What I Do When The 'Messy House' Shame Hits Me Hard

by Lindsay Wolf
Originally Published: 
What I Do When The 'Messy House' Shame Hits Hard
Shutterstock / Scary Mommy

A few months ago, I posted a silly Instagram video of me walking through my kid-filled house. I had just completed a deep clean of my first floor the day before, and my sense of accomplishment was in full effect. Quite predictably, this victory was short-lived. Within a matter of hours, my children had managed to blissfully tear their way through every room with no awareness of the order I had worked so hard to achieve.

The kids sprinted into the TV room with popsicles in hand to get their “Peppa Pig” game on as I stood underneath a rising wave of disappointment and worry. I knew that the shame train was about to enter the station, and I wasn’t particularly up for that trip.

As I surveyed the wreckage of pointy gemstones, piles of random snacks, and hardened play-doh creations, I decided to document the walk-through and crack jokes about my home being disorganized beyond my wildest nightmares. The post was meant to entertain anyone who needed a good laugh, help other parents feel less alone, and just get real about the messy parts of raising kids. But mostly, I did it to get that shame train to leave as quickly as it had so annoyingly arrived.

Of course, I caught some nasty flack from a few overly zealous internet mamas who chalked me up to being a “lazy” mother. It was as if they’d somehow heard all of my most negative thoughts and decided to bluntly repeat them back to me. One especially irritated individual instructed me to get my act together and just keep my house clean — because gosh darn it, keeping your house clean is easy to do, okay?!

Nope, Karen. For me, cleaning is not an easy task.

Because some days, it takes every ounce of strength for me to simply get out of bed. Some days, the anxiety and hypervigilance that accompany my Complex PTSD induce non-epileptic seizures so intense that I struggle to walk for weeks after. And some days, I become paralyzed (yes — quite literally paralyzed) by the litter that builds up, layer by layer, until I can’t see a clear path across the floor or access the executive functioning skills required to clean it up.

Then there’s the overwhelm that accompanies the added organizational steps I attempt to maintain to support my husband’s ADHD and anxiety while he works long hours juggling multiple jobs, along with the torrential downpour of clutter initiated by a sensory-seeking, whole-bodied feeling, and highly imaginative toddler. Not to mention his endlessly creative and spirited six-year old sister who goes through about a dozen costume changes a day and collects Barbie dolls like it’s her job.

Oh and lest I forget that I’ve recently transitioned to being a work-from-home parent again who is also the resident personal assistant for everyone.

Nothing about the act of cleaning is easy for me.

When the tsunami of unjustified shame and panic rises up inside, I practice the following steps in no particular order. While they’re not a foolproof plan, they are a great jumping off point to help me get through my day with self-compassion and non-judgment. Whether the haters are living outside of my head or deep within it, this blueprint helps me focus on what’s most important — my mental, emotional, and physical well being.

I take space away from my home to clear my head.

In moments of deep shame, I’ll step outside and sit on my porch to take a look at the sky. The fresh air, coupled with some deep breaths and sometimes a cold pack to my forehead, helps give me the space I need to remember what really matters. My mental health is far more important than any to-do list, and this statement is my go-to whenever the clutter feels like an inescapable reality. I also remind myself that I am safe now and no longer in the dysfunctional environment I grew up in, which means that I can learn to let go of any unhealthy steps I’ve taken in the past to protect myself from harm. It should be noted that this first step is inspired by the therapy I engage in weekly and not something I magically came up with on my own.

I remember that my worthiness as a human being is not directly tied to my ability to clean.

There is nothing moral about constantly keeping a house spotless, and there is nothing immoral about being unable to. We are no better as human beings for putting everything in its rightful place than we are for living in the muck of it all.

It’s also a privilege to exist in a body or with a mind that can easily tackle a cleaning job or be able to afford the extra help or methods of accessibility needed when we cannot and should not be doing everything ourselves.

Most importantly, I am lovable and worthy of good things no matter how my space looks.

I repeat to myself that in a family, there is no single person who should shoulder the exclusive responsibility of keeping a house clean 24/7.

