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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a dad of two with a question about a friend of mine and their kids. I’ve been friends with “Alex” for about a decade now. When my kids were 2 and 4, Alex and their partner decided to have kids. This was great news, and they now have a 14-month-old and a 3-year-old. The issue is their house.
For as long as I’ve known them, Alex and their partner’s home has been a complete mess. I’m no neat freak, but Alex’s house is perhaps one step shy of a hoarding problem. It’s a big house, but they’ve let it fall into some disrepair, and something is always broken (a toilet, water damage, a sagging ceiling). The floors are littered with clutter and garbage (and now toys). The sink is almost always full of dirty dishes. The carpets are dark with dirt. And so on. Alex and their partner are interesting people with lots of hobbies, but these hobbies have lots of items that litter their home.
I was hoping Alex would get their house good and clean pre-kids, but that didn’t happen. Now I’m worried it never will. I grew up in a home like Alex’s kids are growing up in right now. It actually wasn’t as dirty (more clutter and papers than actual filth). When I was 13, CPS was called, and my dad was forced to clean up and had his custody restricted (as a kid of divorce, I just went to my mom’s instead). I’m genuinely worried this will happen to Alex and his partner. And I’m also genuinely worried for the kids—I know from experience that growing up in a house like this is no fun.
I don’t know how to talk to Alex about this. I’m worried I’ll devastate them and not actually help. They’re very aware of the mess. They have anxiety about it and have felt bullied by their parents about it in an unproductive way. I’ve helped clean up a section, only to see it fall back into a mess within weeks. I found a major cleaning service that could handle the clutter, but Alex said it was too expensive. I don’t know what to do.
—Choking on Clutter
Dear Choking on Clutter,
I’ve recommended KC Davis of Struggle Care before, but her work has been truly life-changing for me as someone who finds it difficult to manage domestic tasks. On her social media platforms and in her book How to Keep House While Drowning, she offers a gentle approach to managing care tasks, all based around the revolutionary (to me) idea that “Messiness is not a moral failing.”
There are many reasons someone might have a hard time keeping up with housekeeping, from mental and physical illnesses to neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD. Grief, caretaking duties, or simply never having been taught how to clean up can all be reasons, too. And while you’re right that growing up in a messy house can be a less-than-fun experience, struggling with housekeeping tasks does not make someone a bad parent.
Obviously, there’s a difference between clutter and an environmentally hazardous environment. I’m not saying it’s fine for kids to grow up in a biohazard zone. If the state of the home is causing a safety hazard, or the kids appear unkempt or unhygienic, I certainly understand your concern. But even so, shame is rarely a productive emotion. When we attempt to browbeat ourselves into doing “better,” it generally has the opposite effect.
As you said, Alex and his partner are plenty aware of the mess and are already stressed about the situation. Piling on is likely to make tasks seem even more overwhelming, and additional shame will result in paralysis rather than progress. If you are going to broach the topic of the house with them, you’ll want to do so with compassion, kindness, and an eye to understanding just what is limiting their ability to keep a clean home. If it’s the result of a mental or emotional disorder, they may need the help of a doctor or therapist. If it’s the overwhelm and adjustment of caring for small children, they may need additional resources and some help with child care. Given the damage and disrepair you described, financial difficulties may also be contributing. If a general lack of know-how is the issue, I highly recommend KC Davis’s book and digital guides, charts, and checklists. Until they get some help with the root cause of their mess, no cleaning service will be able to provide lasting results.
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