In Praise of Filth: A Feminist Housework Manifesto

4613787208_f38f8c476e_mI’ve been thinking a lot about housework lately, and I’ve concluded that dirt is a feminist issue.

I became a stay at home mom almost by accident. I became pregnant in the middle of my doctoral program, which also coincided with moving to a new city. It made no sense to get a new job in a new profession when I was still finishing my dissertation. I would stay home with the baby and finish my dissertation at the same time, right?

Not quite. When my son was a baby and would nap two, three, sometimes four times a day, this would be our routine:


  • My son would be awake for a while,
  • We would play or go out,
  • Then I’d give him a bottle, and
  • I’d put him down for a nap.
  • While he was napping, I would make the rounds around the house, cleaning up after the messes left behind.
  • I’d do the dishes, wash clothes, scrub the floors, dust the corners of the house, make beds, and change sheets.
  • I’d also do things like sanitize pacifiers or clean off all his toys every day (to make sure they were germ-free). There was just always more mess to deal with.
  • And then he’d wake up, and the cycle would repeat.

And I got nothing at all done for myself. Nothing. I accomplished barely any work on my dissertation, did no writing of my own. I couldn’t make any progress figuring out what I was going to do with my life and career once I ever did finish my dissertation. I was stuck in an endless spin cycle of feedings and cleaning.

After my son began to nap predictably once a day and he started preschool so I could work on my dissertation, I began to write. And one day I just decided to stop cleaning to see what happened.

Suddenly I had hours of the day open up for me. It didn’t happen overnight, but I gradually gave myself permission to stop caring that my house was a mess. It bothered me at first. A lot. There were toys everywhere, the dishes piled up. The dog became better fed because she ate the crumbs that were always all over the floor. But I let it go and kept writing.

And nothing happened. Yes, my husband began to do a lot more. He cooks almost every night. He is more likely to vacuum than I am. On the weekends, he watches my son far more than I do. Now he does his own laundry.

Soon, I finished the draft of my dissertation and now will defend it in a few weeks. I started my blog and write daily. None of this would have been possible (for me) if I had not let go and accepted that my house will never be really, really clean. The floors will never be spotless. There were always be cat hair somewhere underneath all the furniture.

But I am happier. I am doing what I love. And my son is happier, because he gets my undivided attention and a fully present mother when we are together, not one who is feeling guilty because she is not working on her research or wishing that she had time to herself.

The research on happiness and parenthood is complicated and conflicting: some of it shows that parents are less happy than their childless peers, other research concludes that “happiness” is an entirely subjective term, meaningless when you’re trying to quantify the emotional impact of diaper changes and arguments over curfews. However, mothers are generally found to be less happy than fathers, unsurprising when we acknowledge that women participate more and more in paid work but still do disproportionately greater amounts of the housework and childcare.

I’m not saying that mothers are to blame for the fact that they’re more stressed than dads a lot of the time. But I am saying that we can look at our own lives and see if we’re allowing an ideal of perfection and comparison to make us less happy than we could be.

I’m suggesting that women do three things:

1. Ask for “help.” Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has been all over the news, telling women to “lean in” to their careers. I have a lot of problems with some of Sandberg’s “movement” but I definitely agree with one of her biggest recommendations for women. According to Sandberg, the most important career decision that a woman will ever make is her choice of spouse. But even if you do choose a life partner who wants to participate equally in household work, you have to let them do it.

This means that your spouse is not your “helper.” He is an equal partner. During the past year, I’ve learned that often my husband has his own ways of doing things and quite often they’re better than mine. And when he takes over certain tasks, my life is made much simpler.

2. Lower your standards. Many women that I know are trying to achieve an unattainable ideal of a perfect house. We see constant “pins” from Pinterest of our friends’ vision for a beautiful bedroom or the perfect layout for a kitchen. We see perfect pictures of gorgeous meals.

