Fail Better: Going Back to School, Roommates, and Chore Charts
I was often the first one to arrive on campus in my dorm room. For a couple hours, I could unpack my things and determine what my ideal living situation would be. I learned a lot about myself in college, but I never knew I had a hatred for messy living spaces, considering I lived in one until college.
I’m not necessarily a tidy person. I like to leave the occasional shirt or pair of pants on the floor by my bed when I’m too tired to toss it into the dirty laundry hamper. My papers are usually mixed in with toys and dirty plates on my desk. My current roommate, my boyfriend, is usually the first to complain about the state of the bedroom or the couch where I throw my backpack and sewing supplies.
That’s why I was so shocked to have a messy roommate sophomore year of college. Her clothes would encroach on my half of the room like a morphing monster getting bigger and bigger each night before she went to sleep. When she neglected to take out the trash on a regular basis and forgot to clean our rented minifridge at the end of the semester, I vowed to sort things out over winter break.
I never did, and I got so upset with her for various reasons that I unofficially moved into another friend’s room. While she wasn’t respectful of my space, I still screwed things up by letting all of her annoying habits slide until I snapped—low on sleep because she liked to stay up with the light on until 3 a.m.—over her sweatshirt next to my bed.
Two years later, I was a college senior living off campus with three of my friends in an apartment. We each had our own bedroom, and we shared a living room and kitchen. I knew much more about the living habits of these three people compared to what I had known of my roommate two years prior, so I knew all of them cared about having some semblance of a tidy area, even if some of us were quicker to clean than others. Unfortunately, I was the person who became disgusted with a dirty bathroom or dirty kitchen before others.
We never had a formal agreement before moving in on how often the four of us would clean our apartment; that was a mistake. We must have talked about it some, but I think all of us were making assumptions based on how we like to have our own spaces cleaned. While my own bedroom was messy, a buildup of hair in the shower or dishes piling up in the sink stressed me out. Because I cared more about these things, I cleaned them on my own. Because I was always the one doing the cleaning, I built up resentments of my roommates senior year. We were all screwing up just like my experience two years before.
The nail in our coffin was a chore chart I drafted over winter break before returning to school. “I’ll show them,” I muttered under my breath as I viciously laid out the horrible chore chart. That was another mistake.
With the chart, I detailed the tasks for each of the four jobs in condescending detail. I was too frustrated and focused on myself to realize I was only making things worse for our dynamic.
I expected kitchen counters, stovetops, and the trashcan to be scrubbed down of any stains and eliminated of odor. The bathtub should be wiped down once a month, and if faucets weren’t shiny, I suspected someone of neglecting the bathroom duties. Vacuuming and mopping were straightforward. And I expected all dirty dishes to be in the sink for no longer than 48 hours. I did, and still do, think much of this was reasonable. Nobody appreciates a chore chart suddenly appearing on the fridge after a winter break of no communication, though.
My intention was to rotate chores because I knew certain jobs, such as the kitchen and bathroom, would usually take more time and effort than something like vacuuming the rugs. For some reason, we fell into a habit of each doing one chore without changing jobs. Everyone said they were fine with the first job they picked on the chore chart, so I always mopped the floors. But once something becomes a habit, it feels awkward to ask the group to start rotating chores. We were already having difficulty talking out our problems.
As angry as we were, we weren’t addressing it. When something hadn’t been cleaned, my first reaction was to accuse someone of laziness rather than checking in with them to see if they needed help. Having a good relationship with your roommates is difficult, but it’s worthwhile. A couple months later, three out of four of us had a chat and talked about what was on our mind, and I admitted I was taking out my frustrations on my roommates. It turned out there was a lot more we needed to discuss than frustrations over my rigid chore chart. As for our other roommate, she never ended up talking about what made her so upset, and we parted on rocky terms at the end of the one-year lease.
We never got a working chore chart that everyone liked, so by the last quarter of the year, I stopped my persistence over keeping things perfectly clean and learned to do small sessions of cleaning on my own, when I felt unnerved by a stain in the kitchen or dirt caked on the foyer floor. I stopped yelling at people about their dirty dishes, and when I had a spare minute, I rinsed theirs off and gave it a quick washing. Two of my roommates began to do the same when they had extra time and noticed the dirty dishes stacking up. I’m sure rigid charts work for some people, but it didn’t work for our dynamic, and the added stress of following a chart on top of all of our schoolwork exacerbated the hostility in our apartment.
In my apartment now with my boyfriend, we’ve discussed what to clean and when to clean it so that we don’t fall into a routine of assuming certain roles without talking them through. Our fridge, fortunately, lacks a chore chart dictating who does what, and I won’t be enacting another one any time soon.