How to Be Happy with a Messy House

Put down those hands and step away from the couch.

Put down those hands and step away from the couch.

A few men emailed me after I wrote How to Get a Man to Do Housework. They told me that they did the majority of the work around their homes, and that their wives were the ones who were the complete slobs. I also heard from some women who fessed up to their messy habits, complaining about their annoying clean freak husbands who just didn’t know how to relax.

They’re all right. I should have titled that post: how to train a slob to clean a house.

Or something like that.

Anyway, today, I bring you part 2, and I write it mostly for women (and men) like myself, who just can’t seem to relax when the house is a mess. We like to think of ourselves as right and our untidy TV-watching, trash-on-the-floor throwing spouses as wrong.

But the truth of the matter is this: our Dearest Disorderlies are the ones who are calmer and happier.  We’re the ones who are stressed out, uptight, and unhappy. It’s quite possible that we could learn something from them.

This blog, by the way, is in no way an attempt to get a slacker who does nothing around the house off the hook. I’m not arguing for the merits of an unequal distribution of household labor. I’m only saying this: All of the communication in the world will get our houses only so clean. Unless you have the means to hire a housekeeper who comes daily, you’ll have to learn how to accept at least some of the mess, especially if you have children.

Indeed, one of the things they never tell prospective parents is this: once you have a child, you will never again have a clean house. Similarly, you will never again get a good night’s sleep, with the exception of those times you take an Ambien and go sleep in a hotel away from your family. (More on other things they never tell parents-to-be tomorrow).

Once you have children, there will always be a mess somewhere in your house, even right after you’ve cleaned it. Unless, of course, you’ve tied up said kids and locked them in a closet for an hour or two so you can enjoy the fruits of your cleaning labor before it all becomes undone in a matter of minutes. Although I’m sure Child Protective Services would tsk tsk about you doing such a thing, all I can say is this: I’ve thought of doing it myself. Only thought it, mind you.

So what should the clean freaks among us do when confronted with the mess that is known as parenthood?

Be proud of your mess
. Here’s something that they also don’t tell you about parenthood and marriage: Every house has a mess somewhere. Some messes—like toys all over the living room floor—are easier to see. Others—like a sexless, loveless marriage—are more invisible to the untrained eye. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have old banana peels on my floor than a husband who doesn’t love me. Just saying. There are worse things in life.

Be realistic about your mess. Many of us clean freaks worry about our messy houses the most when someone else comes to visit. I can’t tell you, for instance, how many moms have told me, as soon as they’ve opened their doors, “Oh my God, my house is such a mess. I’m embarrassed to have you stand in my entryway.” I can’t say I’ve ever heard a father utter such words, but there I go being sexist again. The point is, whenever someone has greeted me at the door with a “my house is such a mess,” it was a cue for me to try to find the mess. Most of the time, I just couldn’t. Most people don’t notice other people’s messes. They only notice their own.

Be considerate about your mess. Please don’t clean your house before I visit you. Not only is it unnecessary, it’s downright selfish. You see, your mess makes me feel better about my mess. Cleaning up your mess right before I stop by is your way of saying, “I’m better than you. See? My house is clean!” But if you leave the dirty laundry on your living room couch, it tells me, “Yeah, I suck at this parenting thing, too. Are you as overwhelmed as I am?” I say, “Yes I sure am.” Then you tell me that you love me, and I tell you that I love you. And then I make sure my house is even messier than yours when you come to visit.

Nightmare on Clean Freak Street

This weekend I experienced a Clean Freak’s worst nightmare. My parents called me Saturday morning, asking if they could visit Saturday afternoon. In my house, Sunday is cleaning day. I have a 4 year old, a husband, and a dog. You can just imagine what my house might look like 6 days after cleaning day. It’s not good.

