Mommy Mojo: Boring Women Have Clean Houses – Getting Over the Cleanliness Guilt

“Boring women have clean houses.”

Those are the words on a framed piece on the table as you enter my home. The sign shows I don’t escape the feeling that I “should” have a spotless and uncluttered house and, if I don’t, society will judge me harshly.

Intellectually, judging a woman (or a man) on how she keeps her house is absurd. It’s your house, live in a way that’s comfortable for you. Yet, we’re caught in a strong societal memory, a cultural legacy that still sees women’s job as “keeping house”.

A recent survey by The Working Mother Research Institute of 3,700 mothers nationwide found that:

Working mothers feel most judged about:

1. How clean my house is
2. Not taking care of myself
3. The amount of time I spend with my children

Stay-at-home mothers feel most judged about:

1. My contribution to family finances
2. How clean my house is
3. Not using my education

How unfortunate.

Think about it. When you die, do you really want people to remember you by how clean your house was? Imagine the eulogy: Cherry was a good woman, her house was so clean. Or better yet, on your tombstone: Here lies Cherry Woodburn. She kept the cleanest house in the neighborhood.

I want to be known for being a good person. For playing with my kids. For loving them and raising them to be kind and responsible adults. For my work of helping women increase their confidence so they live the life they want, not the life someone else tells them to live.

A Friend’s Uber-Messy House

Take the story of my friend, Linda. She’s a very bright, accomplished woman. A joint project with an extremely tight deadline necessitated me flying to where she lived and staying at her home. When I walked into her house and discovered it was a complete wreck, every single room messy, my breath was taken away.

I couldn’t imagine living day-in and day-out in that house. But here’s the thing. I had the thoughts I mentioned, but that was it. Period. I didn’t think less of Linda. She remained the smart, creative, funny woman she was before I went into her house.

Her house cleaning did not change the person I came to be friends with. She was the person whose daughter almost died in an accident, followed by years of trips in and out of the hospital. Perhaps Linda was “forced” to learn what we all need to learn: that having a clean house is not a top priority in life.

Our kids are more important.

Our personal well-being is more important.

“But it’s different when it’s my house.”

I know it can feel that way. Too often, it’s easier to be more accepting of others, than of ourselves. Especially if you have a “friend” who makes snide remarks, or talks about how she vacuums every day.

But really, is that the type of friend you want anyway? Someone who judges you and makes snide remarks? Someone who gossips about how you live your life?

I say dump them. Those judgmental types of people are energy-zombies. After that, spend some time reflecting on your priorities. What do you really want in life? What do you really want for your children? Is a sparkling, uncluttered home at the top of the list of what you want?

Whatever you choose is right for you. Live by your standards, not some outmoded paradigm of how things should be.

Readers, how much guilt, if any, do you feel about the cleanliness of your home? How do you deal with it?

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About Cherry Woodburn
Cherry Woodburn works in the field of personal development. She facilitates programs designed to open a world of possibilities for women through shifting negative paradigms and increasing confidence. Cherry blogs at http://borderlessthinking.com

  • http://rantravebeeyotch.blogspot.com/ sammysunshine

    *standing ovation and raising coffee cup to you* I love this blog…I wholeheartedly agree…the housework will always be there, take care of the family…would I rather straighten the pantry or build a gingerbread village with my girls? NO contest. My house does not look like a bomb hit it…yet…but, ya know what? My gravestone is not going to read, Here lies Sabrina Harnish, her house was spotless and she made excellent gravy. It will read Wife, Mother, Writer and Friend…

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    “…and she made excellent gravy” – I’m laughing out loud at that addition.

    Thanks for your support of my post. Obviously I wholeheartedly agree that the gingerbread house is a higher priority than a spotless house.

