In Praise of Filth: A Housework Manifesto

Does the following scenario sound familiar?

When my son was a baby and would nap two, three, sometimes four times a day, this would be our routine:

My son would be awake for a while, we would play or go out, and then I’d give him a bottle and put him down for a nap.  While he was napping, I would make the rounds around the house, cleaning up after the messes left behind.  I’d do the dishes, wash clothes, scrub the floors, dust the corners of the house, make beds, and change sheets.  I’d also do things like sanitize pacifiers or clean off all his toys every day (to make sure they were germ-free).

And then he’d wake up, and the cycle would repeat.

And I got nothing at all done for myself.  Nothing.  I accomplished barely any work on my dissertation, did no writing of my own.  I couldn’t make any progress figuring out what I was going to do with my life and career once I ever did finish my dissertation.  I was stuck in an endless spin cycle of feedings and cleaning.

After my son began to nap predictably once a day and he started preschool so I could write my dissertation, I began to write.  And one day I just decided to stop cleaning and see what happened.

Suddenly I had hours of the day open up for me.  It didn’t happen overnight, but I gradually gave myself permission to stop caring that my house was a mess.  It bothered me at first.  A lot.  There were toys everywhere, the dishes piled up.  But I let it go and kept writing.

And nothing happened.  Yes, my husband began to do a lot more.  He cooks almost every night.  He is more likely to vacuum than I am.  On the weekends, he watches my son far more than I do.  Now he does his own laundry.

Soon, I finished the draft of my dissertation and will defend it in a weeks.  I started my blog and write daily.  None of this would have been possible (for me) if I had not let go and accepted that my house will never be really, really clean.  The floors will never be spotless.  There were always be cat hair somewhere underneath all the furniture.

But I am happier.  I am doing what I love.  And my son is happier, because he gets my undivided attention and a fully present mother when we are together, not one who is feeling guilty because she is not working on her research or wishing that she had time to herself.

The research on happiness and parenthood is complicated and conflicting:  some of it shows that parents are less happy than their childless peers, other research concludes that “happiness” is an entirely subjective term, meaningless when you’re trying to quantify the emotional impact of diaper changes and arguments over curfews.   However, mothers are generally found to be less happy than fathers, unsurprising when we acknowledge that women participate more and more in paid work but still do disproportionately more of the housework and childcare.

I’m not saying that mothers are to blame for  the fact that they’re more stressed than dads a lot of the time.  But I am saying that we can look at our own lives and see if we’re allowing an ideal of perfection and comparison to make us less happy than we could be.

I’m suggesting that women do three things:

1.  Ask for “help.”  Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has been all over the news, telling women to “lean in” to their careers.  According to Sandberg, the most important career decision that a woman will ever make is her choice of spouse.  But even if you do choose a life partner who wants to participate equally in household work, you have to let them do it.

This means that your spouse is not your “helper.” He is an equal partner.  During the past year, I’ve learned that often my husband has his own ways of doing things and quite often they’re better than mine.  And when he takes over certain tasks, my life is made much simpler.

2.  Lower your standards.  Many women that I know are trying to achieve an unattainable ideal of a perfect house.  We see constant “pins” from Pinterest of our friends’ vision for a beautiful bedroom or the perfect layout for a kitchen.  We see perfect pictures of gorgeous meals.

Yet we can love those pictures without thinking that we have to reproduce them in our lives every day.  We want to excel at our jobs and our hobbies, raise successful kids, and we want the perfect, sparkling house.  It’s not all going to happen.

Housework (Photo credit: Becky F)

3.  Stop the comparisons and the apologies.  In the past, I have declined play dates — when I desperately needed the companionship — because my house was a disaster.

But I’ve realized a simple way to make my life easier:  Don’t apologize for your house being a  mess.  It’s called life.  How many hours do you spend per week rushing around to pick up clutter when company is coming over?

In sum, embrace the mess.  Embrace the dirty laundry.  It will get done eventually.  Ask everyone — anyone! — to chip in whenever possible.  Ask if you can carpool rides to school.  Get the takeout and don’t feel guilty.   Dust bunnies can be your friends, if you let them.  And somewhere Betty Friedan will be smiling.

How do the housework negotiations work in your house?  Have your standards for a clean, perfect house changed?

Do you have suggestions for other women for handling the work/life/childcare balance?




