The stress of the day melts away with each satisfying swipe of the kitchen counter. The appliances gleam and the sink sparkles. Everything is in place. Tonight I may organize a cabinet or two after vacuuming and mopping all of the floors. It’s a typical evening. My husband has several more hours on shift. My three boys are tucked in their beds, the adventures with race cars, dinosaurs, and trains in their dreams now. The dog has abandoned his favorite activity, barking at nothing, to sleep on the couch. A lovely stretch of time lies ahead, and I will use it to clean.
“Wow,” my friend, over for a playdate the next day, tells me incredulously. “I could never keep my house that clean.” If only you knew why it’s this way, I think. I worry I’m coming across as arrogant for keeping my house the way I do. I want to apologize because I’m not trying to compete with anyone. She continues, “I put a priority on spending time with my kids. The housework will always be there, but they’ll only be little once.” There it is. The judgment. I’m a bad mom for prioritizing cleaning. “Their childhoods are fleeting,” and here I am bleaching the bathtub every night.
While nothing can truly prepare you for becoming a mother, some of us have a shocking initiation. If the birth of my oldest son had a catchphrase, it would have been “think of something, and it will go wrong.” From the emergency induction, an extended power outage at the hospital, the NICU stay, to a late hemorrhage and surgery weeks after birth… All of it was a rude awakening to how very little we can control in life.
I was totally new to being a mom, facing the typical marriage issues, the hormone shifts, the feeding drama— all the new mom mess. And at the same time, trying to process everything that happened to me. Trying to cope was completely overwhelming. Horrible nightmares became a regular occurrence, and during waking hours I had an extremely short fuse. I wanted life to be perfect for my baby boy. I felt I wasn’t good enough and I hated letting him down. I couldn’t fix my shortcomings as a new mom, but I could clean my house.
A few years later, with two preschoolers and a bit more free time, I found myself scrolling through posts and pictures, baited into clicking on yet another blog post about “Why Good Moms Have a Dirty House.” These articles made me feel guilty, but I read anyway. I thought about how I skip doing super messy craft projects with the boys or about the way I make them play their Play-Doh on those extra large, oval-shaped paper plates. I cringed at the sometimes embarrassing measures taken to avoid an unnecessary mess. The questions lingered long after closing out the window. Are we missing out on the “fun” of childhood? Do I care about messes too much?
“What is your system?” a mom friend asks over text. “I wish I could follow a cleaning routine.” I share briefly about blogs read and small tips gleaned to help keep things on track. I’m sure those tips do help, but I never really stick to any of it for long. The truth is I try different methods—not to be more organized, but to be less obsessed with controlling things.
Three years ago, I received shocking news. The baby I expected to join our family that September was no longer to be. In between doses of ibuprofen and changing my oversized, diaper-like pads, I scrubbed the grout in the front kitchen and hallway. I reorganized the towel closet and shined every sink. Each completed task felt like a small weight lifted. Each bleach-scented breath I took filled me with relief. I couldn’t put our baby back where they belonged, but I could clean my house.
It isn’t just a chore to me. Cleaning is more than the mechanical actions of scrubbing, wiping, mopping. Each task is an addictive form of stress relief. A way to work through grief and pain. The ability to put order to a tangible mess when life is nothing but a wreck.
It’s a challenge to raise kids, have a good marriage, be a friend, do enough for others. Is it so wrong that a clean house is a haven, an anchor for me? Is it wrong to find comfort in “clean”? I rarely know what I’m doing as a mom or in life in general. I may feel incompetent, but I can clean the house.
In every aspect of life, so much is out of our hands. The world is scary and busy and mean. Life is unpredictable and messy by nature. In motherhood, you can do your best at a lot of things and at the end of the day, there’s not much to show for it. You can’t really know whether you’re doing a good job for years and years.
To me, having a clean house is a way to get that missing sense of accomplishment.
Cleaning is something I can do and see immediate results. When I look at a toilet I made sparkle or a floor I freshly vacuumed; I feel like I am a valid member of my family. Cleaning is something visible I can point to and think, “You are doing a good job as a mom.”
Falling short is a daily occurrence for me. I’ve said some ugly words and had uglier thoughts. I’m not patient with my family. Too harsh with the kids. I argue with my husband over things that won’t matter in 20 minutes. We eat fast food for dinner too many times and haven’t been to church in too long. The list goes on. Things are messy and out of control more often than I want to admit. I can’t be— will never be— a perfect mom. I struggle with the fact that I will never get everything right about motherhood.
But I can clean the hell out of my house.
Jess Knipprath lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her police officer husband and their three little boys. She enjoys reading, drinking coffee, and “writing in the margins” of daily life.