    Enjoy your girls and your life SammySunshine, Cherry Woodburn

  • http://twitter.com/PamBurzynski Pam Burzynski

    How funny, I just had this conversation with myself. I used to be what some would call a “cleaning freak”.  I was brought up in a spotless home, with a mother that, bless her, went around picking up and cleaning up after everyone–and without a whole lot of complaining about it. It’s not until you have your own house, with other people living with you that you realize how much effort it requires to be picking up everyone’s “stuff” constantly to keep the place tidy. For a while I played my mother, then I got sick of it and nagged everyone, and finally I settled into something  somewhere in between only flipping out occasionally (to this day) about the mess. I find that for me a tidy (not necessarily clean) place somehow calms me.

    I appreciate my mother a whole lot more now, because to keep the standards she had really IS a FULL time job. For the record, my mom is/was the best! When we were kids she always played with us during the day and when we went to bed she stayed up ’till 2 am waxing the kitchen floor–we never realized a floor had to “get waxed” to look like that. As we got older and noticed how hard mom worked, we would say things like “Mom, why are you cleaning that, it’s just going to get dirty again.” Her reply back would be, “Why eat, you’re only going to have to eat again.” Touche, Mom. I think it’s important to love people where they are…for some it’s in their “clean” world and for others it’s in whatever their version of “clean” happens to be. 

  • http://www.qualityservicemarketing.com/ Sybil Stershic

    I HATE cleaning, but I LOVE living in a clean house! Like Pam, I’m more comfortable in a tidy place. I’m fortunate that my husband willingly cleans house with me. He actually moves furniture to clean, whereas I’m more likely to clean around stuff … LOL!

  • Ana

    I used to be mortified if people dropped by and my house was less than spotless. I would constantly apologize for the “mess.”  Now, having kids, dogs and a very busy life, having a clean house is not the most important thing in the world.  My house looks like a “home” a very “lived in home”.  My kids don’t care if everything is put away and neither do I. I want my kids to remember how much fun we had running around, laughing, playing and those are the things that are important to me.

    I always remember the quote from Erma Bombeck: “I would have sat on the lawn with my children and never worried about the grass stains.”

    Ana

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    Ana,
    Thanks for sharing your shift in thinking. Lived-in home sounds so much more comfortable than spotless house.
    Erma Bombeck was great.  Cherry

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    Ah, Sybil, the paradox.
    I’m glad you do what works for you without the weight of “shoulds” on your shoulders.
    Cleaning is easier and quicker when there are 2 or more people chipping in. Cherry

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    Well-said Pam and well-said Pam’s mom.

    It’s the should and guilt that’s the problem, not the amount of cleaning you chose to do.

    Like you, I go for a while with clutter – mostly papers in my office & strewn around house – then one day it’s overwhelming and anxiety provoking and I have to straighten up with a shot of dusting thrown in. Cherry

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    Well-said Pam and well-said Pam’s mom.

    It’s the should and guilt that’s the problem, not the amount of cleaning you chose to do.

    Like you, I go for a while with clutter – mostly papers in my office & strewn around house – then one day it’s overwhelming and anxiety provoking and I have to straighten up with a shot of dusting thrown in. Cherry

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    PS to my earlier reply to you. RE: your mom. Wonder how much pressure she felt to do-it-all. Waxing a floor etc. at 2:00am sounds like she’d be sleep-deprived, something as kids we’d never think about.

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    PS to my earlier reply to you. RE: your mom. Wonder how much pressure she felt to do-it-all. Waxing a floor etc. at 2:00am sounds like she’d be sleep-deprived, something as kids we’d never think about.

  • Amal

    Thank you Cherry for this post :) It’s true we are not obliged to clean house everyday and we must not allow ourselves to be influenced by others judgments, But I think we should maintain a minimum level of cleanliness in our houses, it’s good for our health and morale.