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33 thoughts on “In Praise of Filth: A Housework Manifesto”

  1. Well said…we do need to let go a bit to excel in other areas. That is not only ok, but good. A clean house & an empty mind is nothing to strive for…again here it comes ~ balance. That is the key, hard to achieve and different for everyone. Starting my blog, a life style blog much about household concepts & ideas, has made me even more focused on my home, but then that requires balance in other areas. Easy to say, but do what you love & it will all get done somehow, even the laundry! And if it doesn’t today, there is always tomorrow…

    1. Yes! Exactly! Not just balance today but also striving for balance for the long-term. Maybe someday I’ll be able to cook gourmet meals again that take four hours. But it just won’t be today, when I have a young toddler in the house. And that’s okay!

  2. As a working mother of two kids, I have struggled greatly with this. Now as a MPH student, I have learned to just let things in the house go. As long as nothing’s on fire – it’s either going to have to wait or others will chip in. I am happy to report that the kids and my husbands are helping out more – with my husband even asking me to show him how to do the laundry.

    1. Thank you, Bev! Wow, your blog is striking! I’m so in awe of excellent photography. Probably because I can’t even use a point and shoot camera. And anyone who addresses a post to Margaret Atwood is someone that I’d like to read…

  3. Very good points! I have to admit, when I was a working mom of one, I was more apt to let things go a bit, albeit with a healthy dose of guilt. Now that I chose to stay home with Number Two, the house is where I spend most of my time. It’s my sanctuary, so to speak, and I’ve been a little harder on myself to keep it tidier than I used to. Perhaps it’s more for my sanity, since I realize that external clutter affects my internal state of mind quite a bit and so I’ve been putting away and cleaning when the kids are napping or in bed.

    However, it’s mostly superficial things. Deep cleaning like mopping, vacuuming, trash, etc. is still a shared load. I am lucky that I have chosen well in terms of a partner because he does his fair share of housework, but now that I also freelance on the side, I do have to let go a little more and tell myself that the dishes can sometimes wait. No disaster? No problem. I can’t wait till the girls are old enough so it becomes their problem! 😉

    Thank you for coming by my blog, Jessica. It’s always a pleasure to meet new faces and discover new voices.

    1. I can definitely see, Justine, how having another kid can be a gamechanger in this department. And I agree that I can’t wait until my son can starting doing “chores”!

  4. I love your attitude to “embrace the mess.” I’ll never be one of those people with a pristine looking home…I’ve got 3 boys, 1 dog, forget it! And I’m okay with it too. Hey, good luck on defending your dissertation — that’s awesome!

  5. Thank you! Although I probably should spend a little more time on dissertation defense preparation and less time on blogging. But writing is just so much more fun!

  6. All very good points. I keep meaning to read Sandberg’s book. I really should make time for it. I think in a broad sense that’s what it comes down to: you have X amount of time in a day. You can spend it on personally creating a spotless home or you can spend it on other things like dissertations and blogs. And if you don’t consciously plan how to spend it it all just trickles away somehow.

    I’m also an education policy researcher and as such have a tendency to research my parenting decisions a lot. Perhaps too much. There’s so much out there and at times I’m left with this feeling I should be constantly applying this information to my life. But I think one of the most productive parenting (and personal) decisions I’ve made was to do that less and go with the flow more. Kind of like with nutrition: knowledge is a good thing as is applying it but if you’re sitting there obsessively counting calories and freaking out every time the latest miracle food is chosen it can actually detract from your health and start to take over your life.

    So I might add letting the kids “free-range” it a bit more to your list of things for women to embrace in order to destress.

    Great post!

  7. Jessica, this is brilliant. I too have found more peace and happiness when I let the housework go a bit. I have limited periods of time to myself each week, and I prefer to spend them either writing, relaxing, or connecting (plugging in, you might say! 😉 ) with friends than rushing around to sweep the kitchen floor that will be covered in crushed cereal in a matter of hours. Thanks for raising such interesting points with this- well done as always!

  8. Oh, does this bring back memories. This was the same experience I had when my son was a baby. Eventually I learned the same lesson you did. The thing is, my son recently graduated college and is now working and living on his own, and my house is still a mess. Laundry still takes a long time to get done. I guess you could say, I learned the Manifesto well!

  9. I pray every night for this: that I give my children a home they are not ashamed of.

    This lets me get away with a lot.


    A genuine pleasure to meet such a grounded, realistic, intelligent woman. A pleasure.

