Dear messy people: those “how to keep a clean house” articles aren’t meant for you and me. They’re meant for people who are prone to orderliness and cleanliness, whose internal state functions best in a spotless home, whose very souls scream out for mopped floors and organized toy shelves. Even if they say they were once messy (messier than you, even — imagine that), they are now experts with whole livelihoods built around cleaning and organizing. Do you care enough about cleaning and organizing to quit your job and start a full-time gig involving weekly tips and a book deal on organizing? No?
Point proven: They’re not one of us.
These people have three things that set them apart from us messy ones: (1) they care more than we do about cleaning and organization; (2) they have more time than we do to clean and organize because that’s their day job; and/or (3) there’s a strong chance they’re not starting out their hey-I-was-a-slob-but-now-I’m-not success story turned brand during those [early stages of motherhood where everything is sleep deprivation, ground-in raisins, and toddlers in the toy dumping phase]. (Insert your own chaotic life situation if that one doesn’t apply.)
As I finally figured out, if I’m not internally motivated by cleaning demons, if I’m busy with other things I care about, and if all of my hard work goes to pot the second the toddler wakes up, my house isn’t going to get clean.
The standard advice for messy moms struggling to survive is, “Just let things go.” I absolutely advocate for this as part of my messy housekeeping guide, but as even struggling new moms know, it’s not a sustainable way of living. Why? Because while we messy people don’t need spotless floors or color-coded closets, we’re still adversely affected by certain things. I can let things go for quite a bit longer than clean people can…but once I can’t find matching socks or a clean spoon, I’m starting to get frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed. That leaves me open (and vulnerable) to the cleaning experts’ advice — an equally frustrating, overwhelming, and anxiety-inducing situation (I DON’T WANT TO FIGURE OUT A SCHEDULE FOR VACUUMING MY MATTRESS, KAREN, I JUST WANT TO STOP STEPPING ON CHEERIOS).
Letting things go is a helpful, adaptive, necessary strategy for me to prioritize other things, but there comes a point when letting things go creates even more work or anxiety in the long run. Scraping mold off weeks-old dirty dishes is a low I don’t care to revisit…for a third time. Desperately soaking a cute baby onesie in Oxyclean to kill the black mold that spread from a wet washcloth I dropped down the laundry chute a decade ago — another situation I’d like to avoid in the future. And I cannot stand grimy, grungy floors.
That was a big breakthrough for me: I didn’t have “low standards” for cleaning. I had different standards. I wasn’t a lazy slob. I just didn’t prioritize certain domestic tasks as much as other people did. (And who made different people with different lives and interests and mess tolerance thresholds in charge of what I should or shouldn’t care about?)
Once I determined what my standards and my priorities were, and cleared out the clutter of other people’s standards and priorities, bingo. There was my natural motivation, shining through. Now I had time and energy to focus on my short but meaningful list of things that made my home feel livable and lovable.
What matters to you? Do you care about making your bed every morning? And I mean care because it actually matters to you, not care because some military dude says self-discipline all starts with a neatly-made bed, or care because you’re embarrassed of what your friends would think if they dropped by, or care because a study linked productivity and success with made-up beds? Does a made-up bed matter to you? Does it affect your life in a meaningful way, whether mentally or practically? No? Then forget about the bed and do the things that actually spark joy in your life. (Sorry to twist your words, Marie Kondo.)
Getting rid of the stigma and anxiety around being a messy person woman — and worse, a messy wife and mother — created much more space and positive energy around the chores that absolutely needed to get done for me and my family’s functioning.
And yes, there’s a stigma. Nobody who walks through my door and into my messy living room thinks, “Wow, her husband is such a slob” — not unless it’s quickly followed by, “I can’t believe she lets him wreck her house like that!” Nope. It’s always my fault, especially because I stay home with my kids. (Oh, you didn’t know? Staying at home with children automatically means dedicating the rest of your spare time and energy to domestic duties. You couldn’t possibly have anything else meaningful to do with your life than run after your kids with a vacuum all day long, so yes, the state of your house will be a major factor in whether you’re Being a Good Mom.)
I’m messy. That’s just the way I am. I kind of like a lived in look, and I certainly don’t mind a level of clutter and a sink of unwashed dishes — especially if it means I’m choosing to spend my time doing things that matter to me. Not to go on about double standards, but if I was a man, we’d link my messiness to being a free, creative, thoughtful soul and delegate the mess to the woman in my life. Since I’ve no woman to delegate my mess to and I’m often busy with other things, domestic stuff just doesn’t get done.
I’m okay with that now.
Being messy is not a vice, I decided — not unless it starts to interfere with my mental health and daily functioning, just like any thing in this world (including neatness). So I turned my tentative guilty pleasures (like never folding laundry in a timely manner) into lifestyle choices. My litmus test: If the only reason I feel ashamed about not doing something is because of what a stranger or an organized friend or a Better Homes and Garden contributor might think of me, that’s not a good reason to prioritize it.
