The liberating choice to embrace what it means to be a messy mom

By Reannon Muth

I have one thought as my friend pulls up to my house to drop me and my two-year-old daughter off after a play date at the park: Please don’t ask to come in.

Because if she asks to come in to use the bathroom, she’ll see the dining room table cluttered with baby dolls and toddler pajamas and stacks of unopened mail. She’ll see the forest of partially drunk water bottles and the sink crowded with dirty dishes. She’ll see the stained carpet and the dust bunnies of dog hair and the three bags of recycling I have yet to take out to the trash. 

Should she go upstairs, she may trip over what my fiancé and I have nicknamed “the Pit of Despair”—a mountain of clean clothes we’ve been too busy to fold and have corralled into an unused Pack n’ Play that serves as a laundry holding pen. 

In short, my house is a mess. And as ashamed as I am to admit it, I’m a mess, too.

Being a messy mom doesn’t fit into the narrative I have about what it means to be a good mom. Good moms are neat. Good moms are organized. Good moms have laminated chore lists and wall calendars. Good moms always wear matching socks (because their socks don’t live in the bottom of a Pit of Despair), and their couch is never blanketed in dog hair. 

Of course, I know I’m not the only parent who struggles to keep a clean house. Statistically, I can’t be. According to a study conducted by the Huffington Post, one in four Americans suffer from a “clutter problem” and 84% of Americans worry their houses aren’t clean or organized enough.

Yet I somehow can’t seem to let go of the idea that everyone else’s house is cleaner and neater than mine and I’m somehow failing at parenting (or adulating in general) because mine isn’t. 

I blame TV.

Growing up, the moms in the TV shows I watched were all uptight, Type A personality types who were hyper organized and had strong opinions about the right way to load a dishwasher or hang hand towels. And they were married to absent minded but loveable men who could never be counted on to buy the right brand of cereal. 

That has never been me. In all my relationships, I was the absent-minded one. I’m the one that has to call my fiancé from the grocery store to make sure I’m getting the right brand of tomato sauce or the right seasoning. I’m the one who recently spent two days searching in the fridge for a carton of milk only to find it in the cup cabinet. Part of the reason I held off having kids until my late 30s was that I felt I wasn’t cut out for motherhood because I didn’t fit the stereotype of who I thought a good mom was supposed to be. 

My own mother didn’t fit that stereotype, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. For decades she battled against her pack-rat tendencies to become someone whose kitchen always sparkles and whose clothes always hang neatly in the closet, and, for the most part, she’s succeeded. Her house is now always “surprise visitor-ready.” And though she wasn’t always naturally tidy herself, she spent a good chunk of my childhood trying to instill that skill in me.

She’s still trying. 

My mom has bought me organizers and cleaning products and is always offering tips on how to keep the mess at bay, saying: “Your house is a reflection of your mind.” She means well, but her words of wisdom often just serve as a reminder that I’m failing at something so many people seem to just do effortlessly. 

 “I know,” I tell her, my face hot. “Now that I’m a mom, I have to be more organized.” 

But do I? 

I’d found myself saying or thinking that a lot lately. “Now that I’m a mom…” followed by some part of myself that I should change in order to be more like one of the “Pinterest Moms”, as I’ve dubbed them, or some June Cleaver ideal (or, because I grew up in the 90s, Debra from Everybody Loves Raymond). 

But was that really true? 

When I was a kid, I had a friend whose mom always had a dirty house. Her coffee table was always sticky with juice spills and her brown shag carpet was probably beige under all the dirt. But this mom was surprisingly unapologetic about it. 

“I don’t care that my house is a mess,” she’d once said. How freeing would that be? To say that you don’t care that your house is messy…and then just actually not care?

Many dads are like that—at least if a 2019 study is anything to go by. The explanation that often gets floated around for why women statistically do more housework than their male partners is that men just don’t notice the mess. But what the study found is that men do notice the mess, they just don’t feel the same innate pressure to do anything about it. 

Women feel like a messy house reflects poorly on them; that somehow cheerios on the floor and puzzle pieces wedged between the couch suggest that they’re failing in their roles. Men simply don’t feel the same internalized pressure. 

Sometimes I’ll see TikTok videos of messy homes, tagged with hashtags like #BoyMom or #TwoUnderTwo or #WorkingMomLife, as though the mess is excusable only because the mom has a valid reason, like rambunctious boys or multiple kids or demanding jobs. But what if you don’t have a valid excuse? What if the only reason your house is messy is that you just can’t be bothered to clean it?

The other day I was vacuuming and feeling the familiar chest pains of shame that I’d let the carpet get that dirty again, when I asked myself: If I knew no one besides myself and my immediate family would see my house ever again, would I clean it this much?

And it surprised me to realize that the answer was “no.”

Sure, I’d maintain a base level of cleanliness for hygiene purposes, but if I could guarantee no one would ever see the mess, I’d probably just, well, leave it there. 

Because the truth is that if I wanted it to be cleaner, I would be. Sure, I’m a busy person. All parents are. But I’d make the time to tidy more if it were really important to me. 

I’d clean instead of going hiking with my daughter.

I’d clean instead of watching Netflix with my fiancé.

I’d clean instead of writing this essay.

There’s a poem by Rose Milligan I’ve seen shared on Facebook called “Dust if you must.” It’s about how you could spend your days dusting or you could spend them swimming in rivers, climbing mountains, reading books, and listening to music. The message is: Life is short, so seize the day. Don’t waste your “one wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver once wrote, on housework. 

Maybe instead of trying to figure out a way to clean more, I should focus on trying to figure out a way to care less. Maybe the problem isn’t that my house is messy. Maybe the real problem is that I’m just so damned ashamed by it. 

Reannon Muth is a writer, graphic designer, and the author of the memoir Unattached: A Year of Heartache, Hiking, and Learning How to Love. She still hasn’t worked up the courage to invite anyone insider her house.

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