Kids are messy. So why are moms under so much pressure to keep their homes spotless?

For some parents, the anxiety over keeping a house clean can be "debilitating."

There's a lot of pressure on moms to keep a spotless home. Some are pushing back. (Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell. Photos via Getty Images)
There's a lot of pressure on moms to keep a spotless home. Some are pushing back. (Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell. Photos via Getty Images)

Recently, I conducted an experiment. I noticed a scrap of paper on our stairs and started to pick it up. As the mom I tend to notice messes in our family of six before anyone else does, it seems. Instead of picking up this tiny scrap of paper, though, I left it there. I noticed it day after day. I swept around it as I waited for anyone else to pick it up. No one did for three weeks — except my own mother. I told her about my experiment and she carefully placed the scrap back where she had found it. A few days later I called it quits and sucked the paper up in the Dyson wand on a quick cleanup before friends came over. Initially, I left the paper there to prove the point that no one else in our family cares about messes. But I learned something else as well.

That tiny white square, languishing for weeks on end, didn’t actually affect anything. We still got up, went to school, played at the park and had movie nights. I began to think about the various homes I have visited over the years, both as a government caseworker and in my personal life. Very few look Instagrammable all of the time, and most look just like mine. They’re in a state of flux as families rush from activity to activity. Messy homes are normal, so why was I wasting so much time stressing over this? I posed a question about the state of our homes on social media. Within an hour, over 100 people had shared their stress, woes or laissez-faire attitude about their home. Turns out I am not the only mom who is seeking permission to stop caring so much.

I asked Bonnie Scott, a licensed psychotherapist in Texas and the host of the upcoming Work and Wellness podcast, what she thought about the constant pressure on moms to keep our homes tidy. She says the topic comes up often with her clients. “The state of our living spaces is a source of a lot of conflict — internal and external. Even in homes where the labor is divided pretty equally between partners, there's often one person who takes more of the stress over appearance,” she says. The root of this issue, in her opinion, is largely rooted in social media and comparing ourselves to others. “It's my very firm mantra that a home should work for you, not be a bunch of work for you,” Scott says.

We've spent time at home more than ever over the past few years, figuring out how to make our homes work for us. For some parents I talked to, that’s been a relief. Rachel Hoyt is a single mom of three and a social worker in Chicago. “I have been in many people’s home over the last 15 years across many racial and socioeconomic spectrums. Across the board, most homes with children looked … well, like kids live there,” she says. “There is almost always a pile of shoes and backpacks somewhere near a door. Kids’ bedrooms have messily made beds at best. It never really struck me as odd. After all, I was there to see a family with kids.”

And yet, despite her knowledge that most homes get messy, Hoyt found herself struggling with the condition of her own house. “I began feeling like I was a failure for not keeping the house to influencer-level cleanliness. It probably didn’t help that it was in the middle of COVID and I wasn’t seeing inside other people's houses.” Once she started venturing out again, Hoyt says she was relieved. “There were kids’ art projects all over the fridges, toothpaste on the bathroom mirror or baby equipment taking over a living room,” she recalls. She’s been able to relax more and focus on enjoying her home rather than comparing herself to others.

That influencer level of clean, where homes look more like a staged HGTV space than a lived-in house, isn’t really attainable for most parents without a great deal of added stress, says Scott. “Comparing your space to others is in no way helpful, because you don't live in those spaces. We can treat those magazine shots, HGTV reveals and social media posts as what they really are: art-directed spaces presented as perfection,” she says. They are staged to sell, inspire or get you to click. “They are not necessarily instructions for your real-life spaces. They are art and can be appreciated as such.” You don’t have a design team and personal assistant, so why would your home be able to look as if you do?

In Pittsburgh, Jessica Palitti thinks about the state of mess incessantly. “I am constantly anxious about my house. It has taken a long time for me to learn to let go ... to be OK with the dishes being in the sink today because I'm tired or doing something with my kids is more important," she says. As a single mom of two girls who owns a bustling performing arts studio, those precious moments with her kids matter. “But those dishes, man — they are constantly in the back of my mind,” Palitti admits.

Some parents say their homes are messy, and they hate it. “I have a messy house, and I feel both ways about it — stressed and accepting," says one. Another mom jokes, “I have ketchup curtains, holes in my drywall and we never recarpeted the stairs.” While I am not actually sure what ketchup curtains means, given the way my kids use walls as napkins, I can take a guess.

Other moms say their anxiety over mess is debilitating. “I can’t even let my kids enjoy things like kinetic sand or slime. My anxiety is too high that they will stain or ruin something,” one mom shares. “It doesn’t feel fair to them.” Another parent says, “This stress is too much. The constant construction and undone projects are one thing. But it's impossible to organize. The stress is so debilitating.”

I asked Scott about the anxiety that can develop for parents about their homes. While there are clinical disorders related to cleaning and organization, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), there are also a lot of parents who just are holding their families to an unachievable standard, she says. “If you're snapping at your loved ones because they spilled crumbs, it's time to ask yourself what that stress is about and how to mitigate it," she says. "That's a space that's working against you.” This doesn’t mean homes need to be a free-for-all, but it does mean you don’t have to only buy white cheddar Cheetos.

“It's totally fine to set boundaries around what you need to feel comfy at home,” Scott says. “I don't typically allow slime myself, because it's a gross texture and I don't like looking at it. It gets full of cat hair and that's real nasty. But my kid brings it home sometimes, and she can play with it as long as she cleans up.” She adds that her kid’s room is a complete disaster zone, and she’s had to let it go for the benefit of their relationship. “I've tried to help her organize it and that's not what works for her.” Scott says she’s had more success teaching her daughter about respect and stewardship than she has with haranguing her over messes. Their house is a cozy, maximalist space that will always be a bit cluttered, but they do want to avoid growing ant colonies under a bed. “It's just a reasonable task to be tidy, and we are all less stressed when no one is being nagged," she notes.

Ultimately, Scott says parents should prioritize presence over perfection. “If you're super-stressed because your home isn’t ‘up to par,’ then you’re severely limiting your time to connect with others — because perfection isn't attainable," she says. "Someday you'll be on your deathbed and you'll be annoyed with how much of your life you spent folding socks instead of drinking coffee with friends.”

If you are concerned that your anxiety over your home may need professional treatment, please contact The International OCD Foundation or a local mental health practitioner.