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“Welcome to my ADHD fridge” is the TikTok video that introduced me to K.C. Davis, a cheerful therapist from Texas who has made it her mission to offer tips for what she calls “struggle care”: housekeeping and self-care for people who, for various reasons, are having an extremely difficult time keeping up. “Condiments? They’re going in this bottom drawer. Fuck a produce drawer, that’s where things go to die and rot,” Davis says, putting cucumbers and Pyrex containers of carrots in the fridge’s door compartments. “If I designed refrigerators, they would be 6 feet long and 1 foot deep.”
Davis’ argument—developed over the course of the pandemic on TikTok and Instagram and presented in full, with pithy bullet points and sidebars, in her new book How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing—is that people who are struggling with tasks like laundry, dishes, or picking up don’t need advice on keeping houses perfectly clean and organized; they need a plan for how to do what they can. The funny hacks Davis has come up with along the way to make her own life work better—veggies in the fridge door, a rack for dirty dishes as well as clean, a family closet to cut down on trips to put away clean clothes—are not meant as prescriptions, but as inspiration.
We spoke recently about her “five things” cleaning method, the similarities between online organizing culture and diet culture, and why some women shame other women for having messy houses. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: How did you come up with the idea for “struggle care”?
K.C. Davis: I was postpartum with my second baby. We had just had the pandemic shutdowns. I was really isolated and alone. I was suffering from postpartum depression and undiagnosed ADHD, and I had started making some videos about just some of the light, kind of funny and quirky ways that I had figured out how to cope with being overwhelmed with cleaning and home care. There’s a lot of content out there for home care and self-care, but it tends to be really aspirational and aesthetically pleasing and curated. And there’s this large segment of the population that was not being helped by that and, maybe even more, actually feeling ashamed at not being able to keep up with that—everyone from people who are neurodivergent, disabled, have a chronic illness, parents of small children, people without a good support system, people who are chronically stressed or overwhelmed. I started talking about this idea of care tasks being morally neutral, and the idea that you deserve kindness, regardless of your level of functioning.
It’s powerful when you stop judging whether you should be struggling with something. Because we tend to think that the only things we’re allowed to struggle with are things that “deserve” our creativity or adaptivity. If someone breaks their leg and it’s hard for them to move around, they typically don’t have any problem coming up with all kinds of creative, out-of-the-box ideas to help themselves. But with someone who says, “You know, I don’t know why, I will pass that moldy coffee cup sitting on my bedside table a thousand times and not pick it up,” that person assumes they should not be struggling with this, and so doesn’t try to come up with an adaptive solution. But they’re not able to just make themselves do it, or they would have already, right? So they’re just continuing to stare at dirty coffee cups and feeling ashamed. It’s so powerful when you can embrace the idea that your moldy coffee cups are morally neutral, and even if you don’t like yourself, even if you don’t think you deserve it, you can still find ways to care for yourself, and it doesn’t have to follow any of the rules.
I didn’t think of this at all before encountering your account, but I wonder what you think of this analogy: Organizing culture in the U.S. is a little bit like diet culture, in the way it works. I think I got to your account, ironically enough, from one of those “how to fold your clothes perfectly” Instagrammers. There’s a whole little world of organizing and cleaning advice-giving. It’s intermittently helpful in my life, but mostly overwhelming, and it interests me to think of this as an ideology.
I see it impacting people in a big way, and what I see most is that whenever you watch a video or any kind of media that’s from organizing culture, whether it’s a magazine or an Instagram photo or a Netflix show about organizing, you watch people organize spaces in this way that it almost feels like it scratches an itch in your brain. It’s aesthetically pleasing. Everything has a place to go. I think the mistake that a lot of us make is that we misinterpret that emotional experience. And instead of just allowing it to be what it is, which is this is the emotional experience I have when I consume this media, we allow it to create a story in our head that says that if we can figure out a way to live that looks like this, I will feel like this all the time! I’ll be peaceful, inspired, be another me. And if you pair that with someone who is already struggling in their lives, ashamed about not being able to keep up with care tasks or do things the way they should be done, they feel insecure.
The second issue is that we tend to approach these types of projects from an all-or-nothing point of view. We get sick and ashamed of ourselves, and say, “That’s it! Tomorrow: New me. I’m going to Kondo my whole house, edit my whole pantry, pick up a new diet and exercise routine and meditate every day.” … It feels good to think about that, because it feels like we’re going to have such a different emotional experience in our lives once we get these things put together.
But of course, the problem is that you make these plans imagining you’d be a different person. We do this huge overhaul of something, with all of these new habits, and we’re not thinking about who we are, what our personal barriers and privileges are, what our preferences are, what our energy levels are like. It does feel good for a little bit, whether you keep it up for a few days or a few weeks, because it’s almost like you’re cosplaying an adult that has it all together.
