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London - The soggy bath towel dumped on the landing was my tipping - or tripping - point. I’d just spent the last three hours cooking dinner, scraping food from plates, loading the dishwasher, picking up socks, school shoes and books, and arrived at the top the stairs with an armful of children’s detritus when I fell over it.
‘Who dropped a towel here?’ I bellowed. ‘Oh yeah, me, sorry,’ came a nonchalant voice from the attic room, above the sound of gunfire from the X-Box ‘shoot-em-up’ game in which my son Joe was immersed.
There was no attempt to pause his game and come downstairs to retrieve the offending towel. Somehow, he assumed, it magically would find its way back on to the rack - like towels always seem to do in our house.
The bathroom itself resembled a crime scene: steam billowing, walls dripping, grey sludgy water dammed in the shower tray by a clod of slimy hair, and there, on the floor, two perfect replicas of my children - their discarded clothes lying like a couple of destuffed scarecrows.
I was furious. What was going on here? Somehow, I’d become a skivvy, trailing behind Joe, who’s 12, and his 15-year-old sister Lois, as they discovered new ways to turn our lovely, scrubbed and orderly North London terrace house into Steptoe’s yard .
I’d nagged, shouted, pleaded, offered money, withdrawn money, and piled on pretty pathetic emotional blackmail: ‘Mommy’s been working soooo hard all day, all she wants to do is sit down and have a glass of wine.’ But nothing seemed to work.
All the parenting manuals and websites spout the same advice on this subject: teenagers should be given their own space and have their privacy respected, but in communal areas, they should be taught certain standards are expected.
Pocket money should be rewarded for completed tasks and chores, with clear boundaries set and adhered to.
But nowhere is there a manual explaining what to do in households where both parents work, making time a precious commodity, and where the mother is a border-line clean-freak obsessive, with no patience at all.
Yes, I could spend an hour with my arms crossed, sighing irritably while my children make a complete fist of changing a duvet cover, before handing over £5 cinema money. But that’s one wasted hour out of a weekend that I don’t get back.
And besides, Lois and Joe broke my code years ago: if they do a bad enough job of something, I’ll usually wade in and do it myself. Hence, I spend most evenings tidying up after everyone, whingeing and nagging all the while.
‘Don’t do it then,’ Lois snapped testily that evening as I moaned about having to clean the bathroom. Normally this would have sparked a door-slamming row, but this time it set me thinking.
Recently, Canadian mother-of-three Jessica Stilwell became a national hero when she went on cleaning strike for a week to teach her children a lesson. Without telling her three girls - 12-year-twins and a ten-year-old - she vowed to do ‘no picking up, cleaning, reminding or nagging’ for six days, and documented the mounting mess on her blog.
She still cooked and did laundry, but anything her children could easily do themselves, but neglected to - such as tidying up after themselves, putting their plates in the dishwasher and stowing dirty clothes in the laundry basket - she wouldn’t do.
And after six days, her children were so sick of the mess, they cleaned up themselves. Result!
And as I flopped exhausted on the sofa at 10pm, still in rubber gloves and worksuit, I decided it had to be worth a shot. I was going to go on strike for a week, too.
Of course, like Jessica, I needed the collusion of my husband, John. He agreed to not pick up after the children either - something I knew he wouldn’t find too difficult. Although he’s no slob, he doesn’t seem to find their slovenly ways as offensive as me, and his own standards occupy a slot a notch or two lower down the tidy scale than mine.
We wouldn’t announce the strike, we’d just see what happened. Would a week wallowing in their own mess and chaos reboot Lois and Joe’s dormant tidy gene and give me back my life? Day one of the strike passed as normal. Lois and Joe clattered out the house for school at 8am, leaving behind cereal bowls and juice glasses on the coffee table in the lounge.
With enormous effort, I ignored them, placed my own breakfast plate in the dishwasher and headed out to work. Of course, the children’s bowls were still there when I got back that night.
The evening shower followed the same depressing pattern - clothes and damp towels left where they fell, the laundry basket not being troubled by any offerings of underwear.
After dinner, I said nothing as their dirty plates were dumped on to the kitchen worktop next to the dishwasher. And nothing was said the next morning when the children came downstairs to breakfast to be confronted by the congealed remnants of last night’s meal.
Where was their breaking point? I itched to clear away the filthy mess, but it didn’t seem to bother them. In fact, I don’t think they even noticed.
Then John reminded me just how unsqueamish our children are. One morning, when the cat was still young and a passionate hunter, he’d dragged home a rat which he discarded on the lounge carpet in front of the TV.