  • http://seekingmymuchness.wordpress.com/ Thoughtful Whatnot

    I feel no guilt. I like a clean house. I grew up in a filthy one with animals everywhere, reused washclothes, dust wherever you looked. No way. I don’t care if I sleep 3 hours a night. Before I go to bed at night, toys are put away, the sink is empty, the clothes are in the hamper, and the floors are swept. Call me boring if you must but after a busy day of working/volunteering/exercising/mothering, a home should be a place of refuge and I can’t treat a home as a sanctuary if wherever I turn there’s dishabille and disarray. (In fact…I think I feel judged for being called boring now!)

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    I’m glad you saw my point; it certainly wasn’t to judge people with clean houses although I can see where it could sound that way.

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your story and being candid about how you felt. Cherry

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    You’re welcome Amal and thanks for sharing your opinion. I do find, as others have noted, that clutter can  be unsettling. Also, as Thoughtful what not pointed out, and you seem to be seconding,  a filthy house is a problem. Cherry

  • Shannon

    Thanks Cherry!  I needed this today.  My house isn’t horrible but with 3 kids its definitely not spotless either.  I work 2 jobs and I’m finishing my degree and I constantly feel guilty!

  • Jjachinojosa

    Great topic. My husband and I struggle with this a lot.
    My house is not spotless but bit does it look like a tornado hit. I could clean 24/7 and I would still never be done.
    So yes there are times when I say to heck with the house cleaning today, my children will only want to play & hang out with mommy for so long but the house cleaning will always be there!

  • Karen Thurston Chavez

    Totally agree with Thoughtful Whatnot. I love a clean house and most of the time, my house is clean and organized. It’s my sanctuary from a very full life of hanging out with the hubs, enjoying our two kids, running a nonprofit for families affected by congenital heart defects and other pediatric heart diseases, and working a full-time job. Keeping the house neat and organized is everyone’s job in this house, not just mine The kids don’t always appreciate pitching in, but they do enjoy the house more when it doesn’t look like a tornado hit it. We set aside time for cleaning and we set aside time for playing. And sometimes, we spend so much time playing that the cleaning gets shortchanged some weeks. And that’s OK. It’s all about balance. And balance doesn’t mean it’s always divided equally all the time. It means that the scales tip one way or the other from day to day depending on what needs the most attention. :-)

  • http://www.postdivorcechronicles.com LeeBlock

    For me, it’s just about it being neat.  I don’t care about clean, just pick your stuff up and put it away.  I don’t care if the beds are made and I’ll get to the dishes in the sink, I just get overwhelmed with the counter tops piled high with crap!  I don’t judge anyone, because you never know what is going on in their lives.  It is a tough lesson to learn and live by, but they also don’t know what is going on in yours, and I would have missed out on meeting some great people have I judged them before getting to know them! Love you and your writing!

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    Thanks so much Lee. I, too, can feel overwhelmed with stuff all over the counter tops. If I let it go (I’m not a neat cook) at night, I clean it up first thing in the morning.

    I forget the line about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes/moccasins but it is an accurate one. We don’t have a clue what’s going on in other people’s lives. Glad you stopped by.

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    Glad you’re meeting your wants & needs Karen. Nothing wrong with a clean house, nothing wrong with a messy house, nothing wrong with immaculate house – the issue is if you feel pressured about having your house a certain way and guilty if it’s not like that.
    Sounds like you have a lot going on. Thank you for the work you do related to pediatric heart diseases. Cherry

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    Cleaning is one of those things that’s always there and always more to be done. I think that was the struggle I had – there was always more I could do. When I felt that way, it was unsettling. I had to learn to accept good enough. Over the years my definition of good enough has changed.

  • http://borderlessthinking.com/ Cherry

    You’re welcome Shannon.
    Stop the guilt. I know, easier said than done, but it is such a waste of our energy. Sounds to me like you have much to feel good about: mom to 3 kids who see your responsibility and desire to continue learning. Kudos to you. Cherry

  • http://twitter.com/MonicaRicci Monica Ricci

    Love this post. As an organizing expert this is what I deal with daily. My clients feel SO judged by their families and spouses about not keeping a clean organized home. I really believe that the reason so many of my clients cry during our work together is that they are with someone who isn’t judging them, who’s actually helping, and they finally have permission to be human beings.