The truth is, I contribute to my family’s livelihood on a daily basis, often in ways that don’t elicit the immediate satisfaction that an aesthetically clean house can. When I notice that I’m doing way more than my fair share, I talk to my husband about it. I stick some music on and throw a cleaning/dance party with my kids, which usually gets them joining in. I also step back from the exhaustive to-do list that floats around in my head all day and turn the focus inward. Have I taken a shower and eaten food? Do I need to rest? Did I drink enough water? These kinds of questions allow me to pull myself free from obligations that aren’t entirely mine to hold and the harmful gender-based standards that created mom shame in the first place.

I take it one step at a time and at whatever pace I can easily do on any given day.

Sometimes I’ll sit on the floor and slowly scoot around rooms on my butt while I vacuum and pick stuff up. Or I’ll focus on one room at a time and stop whenever my chronic pain and fatigue crops up.

And I always give myself the grace of not forcing myself to clean if I’m in a tough place mentally or physically.

I access resources to help me clean up in a way that also supports living with a disability.

Having a disability means learning to live in a world that wasn’t designed for folks like me. I’m abundantly aware that not everyone struggles to make it up the stairs or has their whole day thrown off course by a seizure. So, I actively concentrate on designing a world within my house that does work for me, which something I’ve learned from therapist and mom KC Davis who runs the mental health platform Struggle Care.

One of my favorite Davis quotes? “You are not responsible for saving the world if you are struggling to save yourself.”

I throw in splashes of humor and levity whenever I begin that nasty comparison game.

All the filters on Instagram can’t hide the fact that everybody struggles behind closed doors. Acknowledging the utter ridiculousness of social media and societal expectations has the powerful potential to quiet my inner critic. The fact is, I have zero effing clue as to why someone may be keeping their place perpetually tidy. And it’s not my job to figure out why I cannot “keep up” with another parent’s individual expectations and standards. It is my job to ensure my own mental stability and seek support when needed, so that I can pour from a filled cup.

I remind myself that my previous efforts to “always be cleaning” were a trauma response.

During my single days, I used to obsess over keeping the studio I rented immaculate, and I also grew quite accustomed to judging anyone who couldn’t maintain my level of clean. I was raised in a physically and emotionally unstable environment, so I learned quickly as an adult how to keep things spic and span to avoid conflict and chaos. But having babies of my own and marrying a wonderful man who happens to unconsciously leave his socks and tissues everywhere completely shattered whatever conventional methods I had put in place to keep my living space spotless. At a certain point, I had to surrender to what was, rather than holding on to some “perfect” ideal of what I expected my house to look like — and that totally sucked at first.

It still sometimes does. The difference now is that to me, perfection is a home filled with loving memories to be made, days brimming over with laughter and silliness, the emotional stability of being safe to feel anything, and a family within it who genuinely enjoys each other’s company — and zero percent of this has anything to do with whether it’s clean or not.

I embrace all of the heartfelt reasons why my house often looks like a tornado ripped through it.

There’s a saying that goes “Please excuse the mess — my children are making memories.” Anytime I’m feeling overwhelmed by the stuff scattered across my living room floor, I remember that my son loves to take on the role of an adventurous explorer, and my daughter’s favorite way to express herself is very similar to her daddy — with piles of paintings and scribbles strewn about our living space. My husband is also a creative like me and gets swept up in the artistic gigs that help keep our family financially afloat. These moments usually carry with them a post-cleanup experience, and I’m not always up for — or responsible for — that task. And that is okay. My kids are having a blast, feel super loved, and are in a safe space to fully be themselves. Their mom and dad are doing their level best to show up for everything while collectively running on tired parent fumes. The memories we make together matter far more to me than pristine floors and perpetually organized toy bins.

These steps are quite personal to me, so they are not a one size fits all kinda deal. And that’s the whole freaking point. Each of our journeys as parents to creating accessibility and a stable home environment that works for our family unit shouldn’t need to feel like competing in the cleaning Olympics.

Bottom line — we are so much more than our messy houses, and there is also so much more to life than shaming ourselves into keeping our messy houses clean.

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