I looked at the dishes in the sink, the dried banana remnants on the floor, the greasy dog footprints on the living room carpet, the hand prints on the glass door, the dirty clothes that were scattered here and there, and the toys in every conceivable place. I’d be leaving in 20 minutes to take our daughter to a birthday party. My parents would arrive within moments of our return. There was no way I’d have time to clean. I said, “Sure, come over. I’d love to see you.”

I hung up, scraped the banana off the kitchen floor and went to the party. Later, my parents were a little late, so I also had time to wash the dishes and hide the dirty socks and underwear.

When my parents walked in, my mother’s first words were, “What’s all over your carpet?”

“The dog must have stepped in grease or something,” I said. “We’re planning on cleaning it up next year.”

She laughed.  I’m glad that I did my part to make my mother feel good about her own house cleaning abilities, you know? She doesn’t have a kid or a dog; she has a cleaning lady. But she deserves to feel good about her house. And whenever she needs a self-esteem boost, she’s welcome to come to mine.

Peace-of-Mind Pointers

  • Try to pinpoint the point when a normal amount of mess spills over into an anxiety-producing mess. Try to find that sweet spot where you can feel calm with just enough mess, but not out of control with too much of it.
  • Keep a mess free zone somewhere in your house, somewhere you can go to chill out and relax. Mine is my office. It’s where I spend a majority of my daytime hours. No toys are allowed in my office. And I don’t like husbands in here, either. The dog is okay, though, as long as his paws are clean.

Have you learned to feel calm when surrounded by chaos? Leave a comment.

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25 comments… add one

  • Tracy April 6, 2009, 9:51 am

    Whew, you saved me. I was just about to go WASH THE WALLS because I have a babysitter coming tomorrow. Instead, I will just put in low wattage light bulbs.

  • Jackie April 6, 2009, 2:42 pm

    I love the idea of finding the sweet spot! That’s a great way to put it! There’s no reason to stress yourself out all the time! It’s just a house, right?! Not a festering cesspool! :)

    That being said, I think having a clean (or just-clean-enough) house is like any other goal that’s important to you, be it saving money, eating better, or making it to the gym “x” days a week: if you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen!

  • Marilyn Bauman April 7, 2009, 7:37 am

    In my defense, I asked about the “stains” on the carpet not because they were “stains,” but because they were so interesting–like a large bird had hopped all over the floor making a road map to somewhere.


    Before I asked, I did think that the dog probably did it, since each individual mark looked like a very small dog print, but they were smaller than I thought Rhodes’ prints would be–and actually, more creative. I momentarily wondered if Rhodes had an “artist” in him.

    See, nothing to do with judgment about “mess” at all. Truth be told, at my age, mess does not count as something to worry about. I only wish I felt this way a long time ago.

  • Marilyn Bauman April 7, 2009, 7:50 am

    To continue: I realize there are “messes” and there are horrible “messes” that might invite the board of health to condemn a house. The “messes” of normal living can be dealt with as Alisa suggests.

    What I think is important is what she did not tell you about my “no notice arrival.” She provided a warm, happy home for three cousins to play together in all day–creating more of a mess wherever they went, and they went everywhere. But they made puzzles, they worked on large constructions that marbles rolled down, they did yoga, they danced. And we did it all with them.

    With “no notice” she pulled off dinner for all of us (with the able assistance of her husband who not only went to the grocery store to buy the food but also cooked it, set the table, and cleaned up at the same time as he “advised” the three cousins on acceptable behavior at dinner time).

    As the ad says, “Priceless.”

  • Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach April 12, 2009, 4:38 am

    My husband and I gave up the dream of a clean house years ago…and instead focus on the good things that come with the family. Perhaps after they go to college things might change! :)

  • Ashley April 20, 2009, 11:21 pm

    LOVED the article-I have two toddlers [1yo and 3yo] 2 hamsters plus another little bitty (human that is lol) due in about a month and I have some major cleaning OCD. It’s nice to have a diff. perspective and to hear that its ok. Thank you for that :-)

  • Christina Garcia April 27, 2009, 12:06 pm

    Love the different perspective. My problem is not so much with my fiance more so with this grown cousin that comes to stay with us every other weekend. In that one weekend makes a mess of the whole house and my fiance does not tell him anything. I totally understand that children will be children, but this is a grown 21 year old man that comes into our house and creates a mess everytime he stays over. Not to mention that his cousin has a hygiene problem and I do not understand why my fiance thinks I am a nit picker if I say anything. It is just a respect thing……I need help.