    Keeping my own home orderly is a high priority for me, but it’s by no means perfect. Order and cleanliness ebb and flow, but it’s never more than fifteen minutes away from being presentable if it needs to be.

    This topic is such a hot one for so many reasons and I’m glad we’re discussing it! :o )

    ~Monica

  • http://twitter.com/LisaRead LisaRead

    I love love love this…I would have posted sooner, but I had to kick the piles of laundry and dirty dishes aside to get to my computer.

  • Joan Winfrey

    As a working mother with two kids, large house, stressful job, taking a few college courses at night, and a husband who didn’t help around the house like a lot of men now do, I found I needed to keep a clean house in order to keep my sanity.  In hindsight now that I am retired with grown children, I can see where I went wrong, but i refuse to feel guilty about it.

  • Sdachiardi

    Messy and dirty are two different things. Dirty is unacceptable. I will let three loads of laundry, non-perishable groceries, mail, library books, etc. pile up but the kids go to sleep washed, the sink is cleared and the kitty litter box is emptied. Many of my friends and family look down on me for the messy, but spending time with the kids is more important to me than a chip in my manicure.

  • Laura Lawrence

    O yes domestic guilt, my longtime friend. I still struggle with this even though I know better and actually own a company that does cleaning! The issue was a bone of contention in my marriaage as my husband is super traditional…and well I’m not. I felt judged by my family (mother!!) My husband and I fought over our expectations of each other. I went on strike on and off, feeling angry that I was supposed to shoulder all domestic duties. I was working 2 jobs and have 2 kids, I couldn’t keep up with the house. I started hiring (several) people to come in and shop, clean, do repairs, cook etc. Eventually I just opened my own company and hired people who were awesome at it and want to work as home makers. I have had several ladies call me in tears sayinng the most immportant thing was finding someone to help and not judge them. The division of domestic labour is a huge deal, its uncool that it all lands on the womans shoulders! We are starting to progess into gender equality howeaver this is one area that is still pretty archaic. I still feel funny about not being betty crocker because I own a company like this but I guess my strong point is knowing where my customers are coming from and having amazing home makers on my team (oh and being super organized with the books/paperwork lol) . I can honestly say my business helped save my marriage and I sure hope it has helped others too. Sorry the post is so long, it really hits close to home :)

  • Laura Lawrence

    O yes domestic guilt, my longtime friend. I still struggle with this even though I know better and actually own a company that does cleaning! The issue was a bone of contention in my marriaage as my husband is super traditional…and well I’m not. I felt judged by my family (mother!!) My husband and I fought over our expectations of each other. I went on strike on and off, feeling angry that I was supposed to shoulder all domestic duties. I was working 2 jobs and have 2 kids, I couldn’t keep up with the house. I started hiring (several) people to come in and shop, clean, do repairs, cook etc. Eventually I just opened my own company and hired people who were awesome at it and want to work as home makers. I have had several ladies call me in tears sayinng the most immportant thing was finding someone to help and not judge them. The division of domestic labour is a huge deal, its uncool that it all lands on the womans shoulders! We are starting to progess into gender equality howeaver this is one area that is still pretty archaic. I still feel funny about not being betty crocker because I own a company like this but I guess my strong point is knowing where my customers are coming from and having amazing home makers on my team (oh and being super organized with the books/paperwork lol) . I can honestly say my business helped save my marriage and I sure hope it has helped others too. Sorry the post is so long, it really hits close to home :)

