roommate and the balance of housework
May 11, 2013 3:28 AM   Subscribe

My roommate is currently a lot busier than me. I'm unsure if it's fair to ask her to do more of the housework than she's currently doing.

My roommate is younger than me and at her first year of university. We're both women. She's busy and stressed a lot of the time because her program is a rigorous one, and she has some long days because she's taking classes with lab sections. I'm working from home, and I've got a couple of big projects I'm working on at the moment, but my schedule is much more flexible. We've been living together for about 9 months and get along pretty well.

When I moved in, she told me that she and her last roommate had cleaned the apartment--mainly the bathroom and kitchen--every Sunday, or every other Sunday, depending on how dirty things were, and she'd like to keep doing that. I agreed that that sounded like a good idea.

The problem is that my messiness-threshold is a lot lower than hers, and since I'm home a lot, I end puttering around the apartment and tidying up a lot. I lived by myself for a long time, and I guess I got into the habit of cleaning things when they got dirty, rather than cleaning on a specific schedule, because it ends up being less work that way. That is only relevant because due to my daily puttering around, I think our apartment doesn't every reach the point where her brain registers it as "dirty." Which means that she never mentions the weekly cleaning thing anymore; I have to bring it up and if I don't, and sometimes even if I do, things don't get cleaned unless I clean them myself.

This makes me feel like her mom, or like she expects me to be her mom and to clean up after her (she does do her own dishes, however). Would it be fair for me to push a little harder on this issue? I don't care about some big weekly apartment-wide clean-up, but I would like it if we started alternating cleaning the bathroom once a week. Is that a reasonable request even though our schedules are so different? I'm genuinely asking, not trying to set up a leading question, because it's been so long since I've lived with someone I genuinely don't know.
posted by colfax to Human Relations (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I definitely think it would be reasonable to push a little harder on it. It sucks to be in that position, even though it really does sound like it's circumstantial rather than any deliberate thing on her part. If possible, I'd also try to get her involved in problem solving around it: "Hey, I notice this has kind of fallen off your radar. How can we make sure we stick to this schedule?"

As a side note, though, I will say: life with roommates got immeasurably better for me when I started hiring cleaners 1-2 times a month. If you and your roommate are in a position to do that, I highly recommend it. Many cleaners are individuals who are working for themselves (skip the big national services, which are notoriously crappy to their employees), so I feel great about supporting them, and it short-circuits a huge amount of roommate strife before it can even get going, and it winds up costing each person about the amount we would spend on a nice dinner out. Totally worth it if you can swing it.
posted by rosa at 4:05 AM on May 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

I definitely think you're entitled to ask her to pull her weight and do half the cleaning. Her level of business isn't really relevant because you're flatmates not a couple. I pick up the slack houseworkwise when my husband is busy but that's because we're a team. That doesn't apply here. Ask nicely but definitely ask. I'd be surprised if she pushes back since it was her suggestion to start with.
posted by Dorothia at 4:20 AM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that you are entitled to ask her to do more housework. You said you get along pretty well, so just bring it up when you're both in the kitchen or something, don't make it like an "I-need-to-talk-to-you-about-this" meeting. (I had a roommate do that to me and it realllllly pissed me and my other roommate off. She left patronizing little messages around the apartment and stuff too.)

Just mention that you know she's busy but you feel like you end up doing more than your fair share because you work from home a lot and ask if she can be better about sticking to the cleaning schedule.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 4:32 AM on May 11, 2013

and it winds up costing each person about the amount we would spend on a nice dinner out. 

Hiring a cleaner is not a solution. I would also not want to give up a nice meal out, especially if i could afford only one such dinner.

OP, you cannot talk to her about the cleaning just yet - you have a problem on "your side of the ledger."

If you had not been slowly cleaning up the place, likely your roommate would have abided by your agreement to clean. Your self-elected cleaning took her off track. It would not be right to start a meeting without first acknowledging your part, and then proposing a new decision to return to the old agreement.
posted by Kruger5 at 4:40 AM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you're cleaning to standards that exceed hers, and doing it before she can get to it, that seems like it's mostly your problem. If you want to do less cleaning, that will probably mean you need to both resist the urge to tidy some areas so there's something for her to do when her schedule allows. and lower your standards for those areas so that you can live with the results she produces.
posted by jon1270 at 4:53 AM on May 11, 2013 [28 favorites]

Any cleaning such as plates and glasses and bits of paper and incidental clutter like misplaced tea towels and envelopes on the kitchen table etc should be taken care of an individual basis and pretty much immediately.

If you cook you clean the cooking and preparation area after. Washing dishes is a hellish thing best discussed at another time.