    • Miss Picky December 30, 2011, 3:58 am

      Oh man. That’s awful. There’s no delicate way to handle this situation at all, and believe me I’ve been in many of them. I’m a total clean freak. I hate mess, smells, smears, splotches, stains, mucus and the list goes on………..what’s worse is I hide my lounge cushions when certain guests come over cos I know I’ll need to wash all the grime off later. Your fiancé’s cousin needs a job to do when he’s there. Here’s how you go about it: pick a time to talk to your fiancé about giving his cousin a couple of jobs while he stays over. Pick the best time such as when he’s totally relaxed, but not in front of the tv. Probably out on a walk. Carefully let him know that his cousin is great
      and you love it when he’s there and to help you enjoy it more, he could help out with the dishes etc, set the table, make brekkie. It may taste awful, but it all helps. Drop hints like, ask what his favorite soap or shampoo is so you can have it ready for him next time he visits. If he’s a slob, tell him to please remember to remove shoes or whatever before he puts his feet on the couch. You have to. You need to set boundaries now because if you don’t, your marriage will be hard. Good luck.

      • Miss Picky December 30, 2011, 4:04 am

        P.S. I’m in Australia and the time is actually 8pm not 3am. Just on case you all thought I was such a clean freak that I stay up all night!

  • Sage Rose December 23, 2009, 2:52 pm

    Oh, God I love your article. In my area housekeeping is a matter of godly virtue and family and social pressure. It is so bad I have been known to get up in the middle of the night to dust the baseboards because I cannot sleep for fear of DOOM and violence. I am a failure. I should kill myself, but then WHO WOULD CLEAN MY HOUSE AFTER I AM DEAD? The anxiety I live with is overwhelming, but I manage to survive, rock out on my guitar, and live fearing the crumbs I must have missed cleaning from under my refrigerator the way some of us fear a malignant tumor. This is not easy.

  • Missy B January 22, 2010, 10:54 am

    Great article. I found your article while being lazy and thinking about cleaning but not actually ready to do it. I have three kids under 8 and the youngest is 19mths and a walking tornado. Needless to say, our home is nowhere near as clean and picked up as it used to be, but it’s ok! By the way, Marilyn must be your mom and it seems like you have a lovely family!

  • Hopelessly in need of help March 25, 2010, 8:00 am

    I find this to be very inspiring, I am very angry right now. My fiance acts like he sees no mess then he says I did make the mess. Its only him, me and are 5yr son. “Come on man”, how much work you want me to do? I already cook, take the boy to school majority of the time at that same rate, pick him up do his homework(spellingwords,senteces,num,letters,colors,ect…). Dame! I dont know what to do. Until I looked up on the net, ( I couldn’t be the only one going through this “Why do men think they dont have to do shit, like wake the kids up or get them dressed. When you said be happy with your family, it is yall mess. I do rather have a man that loves the hell out of me then, a loveless, SEXless relationship. Basicly he is not going to change we have been together for 8rys. Sometimes I like to see just how pretty I can bring the room back to life anyway. So thank you so much for all the insite on the mess.

  • Lyle Clibon June 8, 2010, 9:29 am

    Well written posts, I am a big time fan of your site, keep up the informative work, and I will be a repeat visitor for a very long time.

  • April December 4, 2010, 12:42 am

    I’m so happy to read this. I am constantly on the kids to not make messes because it’s so much work on top of just keeping a 4 and 2 year old busy all day. I feel like I am constantly harping on them. I am really anal about having a clean house, but am gradually letting some things go just because I have to. I too get stressed if the house is too messy and am striving for the “sweet spot”. I think I’m almost there!

