Why Cleaning Is Stressing You Out

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If you spend much time online, you can easily get the impression other people live in spotless homes while you’re wondering why cleaning is stressing you out. Maybe you’ve spent a day (or more) imposing order and cleanliness throughout your house to make it look like all those other homes you see online or in magazines.

Then your kids dump their backpacks in the kitchen or leave toys all over your living room. Your significant other sheds their coat on the sofa. And there you are, just minutes before bedtime, telling the kids to pick their things up or you’ll throw them away. That coat is now on the floor. There are dishes in the sink, you can smell the cat box, and no one has taken out the trash.

Why do you clean but the house always seems like a mess?

Why doesn’t your family get it and pick up after themselves, maybe even show some initiative and clean something without being asked?

Why does it seem like you never have time to yourself?

Why can’t your home stay clean?

Why is Keeping a Clean House so Stressful?

Listen, there are answers to all of these questions. You can reach a point where your home (and the people living in it) don’t drive you crazy.

If having a clean house is one of your goals, but you feel like all you do is pick up after everyone, keep reading. Help is on the way.

Our Standards Need to Change as Our Lives Change

Life-changes often prompt people to focus on their home environment. Someone who lost a job might fill their free time between interviews doing housework. The newly-retired manager, who spent years meeting quotas, may channel that energy into organizing and running the house.

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New brides, still flush with joy, are notorious for wanting to score “Domestic Goddess” points by creating an immaculate home and serving multi-course dinners.

Then they become new parents who swear they won’t let baby gear and clothing take over, that they’ll still have time to cook every meal from scratch, and maybe they’ll even start growing their food, too.

And for some, there comes a time when they’ve had it: they’re tired of living with a mess, tired of not being able to find things, tired of making excuses to avoid having company and apologizing for the state of their home when people drop by.

Your Home Isn’t the Sum of You

All of these scenarios have something in common: one person has decided the state of the home reflects directly on them and whether they’re on top of things and have it all together.

If you are the one stressed out about the state of your home, it’s a sign that you own the problem.

That does not mean you’re the one at fault, or that solving it is entirely up to you. It means you’re the one most affected by the situation — it’s a problem to you, but not necessarily to others.

Cleaning is stressing you out because not everyone else in your home sees it the way you do. To eliminate that stress, you need to figure out what’s causing that difference between your views and theirs. It might very well be one of the reasons below.

Perfectly Clean Homes Don’t Exist

Supermodel-for-life Cindy Crawford reportedly once said that even she doesn’t get out of bed looking like Cindy Crawford. Her point, of course, is that when you see a photo of her in a magazine you’re looking at a finished product.

Scrolling through Pinterest has replaced thumbing through magazines for millions of women, but the disconnect between reality and what’s shown remains.

Many of us wonder why our homes don’t look that way, why can’t we keep them that clean and uncluttered?

The problem is that we’re trying to make our homes resemble what was captured in a photo’s split second, which doesn’t reflect how people truly live.

Don’t Be Fooled by Pinterest Pictures

Pinterest photos don’t reflect reality. Want to see what a blogger’s house is really like? Things aren’t any more spotless than your home.

  • Christina of Christina’s Adventures gave her DIY/home decor readers a glimpse outside the photo frame so they could see that no one working on projects and raising a baby is going to have a spotless home.
  • When a reader wrote to Rebecca at A Beautiful Ruckus to say she was jealous of  Rebecca’s beautiful home and gorgeous homemade meals despite raising toddlers, she made a video of her real life.
  • Karlynn Johnston of The Kitchen Magpie got detailed in her photos showing what a food blogger’s house kitchen looks like — though she probably has a better-stocked liquor cabinet than most. (Now I’m jealous!)

If you’re trying to make your home look 24/7 like what you see on Pinterest, you are chasing something that doesn’t exist. Last I heard, that’s a sign of insanity.

Nicole Kidman in Stepford Wives demonstrates an unrealistic perfect housewife standard

Fictional Housewives are FICTIONAL

My friend Lucy (not her real name) calls herself a “reformed would-be Stepford Wife.”

For years, many of us wondered how she worked a high-pressure full-time job as a sales executive while keeping a spotless home and rehabbing furniture she hunted down at antique stores. She even cooked all three meals for her family every day. From scratch.

What we didn’t see is how hard Lucy was driving herself and her family to make those things happen.

I didn’t see what a miserable person I was to live with back then,” she said. “I was up every morning long before them, making breakfast and ironing their clothes for the day. After work, I’d clean house and make dinner, and when the kids went to bed, I did laundry — even though that meant my husband had to watch TV by himself.

Don’t Confuse Cleaning with Caring

Lucy wasn’t just busy — she was also stressed out about cleaning. She lost count of the times she threatened to throw away her kids’ toys because they kept leaving them all over the house.

