How cleaning helps me deal with being a stay-at-home dad

By Tommy Mulvoy

My decision to become a stay-at-home dad, after nearly 20 years teaching high school, was fraught with several doubts: How would I feel not providing any income for my family? How would I manage my energetic three-and-a-half-year-old son for an entire day? How would I keep myself intellectually challenged? How often could I clean the house before my wife, Vicky, who now works from home, asked me to get another teaching job?

Cleaning and organizing are two of the principal effects of my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). After spending hours compulsively counting numbers to ensure that family members won’t die or I won’t become paralyzed, cleaning and organizing allow me to put the world back in an orderly state: dirt and dust in the garbage, floors free of debris, and windows spotless. When I lived alone or had my own room in shared houses, I was never questioned about my cleaning habits. But, when Vicky and I moved in together a few months after we met, I was caught off guard by her objections to my cleaning practices. 

At the time, Vicky was working long hours in consulting and used the weekend to catch up on sleep. I was, and still am, a morning person and enjoyed nothing more than starting Saturday off by cleaning and tidying the house. I began by breaking out my Miele Complete C3 Dog and Cat Carpet PowerLine to vacuum the floor, but before long, had various attachments out and was cleaning couch cushions and kitchen cupboards. My first indication that Vicky wasn’t onboard with my Saturday routine was when she got upset that I was vacuuming the drawer of her bedside table a few minutes after she had woken up. I mumbled something about how she could be a little more appreciative and moved over to my side of the bed.

My Miele is a fantastic vacuum, but my first love was a jet grey Electrolux Silverado that my mom used in the ‘80s. I didn’t actually vacuum with it as a child but liked to activate the self-recoil on the extension cord and watch the plug whip around like a wild snake before slithering away into its hold. I also enjoyed inspecting the symmetrical light and dark streaks that the roller left on the blue carpet in my bedroom; even at a young age, I understood a vacuum’s unique ability to create order.

In addition to the Miele, I currently own a Dyson V11 animal, a 21.6 Wh Black and Decker dustbuster, and a Karcher Multipurpose WD 3 P. Four vacuums might seem preposterous, but they each have unique qualities. The Dyson is great for a quick clean up after dinner, and the ability to see all the dirt I have accumulated in the see-through canister makes my heart skip a beat. The Miele is used when I want a deeper clean and prior to mopping the floor. It’s quiet yet powerful and sucks up Lego pieces without protest. The dust buster is for hard-to-reach spaces and when my son, Aksel, wants to help. Watching him scoot along the floor smiling from ear to ear as he chases down bits of dog hair or climb over the seats in our car trying to suck up goldfish is gratifying. The Karcher is for big jobs: water spills, deep cleaning the car, or tidying up the winter garden. It also has a delightful air-blow feature. I once tried it on our Bernese Mountain dog, Sierra, but she was so frightened that she only shed more hair. 

In addition to helping keep my world orderly, cleaning provides a semblance of safety that I don’t often get when I am with Aksel. After I quit my job, we moved to a small mountain town in the central Swiss Alps where Aksel and I spend most days hiking, biking, or skiing on steep trails that often have precipitous drop offs. My mind and body beg for rest after watching Aksel push his limits in the wild, but twenty minutes spent sanitizing and tidying his toys offers the relief that I have at least provided Aksel with a bit of the cleanliness and security that he doesn’t get outside. 

The ability to order my world and provide Aksel a safe environment are both important, but the immediate outcome that cleaning provides gives me the most satisfaction. Some of my favorite moments during the day are when Aksel and I snuggle on the floor of his room and read countless books or when he accepts my gentle encouragement to push his comfort zone. Though the resilience and confidence Aksel is supposed to gain from these moments might not be seen for years, if ever, and my exact role in his future self is indefinable. After I clean, however, I can clearly see the result of my efforts: a spotless sink, books and toys neatly arranged on shelves, and all manners of debris in the Dyson. 

When I stopped working, I reluctantly agreed to have professional cleaners come once a month to do what Vicky refers to as a “deep clean.” My initial objection was that cleaning the house was part of my new job. Though, after the cleaners’ first visit, I quickly learned that their presence allows me to regain some of the influence I lost when I stopped teaching. I structure the cleaners’ “assignment” by moving the couch to the center of the room, picking up rugs, and sprinkling cleaning products around the house. And, my spot cleaning after they leave doesn’t have anything to do with their faults but allows me to reclaim my status as the tidiest person in the house. It might not be much of a mantel but when the only other prospect is as a supporting cast member in Aksel’s PAW Patrol rescues, I will take it. 

I still have some doubts about my new role as a stay-at-home dad, but one doubt I never have is if I can find something more to clean in the house. Aksel is great about tidying up his toys, but I can always find bits of kinetic sand near his play table to vacuum or bits of toothpaste to wipe from his sink. Vicky uses the kitchen throughout the day—preparing pizza dough, soaking beans in water, or blending soup—so I use the excuse that I am getting her work area clean before she starts the actual cooking later in the evening. Mostly, though, I blame Sierra, who sheds throughout the year and seems to collect every piece of dirt and sand in our town, whenever Vicky asks me why I am vacuuming again. 

Six months into my new job, it’s Aksel who has raised the most objections to my new cleaning habits. He screams at me when I vacuum his room while he is listening to his Toniebox, and he gets furious when I nosily put away his Magna-Tiles creations when he is reading. Vicky, on the other hand, just spends more time in her office with the door closed.

Tommy Mulvoy is an American expat living in Andermatt, Switzerland with his wife, Vicky, and son, Aksel. After teaching high school for nearly 20 years, he is now a stay-at-home dad.

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