I like the idea of having one particular day devoted to getting in and vacuuming, scrubbing bathtubs, mopping floors, de-spiderwebbing and so on. Make that the main cleaning day, as suggested, but maybe reminding her of just grabbing her shit as she goes might help.
posted by h00py at 4:56 AM on May 11, 2013

Even if you accept the argument that she hasn't noticed when the place needs cleaning because she has a higher mess tolerance than you do, she still isn't doing what she said she was in the habit of doing and wanted to keep doing. You didn't force her into some sort of agreement, she brought it up and said she wanted to clean once a week, right?

I'm not sure whether she reneged on this at the beginning or if it's kind of gradually crept in. It's easier if it's gradually crept in and has only recently become a problem, because the longer it's been the status quo for her not to clean, the harder it is to change.

Regardless, you need to have a conversation. Not a big sit-down house meeting type thing though. And you also need to let things go so that when you have the conversation, it's clear what you're talking about. This will be tough, but resist the impulse to tidy and clean.

Then bring it up that you notice she's been really busy and not around a lot. Mention that you've been under some stress too lately with your projects, and that because you've been home when you've been working on them you've sometimes coped by cleaning bits and pieces (it doesn't matter if this is true or not). Lately though you haven't, which has made you realise she hasn't been cleaning either. Ask her if she still wants to do the weekly cleaning thing. Ask her if she wants to do this together or separately (for her it may be that cleaning with someone makes it more enjoyable). Wing it from there.

It's probably worth spending a bit of time thinking about areas which are more important than others and talking about it with her. For example, you don't notice lack of dusting but the bathroom being grotty really gets on your nerves. She doesn't mind the bathroom getting untidy, but hates having stuff on the coffee table. And if you have complementary cleaning likes/dislikes (eg you don't mind vacuuming, she loathes it while you hate mopping but she doesn't mind) that can be handy.

This doesn't need to all come out in the same conversation, of course. But once you start talking about it, it's less of a Thing. Well, hopefully anyway. Good luck!
posted by Athanassiel at 5:34 AM on May 11, 2013

You have every right to ask her to stick to the deal that you made when she moved in. But the situation you describe, where one person is a "putterer" who goes around picking up and cleaning and therefore relieves another person of a lot of cleaning responsibilities, certainly could create a situation where she may be thinking, "Well, I'd be happy to clean once a week, but there's kind of nothing to clean."

Rather than focusing on the balance and who's doing more and who's doing less, I'd focus on what you'd like her to be doing that's within the deal you made that needs doing. She sounds like a nice person and so do you; I'd hope you might be able to handle it by just saying, "Hey, what's a good time for us to do the weekly cleanup? I think all it needs is [whatever you think it needs] -- is afternoon okay?" My guess is that indeed, she would do it but simply doesn't see anything that needs doing. In the end, you sound like you made a deal to clean every week or every two weeks, but you're not actually into letting it go that long, which is totally cool and doesn't make you unfair, but doesn't make her unfair either. Feel around for the middle ground; I think it's there.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:46 AM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Given your schedules and cleanliness thresholds, maybe change the breakdown from "your week/her week" to you do the daily maintenance cleaning/clutter management and she does the weekly scrub-down.
posted by headnsouth at 5:49 AM on May 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've been in the shoes of your roommate, living with someone who had more free time and whose idea of cleanliness was different than mine. (Not that I am messy, but she was the kind to wash the bathroom every other day and sweep the floors everyday - I'm the kind to do it once, on weekends). Here is how we managed it. Every week I would call dibs on a room that I would be responsible for cleaning (hey, I'll take care of the bathroom this week). This meant that she could "ease up" on the bathroom for that week and then I would clean it on the weekend.

But yes, it is fairly easy to get out of the habit of not cleaning when living with someone who does all of it as part of their daily routine. Your assessment that she expects you to do it is probably wrong, however. That's probably your growing resentment speaking. Try to approach it from the angle that she is likely a responsible and clean adult (even if she approaches it differently) and does have the good will to contribute to the upkeep of the apartment.
posted by Milau at 6:03 AM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I had a similar idea to headnsouth -- maybe you could come up with specific tasks for her to do weekly like vacuuming, instead of just generally saying you want her to help more.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:04 AM on May 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm with headnsouth and chickenmagazine, and I didn't just say that because no one has ever written that sentence before.

There are two problems here:
The first problem is that -- as you have noticed -- people don't necessarily agree on what "cleaning" means. To her, the apartment is already "clean"; to you, there is still work to be done. So instead of "clean every Sunday," make it "vacuum and scrub the toilet and wipe down the sink and shake out the three rugs every Sunday."

The second problem is that you feel like you're doing more of the work, but you're doing it voluntarily, because it's more important to you and because you have time to "putter." You have to do one of two things:

A) Putter in a non-cleaning way. Organize your bookshelf; clean only non-common areas; walk around the block for exercise; get a hobby you can spend five minutes at a time on.
If you go this way, then sit down with your roommate and add up all the cleaning tasks and divide them up and agree to a time that you'll do them each week. Cleaning party woo!