  • Jjay September 14, 2011, 6:52 am

    Thank you for making me realise that my mess isn’t all bad. I grew up with a mother and father that are total neat freaks and where a toy was put away as soon as it was put down on the carpet. My mother won’t visit my house cuz she says it’s too messy! I hav a 7yr old, 4yr old, 1yr old, a cat and a husband. There aren’t enough hours in the day to keep the house totally spotless and even if there were it gets wrecked in a matter of minutes. I’m forever apologising for the mess when people turn up at the door but your blog made me see that it really doesn’t matter if it’s a bit messy as long as I’m in control of it.
    Thanks :)


  • Jen Marcil October 29, 2011, 10:32 am

    I really needed to read this post today because a friend and relative by marriage came by unannounced this morning and saw every little mess I have not been able to get to for the past week. I didn’t apologize – I just tried to be kind and hope they would ignore it and understand how busy I am. But I did see eyes glance at the messes and I felt extremely humiliated. Maybe they will think I am laid back about housework – but I am not. I am obsessive about it and run myself down on a regular basis trying to get it all done. Sometimes, I don’t, the mess gets worse and unannouced guests see it at it’s worst – like today. Its humbling and maybe I need it to happen to me in some way. I know I have been a good mom in every other way. I spend time with my children and family and these are moments I can never get back. They will go up, move out and my house will be clean again. I will get to fulfil my obsessive OCD ways about cleaning like I did before the kids were born. My Mother in law always said “if your cleaning your house, your not spending time with your family” – she is right. By the looks of my house today, I have been doing the right thing.

    • Miss Picky December 30, 2011, 4:01 am

      That’s awesome. Please keep it coming. I need all the help I can get in this department!

  • jo June 17, 2013, 6:27 am

    As my husband said, ‘theres plenty of time to clean the house wheno the kids leave home or if anyone comments then dont invite them again

  • stressoverload July 17, 2013, 3:46 pm

    Thank you for posting this! This was just what I needed.

    I have only been married for just around two years.
    Having a clean house for company has been terribly important to me from the start. It doesn’t matter who it is, I want the house to be clean!
    There’s something deep in me that feels like this is the “right thing” to do!
    However, if there are no plans for company the house quickly becomes a mess, with piles of laundry, dishes, and sometimes garbage. There aren’t even kids in this picture which makes me feel incredibly embarrassed at even the idea of anyone seeing into a normal day in our home.
    The intense stress comes when my husband invites people over without giving me the opportunity to clean up. I then will pull him to the side to remind him this is NOT OKAY, considering the current condition of our house. Sometimes he will make comments aloud that practically tells the persons(s) he wants to invite that I am the reason they can’t come over. We have had too many fights over this single issue. I say, “don’t invite people over when our house is dirty.” (I’m not just talking messy, I’m talking “dirty”) To me, this seems like a simple enough request in a marriage.
    He always responds, “If you want the house clean, keep it clean.”
    We both work full time and I tend to feel like that is unfair because I’m not the one inviting people over. He doesn’t care about living in a mess or being seen in one.
    I, on the other hand, usually go on cleaning binges, where the house gets super dirty and I get so overwhelmed and stressed out that the mere sight of the mess causes me to immediately drop everything and spend two days cleaning like a madwoman until every room is completely spotless. Then, I am at peace with all once again.

    Today, (and the reason I even found this post) is because he invited someone to come to lunch with us and ride in our messy car.

    Maybe I just have intense pride issues, but the thought of this made me want to throw up.
    The whole car ride I sat uncomfortably looking at the floor covered with a ton of crumbs, receipts, an empty soda bottle, etc. My mind was racing with all the things I thought our guest might be thinking.

    After we returned from lunch, I kindly asked my husband to never do that again, to which he responded, ” I will never care about that. I never have and I never will.”

