About once a month, I have a mommy tantrum over my messy house. My husband arrives home from work to see the rage in my eyes, and he knows it’s coming. I rant about the piles of shit on every flat surface, the socks and granola bar wrapper discarded on the living room rug, and the stacks of dirty dishes. Then there’s the five baskets of clean laundry that my family digs through rather than sorts and puts away.
My husband is empathetic. As I’ve told him time and time again, I work, live, and play in the same space—our home. When it’s a hot mess, I’m a hot mess.
Yes, I’ve heard all the cutesy sayings. Memories are made in messy houses, or something like that. I should be too blessed to be stressed. Oh, and I should be thankful that I have a house to clean up, clothes to wash, and dishes to scrub.
None of these cliche renderings eradicate my anxiety over a messy house. I will hyper-focus on the damn granola bar wrapper, stewing. Should I pick it up so I can move on? Or do I wait for the offender to get home and tell them to pick up their trash? I’ve even done the whole wait-and-see. This is when a parent gets pissed about an undone task and leaves it, waiting to see how long it takes before someone else—anyone else—notices and decides to take responsibility. I don’t recommend this strategy. FYI, it doesn’t work.
I’ve been anxious my entire life, receiving an official diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder in my thirties. Trust me, I have tried to change, attempting to give those messes a nonchalant “oh well” and proceeding to have a tickle fight with the kids. I can’t do it, the “faking it until I make it.” I’ve gotten ten minutes into an activity with my kids, tops, before I hop up to sweep the kitchen floor.
Messes provide me with a sense of chaos and dread. I don’t like undone tasks—which only pile up on my ever-long to-do list. I perseverate until I grow motivated enough to rage clean the pantry. If not me, who else is going to toss the stale cereal and empty baggie boxes?
Sure, there are chore charts and reward systems for kids to follow—if that’s your family’s vibe. Yes, my husband is my equal partner. He does dishes, changes diapers, and cooks breakfast every Saturday morning. We don’t live in a 1950s, patriarchal, get-me-a-sandwich-and-a-cocktail kind of household. However, because I am home more hours than anyone else in my family, sometimes the majority of the work falls on me.
I simply can’t focus when my house looks like a tornado-hurricane-earthquake hit it. As much as I wish there was an end in sight, the reality is that having a big family and a busy life means there are always going to be messes. This reality alone gives me more anxiety.
People are often quick to mock those who keep a clean house, labeling them as neat freaks. It’s hurtful and insulting, because I know others like me whose anxiety can dominate every area of their lives, including their homes. Keeping the house tidied makes a difference in how our days go. If our home-space has some sort of order, our minds are at ease. We can focus better at work, we can better connect with our kids and partners, and we don’t feel angst over a pile of unfolded laundry.
My need for order isn’t about being a germaphobe—another popular label—either. Trust me. I have four children. There’s absolutely no such thing as complete germ prevention. Of course, I would love for us to never have a stomach bug, strep, or influenza ever again—but that’s not going to happen.
I am who I am, but what makes it challenging are the voices of those who dismiss or poke fun of my house-can’t-be-messy anxiety. One day I read in a mommy group that a stay-at-home mom of three little kids confessed that she couldn’t chill when her home was a disaster. She was asking for suggestions. There’s always that one know-it-all who piously claps back. Long story short, mean mommy told distressed mommy to stop being so uptight. As if having anxiety is a choice.
Another poster, attempting to be kind but coming across as dismissive, reminded the mom that kids grow up so fast. We should savor our moments with them, relishing in all of their firsts. Yet another commenter told the overwhelmed mom that she must have a lot of time on her hands to worry about how much dust had collected on the dining table. Her advice? Just focus on taking care of your kids.
I’m pretty sure this mama wasn’t neglecting her children—just as I don’t. She was, however, struggling to focus on the chaos that couldn’t be helped—her kids—because her surroundings also felt out-of-control. Anxiety teaches those of us with it that control will bring us relief, even when it’s only temporary.
I’ve accepted that I’m never going to take on Elsa’s let-it-go mindset when it comes to maintain my home. It’s not in me. Though my anxiety is fairly well-controlled with therapy, medication, and exercise, I can’t extinguish the pull to start a load of towels before sitting down to write.
If you battle with maintaining a somewhat clean house for the sake of your sanity, you aren’t alone. This struggle is real. The assumptions made about us are hurtful—but we don’t have time to focus on those for long. We’re too busy purging our kids’ closets.