Cleaning House: The Struggle is Real

Hello from a brief writing hiatus. We are just getting back from an awesome weekend at my in-laws, having rolled in at 10:30 pm last night. Also, we are having a house guest this week, a few evening functions, and general life stuff happening. In short, it’s pretty busy right now. And you all know what that means: my house is a mess.

In fact, it’s so messy that I refuse to even post a picture to prove it. Check back in with me in a year when I’m less insecure about it.

The struggle to have a clean home is, as parents everywhere will attest, real. There’s the external struggle of just keeping things their place, counters wiped, bathrooms mold-free. But there’s also that internal struggle – one I face daily – of letting the external struggle rule my life. The state of my home, I am sorry to say, has the power to affect not only my mood but also the way I feel about myself.

Can I get an amen?

So many of us worship at the altar of a perfectly clean home. Some of us are on the other end of the spectrum, getting up the desire for cleanliness, but personally I battle on the end of obsessing over it to the point that my home becomes an extension of myself. As goes the house, so goes Mom. This should be a magnet on my fridge… or not.

Because that’s not how I want it to be.

Having clean home is a good and right desire. We get into trouble when we let our desires get out of order, either too high or too low on the list. A home is a gift, but like with any other gift, we can’t let our identities get wrapped up in it. (Also called idolatry, for the faith-inclined.) This is true of a marriage (we have to release each other to do what we need to do in the world); of kids (who wants to be the empty nester whose kids are still the source of her identity?), or of a home.

The anxiety is heightened when I’ve got people coming over. When it’s just us I might be mildly annoyed with a little clutter and the ocassional dustbunny, but when I’ve got company coming, watch out. I will trample the baby in order to scrub that baseboard. Or, more realistically, I will spend most of the morning feeding, clothing, changing the baby, and then be soaked in my own shame when company arrives and the baseboards are still dusty. Because: please don’t mistake my words to mean that my house is clean. It’s never clean, and I spend way too much time feeling bad about myself for it.  That’s when I know that the internal struggle is getting the better of me.

Like any activity, keeping things clean has a cost. If we are spending time and energy cleaning, that’s time and energy not being spent somewhere else. And as people chronically short on time and energy, we need to ask ourselves if we are stewarding our time and energy well. Because here is the truth. We are limited, and what we choose to do with our limited time and energy will ultimately be our legacy. What is your legacy going to be?

We can choose for our homes to be showrooms of polishedness, or trophies speaking of our perfection. But what’s the cost? If I am being unkind and impatient to get the job done, that’s the cost. If I am using the television to babysit my kids so I can have a house that looks like a Crate and Barrel showroom, well, then… that’s the legacy I’m choosing to leave. Her house looked like a showroom. And then she died.

The legacy I want to leave is one of a family rooted in God and abounding in love for each other and bringing God’s love to the world. And I want my clean home to be a tool in furthering that legacy. My house should support the grander vision, not be the grander vision, nor get in the way of it.

If house is a tool, then it has to do. So what if I thought of “house” as a verb? Not a noun, not something static that “is” or “isn’t” as it should be, but something that does. Put this way, my husband and I “house” three tiny, adorable, and very messy humans. Here, people sleep, eat three meals a day and many many snacks, cook and bake, play, make art, bring friends over (lots and lots of friends), celebrate, cry, argue, learn, and love. We “house” all these things. A showroom, on the other hand, doesn’t have that kind of life in it. A showroom is just that – just for show. It doesn’t have all the beauty, all the mess, that real life requires.

But cleaning is an essential part of the process of raising kids and making a home. So let’s think of ways to fold this activity into the rest of our lives so that it finds its necessary spot in it. So that our home becomes not our legacy itself, nor does it get in the way of it. So that it’s ordered just where it needs to be. Here are just some of my ideas.

  • Have a rhythm. I’ll write a longer post about some rhythms someday. But I’ll say this: most of my freak-out surrounding cleaning is feeling overwhelmed with the mess and that there isn’t any time to deal with it. But knowing that I’ve set aside time to vacuum and mop the bedrooms each Saturday, for example, means I don’t have to freak out because I’ve set aside time for it and I can mentally gear up for it/make sure I have the support if I need it.
  • Make the kids help. This may not be very efficient and, yes, sometimes you need to just cordon off a room police-barrier-style so you can really clean it. I hear you. But riffing on the first point, we can at least get our kids into the rhythm of helping clean. For example my kids at least know they are supposed to help set and clear the table, put their clothes in the laundry bin at the end of the day, and help pick up at regular times in the day. This is on top of wiping or [attempting] sweeping up if they happen to spill something. And yes, sometimes they don’t feel like doing it, they require cajoling or consequences, there is yelling, and they need lots of help and supervision. But this is all part of their learning that being part of a family requires work. (Part of the legacy, yes?) Also I figure frontloading this work will pay dividends later when I’m not still doing their laundry at 27. (But hey, I don’t hate.)
  • Ask for help, and receive it graciously.  There are times you just need it. Some people hire professional cleaning services. If that supports your legacy, do it. We don’t do this, as a rule, but when we had just moved into a new home and we had two little kids and I was pregnant with number three… well, someone offered us professional cleaning services, and it was awesome. Sometimes, we need our spouse to do more. Or our moms. Or a friend. Or just some childcare so that Netflix doesn’t have to be it. Once, my parents whisked the kids to Barnes and Noble for an afternoon so I could organize the kids’ clothes. It was the bomb.
  • Rethink hospitality. Hospitality probably deserves its own post (someday). But at its heart, hospitality is about sharing the gifts that God has given you — not about impressing people. I’ve read somewhere that people should leave your home feeling better about themselves, not thinking better of you. I have needed to search my heart on this score.

And, side note: if you have people in your life who are going to judge you based on the cleanliness of your home, forgive them. Do this knowing what legacy you are trying to build and don’t let yourself get sidetracked because of someone else’s issues. And if this is a friend, then you probably need to talk.

Of course we will clean a little for when people come over, but let’s do it out of love and a desire to serve guests, not out of fear for what they will think of us. Maybe this will make us clean a little differently… and serve a little differently too.

  • Have less stuff out. We all know we need to purge, so I won’t spend tons of time on this. But another thing I know parents do sometimes is rotate toys out – keep a few out to play with, and most of it hidden away (if you’re blessed with storage space). Less stuff for people to make a mess with. And when you bring old stuff out, it becomes new again.
  • And when life gives you limits… Let it go. This is very different from giving yourself grace. Grace is that precious and miraculous word that is reserved for times when something wrong is happening and you make the choice to forgive it in your heart. But when your house is a little messy because something right was happening – i.e. life—that is not wrong. You don’t have to forgive, but do yourself a favor and try to forget. And just say to yourself, “It’s okay.” Because it really, really is. Keep your eye on the bigger picture, and everything else will fall into place.

What ideas do you have?

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