    I teared up as I walked away, feeling so disrespected and so unloved. Couldn’t he just understand that this was something important to me?

    It kinda felt like this was the last straw in this cleaning disagreement. I had a cry-session in my car and drove home to vent out loud to God and ask Him if I was really being so unreasonable.

    I went on a google search to have the internet world agree with me on the topic so I could feel better about myself.
    That’s when I landed on this post. God is pretty funny, huh!

    You gave me a kind reminder that:
    A. It could always be worse.
    B. Sometimes, people feel more at home in a small mess than in an unrealistically clean space.
    C. I’m making the whole situation worse by allowing the guests to figure out the stress of their invitation.
    D. I need to let go of the silly standard of perfection I hope to gain in the eyes of those around me and keep it REAL.

    This doesn’t mean I wont do what I can to have a clean house before someone comes, but I also won’t kill myself or my husband in the process.

    Thanks again!!

  • Anne October 22, 2013, 7:19 am

    My happy balance is messy (things lying around) but not dirty. Unfortunately I find you have to pick up the ‘messy’ to get rid of the ‘dirty’, but dirty isn’t every day. That’s the breaks with a busy family…

  • Anna Gates January 16, 2014, 2:10 am

    I don’t like cleaning freaks that want to clean up my books, dog toys and stuff in this 1000 sq. ft home or so. No. After all, people have pillows, pictures on walls, furniture, fingerpaints at times, yarn, purses,…As long as your health is good, you’ve got faith, live simply, always have stuff to eat with that’s clean, clean your clothes at least a few times a month and you take your shoes off by the door, that should do it.

  • PrincessNeisey January 29, 2014, 9:58 am

    I was feeling very overwhelmed this morning due to a messy home. I came across this blog and it really gave me hope. I have anxiety and I’m a bit of a perfectionist. So the messy house was driving me up the wall! But now I understand that a mess is okay, nothing that I really need to be worried or stressing over. I do try to keep certain areas of my home clean at all times (mess free zones), just in case someone decides to stop by. I’ve learned not to look at the situation in a negative aspect, to break tasks down into smaller tasks and accomplish them one at a time. Understanding that within having a family and parenting, a mess will present it’s self. Accept the mess as being perfectly normal and move on with my daily routine. I really appreciate you posting this.

  • Hayley August 15, 2015, 5:34 pm

    My home is wrecked. I used to be spic & span, everything spotlessly clean & in it’s rightful place, but no more…..
    My children are 10 &12 & extremely untidy…they hardly ever help me around the home & they don’t seem to know what a bin is for.
    My Son, the eldest also has an extreme form of no respect for anything & deliberately breaks my things & my Daughter’s.
    We live in a funny terraced town house where just the kitchen & the garage is on the ground floor & the rest of the house is upstairs….
    I’m a single mother so if anything around our house needs to be done, I have to do it.
    I’m exhausted with it all. I’m clinically depressed with the overwhelming amount of mess & it literally makes me recoil.
    Clothes are everywhere. No exaggeration, everywhere. For nearly five years I was trying so hard to keep this house respectable, but since everything that was worth anything is broken, I seem to have subconsciously given up. I haven’t said aloud to myself, right I’m not tidying anymore, I’ve just stopped. I hate the mess, the filthy mess, but it’s got to a point where even though I hate it, I cannot seem to do much to change it. Also I may just add, I’m not lazy….funnily enough. I’m just damned exhausted. Had enough…& I’ve gotta go now cause my Son’s having a go at me for being on the WiFi…

  • ally October 16, 2015, 8:32 pm

    So I clean my house once a week too. My husband is always saying I’m lazy but i have two jobs. It’s difficult to pick up after myself and him too.

  • Amy June 15, 2016, 6:39 pm

    I died laughing: “The dog must have stepped in grease or something,” I said. “We’re planning on cleaning it up next year.”

    Sounds like my house!


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