Bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and clean up the kitchen. The list of household to-dos for working moms is endless, and seemingly, so is our guilt over not doing it all. Why do so many of us still beat ourselves up about a messy house? And how can we put housework in its proper place?
Last year, Allison Light raised some $2 million for the large private school in St. Louis where she works, clocking full-time hours while raising two young children. So you’d think the impressive divorced mom would cut herself some slack when it comes to housekeeping. No way. “It makes me feel guilty when I see a dust bunny or a new marker blotch on the couch,” says Allison, 41. “I try to tell myself, ‘You’re doing the best you can, you’re just one person, be more forgiving.’ But when the house is messy, it makes me feel like I’m failing at something—and a little like a bad mother.”
A dirty house is neither a sin nor a crime, but you wouldn’t know it from a recent Working Mother study. When the Working Mother Research Institute examined why moms do or don’t work outside the home, we were surprised to find that working moms nationwide still feel judged about the neatness of their homes—more than they feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids. (And nearly as many stay-at-home moms told us they feel messy-house guilt, too!) In our new follow-up Clean House Survey, the numbers are even bigger, with 68 percent of Working Mother readers feeling significantly or strongly guilty about their not-clean-enough homes.
In an era when women run house subcommittees on energy, homeland security and financial services, we still care a lot about the state of our own houses. Despite all our progress, dust, dirty dishes and kid clutter still shame us. Why? And what can smart moms do to give ourselves a break?
“Housewifery expands to fill the time available,” Betty Friedan famously wrote in The Feminine Mystique in the 1960s. Data from the federal American Time Use Survey shows that to be true. In 1995, working mothers put in about 18 housework hours a week on average, while at-home moms did 25. But here’s the twist: over the last 30 years, stay-at-home moms’ housework load has declined by 12 hours a week, while working moms’ chore duty dropped by only 6 hours. This, despite dramatic increases in office hours: From 1985 to 1993, the number of women who put in 49-plus-hour workweeks grew by 54 percent. On top of that, the time mothers spent with their children actually increased from 1965 to 1998, reports UCLA sociology professor Suzanne Bianchi, PhD. So what gives? Dr. Bianchi describes today’s mothers as “sweepers”—a term familiar to most soccer moms. “Their job is to be ever attentive to what needs to be done to assist in covering the goal—to do what they must to ensure their family’s well-being.”
And what needs to be done today is a lot. “What it means to be a responsible parent, spouse and worker has ratcheted up to an impossible level,” says Jennifer Glass, PhD, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Sociology Department. “Employed women bring in 40 percent of the income in two-earner families, but they’re also expected to come home and play LEGOs on the floor with the kids, drive them to sports practice, cook gourmet meals and keep an immaculate house. The women I talk to never think of themselves as doing a good job as a parent or spouse by bringing home money. Our cultural standards haven’t really changed much.”
Sadly, working moms rarely blame the problem on slow-to-change societal standards—ones that still let husbands off the hook for doing less than their wives on the home front (though they do more than they used to). Instead, we’re all too ready to blame ourselves. While 60 percent of us feel judged about housekeeping, even more say we judge ourselves more than anyone else does, according to our survey.
“When my house is messy, it feels like I can’t keep it together—like I’m a bad wife and mother,” says Nicole Workman, a community college PR director in Marion, OH, and mom of three kids ages 4 to 8. Nicole’s husband, a middle school teacher and coach, is never home before 9 p.m. during the school year, and she is perfectly understanding about her friends’ unkempt houses: “I just assume they’re mothers, and busy.” But she doesn’t cut herself much slack, and she worries others don’t either. “If friends drop by and the dishes are piled up and the house is trashed, I assume they’re noticing all these imperfections in my ability to keep up.”
Some of us, like Allison, inherited our high standards from our mothers: “We both hate clutter—it’s our nemesis.” Others come to them on their own. Stefany Schumaker, 39, a social media marketing specialist and mom of two in Seattle, doesn’t love cleaning (like 53 percent in our survey), but she’s been obsessed with it since she was a kid. “My mom died when I was 12. My dad was a slob. the house got very cluttered. My sister and I both became neat freaks.” Today, she doesn’t feel guilty if her house is messy—she feels anxious. “I can’t relax when there’s clutter or dust. I’ll be on the couch, and the kids will be playing with toys on the floor, and all I can think about is, when am I gonna get this all picked up?”
Latonya Humphrey, 37, a senior internal auditor at Bon Secours Virginia Health System in Richmond, knows the feeling. A messy house gives her “massive anxiety.” Latonya is among the 68 percent of our survey respondents who find a sense of calm in having a clean home; it allows her to deal with the intensity of raising three boys: 5-year-old twins and an infant.
“Before I go to work, I put everything in its place. If I come home to a sink full of dishes—and the twins are chattering and showing me what they did in school—I can’t even figure out what to cook for dinner,” she says. “It’s like the world is on my shoulders.”
Take a load off
Some moms have managed to end-run that anxiety and guilt and achieve a kind of Zen acceptance of their home’s condition. For high school math teacher Rachel Kowalski, 31, a mom of 2-year-old twin boys in Oak Lawn, IL, concern about what others think could be overwhelming—because her house is on the market. But she’s accepted she can only do so much. “Before bed, my husband and I team up and straighten up. we don’t always clean the banana-smudged floors and milk-splattered walls. It takes so much effort just to put in the next load of laundry, clean up the dinner dishes and put away toys.”
She adds, “Honestly, when I go to someone’s house, I don’t notice the floors. I notice how I feel. Is it cluttered? Stressful. Are things in their place? Pleasant.”
“I used to be very neat,” says Walida Newby, 33, a government management and program analyst in Washington, DC, and mom of two. “But after having my first child, I realized it wasn’t gonna work. It was unrealistic to beat myself up if I couldn’t put the laundry away or whatever. So I just try to make sure we’ve got the important things covered, stay as organized as possible and adjust to the chaos. An untidy house no longer bothers me. It’s real life.”
Allison Light has also seen the light. “The more I visit other moms,” she says, “the more I realize we’re all doing the best we can. With two young children in the house, clutter is a given. So I’m giving up on trying to beat the dirt.”
Organize**** your home team
Maybe their homes can’t be spic and span, but savvy moms still enlist their kids to help keep them habitable. Here, four of their best tips.
The Chore Wheel
Christine Johnson- Staub, a Cape Cod, MA, policy analyst and mom of two, created a chore wheel the family turns weekly to rotate their four most-despised jobs: bathrooms, floors, dusting, kitty litter.
Latonya Humphrey posts a chart with daily chores, getting her boys to do anything that’ll make her evenings less crazy, from dishes to vacuuming. “It’s not perfect, but it’s fine.”
The Great Race
At the end of the day, everything is (ideally) put back in its place at Rachel Kowalski’s—and her toddler-age twins help. “We turn picking up the playroom into a race.”
Nicole Workman pays her kids 10 cents a chore. To make it more interesting, she has them set a goal: to save enough for a nerf gun, for instance.