Housework help for a harried mother

“If you really find a clean house of great priority you will either clean it, or find someone to clean it, or you will find a way to live comfortably in your home.”
– Starlene Stewart


From the archives: Posted on Sun, 3 Jan 1999

“I have a question about raising young children… How would the average Taking Children Seriously parent deal with the everyday living with three little ones? For example, the house is never clean and is impossible to keep up with.”

I live in a home that is never clean and impossible to keep up with. I personally strongly dislike doing housework. I find myself wondering why I have to be like a neat/tidy person. After all, I don’t expect people with clean houses to adhere to having a messy house like mine. Obviously, having a clean home is low on my priority list.

Before having children my home was mildly cluttered, dishes were always piled up in the sink, any flat surface piled with things that didn’t have a home. After I had kids, the mess tripled. People tell me that I have to make my kids clean up after themselves, but I knew I wasn’t consistent enough to clean up after myself so how could I stay on top of my kids and bully them into cleaning up after themselves when I couldn’t?

There is a theory that some people are born neat and others are born disorganised. There are books on how to conquer the messiness. I tend to question why I, someone born disorganised, have to change who I am to be like someone I’m not. I have a friend whose home looks like a showcase. I’ve been present while she berates and badgers her children about any little mess they have made. She admits to being obsessive about keeping her home clean. People like me, with messy homes are assumed to be sick mentally. I have lost friends when they saw my mess. OTOH, some would speculate that having a clean home is a way to hide one’s dysfunctions and project the appearance of perfection.

I like the born neat and born disorganised theory; I think it’s possible. I also believe the coercion theory. Coercing people to do one thing when they would prefer to be doing something else will cause thinking damage in that specific area of their thinking. I find it interesting that as a child I was not required to do laundry and I was realising the other day that when clothes need to be cleaned, I just gather them up from all over the floor everywhere and start the washer. I have to walk about 200 feet to the community clothesline area to hang the clothes and I just do it. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it, I just simply do it. Now with dishes, OTOH, which I was traumatised in regards to as a child, I really have to gear up to do them. I put off washing dishes for as long as I can, which is usually long after there are no clean utensils, plates, pots/pans, etc. Sometimes we get by with paper plates, but those are sometimes more of a nuisance since the garbage can seems to be invisible to everyone, including me. I have another friend who loves to keep her home clean and she has two older sisters whose homes are very messy. As a child, this friend was the baby of the family and was never made to do housework, OTOH, her older sisters were the “maids” and did all the housework. This friend never makes her own children clean house, because she feels they will grow up and find it easy to keep their own homes clean if they aren’t forced to do housework as children like her sisters were.

“Every time Mum tries to clean, she has three mini tornadoes following her around and undoing everything she does.”

I can totally relate. Before Taking Children Seriously I actually caught myself feeling like people were consciously working to mess up what I’d just cleaned. I like Rane’s idea of having a team of mums rotate and clean homes.

The way it works around here is I get one room cleaned up and then everyone relishes in the cleanliness of that room and it becomes the new hangout until it’s a mess again.

“The children couldn’t care less if the house is messy and leave clothes wherever they happen to land,”

Actually, most of the time I seem to care less if the house is messy and you should see the clothes all over the floor in our house that belong to me. I have to admit though that I’m not in the practice of stripping down until bedtime so usually it’s only my bedroom floor that is littered with my clothing. Other family members find clothing confining and are less inhibited than I, and often strip entering the house. I wonder if putting more clothes hampers around would help. I’ll tell you what works exceptionally well for clothing hampers/baskets. Those nasty expensive plastic ones always break within a couple months use. The ones I have I found in the garbage bins where I live. But what I was going to say is to go to your local grocer and ask the vegetable department person if they will save fruit boxes for you. Banana boxes work great for clothing baskets.

Usually stores give these away for free, so the cost is perfect and they last forever. So maybe you could get a bunch of banana boxes and put one in every room. One in the living room, one in the bathroom, one in each bedroom, one in the kitchen. At the very least, it would be easier for you, mum, to toss discarded clothing into the nearest box. As an aside, orange and apple boxes are also wonderful for storing things.

“throw food behind the couch (apples, bananas, half-eaten sandwiches etc…”

You know what happens more often here is that people don’t throw these things behind the couch, but the couch has a space underneath it and things get tossed on the floor in front of the couch and they get shoved back under the couch. If you think people are actually tossing things behind the couch could you put a couple garbage cans back there to catch some of the debris? Or, what about a garbage can placed strategically on both sides of the couch? I have recently started using two garbage cans, one in the kitchen and one in the kids’ room, which is working better. I think we could even use more trash cans around the house.

We also seem to have piles of half-eaten food piled up under beds…

A flaw in having the extra garbage cans and clothing hampers around would be to assume people will use them, and get upset or mad at people if they don’t.

“Mum doesn’t expect a spotless house at all times, but a nice, mildly lived-in look would be nice occasionally.”

I can’t say if this is true for you, but for me, “nice, mildly lived-in” is very difficult to attain. A lot of that is because I don’t choose to spend time cleaning every day. I have many other things to spend my days doing, and I admit that sometimes many days go by that I don’t do more than 15 minutes housework a day. If I could coerce myself into cleaning for 2 hours a day I could probably stay on top of things, but I don’t choose to spend my time in that way. I mostly work with my ‘urges to clean, which don’t come often.

