Post Image
Credit: Bijou Karman

Do You Feel Guilty When Your Home Is Messy? Here’s How to Re-Frame Cleaning as “Morally Neutral”

published Aug 12, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.

Just as you’re getting ready to invite guests back into your home, the pressure to have a perfectly presented space is creeping back in, too.

There’s a feeling of guilt that comes with the struggle to keep up with piles of laundry, dirty dishes, and dusty shelves — and perhaps a fear that a messy home makes you a bad partner, uncaring parent or a lazy person. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.)

Can people separate housework from moral judgment? KC Davis thinks so. As @DomesticBlisters on TikTok, she’s not your average cleaning influencer, instead preaching that cleaning and other care tasks are always “morally neutral.” In place of videos showing already-pristine rooms getting deep-cleaned with a seemingly endless stockpile of products, KC aims to keep her home “functional.” 

“The way that you keep house, and being good or bad at cleaning, it doesn’t have anything to do with you being a successful person or a valid person or a worthy person,” she told Apartment Therapy. 

And there’s no getting away from the fact that this continues to be a gendered issue: “We’re socialized to believe that being a good housekeeper is an integral part of being a good woman, or being a good wife, or being a good mother,” KC expands.

The data bears this out, with women still taking on more domestic labor than men (a trend that has only gotten worse during the pandemic).

Sarah Thébaud, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara, explained to Apartment Therapy that people also “have higher expectations of cleanliness for women than for men,” even when they have the same work, caring or relationship commitments. Thus the “social penalty” for having a messy home tends to be much higher for women, and this pressure to clean up creates an additional cognitive burden. 

“There’s this moral compulsion,” Sarah says, “That’s one of the major motivations for why women feel compelled to clean up. It’s not like they love cleaning.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

The work of keeping a perfectly clean and tidy home can be overwhelming — but so can the feeling of guilt and shame that living in a messy home can bring. KC’s background as a professional counselor has taught her to recognize that “removing the shame is one of the most helpful things we can do for motivation.”

When you’re finding it hard to keep your home clean and tidy, it’s easy to mistake struggling for laziness which, in turn, becomes a feeling of shame. Using shame as motivation is exhausting, which might lead you to further avoid housework. A better motivation, KC says, is to make your home function as well as it can for yourself personally.

4 Ways to Change Your Cleaning Mindset

Removing the shame around cleaning, and seeing your messy home as “morally neutral” has to begin with a shift in perspective. You need to move from seeing care tasks as a moral imperative to seeing them as acts of kindness to yourself.

“It’s okay to do it imperfectly,” KC adds. Even if you can’t handle it all right now, you deserve a functional living space. Can you just do a little bit?

1. Understand that you only need to do tasks that make your space function for you.

One way to ease your load is to understand that some domestic tasks simply don’t have to get done to keep your home functional. Do all your clothes really need to be neatly folded, or could some just be thrown straight from the dryer into the closet drawers? Do the things you use daily in the kitchen have to be returned to a cupboard after each use, or can they remain on the counter? Do you have to wash your dishes right after you use them, or can you stack them by the sink and do them all together, once a day?

2. Put tasks on a schedule that works for you.

Some tasks — laundry or taking out the trash — have to get done, but could be completed less often than you’re used to, or just on a different schedule. KC recommends setting a schedule so that your home works for you and not the other way around. 

“It’s more difficult to keep up with something that’s random,” she explains. If you wait to run the dishwasher when it’s full, you could be in the middle of something else and not have time for it. Instead, KC puts hers on at 7 p.m. every night, no matter how full or empty it is. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Start with the “five things.”

If you’re starting from zero and you need to clean up in order to make your space livable, KC tells us that “there are really only five types of things”:

  1. Trash
  2. Dishes
  3. Laundry
  4. Things that have a place
  5. Things that don’t have a place

Pick up and deal with everything in each category, one after the other, to make a big mess less overwhelming.

4. Remember mess is even morally neutral when guests can see it.

You might feel particular pressure to make your home pristine when you’re expecting guests, but KC suggests shifting the goalposts. For the most part, guests don’t care if your space looks perfect. A functional space is one that makes them comfortable, so there are only a few things you really ought to do to prepare for guests:

  • Clean up the couch so they have somewhere to sit
  • Wash enough dishes so they can eat dinner
  • Pick up items from the floor, so they can walk without tripping
  • Change the guest room sheets so they have a clean place to sleep

But there is no need to hide your day-to-day items, boxes or clutter. Just seeing your things shouldn’t affect guests’ ability to feel comfortable in your home.

After all, life is too precious to spend all your time on housework. “You don’t exist to serve your house,” KC sums up, “your house exists to serve you.”