B) Not count your puttering-cleaning as part of the overall cleaning workload. If you go this way, do the same sit-down, but take all of your puttering-cleaning tasks off the list and never mention them. That is a burden you willingly take on in service of having an apartment that is clean to your standards.

Or, you just start saying on Sunday mornings, "Time to clean!" and then go about it, and if she joins in, great; if not, you just grit your teeth and keep cleaning and deal with it. I don't recommend this, but it at least gives her a reminder without treating her like an employee.
posted by Etrigan at 6:40 AM on May 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you wanted the bedroom painted yellow, and she didn't care one way or the other, then it wouldn't be fair of you to demand that she buy the paint and then help paint it. If you really want to share chores equally, then, stop cleaning the bathroom and kitchen. If you want to live and work in a home that is up to your higher standards, then clean it yourself. You are the one who spends the most time there anyway. It is your work and your home where for her, it is only that place that she goes to when she isn't required to be somewhere else. You have different priorities and you should not force your needs or priorities on someone else. It takes less than 15 minutes to clean a bathroom. Unless she is doing something exceptionally nasty to it, you are there anyway, you use it more, just clean the bathroom.
That being said, do talk to her about it. Joke that you are starting to feel like a housewife without the benefits. Either she will continue her behavior or she will change it slightly for a short amount of time before reverting but, you will at least feel heard.
posted by myselfasme at 6:55 AM on May 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

Talk to her. If it is her week and the bathroom and kitchen is already pretty clean because you have been tidying up, then it will be easy for her to clean. If you stop doing your cleaning between cleanings, then she will just have to clean when it is her turn.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:12 AM on May 11, 2013

I think it would be reasonable to push a little harder, but I also think you're going to have to be a little more flexible as well.

It's really hard to enforce a cleaning schedule between roommates if one roommate just cleans everything all the time and then gets mad at the other roommate because the house is always clean.

You're either going to have to loosen up your standards, or you're going to have to rearrange the way you do things so that you can leave her some weekly tasks to do.

One thing that helped me in previous roommate situations was to outline specific tasks and how often they needed to be done. So taking out the trash is a "whenever it's full" thing, whereas scrubbing the toilet and vacuuming the living room can probably happen weekly.

Maybe your division of the housework is that you take on some of the tasks that need to be done repeatedly throughout the week, and she does more tasks that can be scheduled for Sunday afternoon?

When I was a super-busy roommate, my chore strategy was always to choose tasks that could be done on a schedule rather than tasks that needed constant maintenance. So I don't see why this has to be a problem -- it sounds like your schedules and lifestyles make for an ideal mix of cleaning styles which could be optimized if you reframe it from "UGH MY NEW ROOMMATE IS MESSY" towards "she does the big stuff, I do the little stuff".
posted by Sara C. at 7:57 AM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you are working from home, and she is away all day, there is also the possibility that you are having a proportionately greater impact on how quickly the apartment gets dirty. Your proportionately greater cleaning/maintenance may be fair and appropriate if seen in that light. But if you are unhappy, I agree with above that you could come up with a list of "big things" like vacuuming, cleaning the shower, mopping and doing the refrigerator and divide them up for your Sunday morning sessions.
posted by artdesk at 8:41 AM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're just worried about the bathroom or one or two other concrete things (e.g., the kitchen floor or vacuuming), then I wouldn't even present it to her as if you felt things were currently unfair; I'd go with more of a "Hey, the bathroom [and floors] is/are getting kind of grotty, can we alternate weeks for cleaning it?"

No reason to put her on the defensive or defend yourself, in other words. Just make the request.
posted by jaguar at 10:05 AM on May 11, 2013

Having a decluttered and tidy living space is a lot different from having a clean--eg mopped and wiped down--bathroom and kitchen. It seems entirely reasonable to me that you suggest to her that you alternate weekly cleaning of the bathroom and kitchen. If you do it every week it's fast and easy for both of you. I would leave your other tidying out of the discussion since it's a little more nebulous, and presumably if you're there more often then the everyday untidiness is mostly yours, right? I think it will make it easier for both of you to set expectations about specific cleaning tasks rather than general ones.
posted by apricot at 10:29 AM on May 11, 2013

I think one of the keys to happiness between roommates is to recognize that there are going to be things you do that annoy your roommate, just like this thing about your roommate annoys you.

This sensitivity can help put things in perspective before you confront her or bring up the issue of cleaning. For instance, it might annoy her that you are home most of the time. She may feel like she never gets a chance to have the place all to herself. Maybe not, but there will be something you do that annoys her, so try to be aware of that and at the same time try to be a bit more easy going and tolerant of her shortcomings.