Actually though, as a result of totally not coercing myself to clean (for about 12-18 months) I’ve been able to clean without it being an issue for me. Also, I have a friend whose children starting helping to clean up without it being an issue when they were 10-12 and now that one of mine is in that age bracket I am often finding the dishes have been put away without my ever having asked, or the bathroom cleaned, or dishes gathered up from a bedroom and brought into the kitchen. If I am cleaning the kitchen, I will ask to have the dishes in the drainer put away and usually the dishes are cheerfully put away.

One thing I have to remember is if I ask people to help and they don’t want to, I shouldn’t get offended by their honesty. After all, if I were busy doing something and suddenly a family member got an urge to clean house and asked me to wash the dishes I should be able to say I don’t feel like it right now, I’ll do it when I feel like it.

“Dad gets really uptight when the house is a mess. It seems to really affect his moods although he doesn’t help a lot around the house.
           When he does, there is a lot of mumbling about living in a pig sty and getting really sick of this etc. etc.”

This, we don’t have in common. I am a single parent and don’t have to worry about another adult disliking the mess. The option of another adult helping is completely removed, so I also feel no resentment that I’m doing most of the cleaning myself.

About all I can offer in this scenario is perhaps Dad could have a room all of his own that he could maintain the level of cleanliness that is important to him all on his own. I don’t know if you have a family bedroom, or if you and your husband share a bedroom alone. If you have a family bedroom, it’s probably as messy as every place in your home. But if you have a bedroom of your own then perhaps this room could become Dad’s haven and you could both agree to a level of cleanliness in this room that you are both comfortable with.

“The household just seems to be completely full of chaos. When the house is clean (after Nana visits)”

Is this because you clean like a mad demon so Nana won’t be upset? Or does Nana clean while she’s there and make everything tidy and neat and keep it that way? Can Nana come over once a week and clean?

“the whole attitude of everyone in the house changes and the home seems so cosy and warm.”

This is what happens when I clean a single room.

“There isn’t enough money to hire a maid.”

What about bartering with someone? Maybe a college student who needs use of a computer and printer and they would help clean for an hour for time on your computer? Or some other bartering option?

“Mum stays home fulltime with the kids who are ages 6 1/2, 3 1/2, and 18 mos. and also unschools so is very busy just playing and interacting with the kids.”

Your children are all quite young. They will grow up so fast. You will be so happy that you spent this time with them. You definitely have your hands full with your children. No wonder your house is a mess. It is going to be. I just realised the other day that the reason our house wasn’t a mess when I was a kid was because all of us children were coerced into cleaning!! I overheard a (mainstream) parent just the other day telling another (Taking Children Seriously) parent that she doesn’t do housework and her house is never messed up because she just makes her kids clean it up!

Is there an option of Dad taking the kids to someplace fun so you can have a couple hours to concentrate on cleaning? Perhaps Dad can run some errands with the children along while you can get some cleaning done?

“Does anyone else agree that Taking Children Seriously is really hard work when you have more than one child and young ones at that?”


“Mum is not the disciplined cleaning type”

That’s okay. You don’t have to be a “disciplined cleaning type.” You are you. If you really find a clean house of great priority you will either clean it, or find someone to clean it, or you will find a way to live comfortably in your home.

“and attributes some of this to the fact that her mum cleaned her room for her when she was a child and never showed her how to keep house. It was all done for her. (Do you think there is any truth to this?)”

First of all, were you homeschooled?? Or were you in school for many hours a day? Did your mum actually bar you from your room while she cleaned?

I will assume you were in school all day. Children who are in school all day don’t get to see what goes into cleaning up a house. I think your children will learn to clean house from your example, no matter how seldom you do it. My children see my little routine that I’ve worked out. When I am going to clean a room, I enter the room with a box for dishes, a box for clothing, a garbage can with a bag in it (and more bags!) and a box for toys.

Sometimes I also bring in the empty toolbox to put all the tools away, too. My oldest has already picked up my routine and when he starts cleaning his room he does the same thing I do. Interestingly enough, when he starts cleaning I suddenly feel very much like cleaning also and I pitch in to help. It often takes 5-6 hours of steady work to clean this 12×10 room, to help describe just how messy it gets. 3 loads of laundry from the floor, 2-30 gallon bags of debris, 2 banana boxes of dishes… I admit, it would be really nice if I could be more consistent about keeping my home clean. But I am not.

I used to think I couldn’t be consistent about anything but then I realised that wasn’t true, because if something is actually important enough to me to be consistent about it, I will be. An example would be when we used to go to the public swimming pool. It would take concentrated consistency for the first couple weeks to help my oldest learn the pool rules. And I would do it, then I could relax.

Some people might say, “See, you could relax after you were consistent for a couple weeks, so why not do this with cleaning your home?” Well, it isn’t the same thing! Learning to follow a few rules at the public pool is nothing like the daily hours it would take to keep our house clean.

I hope you and your family is able to work out something that everyone is happy with.

Good luck!

The poster replied on Mon, 4 Jan 1999:

“Starlene, First of all… WOW! Thanks for that long and supportive response. Regarding Rane’s idea, I do have a friend coming over on Thursday to help clean my house. She is bringing her laundry since she doesn’t have a washer and dryer. I have also babysat her kids many times. (She has only watched my kids once, but because of our differences of opinion regarding raising children and the fact that one of my boys came out crying that he didn’t want to eat his Mac and cheese and that she was making him sit at the table all by himself to finish, she will NEVER babysit my kids again… so I guess she owes me some favours, although I hate to think of it that way since I enjoy helping others when I can.)…
           Thank you for the suggestions and encouragement. I’m going to try to work something out with my friend with swapping babysitting for cleaning once a month or something.”

See also:

Starlene Stewart, 1999, ‘Housework help for a harried mother’,

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