But some kids interpret a parent’s threats about their messes as a threat to stop loving them, and that’s exactly what happened with Lucy’s kids.

“We went to my daughter’s kindergarten Open House at school, and I saw a picture she’d drawn. There were two homes right next to each other. She was in one with her dad and brother, and I was in the other. When I asked her why I was in a different house, she said, ‘So that way you won’t stop loving us just because we make messes.’ I had to leave the room, I was so upset with myself.”

Like many women, Lucy had convinced herself that doing things for her family was expected of her and a way to show how much she loved them. The more she did, the greater devotion she believed she was expressing.

But when doing meant she didn’t have time for her family, they didn’t feel loved — quite the contrary.

Once I started focusing more on spending time with them,” she says, “I realized they were fine eating the occasional bowl of cereal for breakfast, and no one cared if their clothes weren’t ironed. We are all so much happier now!

4 Steps to Stop Stressing About Cleaning

Feeling less stressed about cleaning house or like you have to pick up after everyone starts by re-evaluating your standards.

1. Decide What’s Essential

Ask yourself what your family truly needs, and separate that from what you feel you should be doing for them.

Chances are, the answers all come down to your belief you should be doing the very things that are causing you so much stress.

2. Evaluate your Motives

Who says how clean your house has to be?

Who are you trying to impress?

If it’s your family, don’t you think they’d prefer having your company, your presence in the moment and focused attention?

If you feel you should be doing it all because you think others have perfectly clean homes while you don’t, go back and read the section above about having unrealistic standards.

3. Be Honest About How You Spend Your Time

Grace (not her real name) used to regularly send me frustrated messages on Facebook about finding time to clean house. A single mom raising two boys (9, 12), Grace was always sending messages to me around 1 o’clock in the morning even though she worked during the day.

At first, I gave Grace pointers and suggestions, then eventually sent her my printable cleaning checklists. Nothing seemed to help, and every day I was waking up to a new message from Grace saying her house was out of control and driving her crazy.

One day I asked her exactly how much time she spent cleaning each day. When she said it was a few minutes here and there when she was away from the computer, it started to make sense.

I suggested using a browser extension to keep track of her online time. She realized she was spending 5 to 10 hours every day playing games online or browsing celebrity gossip sites and Pinterest.

4. Use a Done List

So, the next step was creating a “Done” list, which is the opposite of a To Do list. Rather than waking up listing things she hoped to accomplish during the day, I wanted her to write tasks on a list after finishing them.

Washed the dishes? She wrote it down. Replied to her mom’s email? She wrote that down, too. Whatever chore, phone call, errand, or distraction she spent time on, she wrote it down on that day’s list.

Seeing those tasks add up motivated her to stay productive. To this day Grace swears, “That ‘Done’ list changed my life!

Remember: It’s not a Competition

Above all, remember there are no trophies for having the cleanest house. There’s no committee coming by to compare your place to others’ homes, no news team that’s going to do a story about how spotless your floors are.

You know what there are trophies for? Being the “World’s Greatest Mom,” the one who makes her kids feel valued and heard. What you’re trying to create is a comforting home for your family, so let the rest of the pressure go.

That is how you win at life.

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44 Comments

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

    And thanks for linking to my site!! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for this. I hope this reaches many other parents who might be feeling the same stress. I recently lost my husband to cancer at the age of 32. I decided to go back to college and finish my degree. I have been in school a year so far, and have been sucessful, but then thought it was a good idea to try summer courses this year. Boy was I in for it. I have a 15, 6, and 3 year old. There were many nights I didnt think I could do it, and most days running on 4 hours of sleep, but just yesterday I completed by summer courses I took, and glad to have it out of the way. I have seen how it has effected my children. Especially my 6 year old daughter. She has almost drawn back from me. She was so close to her dad, but just over the past few days I can tell she is sparking back up to herself. She has opened up, and we have worked out a way to remain calm if anyone starts over reacting. All we say is “hey, you are starting to act a little grumpy”, and in that instant it is a reminder to take a deep breath, and to not even go there. It has also been a reminder to slow down a little bit, and its okay if we can not do it all.

    2. What if it’s not YOU who cares so much about the house but your husband? He had a Marta Stewart type for a mom and I never live up to her. Now that we have kids (one being a baby), I REALLY can’t keep up. My baby doesn’t sleep OR nap well. He sleeps all day and works all night. I work on weekends. I take every free minute to do housework and it’s still always a disaster, and I spend no time playing with my five year old any more. I have no patience anymore. My baby cries when I try to squeeze in 10 minutes to clean up dinner. I’m constantly stressed. I’m not doing it anymore. I know letting the house go even more than it already has it just going to cause more arguments. And no, he can’t help more. He works long, graveyard hours and is always sleeping or exhausted when he’s not working. He does help when he can, but he does it begrudgingly. We can’t have any help cause everything wakes him up when he’s sleeping all day.

