. I want to be Mrs Beeton, but the effort appals me.

My mother is entirely to blame, of course (mothers always are). She rarely tidied up when we were children because she had better things to do, and as a result both my sister and I are slightly (all right, very) neurotic about mess. I used to beg my mother to help me clean the kitchen before my friends came round to tea, and she'd say, "Don't be so silly, they won't care a bit." And she was right; in fact, they said I was lucky to have such a groovily carefree mother who thought it was more fun to decorate the bathroom with silver spray-paint than to fret about how to deal with persistent lime-scale deposits. But I still felt anxious about encroaching domestic chaos, until I left home and could indulge in regular, unhindered bouts of obsessive tidiness. Other girls had anorexia; I exerted control over my environment with a large bottle of bleach (pour it down the lavatory, down the sink, flush those nasty germs away!).

Then I had my own children, and gave up on the battle to create an ordered home. Small boys, like snails, leave a trail behind them: if not slime, then litter, clutter, and little sticky pools of spilt apple juice. You could follow them round with a broom and a wet cloth all day, and it would make no difference. Muddle creeps upon you before you know it.

I have tried many different remedies. I bought half a dozen large plastic crates and sorted out the toys into different categories (baby toys in the blue crate, train set in the red one, etc, etc), and then every night I picked the toys off the floor and put them into the correct crate. When my first child was old enough, I made him help too, but he got confused and put the train set in the green crate. "That's the wrong crate!" I shouted. He looked dismayed, and I realised that the crates were probably a bad idea.

(Imagine the scene, 20 years from now. Son lies on therapist's couch, weeping softly. Therapist says: "When did the problem start?" Son: "It was my mother's fault. She was obsessed with tidiness." Therapist: "She sounds like an anal retentive personality, of the very worst sort.")

After the crates, I started making neat piles: piles of books; piles of old newspapers; piles of bills. I put these piles on the kitchen table or at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for when I have the time to move them elsewhere. But the piles never get moved, they just get knocked over.

My friend Debbie says the answer is box files. "You just stuff everything in," she says gaily. I have, in fact, got a filing cabinet, but it's now completely full; so full that I should sort out the entire contents and start throwing things away. To be frank, ignoring it seems the most sensible course of action at the moment.

Meanwhile, my husband thinks I worry too much. "Tidiness is a transitory state," he remarked last week, after listening to my regular rant about the messiness of the house. "You tidy up to try and keep chaos at bay, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of chaos. I don't mind inviting it in from time to time to wipe its muddy feet on our floor."

I refrained from telling him that plenty of small children were already wiping their muddy feet on our floor; why would I also need a grubby existential concept skulking around the house like some smelly old hippie? And anyway, if cleaning is simply a replacement for therapy, it's getting to be too much like hard work. I'd rather go and lie on a sympathetic psychoanalyst's couch for a couple of hours a week. (Therapist: "When did the problem start?" Me: "It was my mother's fault. She said housework was bourgeois tyranny." Therapist: "She sounds like a disordered personality, of the very worst sort.")

Even better, I could forget the psychotherapy and go for some beauty therapy instead. Eyelash tints! French manicures! An anti-cellulite seaweed wrap! Now that might release a new, true inner me. (Beauty therapist: "When did the problem start?" Me: "It was my mother's fault. She..." Beauty therapist: "Well, never mind about that. A bit of leg wax and we'll have you sorted out in a jiffy.") !