A Messy House Is Not A Moral Issue — Can We Finally Stop Acting Like It Is?

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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I cannot see my lovely kitchen table. I found a stash of notebooks this week on a cube shelf below our bearded dragon. My electronic drum set has commandeered my formal living room, where Amazon boxes go to die. I cannot reach my closet without scaling a mountain of blankets and sweaters; my dresser remains empty and my clothes baskets full. I don’t care. Come over anyway. My messy house does not reflect my moral worth.

Straight talk: take out your prejudice and look hard. You think I’m a lazy-ass slob. Why don’t I get off my butt and fucking clean? Why don’t I stuff those clothes into drawers, recycle those boxes, and organize my life? I should get myself together; I need to Marie Kondo my shit. Dust. Vacuum. Scrub. Get down on my knees and wash that floor.

You can fuck right off to sunny California.

My lovely husband and I have three children stair-stepped two years apart. We also have three dogs, sized large, larger, and “occasionally outweighs me”. We both work full time (yes, my writing counts as full time, even if I do it at home). We homeschool. Moreover, every member of our household has a raging case of ADHD. I also have Bipolar II. Long ago, we realized that we could have happy children or a clean house. We chose happy children.

Here comes the but.

But you can do both. You could manage what I just described. Why can’t we do it? We must be lazy. We must be slobs. We must not take pride in ourselves. If we gave a flying fuck, we’d clean our messy house. You believe, deep down, that we are somehow morally deficient because our house is messy.

Newsflash: we aren’t.

A Messy House Is Not A Moral Issue

Sorry to break it to you, nineties babies, but The Smashing Pumpkins’ Zero had it wrong: Cleanliness is not Godliness. Of course, that idea comes not from sexily eyeliner-ed Billy Corgan, who’s gone unfortunately batshit about chemtrails and conspiracies in his latter days, but from our Puritan heritage. The idea first comes from Francis Bacon, but it’s John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who first articulated it in a sermon around 1778: “Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.” But as early as 1529 people were ranting about cleanliness: “Keep thy hands and clothes clean; think of what I have sometimes said to thee, All cleanly people are not good, but there are few good people but are cleanly … Our bodies are the Temple of the Holy Ghost…”

Victorian ideals pushed it further. A holy home was a clean home; holy children had tidy hair and neat clothes. A gentleman was marked by his cleanliness.

Even now, you can find essays about Christianity and cleaning.

Why is a messy house a moral issue? Why do we attribute slovenliness and laziness to people with a messy house? Why don’t we assume, instead, that they’re too busy to clean? That they’ve set other priorities? That they’re neurodiverse and so honestly don’t notice (or much care) about that mess?

Why have we been inculcated to morally judge a messy house?

There Is No Good Reason To Judge


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Give me one moral reason that my children suffer by growing up in a messy house. Not a vermin-ridden house. Not a hoarder’s house, not a dangerous house.

They won’t learn to clean? Not good enough. We do occasionally clean. We involve them when that happens.

They’ll become slobs? We’ve already agreed that’s a moral judgment and inadmissible.

They’ll suffer socially because we can’t have people over? No. Real friends don’t judge. And if we expect visitors, we expect a minimum of clutter pick-up in main rooms. But dishes will sit in my sink; boxes will litter my formal living room’s floor. My children might sort of clean their room.

They lose out because we can’t find anything? Mostly, we can. Those notebooks lurked under three binders in an area of our house I never visit, because I don’t like our bearded dragon and I steer clear of our LEGO room to protect my feet. My husband can locate any book on our myriad of shelves in under a minute. My youngest son can find any stuffie. I never lose a T-shirt or my drumsticks.

You’re judging because you’ve learned a messy house means laziness. Period.

You Are Not Your Messy House

Sit down and breathe.

Maybe your house is messy. Maybe you have piles of laundry. Maybe you also have kids.

We decided that, because of our life situation, because of who we are, because of who our children are, we could spend our lives cleaning or we could be happy. We had enough courage to choose happiness. Yes, courage. After a lifetime of hearing that a messy house means lazy people, letting a mess pile up took guts. In grad school, my husband and I kept a neat house. We may have had a laundry pile, but we could always invite visitors without worry of judgment.

When we had kids, life changed.

I needed more… time. More time to play with our kids. More time to do my own work. More time to homeschool. Now that you’ve lived through 2020, you know that homeschooling children does not mean letting them write in workbooks all day while you do laundry. I spend hours teaching them. I love it. I would never trade it.

But all this playing and working and schooling means I need more time to fucking recharge. All you busy bees with clean houses: how often do you recharge? I’m learning to play the drums. Do you have time to play the drums? Would you feel guilty if you played the drums? My husband is watching a movie right now. Would you resent your partner for watching a movie? And don’t accuse me of sleeping in. I wake up somewhere between four and five a.m. most days.

We all make choices.

Why is my choice to have a messy house a moral choice?

Here’s the secret, peeps: It’s not. It’s a choice like any other, a choice to hop on Instagram or walk your dog, a choice to mow your lawn or pick up coffee cups. When my therapist told me that my messy house was not a moral issue, I broke down in tears. Someone had finally given me permission. Someone had finally said: You are not your mess. You are not your unfolded laundry. You are not your dirty dishes, your cardboard boxes, your forgotten recycling. You are not your messy house.

No one has the right to look at you and make a moral judgment about your character based on that mess. A messy house is not an indication of a good person or a bad person. A serial killer can have a clean house or a messy house. A mean person can have a tidy house. A kind person can have a messy one. Do you understand this? I am a good person. I am a loyal friend, a kind parent, and a decent wife. I love my children and I try to leave this world better than I found it. None of this has a goddamn thing to do with my fucking messy house.

I give you the same permission my therapist gave me.

You are not your messy house, love.

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