    3. It sounds like a very frustrating situation. Since you can’t have help come into your home due to your husband’s schedule, maybe you could send the children somewhere a few hours each week? You don’t even need to spend that time cleaning — you deserve a break from being “always-on” and a chance to relax, too. Perhaps getting some time to yourself would help you recharge and find a solution that works for your family?

    4. Thank you thank you thank you !!! I so needed to read this today ! I am a Grandmother of four teens I have been raising for most of their lives and my husband & I adopted them at a very young age, and along with health problems, and advancing age, I struggle each day to get through with everything. My house is never picture perfect and my standards are very high I’ll admit and too high to accomplish anymore. I grew up in the 60’s & 70’s and the women in my life were excellent housekeepers as I use to be ! Maybe when I was a young bride 43 yrs ago, but not now. I beat myself up and feel defeated everyday. Everyone else in our house seems to care less ! I am going crazy stressing myself out each day and I can never reach my goals. Although my kids are clean, fed, sent to school each day and all our appointments are kept, my house often looks a wreck ! We live in a very small house, too small for all of us buts it’s all we can afford, so it always looks cluttered ! Any advice ? I’ve tried everything! Thank you so much !!

    5. You sounds like a success to me. Raising grandkids who are clean, fed, sent to school each day, and your appointments are kept — those are all impressive accomplishments! When you allow the state of your home to make you feel bad, whose voice are you hearing? Whose expectations are you trying to meet? Your grandkids and husband won’t love you more because your home is spotless — and also, they won’t love you any less if it’s not. So, where is this belief coming from that you should work harder at cleaning your home?

    6. Love this. I have a 6 month old baby and 7 year old daughter. I get angry when cleaning because I get no help from her or husband. Moving forward I will do a checklist. My daughter is too young well let’s say she is use to coming home from school and relaxing 😌. I’m Mexican btw lol when I was her age my sister and I cleaned 🧹 but times change. My daughter would rather I take her to the park but when house is a mess it bothers me. But I know letting my frustration out on her and husband is not ok

  2. 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. 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’ve never tried a done list but I do write things on my to do list just so I can cross them straight off – I get a great sense of satisfaction then!
    These points are so good at helping put things into perspective.

    1. Thanks, Julie! I think a “Done” list is helpful for people who balk at using To Do lists, or those who get distracted throughout the day and want to hold themselves accountable.

    2. I understand this….i mean i get it! I dont have pinterest, and the only expectation is my own. I had 8 children and my house was clean but lived in. I am raising two teens now. My idea of a clean home is every room dusted vacuumed mopped if needed and the rooms tidy and neat….every single day. But it also includes a clean, neat garage, shiny, spotless windows, and a manicured yard.
      I have a routine and a list….but I am at an age, 66, where i cant keep up. It depresses me and overwhelms me so bad i want to move into a one bedroom apartment all by myself. No one visiting. Just me and my own place. My white furniture and white rugs. It literally is a fantacy that i long for so bad.
      I dont want to change my standards….and i know that will probably mean being isolated….
      I look at my windows and see a seasons worth of dust and smudge and want to cry because i cant climb a ladder three floors up to get to these windows. I have been so annually organized for so many years, and we have no clutter…
      How do i not let the things not done not stress me. I feel resentful, angry, defeated and like a stinking failure. I dont work as i am a retired accountant

    3. Hi Debbie,
      You sound so frustrated and I’m hurting for you. I do understand about not wanting to let your standards slide, especially now that you’re retired. I’m guessing you’ve tried getting those two teens you’re caring for to do some of the chores and they’re not helping? That would make anyone of any age resentful and angry.

      When my now 19-year-old wouldn’t help around the house to do things that I can’t physically do myself (I’m 51, a widow, and have increasingly severe arthritis), I took away things he liked. It was miserable — more for me than him, I think — because he didn’t have a phone, wifi, gaming console, TV, car, or spending money. He was B-O-R-E-D. But, to get any of it back, he had to do chores. He did them. Sullenly, with a lot of swearing, and poorly at first. Then he had to redo them properly. But he did eventually earn his stuff back, and he learned not to be a jerk in the process.

      If that’s not an option in your circumstances, I do understand. Maybe an extension pole with a squeegee will let you get those windows without climbing? (Here is my homemade window cleaner and tips to clean them.) If it’s in your budget, you might also want to consider a robot vacuum or even a robot mop — I adore mine because they do the floors even when I don’t have the energy to bother. Here’s more about the robots I use to clean my house.

