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Always Cleaning Up After Everyone: What I Finally Figured Out

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Does it ever feel like all you do is work and clean? You look at other peoples’ homes and they make it seem easy, but cleaning is stressing you out. Maybe you’ve worked yourself ragged cleaning up after everyone.

Then the kids dump their backpacks in the kitchen or your spouse just tosses their coat on the sofa.That coat is now on the floor. Plus, there are dishes in the sink, you can smell the cat box, and no one has taken out the trash.

Why doesn’t your family pick up after themselves? Why can’t they ever clean something without being asked? Why are you the only one who cares? Let me share my story of how I got into and, more importantly, out of that trap.

Why We’re Always Cleaning

Listen, I get it. I do. When I was first married, I pushed myself to keep a clean home even with a full-time job. It was exhausting, and I felt broken, because it seemed to come naturally to everyone else.

That didn’t stop me from pushing myself anyway. Nor did it stop other people from admiring me for keeping such a clean house. (That’s kind of how this blog started in the first place.)

But it’s not an exaggeration to say I seethed with resentment. Every moment I spent cleaning made me angry. Now, in my mid-50s, I can look back and see what was going on.

Who Says It’s a Mess?

Usually, it’s one person in the home who is bothered by the mess while the others aren’t. In my home, I was that person for 20 years. The women I’ve gotten to know through my social media pages and through emails or comments here are often that person, too. Since you’re reading this, I’m betting you are as well.

And I can tell you from experience that usually, when it’s just one person bothered by the mess, the problem isn’t the mess. It’s something else.

Your Home Isn’t the Sum of You

Maybe cleaning is stressing you out because you feel other people judge or think you’re a bad parent/partner/person because of the mess — even though you aren’t the only one who lives there. You’re not even the only one capable of cleaning, it just feels like everyone thinks it’s your job.

If you’re thinking that’s not fair, you’re absolutely right. It doesn’t change things, though, does it? People judge. But anyone who is going to judge you by your home has no business in it. It’s a building. It isn’t you. Their inability to grasp that isn’t your fault.

Besides, no one — and I mean absolutely no one — has a spotless home and kids and a full-time job unless they have staff. It just looks that way.

The Comparison Trap

Supermodel-for-life Cindy Crawford once said she doesn’t get out of bed looking like Cindy Crawford. Her point was that photos of her are the finish product of several peoples’ work.

That’s true about the homes you see on Instagram or Pinterest. The Reels and Pins are designed to establish an aspirational lifestyle so you buy what they’re selling. That’s why they’re called influencers.

You Aren’t An Exception

I know I’m not the first to tell you that no one’s home is constantly spotless. That these things you’re comparing yourself to are fake. But you probably still wonder if you just tried harder, could you manage to keep your home like that even with your kids and your schedule.

That type of thinking, my friend, can only happen if you don’t believe you’re capable of knowing what’s true.

Believe These Women Instead

Long before influencers started skewing our perceptions of home life by sharing their “real messes”, the women below shared their truth.

When you feel bad because your home isn’t as clean as an influencer’s and worry about being judged for that you’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. Last I heard, that’s a sign of insanity.

Here’s How I Got Out of The Trap

Like I said, cleaning stressed me out for years. I’ve explained why, but the short version is that I was trying to live up to fake standards, too.

It left me with a (now former) drinking problem, a marriage that would’ve ended in divorce if death hadn’t stepped in, and the realization that I’d wasted 20 years focusing on the wrong things. Here’s how I finally got out of that trap.

1. Ask why?

Picture it: I am a new widow and online friends I’ve known for 15 years are coming from all over the country to show their support for me at my husband’s funeral the next day.

Naturally, I’m on an 18-foot ladder trying to mop my ceiling while my 14-year-old son spots me in case I fall. He asks, “Who’s going to care if the ceiling is clean, Mom?” And I didn’t have a good answer. That ceiling is 24 feet above the floor. There is no way it can get dirty enough to actually need mopping. So, why was I pushing myself?

Because I was afraid the people who had dropped what they were doing to come stand next to an online friend they’d never met in person before might actually think worse of me if they saw a smudge up there. And because I thought having a clean home proved I was on top of things. Adulting well. Worth loving.

I’d been an emotional mess long before my husband passed away, but my son’s innocent question marked the turning point.

2. Decide what’s essential

Cleaning stopped stressing me out when I stopped cleaning to prove anything anyone. Once I started asking myself what my family needed from me, rather than what I thought I should be doing for them, things began to change.

Like, maybe that 14-year-old who just lost his dad needed a mom who wasn’t cleaning her ceiling to prove she wasn’t a loser?