  10. Ok. Wow. You have NO idea how much I needed to read this~! I’m a planner and I love lists so this is really helpful. I am in the middle of closing a child-based business and career transition. I am up to my eyeballs in stuff. I’m really excited to read more. Thanks for stopping by My Life earlier. 😉

  11. Excellent advice. Congratulations on finishing your dissertation, making the time to write and striking a balance in your life that works so well for your family.

    I am an admitted neat freak. But once I read in “What To Expect…” that once you have kids your house will never really be clean and not to expect it to, it came as a relief. We also have three dogs and a cat, so forget about it! I did wonder what would happen if I toned down on the cleaning; left the dishes, the laundry and the straightening up to be done a little less often. Instead of finding that the family picked up the slack, I found they complained more and accused me of not being as “there for them”. Is it really so bad to hunt for the socks from the basket in the morning? That’s not to say that my husband doesn’t help. He’s very supportive of my writing. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him touch the vacuum other than to fix it. LOL Baby steps, right? 🙂

  12. Yes yes yes. I too did the same thing…I’ve gotten so much more relaxed but it’s still hard. Embrace the mess. I mean, really – what is going to happen if it doesn’t get done right?

  13. Thank you! My goals are clean clothes to wear, healthy food to eat and clean dishes to eat from. Beyond that, not much else gets done, and I’m okay with that. I’ve got three kids and a cat. I work 40 hours a week and hubby works 60.

  14. I stumbled across your blog from Twitter and am glad I did. While I don’t have children, I think your advice holds true for life balance in general. Thanks for sharing!

  15. When my kids were little, my routine was to tidy and sweep the floor each morning, clean one room, and then vacuum in the afternoon. It worked well for us and the house was always in decent, but not perfect, shape. As the kids got older, they helped. I still did the morning tidy and sweep and afternoon vacuum, but I did chores weekly and they helped. Now I have two grandchildren who live across the street and are here frequently. For some reason, I guess because I’m busy, I do less than I did before. But I do a lot of “cleaning as you go” so the house still looks good most of the time. But I don’t get to the deep cleaning like I used to.

    I think the bottom line is that you have to do what works for your family. For my husband and I, having a clean house was important. We both wanted it. We both needed it. But we didn’t sacrifice our family to get it. And we didn’t spend all our time cleaning. We found a balance. We found what worked for us. And that’s the key. It’s your house and your life and you should live it your way.

    1. Yes, the key is figuring out what’s important to you and valuing your time so that you make sure those priorities come first. For me, having a clean house all the time wasn’t a real priority for me, but I was doing it anyway out of some sense of obligation or duty. Definitely live the way that YOU want to live!

  16. I can so relate to your post. In fact, I just finished Sandberg’s book as well and wrote a post on some of these same issues. I have 3 children and one is still in the toddler years. Every time she enters a room, it’s like a bomb explodes. I would drive myself crazy if I tried to keep everything clean. I’ve also finally decided that I’m going to hire help – at least once a month – to do the deep clean stuff that I just can’t get to (and I don’t want to). Found you through SITS.

  17. GREAT post in every way. We so agree with everything you said here…sometimes, you just have to let it go! Fantastic. Stopping by from SITS Sharefest on Twitter-The Dose Girls

  18. In our house my husband does the dishes and keeps the kitchen clean after I’ve done the cooking. That’s just how it is. I haven’t washed a dish in years. When it comes up in conversation women look at me aghast, but it’s how we keep the sanity around here. I do wonder, though, where the balance is for focusing on other important things, and making sure my kids grow up feeling the peace and calm that can come from a clean home…

  19. I think it’s a great idea to divide up tasks. It’s sort of unromantic… A chore list? But it seems like a lot of arguments come from when spouses are unclear about who’s turn it is to do any particular job.

  20. I have changed so much when it comes to house standards. Sometimes, you just have to decide what is important at this moment – and usually now, the house loses. 🙂

  21. You are a very wise mother already! Accepting the mess and asking for help are definitely the keys to happiness and success! The other tip I’ll share is, when they ask, “what’s for dinner,” say: “take-out!”

  22. Pingback: My 7 Tips For Work At Home Moms (Learned the Hard Way) - School of Smock

  23. I adore this. You are correct. It will never be perfectly clean. Why do we get so wound up in all of it? Why do I always explain my house as messy to anyone who walks three feet inside of my home?

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