"No Moral Failing:" Embracing a Less Clean and Tidy House to Live the Life You Want
"Though many of us feel shame when our homes end up in this state, we need to remember that a messy house is not a moral failing, Davis says. Also, you don't exist to serve your space, she says. Your space exists to serve you. Once you understand that, ‘the only thing that actually matters is whether my house is functioning and whether I'm able to live the kind of life I want inside of it.’” (NPR article by By Marielle Segarra and Mia Venkat, April 26, 2023)
On my birthday, NPR gave me a gift, though I didn’t discover it until this past weekend. The above NPR article, authored by Marielle Segarra and Mia Venkat, and published on my birthday, popped up in my newsfeed last Saturday just as I finished up a morning of housecleaning overwhelm. In this article, Segarra and Venkat reference KC Davis’ book, How to Keep House While Drowning (2022), which I have already downloaded on Audible and begun listening to while out on my runs. I’m sharing these resources and ideas with you in case you, like me, sometimes experience overwhelm in your attempts to keep your living space tidy and clean.
When we moved into our very large 1780s farmhouse, I knew it was going to be a bit of a bear to clean. For starters, there’s the size. So many rooms. Furthermore, I knew there wasn’t a hope for hiring a cleaner. The budget won’t support it, especially for what it would cost to clean a home this old and sprawling. I think I underestimated the amount of dust and fireplace dirt that would accrue in a house this age. I considered the house’s size but failed to take into account how much harder it is to keep a1700s house clean compared to a newer build. In short, I’ve frequently felt uncomfortably tethered to the house on the weekends, working away with my children to keep it clean but generally feeling like we never really succeed. I’m not complaining. We love the house. We knew it would require more effort to live here. But I do relate to Davis’ title, “How to Keep House While Drowning.” Sometimes, it has felt a bit like we’ve been drowning in the demands of work, parenting, yard, and home. I don’t share this because I think it’s singular. I share it because I think it’s standard. I imagine most readers can relate to feeling this way whether they live in a large, old home or smaller, newer space. The demands of cleaning and tidying can easily feel like they’re stealing hours we’d rather spend living.
I remember feeling just as overwhelmed by cleaning when our girls were little even though our house was smaller and, though old, nowhere near the age of our current house. As the girls grew older, and we renovated our house, it started to feel like cleaning was a much more manageable task. But here we are again, feeling mired in cleaning tasks and unable to really keep up. Yet, I know the move was right, so I think that there’s a lesson for me to learn, encapsulated in Davis’ ideas.
Davis’ most salient point is this: “You don’t exist to serve your space… Your space exists to serve you.” I know to many people this may seem obvious, but reading those words this week was a revelation. I have been serving my space rather than allowing the space to serve our family. What's more, I have been internalizing that a failure to keep the house continually in better nick is a kind of "moral failing," which Davis urges us is not the case. Many of us have inherited a set of morality judgements associated with housekeeping. "Cleanliness is next to godliness" is one example. I appreciate Davis' conviction that a clean and tidy house is not a moral obligation. She asserts that housekeeping is, in fact, morally neutral. Another life-giving point Davis argues is that “‘the only thing that actually matters is whether my house is functioning and whether I’m able to live the kind of life I want inside of it.’” My house is decidedly functioning, and recognizing that makes me breathe easier. It might not always look as clean as I would wish, but it’s functional. Our family can do what we need to do within it. We can live the life we want to live there.
This realization comes with a reality check. We can live the life we want within it, but have we been? An over preoccupation with keeping the place clean is stealing hours that could be spent exploring, visiting with people, making memories, and having fun. We could be enjoying our house so much more if we spent less time with the upkeep. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I can have a full, rich, varied and joyful life with my family, or I can keep my house noticeably clean each weekend for a maximum of about 6-8 hours before it starts to look unclean again. I know which I want to choose. And as much as this house can make cleaning tasks feel insurmountable, I’m grateful that moving here is teaching me to let go of some of that perfectionism regarding our space and is reminding me of what really matters. It is realigning my priorities and reminding me to give up a little control of the superficial in favor of relationships and a depth of experience.
My mother used to worry that I would be an unclean housekeeper when she’d enter my room as a teen and note the dust and the dirt that didn’t seem to bother me in quite the way it bothered her. As I grew older and became familiar with friends who lived in a more artistic and carefree way and cared less about cleaning, I joked with my mom that I was “developing my bohemian side” and that she should be prepared that my house some day might feel quite bohemian and less neat and perfect. She’d good naturedly laugh and roll her eyes. Somewhere along the way, I lost that idea of embracing a bit of freedom from the tyranny of “clean and tidy.” But, my friends, I am taking it back.
If you visit my house going forward, you might find that there is a layer of dust on a bureau or that a floor looks like it would benefit from a bit of a sweep. There will be evidence of chipped paint in the rooms and maybe a cobweb here and there. There could be a lot of paper clutter in the kitchen or some laundry on the kids’ floors. All of these are evidence of a life being lived there, and it’s a good life. Henry David Thoreau explained his take on the true “cost of a thing,” in Walden establishing, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” How much living am I willing to sacrifice to render every nook and cranny of our house sparkling clean and tidy every weekend? That is the true cost of housekeeping perfectionism: how much living we sacrifice at the feet of a short-lived experience of glittering pristineness that lasts little longer than a mirage, and then it’s gone again. Will I shirk all cleanliness and tidiness? Of course not. We need a decent level of cleanliness to live healthy and peacefully in our surroundings. Besides, it’s not in my makeup to put up with an excessive amount of dirt or mess. But will I work towards embracing a certain degree of bohemianism, a certain tolerance with a state of "mostly clean" or even "partly clean and tidy" henceforth? Absolutely. Want to join me?