I came downstairs that morning to find Lois and Joe watching television, quite happily eating toast and Marmite on the carpet next to the disembowelled rodent. As I ran, shrieking, for binbags and disinfectant, they barely raised an eyebrow. ‘What rat? There’s a rat? Oh yeah, so there is,’ said one, biting into another slice of toast.
This, I realised, could be a difficult nut to crack.
Day two followed the same pattern, and both the coffee table and the kitchen worktop became cluttered with some pretty revolting dishes. I doubted I had the staying power to see this through. I could practically see the microbes doing their work on the two-day old chicken korma, and I could certainly smell them.
By day three, however, I spotted some signs of progress in the bathroom. The towels found their way on to the rack, and Lois had cleared her bedroom floor of clothing, although she showed no sign of addressing the mess in the kitchen. There was nothing so encouraging from the youngest Lawrence, however. He remained steadfastly blinkered. Are boys worse than girls, or is tidiness linked directly to age, I wondered?
Both my elder sister and I were pretty untidy as teenagers. I remember a stand-off with my mother over an Easter egg which I left to melt onto my bedroom windowsill. It wasn’t until Bonfire Night that I felt sufficiently irritated to clean it up.
It was only when I got my first flat that I started to appreciate the calming aroma of freshly ironed sheets and lavender furniture wax. John, by contrast, was pretty tidy as a child. He says it was because his was the family box room, meaning space was a minimum, and he developed a taste for order.
By days four and five, the kitchen and front room were utterly disgusting, and the children’s bedrooms in total chaos.
Breakfast bowls had started to migrate from the lounge to the kitchen, but only because there was no more room for them on the coffee table. That was occupied by Joe’s socks and cycle helmet, and Lois’s school books. Also in the mix was a hot water bottle, a game of Connect 4 (strangely with all pieces back in the box), sports kit and at least three pairs of trainers, some with socks still in them, and for that extra special something, a few McDonald’s drinks cups and ketchup sachets.
I really started to worry about what the neighbours would think if they happened to walk by and look through the window.
There was one bonus, however. Joe could actually find things! No longer was I badgered into locating lost Oyster card, keys, sports kit and shoes. He knew exactly where everything was. On the floor, where he’d dumped them last night!
By day six, Lois started to crack: ‘What’s all this stuff doing in here?’ she asked, wrinkling her nose at the pile of washing up in the kitchen.
‘They’re your plates,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she replied coldly. There followed a moment when we exchanged a look as she sussed me out. This was a test, she deduced rightly, a ruse to get her to do dreaded housework - and she didn’t like being tricked.
Upstairs, however, there were signs that my strike was bearing fruit. Although her room was by no means pristine, Lois was at least putting laundry in the basket, and towels were making their way on to the rail after only a few hours on the floor.
On day seven, I could stand it no longer. The children were marched into the kitchen and shown the result of Mom’s week-long strike and asked to comment.
‘You went on strike? Really?’ said Joe, looking around the kitchen, and seeing - at least to his eyes - everything as it should be.
Lois, encouragingly, confessed she’d started to find running out of clean shirts and dry bathroom towels annoying, and had addressed the problem.
‘Untidiness just doesn’t bother me,’ she said. ‘Who cares about a few things on the floor? It’s only if it gets inconvenient that I’ll do something about it.’
There were still enough plates and bowls in the kitchen, she rationalised, before any dishwasher loading was necessary.
‘It was horrible though,’ she said. ‘I would have done something about it eventually.’
Joe looked at her incredulously. ‘What, you’d do the washing up?’ he gasped. Such a concept horrified him. ‘But we don’t do that,’ he said.
Clearly, I have gone very, very wrong with my child-rearing over the years.
It was time to end the experiment. Under my instruction, they agreed to stack the dishwasher, while - to my shame - I tidied the lounge. I couldn’t help it: I needed my nice shiny surfaces back.
Their bedrooms, however, I decided to leave up to them. Like Lois, Joe must have his cracking point, and I am determined to find it.
And if there’s one thing this test has taught me, it’s that the world doesn’t end if pillow cases don’t have ironed creases in them, and socks sit on the floor for a few days.
I was feeling a bit of a failure until the evening, when I heard Lois entering the bathroom, after Joe, for a shower.
‘You’ve left your clothes all over the floor - it’s really inconsiderate,’ she shouted up the stairs. ‘Come and pick them up.’
And he did, straight away.
It was a small step, but definitely in the right direction. Maybe my week’s strike has yielded some results after all. - Daily Mail