I am terrified of typing those words, because bucking any ingrained female expectation is a no-no — even among those of us who are literally losing our minds trying to meet those crushing expectations. I think it takes a lot of courage to admit, “Hey, I genuinely don’t care that my clean laundry is piled out of sight for a week, and since I find no compelling moral or practical argument for why I should focus on that in my current life situation, I’m not going to reorder my whole existence to become the kind of woman who wants to fold her laundry as soon as it comes out of the dryer.” It’s courageous, I think, because what we’re actually saying is, “Hey, I’m not going to let what the culture says or what other people might think of me set the priorities for my particular life at the cost of me and my family’s purpose, passions, and well-being.”
This is a gigantic Step 1. This is the it that wiser women really mean when they tell struggling moms to “let it all go.” Let go all these desperate and failing attempts at keeping up false, clean freak appearances. Repeat after me: You are a messier person than some people, and that’s okay. You don’t care about an organized pantry, and that’s okay.
You don’t notice the grime in the windowsills. You don’t care about artfully stacking your books on your bedside table. It takes you a few weeks (or months) to throw out whatever’s expiring in the Tupperware that got shoved to the back of the fridge.
But you do care about the cleaning things you care about — so make a list of those things and let the rest go. Speaking of letting go — that’s Step 2.
Step 2. Rest. The more I push and hustle when I’m burnt out, the more anxiety, frustration, and negativity builds up around chores — all huge motivation killers. I’m a low-energy person who needs lots of space to do nothing, to do something thoughtful or relational, and/or to sleep before I’m fit for the world of productivity. Once I embraced that side of me instead of pushing it away as a sign of laziness and failure, I was more productive. When my batteries were fully or mostly charged, I could go longer. I didn’t resent the time and energy I had to spend on housekeeping because I had time and energy to spend.
Now, when I start avoiding chores, or resenting chores, or feeling overwhelmed by chores, or experience that soul-burning agony of putting my dish in the dishwasher instead of the sink, I don’t beat myself up for being a lazy slob. I take them as signs that I’m burnt out. I use a little humor and compassion: “Wow, Bailey, it’s that exhausting to you to fold and put away your pants instead of dropping them on the floor? If you’re that tired, you need to go rest.”
This sometimes means letting things go to pot a bit more than I like, a bit longer than I like. I intentionally let them go. I say, “Yikes, I really want to get the kitchen cleaned up, but this is my only chance to take a nap before work, and I desperately need a nap because I’m 38 weeks pregnant. I am choosing to take a nap instead of resentfully plowing through the dishes and depleting my energy further.”
Without fail, every time I prioritize rest, I recharge more quickly and am able to get things done. Without fail, every time I push or belittle myself for feeling unmotivated, the house falls apart more and longer. Shame and resentment are only motivational in the very short run, and fail to address the burn-out underlying my lack of motivation.
Step 3. Set things up so that your priorities drive chores, not the other way around. For me, a big motivation killer is feeling like I’m constantly running around the house putting something away or cleaning something up. It makes me feel unfocused, unproductive, and unavailable to the people and passions I care most about. Cleaning schedules are hit and miss with my lifestyle too — rarely do they coincide with how my specific week actually goes, and I end up feeling ashamed or frustrated about abandoning them for a slew of non-negotiable errands and obligations that continually and unexpectedly crop up.
Instead of interrupting what I’m doing or how I’m living to clean, I now pair related tasks together as much as possible. If I’m running a bath for the toddler, I might quickly spray down the fixtures while still engaging with him. If I’m microwaving popcorn for movie night, I’ll empty the dishwasher until the timer beeps. I’ll stack my son’s laundry on the stairs to take up when I’m going up to tuck him in. I might quietly tidy up his room if he asks me to sit with him a few minutes longer at bedtime. If I’m bringing my coffee cup to the sink, I’ll also gather up any wrappers, tissues, and dirty dishes that never made it into the kitchen yesterday. I fold and stuff my clothes into drawers right after I undress at night. Things like that. I’m already there doing something absolutely necessary or wanted, so I tack on a little task I’ve been meaning to do.
This means that the dishes don’t always get done by bedtime, and my son’s room remains a disaster zone for a month (and counting), and stuff stays stacked on the stairs for a while. That’s okay with me, because stuff still gets done, and I don’t feel hounded by meaningless tasks. My house is never always clean, all of it — but it wasn’t all of it always clean back when I was struggling to follow the clean people’s advice and beating myself up about being a lazy slob because I couldn’t keep up. Nope, my house isn’t always clean and tidy — but it no longer feels unmanageable, and it’s no longer a source of chronic anxiety and shame.
For a messy person like me, that’s all I want out of a cleaning approach.