      And don’t underestimate the power of paying those teens FRIENDS to do work around your house. If the teens themselves won’t, their friends might be eager to earn some money… and then the teens will feel ashamed and a bit competitive.

      If you need more tips or need to vent more, come join our Facebook group — “Do Home Better”.

  4. I love your perspective in this post! It goes along with one of my goals for the new year – to live more in the moment!

    1. That’s a fantastic goal to have, Lisa! Time is one of those things we can’t really get more of, and yet it seems to fly by unnoticed if we aren’t careful about centering ourselves in the experience happening to us now.

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

    1. I love the validation of a DONE list, too. Sometimes I get to a point where any To Do list will just make me rebel, but a DONE list puts me in the driver’s seat.

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

  7. thanks for these awesome tips! I always dread cleaning, but doing a little bit every day helps me stay sane ♥

  8. Oh this is great. Cleaning both stresses me out but it stresses me out more when the house isn’t clean. I can’t think when there’s clutter. And I seem to be scatterbrained enough as it is. It’s a vicious cycle for me.

    Since 2010, I’ve been focusing on my accomplishments every day rather than what didn’t get done. In fact, it’s what inspired me to start my blog, to share my small victories in life with a chronic illness and raising 3 active boys.

    1. I’m dealing with chronic illness, too, and have found pacing myself has made a huge difference, as has getting my son on board with helping out more. One thing I’m still strict about is keeping my living room spotless so I have a place to sit and relax at the end of the day. Like you, I can’t think if things are cluttered so keeping that room serene really does help.

  9. Thank you for the invite! That story about the kindergarten picture broke my heart when my friend told me about it, because I remember being just as grouchy with my own kids when they were young.

  10. 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. I was raised the same way, Ronald. Although I am much more relaxed about having company these days, it took many years for me to let go of wanting things to be perfect for company. I’d be so exhausted by the time guests arrived, and entertaining them would wear me out even more. I wound up dreading visitors because it was so much work! Now I’ve reached the point where I realize that no one lives in a spotless home so they aren’t expecting to see mine spotless, either. They just want to spend time together, and would be happy doing so no matter the condition of my house.

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

    3. 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.

  11. What about people who aren’t trying to keep up with anyone else? I can’t stand a messy house. It actually causes anxiety and stress. I can’t relax when my house is a mess. It infuriates me when I clean the kitchen and 5 minutes later someone has made something to eat, left the mess in the kitchen, dirty dishes in the sink and walked away. Why is it my job to clean it? Sorry I know I sound angry, and I am. This is a big issue for me and no one seems to care. What do I do?

    1. I hear you. You know it’s not your job, and I know it’s not your job, but if you actually do it how are they to know it’s not your job? That’s how I finally got my kids to start dealing with their own dishes: I refused to do them. Whenever I found one of their dishes in the sink I’d interrupt whatever they were doing and make them go RIGHT THEN to deal with the mess.

      It sounds silly but it worked. I was relentless about it and, admittedly, timed my interruptions to maximize the inconvenience to them. S0, after being interrupted on the phone, woken up an hour early, getting their gaming consoles shut off in the middle of a game, or having Mom pop her head into the bathroom while they were in the middle of a shower, they finally learned that it’s just easier to take care of their mess than to leave it for Mom to find.

      Stand your ground and remember: you’re teaching them important life skills. When they’re off on their own, there won’t be anyone around to clean up for them so they need to learn to do it themselves now!

  12. What about teaching your children responsibility to clean after themselves?
    I’m understanding this article as still moms job to do all the cleaning. I feel the children and spouse need to take on some of the responsibilities as well.

    1. I agree everyone in the family should pitch in. This article was specifically written for moms who take on too much.

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

    1. It’s so tough, isn’t it, trying to be and do all of the things we think other people expect us to be and do?

  14. 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.

  15. 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 ❤

    1. Being a single mom is an incredibly challenging job, Amber. Being a nurse on top of that — especially during these times — must leave you feeling so drained at the end of the day. Be gentle with yourself about the housekeeping. Your home doesn’t define you as a person or as a mom. ❤️

  16. 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. I’m so sorry you’re struggling with a health issue. Something you said was more accurate than you know, though: your husband really may think washing the dishes is all that’s necessary, at least on a daily basis. Many times, one spouse doesn’t actually understand how much time and effort the other is putting into keeping the house clean. One way to help is to have a checklist on the fridge, so they can see what’s involved and pitch in as needed. If you’d like to give that a try, you can find my big page of free house cleaning checklists here. I hope they help, and that you feel better soon.

    2. 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.

    3. It’s so difficult when spousal tidiness standards differ that much. Hopefully you two can work things out and find a good solution, like a weekly cleaning service?

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