Care and Feeding

We’re Too Busy to Keep a Tidy Home. Are We Doomed?

Will we have to choose between being involved in our kids’ activities and having an uncluttered house?

Stressed parents sitting on a couch in a messy living room as their kids play above them
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ElenaNichizhenova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Is it more important for kids to grow up in a clean house or to grow up with parents who are involved in their community and in their kids’ lives? My husband grew up in a spotless home, but his parents were not very engaged in their children’s activities and did almost nothing besides work and cleaning. My parents coached my and my sibling’s sports teams, volunteered in our classrooms, were active in local government, service projects, and their church; however, throughout my childhood and teen years, our house was constantly messy.

I take after my parents and have lived in a state of messiness for years, but we are very involved in lots of great activities. Ideally, I’d love to have it all, but with three little kids (7, 4, and 1), I’ve come to accept we won’t have a clean house until their chore charts contain more than “make your bed” and “put your dirty clothes in the hamper.” My husband is going a little crazy with the level of mess and clutter in the house, but I feel it’s more important for us to be hands-on parents and community members than to have a clean house. (And we both help with housework—it’s just hard for either of us to do much when our evenings are so busy.) Is there a compromise to be found here that I’m not seeing? Or will we have to choose between having a clean house and being involved?

—Can You Do It All

Dear CYDIA,

I wouldn’t assume that your husband’s family decided to prioritize cleaning over getting involved at school or in the community, as there were likely other reasons for their lack of engagement. However, being highly involved outside the home should not come at the expense of your ability to keep your home in decent shape.

It is worth considering how a messy home could negatively affect your children. Being surrounded by chaos can make you feel chaotic. It can be harder to focus on your (school)work. It’s harder to get small tasks around the house done because it can feel like you’re trying to sweep the ocean floor. Important things get lost. Bringing guests over becomes stressful. And, as you know, these messy ways can be passed down.

There’s a difference between messy and dirty, though the two are often used interchangeably when talking about a living space. What are you dealing with here—too many magazines piled on the coffee table, or too many magazines piled on a coffee table that hasn’t been cleaned in months? If cleanliness is part of the issue, it needs to be addressed.

Parenting is a negotiation among the things that we need to do for our children and ourselves, the things we want to do, and the things we feel like we should do. I don’t need to tell you which is more important between a pristine home or an involved set of parents because you have already decided that the latter is critical and that is what matters most. Other families may feel otherwise. You should honor both your values and your children’s need to have an orderly-ish and mostly clean living space.

While your kids are still very young, you can work to develop a schedule in which you and your husband have time earmarked on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis for cleaning and organization. You may need to kick things off with a weekend devoted to getting your place in the best possible shape so that the challenge becomes keeping it up, not constantly trying to chip away at the problem. Best of luck to you.

—Jamilah