3. See who you are when you’re happy.

Now that my kids are grown adults, I can look back and see something else: I would’ve been fine with our home being messy, too, if I didn’t feel like others were judging me for it.

That’s why I was so angry when cleaned. I had other things I wanted to do, too, but felt like I had to take care of my family so they’d be happy. But that meant it also felt like they weren’t doing the same for me: they made messes that I’d be judged for, then left me to clean them. Who wouldn’t be angry about that?

Not sure if you’re cleaning because you actually want it clean, or because you’re trying to prove something? Here’s an easy test: ask yourself what you’re doing when you are truly happy and feel like you’re doing what you were made for. I bet it’s not scrubbing toilets or mopping floors.

4. Use a Done List

When I first started using a Done List, I was trying to prove to my husband that I wasn’t slacking off staying home all day with the kids while he worked. As if keeping our home spotless, our laundry clean and ironed, making dinners from scratch every night, packing his lunchbox daily with sandwiches on homemade bread, and raising two kids wasn’t enough? Like I said, I was an emotional mess.

In all fairness, although we didn’t know it at the time, my husband had developed lemon-sized tumor in the part of the brain that controls memory, emotions, and interest in others. He quite literally could not have cared less how our home looked. But my emotional illness made me believe I had to earn the right to relax in my own home by being hyper-productive.

So I kept track of everything I did, from wiping counters to rotating piles of underwear in the drawers to keep him from wearing the same 5 pairs. (That, by the way, was a task he asked me to do because apparently it was too much trouble for him. And… I did it. Because, like so many women who feel like they’re always cleaning after everyone, I thought taking care of him proved I was worth loving.)

5. Make the invisible visible

Thirty years later, I still keep Done Lists but they’re much shorter. I don’t use them to motivate myself to do more now. Now, I use them to give myself credit for doing invisible work: things that take up time but are often unacknowledged.

When I look at that list of the things I’ve done, it’s a reminder that I can stop. I can relax and enjoy my life just like everyone else does. I have that right, too.

Yes, I still need to be reminded of that now and then. I still have issues. Who doesn’t? But now when I clean it’s because I want to clean, and cleaning no longer stresses me out.

I hope you break free of that trap, too. You deserve to be happy. You have that right. Claim it.

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24 Comments

  1. Christina @ Christina's Adventures says:

    Such good wisdom in this article! Really helps keep things in perspective 🙂

    And thanks for linking to my site!! 🙂

  2. Kristy as Giftie Etcetera says:

    I have certain areas that I need clean to function. Those areas STAY spotless.

    The rest? That story about bloggers with lots of messes is true. 🙂

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m the same way. My living room has to be spotless so I have a calm, clean place to read. No matter what, I take care of that room first.

  3. I love the idea of a DONE list! I think that will work really well for my personality! Thanks for such an insightful article.

  4. Leigh-SimpLeigh Organized says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post! I like the idea of a done list. It will help me keep a running tally of all the things I do during the day. Then when someone asks “What do you do all day?”, I can whip out the list! 🙂 Usually I just write down a few things I need to accomplish that day, but, in reality, I actually end up doing MUCH more than that!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      That’s one of my favorite things about the DONE list: you never wonder where your day went!

  5. Ronald Gagnon says:

    I was brought up in an old fashioned family that the whole house had to be perfect before any guests come over..You are so right…I stress out so bad even when I am just having my brothers over for card games or to watch sports, that it actually takes away from my enjoyment

    1. Pray for me that sounds like me, I getting stress out. I need to feel it’s ok to not always be clean.

    2. Katie Berry says:

      I think sometimes we convince ourselves that having an always clean home will impress others or make them think more highly of us, or even love us more. That’s seldom true, though: most people who love us don’t care what our homes are like.

  6. Thank you so much for this! I need clean but at what cost? This has is getting me to re-evaluate my real priorities.

  7. No, I don’t think my standards are too high. My older sister who co owns the family home leaves dog turds everywhere. When she does pick them up, she puts them in bags hung on the bathroom door. Urine has ruined all the floors and she rants about how much she hates the place but neither of us can afford to move out. I just want a home that doesn’t look like something you see on an episode of Hoarders. I think it’s time to stop cleaning like a slave if only I can stand the stench.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You sound understandably stressed out. I hope you and your sister can find a solution.