In this case, it doesn't sound like she's a slob, it sounds like you happen to clean up any messes before she gets a chance. Otherwise, it doesn't hurt to have a friendly and casual 'hey, would you mind doing the bathroom this weekend and I"ll vacuum?" can't hurt. Bring things up early, don't let them build up until it becomes a confrontation and you look like a control freak.

Side note: I've had dozens of roommates over the last couple of decades. I'd say I'm somewhere in the middle of the clean spectrum -- being from total slob to anal retentive neat freak. I'd usually prefer to live with a slob than a neat freak - at least then I can keep my own space clean, and I don't have a nagging feeling of guilt that I'm a bad person for being as neat as they are. My observation is that people for whom cleanliness is very important often are a lot happier living alone.

Talk to her about what's bothering you and try to come to a compromise. It sounds like you have a good roommate and keeping communication going will be key. Good luck!
posted by Pademelon at 2:46 PM on May 11, 2013

Couldn't read this whole thread but sort of agree with this:

If you're cleaning to standards that exceed hers, and doing it before she can get to it, that seems like it's mostly your problem. If you want to do less cleaning, that will probably mean you need to both resist the urge to tidy some areas so there's something for her to do when her schedule allows. and lower your standards for those areas so that you can live with the results she produces.

But I think that asking her to clean the *specific things* that bother you once a week is fair. Like, if you've noticed that after all your puttering the bathroom is still "dirty" by your standards, it would be fair to ask if she is still going to clean it. Since that was her original intention.

Also, hiring a cleaner completely is a solution. Not the right solution for everybody, but my roommates and I have done it in the past when we were at busy periods at school and it helped tremendously. Splitting it up and having her come in every 2 weeks was very affordable. If you would rather have the money than the time that's OK but if the idea appeals to you it might not hurt to bring it up.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:15 PM on May 11, 2013

I live with my boyfriend, but we have similar issues in that I like things cleaner than him, he doesn't notice mess, and he's busy. We have ended up saying he is responsible for some things (vacuum cleaning, dusting all rooms except bathroom and kitchen) and I am responsible for others (bathroom, kitchen). We both tidy every day, including cleaning up the kitchen after meals.

Having certain things that I am not responsible for means I don't feel so irritated by the dust and bits on the carpets because I know it will get done eventually. I also am less annoyed by dirty carpets than by dirty bathrooms so if it doesn't get done for a couple of weeks that's OK. This means I am less tempted to just clean as I potter around the house. It also means you don't have to get into 'I cleaned it last time, now it's your turn!' because it's always obvious who is slacking, and things get dirty enough for my boyfriend to notice.

Also, from previous roommate situations where I have been the dirtier one, be aware that you cleaning before she gets around to it may make her feel that you are being passive aggressive, so approach with caution. I'm not criticizing your behaviour, just an observation about how this has played out for me in the past.
posted by kadia_a at 1:57 AM on May 12, 2013

As the messier roommate in this situation, I find that a weekly clean-up routine is very helpful to 1) remind me it needs to be done and 2) not feel alone in doing the cleanup. I know that sounds super strange but if I don't see the mess, I won't clean, and if I feel like I'm the only person who cares, I get resentful. My roommates and I have developed a system where we all have tasks that we do for our cleanup so that everyone feels engaged - I vacuum and mop, one roommate does the kitchen, another does the bathroom; or if we're just tackling the kitchen, I'll wash, he'll dry, and she'll organize. The key is that we all agree that we're going to clean up X spaces on Y day together and then we remind each other saying "OK guys it's time to clean!". No passive aggressive routine necessary. Maybe you and your roommate can implement something similar.
posted by buteo at 3:00 AM on May 12, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for your answers and your different perspectives.
posted by colfax at 3:02 AM on May 12, 2013

Response by poster: Here's an update, in case it's helpful for future readers: my roommate and I talked about it today. When I first moved in, she'd been really gung-ho about having Sunday be the cleaning day, and it turns out that part of the problem is that my approach to cleaning day had been bugging her.

Namely, she wanted to clean together, and after living alone for a really long time, I originally didn't see the point of that. So she would say, "Okay, let's clean!" and I would be in the middle of a project or about to head out the door, and I would say, "Okay, I'll get it done sometime today." And if I was really busy, I would clean the bathroom on Monday instead. Our schedules are somewhat polar-opposites, because she's really busy during the week and I'm really busy during the weekend. Anyway, from my perspective, this was accomplishing the task within an acceptable time-frame, and from her perspective, I was always putting housework off, so she got annoyed and bogged down. So we've agreed to try and clean more regularly on Sundays: the kitchen and the bathroom. Not necessarily at exactly the same time, because she gets up earlier than I do, but on Sundays regardless. That's a compromise I can live with.

Reading all of your responses and thinking about them for a while really helped me have a productive discussion with her today, so thanks again.
posted by colfax at 4:16 AM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

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