Back is 2007, when I was pregnant with my first child, I spent a lot of time puking—into the kitchen sink, a handy garbage pail, the gravel behind the local Laundromat, and—as commonly expected—a toilet. I didn’t let anything slow me down. I was pursuing my master’s degree, running a business with my husband and substitute teaching. Even with a full plate and pregnancy fatigue, I made sure I cleaned our small apartment once a week; a steady routine that began with the mirrors in our bathroom and ended with the back and forth sway of the vacuum across the same tired, brown square of carpet.
Each and every time I cleaned that bathroom while pregnant, I vomited. First I would be overwhelmed by the smells of the cleaners. The sharp sting of bleach mixed with a twinge of artificial lemon. It would clog my nose while my head began a steady pounding. Then nausea would roll up from my middle and lodge in the back of my throat. I’d swallow around it, overcome by a flood of thick salvia. I’d usually lie down, trying some steady, deep breathes. It might work. Usually, it didn’t. Once the cat got in the way, poor thing. Once I couldn’t sit upright in time, poor me.
When I recovered, I always finished my cleaning. I’m stubborn and it never occurred to me that what I was cleaning with might be at the root of my problems.
My switch away from chemical cleaners is ongoing. I’m something of a leech. I learn best from the advice of others. Be it a book they hand me to read or a friendly suggestion. When I first heard of cleaning with baking soda and vinegar, I scoffed. Not to the woman’s face, but in my head. Those were things you eat, not things you clean with. My mind was instantly transported to the bright green can of Clorox powder my mother kept under the kitchen sink and her bent back hunched over the bathtub to the rhythm of the back and forth scrubbing of her gloved hands. Clean was the smell of bleach. Clean meant chemicals so harsh them burned your nose hairs, made you dizzy and couldn’t touch your skin.
Or did it?
I can’t pinpoint my switch. As I said, it was gradual. I tried to buy more natural cleaners, but why spend extra money when a jug of vinegar and a Sam’s Club monstrosity of baking soda can do the trick? Those empty spray bottles became home to a mixture of vinegar and water with a few drops of orange oil. I use it to clean everything: glass, the counters, the sinks, the toilets, the table, and the tiles of the bathroom floor. Baking soda takes care of harsher surfaces: things that need a good scrubbing. It’s naturally more abrasive. It cleans the kitchen sink to a bright shine and removes soap scum and mold build-up from the bathtub. No harsh chemical odors and no need for gloves to protect my skin. Perhaps the most appealing benefit is that my two children can go right into the tub after I clean it. I don’t need to fear that a lingering scum of bleach will harm their skin, let alone end up in their mouths when they proceed to spit bathwater at one another (despite my protests).
As often is the case, the small changes we can make at home for ourselves and our families have a wider, global effect. When I read an article about only a small portion of the world’s water being drinkable, I was proud to know that I wasn’t adding chemical cleaners into the water supply.
Each change begets more changes until being green (or, as I see it, greener) stops seeming so overwhelming and more a question of—well, what’s next then? Without really being aware of it I became one of those moms: cloth diapers for the babies, soap nuts for my laundry, and retired pre-fold diapers in place of the paper towels that I once used in my cleaning. The Clorox is gone from the cleaning shelf and the Windex retired. With the help of a bit of vinegar and baking soda I’m still getting the job done (and, better still, with not one bit of vomit during my second pregnancy in 2010).
Autumn Canter lives in the suburban jungle north of Baltimore and used to publish short stories before her second child came around and stole what remained of her free time. Her run-on sentences and poor edits can be found on her blog, www.autumncanter.com.