A Mom’s Work-Life Dilemma: Making the Case for a Messy House

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I want my house to be messier. Well, at least a little.

Let me explain. Twenty years ago, my husband and I were at a book party in Washington. At one point, the author being feted—a well-known magazine writer and National Book Award finalist—happened upon a mom in the kitchen rummaging through a drawer for a knife to cut the crust off her child’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“For God’s sake,” the writer declared. “Let them eat crust!”

I immediately felt sympathy for the crust-cutting mom, who seemed embarrassed at being called out for tackling a task that was, yes, mundane but would make her child feel cared for. And I felt angry at the celebrated author who had cut her down.

But mostly, as a new mom with a 1-year-old on my hip, I felt schooled: If you take time for all these domestic niceties, I thought, there won’t be sufficient bandwidth left for the hard work of building a noteworthy career.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded, once again, of the perpetual struggle faced by many a mom, as we try to find the right balance between work inside and outside the home—in my case, as a freelance writer.

I was relaxing on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and the New York Times, stealing a few quiet moments before tackling a long list of domestic chores: a stop at the farmers’ market, a grocery store run, a load or two of laundry, making a nice family dinner.

In the early morning stillness, before the house was teeming with other people who needed things from me, I found myself engrossed in an opinion piece by Stephen Marche, “The Case for Filth.” His essay sprang off a study showing that young men today are not doing any more housework than their fathers did 30 years ago.

In the days immediately following its publication, Marche’s essay was hammered. “If there is a God, this guy will spend the afterlife scrubbing toilets and vacuuming,” tweeted feminist author Jessica Valenti, joining a chorus of critics. And she was right. Marche makes a pseudo-intellectual argument for why men don’t do their share of the chores (“Even the most basic housework proves ethereal on inspection”) while demeaning women in the process (“Millions of young women are deeply attracted to the gloomy vice of domestic labor”).

Still, I must confess: When I came to Marche’s penultimate sentence—“A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly”—my day was suddenly shot. I found myself sitting there at the kitchen island, rattled, wondering if I was, in fact, truly wasting my life. “Let them eat crust” echoed in my mind.

In this sense, a “clean house” isn’t merely about picking up dirty socks or putting away the dishes. It is about taking on a kind of hidden housework: making a home that is warm and inviting, comfortable and comforting; creating a space where my children’s friends like to hang out and we as a family feel ensconced; and knowing, as Marche himself puts it, “who likes what on their sandwiches.”

But doing all of this takes time, lots of time. And, though my husband does his share, often there aren’t enough hours in the day to manage my home and family as well as I’d like and to be a writer, too.

In my most honest moments, I also find myself confronting a much more difficult question: Is housework a crutch?

No doubt, there is considerable value to what I do at home—sometimes tangible, often intangible. Yet, deep down, I recognize that wrestling with a messy closet is just plain easier than wrestling with a piece of writing and all the things that come with it: the bouts of self doubt, the fear of failure, the handwringing over whether my career has shaped up as I’d hoped.

In the end, I can’t quite agree with Marche that “a clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly.” But as I try to find the elusive balance between writing and tending to my family, I must admit: a clean house is the sign of a wasted life, sometimes.


There's a night-and-day difference between a "messy" home and a "dirty" home. A writer, especially, should  know this. I am certain that children benefit from growing up in both a clean and an orderly home. My own mother was a stay-at-home artist--or, more bluntly, a kook who took no interest in her home. We lived in chaos. It was impossible to find basic items, such as a pair of scissors, a roll of tape, a sharpened pencil, a rubber band for a ponytail. My own bedroom was organized. Note that I said organized--a simple task. This involved no neurosis, no fastidiousness, no OCD. It was simple and easy to achieve and maintain basic organization--and my room was never a mess. There was nothing funny or endearing about the perennial mess, the chaos, of my family home. My own children lived in both an orderly and a clean home. And that made for a calm, relaxing, welcoming, safe environment for everyone. 


This article reaches into every home. I recall that in the early days of the women's movement, the anger of women who were the sole domestic cleaners led to prominent efforts to seek a more equitable distribution of chores. This campaign made little headway over the years, partly because cleaning lacks the appeal of more publicly compelling causes such as wage equity. It seems that almost everyone appreciates a clean bathroom, but very few enjoy doing the cleaning.


When my son was two, I came home from a long business trip and he greeted me at the door with Owl Babies and Are You My Mother?--two disappearing mother books. I made the switch to freelance writing as well. Did my career suffer? Absolutely. Was the time with my son wasted? Not a minute. I know that the care, time, attention, and yes, home cooked meals, I gave him made his life better. It also gave me the time and space I needed to find my own creative direction. There are many paths to success besides the straight line. 

And postingonline42--you need to clean a few toilets yourself.


Wasted life? Rubbish. You can't put a price on the time put into making a house a loving, comfortable, welcoming home, whether you're a working parent or living by yourself.  It's about a whole lot more than the crust. 


A good question, but very poorly executed. Adding nothing to the conversation other than she thinks food waste and wimpyness (no crusts) is a virtue.

If you write like J.K Rowling, write. Hire someone else to clean, make your kids clean, or live in a messy house while you write.

If you write like this woman -- clean your house. Make a place your kids can have friends over. Don't just waste my time with this kind of writing -- even if you CAN for some reason publish it.