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.