When did a messy house make us feel like we were inadequate? Weren’t cutting it as moms or wives or just normal, tidy humans in general? Here’s how an Instagram caption made me rethink what a messy house REALLY says about me.
Some time ago, I walked passed my younger daughters’ room, snapped the following photo and posted it on Instagram.
“I can’t keep up. Thankfully, I’ve made peace with this fact.”
Though my intention was to offer a bit of empathy and connection around a shared reality most of us face on the daily, something didn’t feel right about the message I’d chosen. While it’s true that I’ve made peace with my rarely-tidy-for-long home (following years of futility and frustration), it was that first sentence, “I can’t keep up” that got me thinking:
Keep up with what? Just what do I feel like I need to keep up with, and more? Why do I feel like I need to keep up with it?
This question led to several others:
- Is it true that I can’t ‘keep up, or do I simply choose not to?
- Who sets the standards for “keeping up,” and are they worthy of my strivings?
- Who benefits when I attempt to “keep up” by an arbitrary set of measures?
- Does “keeping up” empower me to be my most authentic self?
Pretty quickly, I was able to uncover the real reasons I was uncomfortable with the wording I’d chosen: It suggests inadequacy on my part (and the part of others whose homes are messy), it is subtlety self-critical and it fails to honor the life being lived in lieu of constant cleaning.
I tried for many years to adhere to the unspoken cultural (and countercultural) laws our society has so generously bestowed upon us. My house stayed clean, my closets organized and my girls’ rooms sweetly adorned. In the event that I couldn’t keep up (such as following the birth of yet another baby), I was hard on myself, lost sleep catching up and vowed to manage my time and resources better.
But because my motivation was based on what I felt I should be doing, instead of the authentic expression and honoring of who I really am and what I (and my family) needed to thrive, even when I was able to “keep up,” I still felt dissatisfied, disappointed and behind. Yes, even with things in order, the house ready for unexpected visitors at any time and me knowing the last time I did laundry and put it up–I was still not feeling fulfilled.
Don’t get me wrong; that may not be everyone. Society’s definition of ‘keeping up,’ and what that looks like may be just the cup of tea for a mama who finds peace and tranquility and achievement in doing so. And that’s great!
It just didn’t for me.
Until we’ve evaluated what we’re trying to keep up with, why, and how doing so benefits our lives, our efforts will only go so far toward the feelings and quality of life we’re after.
So, what does your messy house say about YOU? Here are a few possibilities:
- You don’t derive joy from the experience of constantly cleaning up after others. You find your joy elsewhere, and recognize that sharing your joy with your family is a greater gift than the gift of a tidy home.
- You have high tolerance for chaos and patience with people in process. Those around you most likely find that freeing and a gift you give to them.
- You see mess as evidence that your family had a fun, connected day.
- You recently had a baby (meaning less than four years ago).
- You’re exhausted and recognize adequate rest to be more important to your well-being (and thus, the well-being of others) than more cleaning. Hooray for you for knowing this and being brave enough to take the rest on, as you should.
- Your strengths are not being engaged. Spending the bulk of your time invested in things that do not make you feel strong and alive (my definition of strengths) leaves you uninspired and unmotivated. Going through motions doesn’t ever seem to benefit anyone’s inner soul.
- You’re more inspired outside than in. Life constantly indoors drains your energy and leaves you feeling anxious.
- You’re confident in yourself, and not particularly concerned with what others think about you or the state of your home. You know that home is the heart of the people who live in it, not what it looks like.
- You’re engaging the kids in the housework. More hands on deck does not necessarily mean your house is cleaner, but it does mean your kids are developing work ethics, which matters more to you than the house being spotless. And it shows you have incredible self-control–it takes that not to want to do the chores ‘right’ when little hands are just learning.
- You’re more concerned with making a difference than making beds.
- You work long hours (for money) in order to support the basic needs of your family and cleaning can’t trump sleep if you’re to stay sane. Something has to give, and you’ve decided it’s not sleep or sanity.
- You don’t have the support you need to thrive, which makes cleaning the least of your worries.
- Your aesthetic isn’t defined by consumer culture. You see beauty in people, interactions, nature and growth, and have little need organization in order to feel inspired.
- You’re in survival mode. You need all the energy you can scrape together to weather this challenging season. And the next one. Or you’re just recovering from the last one. If you’re not in a challenging season, you’ve come out of one or coming into one, guaranteed.
- You’ve never learned how to clean efficiently and effectively. (Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.) It can make a difference (if you want it to).
- You’re an artist. Mess inspires you. No, really. It may, and that’s okay. You’re able to see beauty in things others can’t believe is anything more than a colossal mess, and that makes you so creative.
- You don’t thrive in isolation, and would rather have more time with people than a tidy home.
- You love your (other) work. You’d rather invest your time where the work feels gratifying and meaningful. Cleaning a home may make some feel gratified and fulfilled, but if that’s not you, it’s okay–it doesn’t have to be and you’re still okay.
- You value your quality of life. Cleaning minimally allows you time to create a life you love. And that’s more important than what your life looks like.
- You’ve got your priorities straight. You’ve checked in with what matters most to you and are willing to go against the grain in order to protect these priorities. If a clean house is your priority, that is your right too, but don’t feel like it has to be unless you want it to be.
Maybe you see yourself in a more critical light. Perhaps you think of yourself as lazy, selfish, or a hoarder. Beneath all self-judgment, however, lies a truer story. “Lazy” might mean uninspired, lonely or deeply misunderstood. “Selfish” speaks of unmet core needs and a shaky sense of self-worth. Hoarding could be a sign that you see beauty and usefulness in just about anything.
There are many good reasons your house may be messy. The confusion comes in when we believe the messages (and marketing) most culturally condoned: that we’re inadequate, that we’re doing something wrong, and that we need to adjust our priorities to meet cultural “norms.”
As if magazine covers represent what is normal.
As if Pinterest paints an accurate picture of what’s possible.
As if the things we really long for can be bought at deep discounts.
Rather than “keeping up” — with the Joneses, with other women and with the ever-changing definitions of beauty, value and importance promoted by popular culture — we can set kinder standards for ourselves, align our actions with our values, and focus on that which matters most on any given day. By doing so, we claim the right to be the authors of our lives, and open ourselves to whole new realms of joy. We can even redefine what a ‘messy house’ even is. No more of that, “Oh gracious, forgive how the house looks,” mess when you have company, even though you know you’ve just spent hours scrubbing it from top to bottom. When did we start to believe if you couldn’t eat off our floors there was something wrong?
Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” I would add that it is no measure of success to “keep up” with a culture whose values aren’t aligned with your own.
Particularly if you and your family are a-okay with your lifestyle, your values and your home. Isn’t that what matters anyway?