PHOTO BY CARMEN CHEUNG
Before I had a baby, I had dreamed of what my days as a new mother would look like. As far as I could tell from magazines and social media, it looked like playgrounds, mom groups and cozy cuddles with my newborn.
In actuality, the first few days with my baby were indeed pretty magical: Family came and went showering us with gifts, well-wishes and advice. I never felt so loved and content. But after the visits stopped, and my partner went back to work, I was home alone with a mysterious creature who cried, ate, pooped and slept. I didn’t have time to shower and feed myself, let alone worry about my messy house. And more than anything, I felt excruciatingly lonely. As I scrolled through the endless pictures of glowing mothers in pristine, Pinterest-perfect themed nurseries, I shut the cover of my laptop and cried right along with my son.
My version of motherhood looked nothing like what I’d seen on social media. Dishes littered the sink, laundry overflowed, and in the middle of the messy house, my son spit up all over his last clean sleeper. I couldn’t figure out how to keep my home as clean and together as every other mom’s appeared online while also taking care of a very helpless, always hungry human. My husband and I were focused on feedings and getting more than two hours of sleep in a row at night; we barely had the energy to accomplish basic tasks like getting groceries and making ourselves dinner.
A week after bursting into tears while scrolling Pinterest, I decided to try a local weekly moms’ group I’d been invited to. As I drove up to the host's house, I noticed that even the lawn was perfectly manicured. And when the other new mom opened the door, I swore I heard angels sing. Just like the images I’d seen online, this space was perfect too, but this was IRL. Her home was immaculate. I wondered what she thought of my mismatched socks as I took off my winter boots, left them on the mat by the door and followed her into the kitchen. The floors were shining, the trendy farmhouse sink didn’t have a dish in it and she looked rested and sane. Her adorable baby was dressed in a cute matching outfit I’d seen in a magazine. I followed her into the living room, sure I didn’t measure up.
Once I heard that the plan was to rotate who hosted the group every week, I made some excuse, bundled up the baby again and high-tailed it out of there. The thought of those mothers coming into my messy house—and pushing laundry off the couch to sit down and nurse their babies—was horrifying. I knew that I could never volunteer to host, and so I never went back.
Growing up, my family believed cleanliness was next to godliness. Saturdays were spent scouring the house. I carried that same compulsive neatnik gene into my own life as an adult—until motherhood threw me for a loop. When my family was planning a visit, I’d knock myself out, spending an entire week cleaning before their arrival: vacuuming the floors with the baby strapped to my body, shushing and bouncing to lull him to sleep. I’d forego my few-and-far-between opportunities to shower or sleep while the baby slept (ha!), choosing instead to spend that time organizing cabinets and washing clothes so that I’d appear more together than I actually was. When my family finally arrived, I was so exhausted from the cleaning frenzy that it was hard to enjoy the visit.
I’m not imagining this cultural pressure for women to keep a clean house. One May 2019 study from the Journal of Sociological Methods & Research found that women are indeed judged on the cleanliness of their home, while men are not. The barrage of perfect Instagram images further perpetuates the myth that motherhood should be clean and clutter-free, with serene women cuddling their peaceful offspring in design-blog-worthy homes. My social media streams definitely twisted my perception of reality and how I measured up as a mom: I was so afraid of being judged for my messy house, I chose loneliness at a time when I needed companionship so much.
Luckily, with the birth of my second child, less than two years later, I discovered the truth. By then, I’d met other women who were real and honest—who revelled in their imperfect homes and chaotic families—and I learned to ease up on myself. I unfollowed some of the picture-perfect mommy blogs and accounts that were eating away at my self-worth. And honestly, as a mom of two, I also just didn’t have the time. It was either keep a clean home, or keep my sanity. Once you add two children to the mix, life gets complicated. It's impossible to balance all the demands. And while the societal judgement is real, now I know that there are so many women who live like I do—surrounded by hampers they can’t find the bottom of, and sinks with endless dishes. I learned to spot these women out in the real world, too: at the grocery store, fumbling through aisles with their own screaming children, and at the library circle time, trying to sing along with drool-covered shirts and deep under-eye circles. They became the women who saved me.
The key for me was finding my people—the women I could open up with. I could let them see my disaster of a home because it mirrored their own. Once I did, I realized that motherhood doesn’t have to be so solitary and self-critical. A spotless house does not make you a good mother, just as a dirty one doesn’t make you a bad mom. In fact, the disorder at home probably means you’re prioritizing the big stuff, and doing what you need to take care of yourself and your children. Instead of cleaning, you can take a walk, read a book, watch a show, or invite a group of friends over—the kind of friends who know our worth as mothers is not determined by the way our homes look. Motherhood is messy—and it’s OK to show it.