Yet we can love those pictures without thinking that we have to reproduce them in our lives every day. We want to excel at our jobs and our hobbies, raise successful kids, and we want the perfect, sparkling house. It’s not all going to happen.

3. Stop the comparisons and the apologies. In the past, I have declined play dates — when I desperately needed the companionship — because my house was a disaster.

But I’ve realized a simple way to make my life easier: Don’t apologize for your house being a mess. It’s called life. How many hours do you spend per week rushing around to pick up clutter when company is coming over?

In sum, embrace the mess. Embrace the dirty laundry. It will get done eventually. Ask everyone — anyone! — to chip in whenever possible. Ask if you can carpool rides to school. Get the takeout and don’t feel guilty. Dust bunnies can be your friends, if you let them. And somewhere the ghost of Betty Friedan will be smiling.

Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate in educational policy who will be defending her dissertation this spring.  When she is not reading educational policy and blogging at School of Smock about parenting, she is collecting stories of female friendship with her pal, Stephanie.

  • Bri

    I think it’s possible to be a feminist and enjoy living in a clean house. I work full time, I have a husband, a 2 year old son, and two large dogs. I *may* be too type-A for my own good, but I have pretty high standards for cleanliness in my home. I cannot go to sleep with dishes in the sink, not because I feel like others will judge me, but because they’re gross and it bothers me. While I agree that many women feel pressured to maintain a “perfect” home, I don’t believe that vowing to not clean while my husband (who also works) picks up my slack will make me truer to my feminist principles. I just really like fresh sheets and the smell of bleach.

  • Love this. I’ve embraced the mess since my twenties when I worked full-time and went to graduate school at night, clearly cleaning was going to be at the bottom of my to-do list.

    Now that I have kids, I try and tell myself the mess is ok and remind myself of that saying about sticky floors, happy kids.

  • Love this! I’ll pin it–not on Pinterest but on my fingerprint smudged refrigerator!

  • GabbyAbby

    I’ve always been in favor of keeping the gears greased and going around. I work and they give me money. In turn, I set aside some of my money and give it to another person who is also working, and their work is cleaning houses. I put money in and get a clean house back. Of course, the key is the money. My house is only as clean as I can afford for it to be. Sometimes, though, it is so disorganized that my thinking is clogged like a bath drain. Then I have to embrace orderliness b/c no one can do that for me, not really. It’s 1/2 my battle – not cleanliness, but order.

  • I’m so totally with you on this. I’ve had a run of bad health in the past year or so, and it has made being perfectly clean very difficult. My husband has picked up a little slack, but not a lot.

    We try to keep things clean that need to keep us safe–like clean dishes, sink, and counters; a clean toilet and counters; a clean refrigerator; litter boxes; and nothing I can trip over. Other than that? All bets are off.

    Sometimes, the best you can do is the best you can do and you just have to get over that effing 50s wifely standard of the perfect home while you vacuum in your pearls. Nu-uh. Not gonna do it.

    Thanks for this!


  • Betsy Constantine

    I love it!

Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Hillary Clinton, Shake It Off, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton Campaign song
Six Reasons “Shake It Off” Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song
Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan
A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign
I Married for Health Insurance
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Trump Reality Check, Now with Actual Facts!
Fascism Facts
I Married for Health Insurance
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Women’s Elections Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Token Drop in an Abysmal Bucket & the Plight of Women Under Sharia Law
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
Paris attacks, Paris terrorism
Is Paris Burning?
Chinese government and women's reproductive rights, adopting Chinese girls, international adoption
Dear Xi Jinping, I Am Writing to You as an American Mom of a 19-Year-Old Chinese Daughter
The Vital Voice of Hillary Clinton: Part 1
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
The Eyes Have It!
Ashley Madison, Jared Fogle, sex, rape, sexual affairs
Ashley Madison vs. Jared Fogle: Rape, Sex and Hacking in America
women's viagra, Viagra, Flibanserin, sexual arousal, women's desire, sex after menopause
That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread