Lessons from an Old-School Homemaker

I live in a multi-generational household. As in, my in-laws live with us. My husband, daughter and I live upstairs, and his parents live downstairs. My in-laws are awesome. I know, right? They have their space; we have ours. We come together in the evenings to eat dinner together upstairs. Our daughter moves between “households” and relishes her time sitting on the arm of Papa’s recliner doing word puzzles and sharing Nana’s chair at night before bed. We have holidays together and talk sports, politics, and current events at the dinner table. It works, and it gives us peace of mind that we can be right there for them as they get older.

You may have images in your head of an elderly couple sitting in rocking chairs all day. That is partially true, as my father-in-law is happy as a clam in his easy chair, solving word puzzles and watching CSI marathons (my mother-in-law doesn’t let him do that all day, though!). My mother-in-law is the exact opposite.

Let me tell you about my mother-in-law. Born in 1933, she is a Depression-era woman who never wastes anything, including time. She is productive, efficient, and never sits still for more than a few minutes unless it’s to watch the Bulls, Bears, Hawkeyes, or Cubs. She keeps a home that makes June Cleaver look like a hoarder. And, for the past six years, I have been the benefactor of her expertise in all things housekeeping. Before my in-laws moved in, my husband and I would divide and conquer the household chores, but we didn’t really have a cleaning schedule. Our house was clean, but it was a less intentional and more, “Gross! We have got to clean this sink!” kind of schedule.

My mother-in-law knows how to not only clean a house, but also how to manage the necessary tasks.

Now, let me just say that I never expected, nor did I imagine, that she would venture upstairs to clean or organize our space. But, in the weeks and months after we moved in together, she approached the upstairs carefully, slowly, in much the same way a trainer approaches a wild horse. Little by little, the tasks were tamed, predictable. It wasn’t long before I noticed that every Tuesday I’d walk on freshly-vacuumed carpets and on Wednesdays the dust had magically disappeared from the coffee table while I was away at work. And every evening, the breakfast dishes would be nowhere in sight because, as she would tell me, “No woman should have to come home to a dirty sink after a long day at work.” Uh, right.


When I first learned that she had been cleaning our house while we were away at work, I was guilt-ridden and protested on a daily basis. “You don’t have to do that!” “Leave the dishes alone!” “Don’t do our laundry, for God’s sake!” “My friends pay hundreds for this kind of stuff!” And each time, she would respond with, “My dear, you must understand, I cannot just sit downstairs!” She scoffed at the suggestions I gave her for various leisurely alternatives that many 80-somethings enjoy. I even tried to outsmart her by literally hiding our laundry basket in the spare room closet one day, but she searched the place and found it, giving me a smug smile when I came home to a stack of neatly folded shirts.

Game, set, match.

The impressive thing about this (besides the fact that a woman more than twice my age can vacuum circles around me) is that she organized her life this way even when she and her husband both worked full-time and raised two busy boys, shuttling them from boy scouts to baseball. She also helped to care for her mother, taking her in when she was no longer able to care for herself. In other words, her life was at least as busy as ours today. How did she do it? She stuck to the following rules to keep her home, family, and friendships in tip-top shape:

1. Clean one day at a time.

You will never have time to “clean the house,” but you can do one thing each day. She did laundry on Mondays, vacuumed on Tuesday, dusted and cleaned the bathrooms on Wednesday, straightened and vacuumed the family room on Thursdays, and grocery shopped on Fridays. Instead of dreading that you need to “clean your house,” you can manage one task a day. Do these chores after work, while dinner is cooking, or between that time when dinner is over and before kids’ bedtime routines. Whatever works for you, pick a day and time and do that one thing a day.

2. Keep a clean counter-top and an empty sink.

Seeing disorder is overwhelming and makes you feel as though you’ll never get caught up. Do the dishes, sort the mail, put things in their place (and teach your kids to do the same).

3. Involve your kids and partner.

My mother-in-law taught her boys how to do their own laundry by the time they were twelve, as well as assigned chores throughout the week. My in-laws also shared the tasks of keeping the boys’ schedules. She knew that it was impossible to go to everything together, all the time, so they designated a role for each parent—one shuttled to practice and the other watched games and tournaments for each boy. Figure out a realistic schedule and divide and conquer. Too many activities and not enough time? Prioritize and do less. The kids won’t be scarred if they don’t learn karate and competitive dance.

4. Make a standing date with girlfriends.

Every Thursday night, my mother-in-law left the boys with Dad in charge and headed to her friend Sandy’s beauty shop where she’d meet up with “the girls.” They would get their hair done, have a glass of wine and some snacks, and just relax together. Prioritizing time with friends makes you a better parent, partner, and, well, do you really need a reason to pencil in your girlfriends on a regular basis? You deserve it!

5. Never do housework on the weekends.

Organize your week so that you have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy your family and relax, have friends for dinner, and cheer on the Hawkeyes.

What are your rules for homemaking around a busy life?


Sherri is a transplant from Oregon who came to be a Hawkeye in 2006 and stayed for the sweet corn...and for the Iowa boy she met along the way! She and her husband (Kyle) have a 9 year-old daughter, Aissa. Sherri earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa and works for Ruffalo Noel Levitz as an Enrollment Marketing Consultant for colleges and universities. When she's not working, you can find her with her family, enjoying Iowa City and cheering on the Hawkeyes.


  1. Wow, first of all I was jealous when reading about your very amazing arrangement you have with a built in house cleaner. Then once I started reading the list of tips I realized that I can totally do this on my own. Thanks for sharing, I plan to implement this list today!

  2. I really enjoyed this article. I have a weekly schedule set up for housework, but haven’t penciled in a weekly “girls time”. What a great idea! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Breaking up the chores by day is SO helpful. I started that about a year ago and have found it to be pretty much life changing, as silly as that may sound!

  4. What a great list! I grew up in Davenport and Rockford, IL and my grandmother was exactly the same way. While I live in Florida now, I know she was able to take care of her 7 kids, work full time cleaning other people’s homes and wallpapering, and still have a clean house and dinner on the table nights. Thank you for these tips! I just wrote a post about my organization tips and I will definitely be adding yours to my list as well. I thought I was doing great with “Friday Floors” on my home cleaning list! Lol.

  5. I’m so jealous of your living situation! My family lives out of state, but my mom visits to help sometimes when my son is out of school for his spring/summer/winter week long breaks. My husband and I always talk about how much we wish family was closer or even living with us! What an awesome atmosphere for your daughter to grow up in!

  6. Awesome! Now that I only work two days a week I have kept a much better cleaning schedule and thrown less at Tom when he gets home from work. However, the holidays certainly left me behind! Not to mention more toys to deal with…I look forward to getting back on track! It is great to know that your MIL was able to do it all when working full time. Makes it seem less demanding! Now if only the kids would sleep at the same time…


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.