  • Laura Lawrence

    O yes domestic guilt, my longtime friend. I still struggle with this even though I know better and actually own a company that does cleaning! The issue was a bone of contention in my marriaage as my husband is super traditional…and well I’m not. I felt judged by my family (mother!!) My husband and I fought over our expectations of each other. I went on strike on and off, feeling angry that I was supposed to shoulder all domestic duties. I was working 2 jobs and have 2 kids, I couldn’t keep up with the house. I started hiring (several) people to come in and shop, clean, do repairs, cook etc. Eventually I just opened my own company and hired people who were awesome at it and want to work as home makers. I have had several ladies call me in tears sayinng the most immportant thing was finding someone to help and not judge them. The division of domestic labour is a huge deal, its uncool that it all lands on the womans shoulders! We are starting to progess into gender equality howeaver this is one area that is still pretty archaic. I still feel funny about not being betty crocker because I own a company like this but I guess my strong point is knowing where my customers are coming from and having amazing home makers on my team (oh and being super organized with the books/paperwork lol) . I can honestly say my business helped save my marriage and I sure hope it has helped others too. Sorry the post is so long, it really hits close to home :)

  • Laura Lawrence

    O yes domestic guilt, my longtime friend. This issue was a bone of contention in my marriaage as my husband is super traditional…and well I’m not. I felt judged by my family (mother!!) My husband and I fought over our expectations of each other. I went on strike on and off, feeling angry that I was supposed to shoulder all domestic duties. I was working 2 jobs and have 2 kids, I couldn’t keep up with the house. I started hiring (several) people to come in and shop, clean, cook etc. Eventually I just opened my own company and hired people who were awesome at it and want to work as home makers. I have had several ladies call me in tears sayinng the most immportant thing was finding someone to help and not judge them. The division of domestic labour is a huge deal, its uncool that it all lands on the womans shoulders! We are starting to progess into gender equality howeaver this is one area that is still pretty archaic. I still feel funny about not being betty crocker because I own a company like this but I guess my strong point is knowing where my customers are coming from and having amazing home makers on my team. I can honestly say my business helped save my marriage and I sure hope it has helped others too.

  • Laura Lawrence

    O yes domestic guilt, my longtime friend. This issue was a bone of contention in my marriaage as my husband is super traditional…and well I’m not. I felt judged by my family (mother!!) My husband and I fought over our expectations of each other. I went on strike on and off, feeling angry that I was supposed to shoulder all domestic duties. I was working 2 jobs and have 2 kids, I couldn’t keep up with the house. I started hiring (several) people to come in and shop, clean, cook etc. Eventually I just opened my own company and hired people who were awesome at it and want to work as home makers. I have had several ladies call me in tears sayinng the most immportant thing was finding someone to help and not judge them. The division of domestic labour is a huge deal, its uncool that it all lands on the womans shoulders! We are starting to progess into gender equality howeaver this is one area that is still pretty archaic. I still feel funny about not being betty crocker because I own a company like this but I guess my strong point is knowing where my customers are coming from and having amazing home makers on my team. I can honestly say my business helped save my marriage and I sure hope it has helped others too.

  • http://twitter.com/KathyAMorelli Kathy Morelli, LPC

    Goodness! My house is just a mess right now! I havent been able to vacuum since Feb due to my accident and forget gardening! I was feeling bad and thenI just gave up and there seemed to be a strange freedom in that…but I STIL want to do a good vacuuming!

  • Karina

    Hi there, I think it all starts with how we are raised, in some families (of course not mine ;) ) the woman has alway been expected to be responsible for anything and everything that has to do with keeping the house clean and yes because of those believes women are so conscious about having their house spotless and on top of that keep up with everything else, play with kids, work, buisiness, “social life”, etc (not that it has happen to me) trying to be superwoman doesn’t help anything and it doesn’t allow women to enjoy their kids, husband, enjoy themselves and give themselves a brake. Great article by the way I’ll make sure to share it with as many women as I can.

  • Susan_james

    OK I need the sign in my house, where can I get one? 

  • anon

    Untidy is one thing, but filth is another altogether.

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