  8. This has made me open my eyes to what really matters. I appreciate this so much! I am a single mother raising 9 year old twins and also a nurse who works 10 hour shifts. I have been obsessed lately with the way my home looks even though NOBODY looks at it except me and my kids. I have friends that I have known for over 20 years that come by but they are in the same boat as me. Thank you for reminding me that life is short and I shouldn’t care so much about the dishes in my sink ❤

  9. Lori Shel says:

    I have a illness that has flare ups which can keep me in bed for a whole day or sometimes longer.
    I try to get everything done as soon as I feel well because I never know when a flare up will happen and it’s so overwhelming when I come downstairs and see the messy worktops, the full bin, the crumbs on the carpet and the state of the bathroom. My husband can’t understand because he thinks washing the dishes is all that’s necessary. Don’t get me started on the toaster. I sometimes weep with how exhausted I am, we are both retired and I’m beginning to hate the way I sound.
    I do have changed into someone I used to dislike. Nagging and grumbling woman, that’s what I feel I’ve become.

    1. It’s only my husbsnd and I. 1 dog and 4 cats. I am very on top of my cats needs and the associated cleaning. My husband doesn’t help at all with ant type of cleaning. It’s not important to him at all. As a matter of fact, it’s like he is dedicated to his life of being a slob. His office has all kinds of stuff heaped on his desk. His nightstand is the same. He brings food snd drink into the bedroom to watch TV and actually gets angry when his drink spills on the floor or his food. I used to clean up his stuff but I haven’t done it fir him in 3 years now. When he does make messes…he just wipes what he can with a wad of paper towel. We live in Florida so it is very important to keep up cleaning or you will be infested. You know what he does? He buys bug killer. Uum yeah..how about cleaning up and you won’t have anywhere for them to hide. Asking him to do anything is like asking him to climb mount Everest. People say that letting it go will set you free..but not me. This affects me and my sanity. I think I literally will have to leave him in his mess and find somewhere else to live, I’m so sick of it. I don’t want to leave because this USED to be a beautiful home. His excuse…”I work for a living” I work night shift …12 hour shifts 4 days a week (nurse). Ggrr I’m so done. I don’t have a cleaning problem…I have a husband problem.

  10. The only thing is I don’t live with little kids I live with adult children and they do not clean at all. Like today for an example woke up at 6:00 swept and mopped the floors . This house is 2800 square feet .no carpet in this house at all. Ghost all the dishes in the cabinet because being dirty every dish every day now it is only 6:30 and I have to clean all over again. They own dogs that piss all over the floor and tear up their ropes and toys all day long. No one cleans up no one with me and I’m just tired I used to love cleaning not anymore I hate it. I’m 51 yrs old and burnt out on cleaning . Me being the only one in the house that does anything I just can’t do it anymore. I hate cleaning but if I don’t do it no one else will. And I know that’s my problem giving in but I don’t want to live in a filthy house.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      That sounds so frustrating, and I’m sure it feels hurtful that they’re behaving that way.

  11. Thank you for this information as it’s helped me in a small way. As I’m a mother living with my teenager as the father works away. Growing up with my family was horrible at times because cleaning our rooms was put into a competition with my other siblings. As our mother picked on me on how clean our bedrooms were. I hated it with a passion but I couldn’t stop it from happening because I wasn’t sure where to go for help and I know my parents would fake the happy family rubbish which I would be forced into complying with my parents above all else. I still struggle at times at cleaning but I understand it needs to be done for my families health. It always brings up my past with my own family and the sadness I felt at the time as my mother would say: don’t care as I want this done now. Yes I have some other issues going on as well with my family growing up but it’s predominantly how I was brought up and I didn’t know where to go at the time. If we ever threatened to tell the police my parents would say: go ahead who would they believe you’d think that the police would likely believe the parents over kids all due to hearsay.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m sorry you went through that. It is so hard to unlearn our childhood traumas, including those involved with cleaning. I hope you keep in mind that you’re the grownup now, and that there’s no competition involved. What you do is done for yourself and your family out of love and caring, and nothing is better than that.

  12. Love your point of view: Realistic and attainable. Keep it up!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Thank you so much. ❤️

  13. Seriously frustrated says:

    I’m not even looking for perfection. I just want my house clean enough that my brain doesn’t get affected by clutter. My 10 and 7 year olds do not do anything. My fiancé spends all his time working, whether it’s his paid job or working on the house, lawn, whatever he can besides anything deemed a “woman’s job.” I am not trying to be negative but I’ve been trying to get the same dang mound of laundry done for at least a year. It just never ends!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I am sorry you’re going through such a rough time. Clutter and mess can definitely affect our brains. As parents, it can be so stressful trying to walk the line between gently raising our kids and teaching them that home is a community they need to help support. If you don’t want to be the only one responsible for cleaning your home for the next 10 years (or life), it may be time to sit down and talk about sharing the work. Have you checked out my article about dividing housework responsibilities fairly?

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