But that kind of motivation doesn’t actually last very long. It doesn’t give you the skills that you lacked before you read that book or implemented that organizational plan or took on that diet. We try to do too much at once, then two days, two weeks, two months later, we’ve stopped doing all those things. And then we feel ashamed, and we tell ourselves the problem is we just didn’t try hard enough. We didn’t have enough self-discipline. We didn’t have enough motivation, when that’s not actually what the problem is. You can’t actually run your whole life just by the grit of your teeth. Things have to, at some point, become automatic.
I really want to focus on function. What do I need in my home, to function? What do I need out of a laundry system to function, really? All I need is clean clothes. That’s the only absolute that has to come from doing laundry. Then I can think about my barriers and privileges and figure out what kind of laundry system works for me. That’s when I realized, OK, I have two small children I’m dressing. I don’t need to be taking clothes to three different closets. And in the process of laundry, I didn’t have a problem getting clothes to the washer, I didn’t have a problem getting them to the dryer. I did procrastinate around the task of folding everything and putting it away. So what if I stop folding it altogether? I just started skipping that, and putting the kids’ stuff away in what’s become our family closet.
That’s an example of a small change. Or, like, when I decided that I was going to take my dishes to the sink after using them. That was a very small change. I didn’t want to say I was going to take them to the dishwasher, or that I was going to run the dishwasher, or that I was only going to eat in the kitchen. Or how I went out one day and bought like 12 laundry baskets, and looked at my house to see where clothes were thrown on the floor, and put laundry baskets there. That was a small change that worked.
I liked your “five things” method for tidying. That’s a great example of a concrete framework to use. Can you explain what that concept is?
For me, and I think for a lot of people, when you walk into a room and there seems like there’s thousands of things in that room, you feel really overwhelmed. There’s just this decision fatigue. You have to decide where to start, decide what to pick up, decide to pick up an item. Look at it. Let the information travel to your brain about what that item is and then go, Where does this go? And maybe it goes somewhere, and if it does go somewhere, maybe you wander into the next room to put it away and then you have to figure out what to do next. And if it doesn’t go somewhere, you just sit there and stare at it. And all of that can be time-consuming and overwhelming and demotivating.
And so, what I started doing in my early 20s was telling myself that there are only five things in a room, any room ever. There’s trash, laundry, dishes, things that have a place, and things that don’t have a place. And I would tell myself, OK, I’m not going to “clean” this room, but just do one of the things. I would get a trash bag and I would carry it around looking for all of the trash and throwing all the trash away, until there wasn’t any more trash. And then I would move to the dishes, and I would just take dishes to the sink—I wouldn’t actually wash them. And the idea is, I get myself moving quickly, and making progress quickly, so that I stay motivated and I’m not really having to make any decisions. I can kind of go on autopilot. And especially if I marry that method with watching a show or hearing a playlist or a podcast, it becomes a tolerable experience and gets done quickly.
What about when this shaming isn’t an internal voice, but an external one? Especially when you’re talking about a woman who is having this problem. Could be from someone from an older generation in the family, or a friend, who’s actually saying, “You should be ashamed.” I always remember how my grandma came to our house when my mom had three little kids and a job, and noticed and commented on the dust on the piano, in the middle of the gathering, and how my mom has never, ever forgotten that!
Those are very real messages that people around us give us. Oftentimes, parents, grandparents, extended family … there are a lot of familial and cultural reasons why they might say this. I think, for women in particular, we’re really only three generations removed from when women were completely dependent on their husbands, couldn’t open a bank account, if they got divorced they wouldn’t get custody of their children. We might feel like that was decades and decades ago, but in terms of generations, it’s not really. You might have someone in your life who, when growing up, was told to figure out how to get married and stay married, or they’d be destitute. And so maybe when that mother is raising up her daughter she might say to her, No man’s going to want to marry you if you can’t figure out how to cook. For us now it seems just very judgmental, very critical. But for many people it’s actually coming from a place of, I’m frightened for your well-being. I’m trying to equip you with what you need to survive.
And in some families there’s another dynamic, which is you have to have a clean house or people will think that you are poor.
There are tons of implications for marginalized communities. We, of course, have the belief in the United States that if you are poor you are lazy and of bad character. So you have a lot of families in poverty who have this attitude of we may be poor, but this house will shine. It’s a way of them reasserting their dignity in the face of really dehumanizing stereotypes.
How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing
By K.C. Davis. S&S/Simon Element.
So how do you advise people who are dealing with these kinds of voices in their families to speak to their families, when they are trying to change their own attitude toward cleaning and organizing?
I would say you don’t necessarily have to change someone. You can recognize for yourself where that’s coming from in their life, and you don’t have to change your opinion of those things in order for you to decide that this doesn’t work for you anymore. Some people will have conversations with their family members: “When you make these comments, it’s really hurtful.” And some people just kind of smile at their grandma, every time she makes a sideways comment, and let it go. That’s just her. That’s not me. I’m not going to accept that as a narrative for my life.
State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.