Interview with Mindy Starns Clark: Encouragement for Harried Moms

This is Part II of my interview with Mindy Starns Clark, author of the revolutionary home keeping book The House That Cleans Itself. Be sure to check out Part I of my interview, found here. 

 Kristina: What words of encouragement and advice would you give moms (like me!) who look around the house and are completely overwhelmed by the idea of getting it in order?

Mindy: First, a caveat: I’m going to answer this and the following questions with the assumption that most of your readers are married, with kids, and are the primary caretaker of the children. My apologies in advance to two-career couples, single moms, house-husbands, etc. No offense is intended, it’s just easier to write with this assumption rather than trying to cover all of the bases.

Okay, in answer to this question, allow me to rant for a moment…

First of all, take a deep breath, throw your guilt out of the window, and give yourself a big hug. No one knows how hard it is to be home with kids except those who have been there. The world puts so many expectations on young mothers these days, it’s just absurd: Mother your children AND get those kids into numerous activities so they will be well-rounded AND try to develop a side income/part time job to help with the family finances AND be an attractive, loving partner/sex goddess for your husband AND be sure to keep yourself up on current events AND make sure you eat healthfully and do regular workouts AND do your part volunteering at the church and school AND keep your home clean at all times AND make sure it’s decorated like in a magazine AND on and on.) The problem is that we always leave out one of the “ands”: AND do this all by yourself with no outside help whatsoever because your extended family lives far away and your neighbors all have full time jobs outside of the home and your spouse hasn’t got a clue how much time all of this stuff takes. In other words, are you kidding me? Somehow, we’ve kept all of the expectations that we used to have for young mothers back when there were support systems to help make that possible, and to all of those we’ve added tons more new expectations. The justification? Well, nowadays we have things like microwave ovens and automatic washers and dryers, so all of this household stuff should be faster and easier, right?

Wrong. For every new invention or development that was meant to help streamline our lives, I contend that man has done something to “compensate” so that the streamlining gets completely negated. For example:

- Microwaves allow us to cook faster, yes, but now there is an expectation that we should be able to whip up healthy meals night after night in record time without much effort or planning or hard work. Good grief. Microwave or not, feeding our families well is a huge, time-consuming undertaking that should never be underestimated.

- Washing and drying a load of laundry takes far less time for us than it ever did for our grandmothers. But guess what? We own about 10 or even 20 times more clothes than they did, because of our busy lives and various activities, we change those clothes far more often, and there are zillions of different fabrics and fabric-cleaning products for us to deal with. No wonder laundry still sucks up as much time as it ever did! We may do it faster, but we also have to do it far more often and with a greater variety of products/temperatures/handling.

- Caring for the lawn with a riding mower and a weed eater is far faster and easier than the way grandpa had to do it with his antiquated lawn tools. But guess what? Keeping our lawns tidy is no longer enough, especially now that we live in the suburbs. These days, we also have to weed, chip, shred, mulch, landscape, and more. Better garden as well, and make sure it’s organic. How about compost, are you doing your part to save the earth? For every advance in machinery, we heap on another load of expectations!

- In my mother’s day, many housewives didn’t have a car. Nowadays, of course, car-less-ness would be a rarity, which should make our lives easier and more convenient, saving us lots of time. But guess what? With readily-available transportation, we are now expected to ferry our kids and ourselves hither and yon, taking lessons, joining teams, volunteering, handling obligations, etc., all of which eats away at our time in humongous ways. Having our own cars hasn’t saved anything at all but has, instead, robbed us of much.

I could keep going, but you get my drift. The more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same—or even gotten worse—and yet somehow our mindsets have completely bought into all of these new myths.

So my primary word of encouragement is this: Recognize the myths that pervade in your household—in your own mind and in your husband’s—and claim them for the lies they are. Toss those myths, then toss the guilt as well. Your job is incredibly hard, especially in this day and age.

Next, embrace this truth: If your house has fallen apart, then you probably aren’t gifted at housekeeping. Some people can’t sing, some can’t dance, it just so happens that you can’t keep a house clean. You may know how to clean, you may be able to whip that place into shape like nobody’s business when you have to, but if it isn’t consistently clean then this is simply a talent that you lack. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s simply a fact, one that you need to acknowledge and accept if you’re going to move on and find other ways around the problem of a messy house. If your house has gotten the better of you, it’s not going to be fixed by wanting it more or trying harder. You’ve already done both for a long, long time. Instead, you need to do something completely different. You need a revolutionary approach.

Once you accept that fact, then what? I contend that you begin to get things under control by committing to these two statements:

- My single most important job is to love and respect my husband and be his helpmate, support system, encourager, and best friend.

- My second most important job is to be Christ to my children, keeping them safe and healthy and loved, and teaching and living in such a way that they see Him in me.

If you agree with the above, then every single decision you make about how and where you spend your time and effort on your home should be based on these two statements. Do you see “scrub toilets daily” anywhere in there? I don’t! If I look at these two truths and consider how they might relate to housekeeping in my home, here’s what I see:

1. I should talk to my husband about the various messes around here, find out which parts bother him the most, and focus on keeping those under control, simply as a demonstration of my love for him. I should also learn which little acts of cleaning please him the most/relieve stress for him the most, and try to do those whenever I can. In turn, to preserve my peace and sanity, I need to help him understand how very hard my job is, where my priorities as a wife and mother lie, and how he can better pitch in to help me keep things under control.

2. I should keep housekeeping in its proper perspective with regards to my children, remembering that kids need to live in a neat and orderly home that functions well, but that there are many other housekeeping chores that don’t fall under that umbrella that should probably be put aside for now. There will be time for alphabetizing the spices when they are grown and gone; right now, it is far more important that I aim most days for a minimum standard. That means my kids need to know that:

a. they can trust me to have a system that keeps me from losing important papers they bring home from school or groups

b. they will always have a neat, well-lit, comfortable place to do homework

c. there is a logical place to put the items they bring in and out of the house on a regular basis, such as backpacks, sporting equipment, etc.

d. when friends come over the house is clean ENOUGH that they don’t feel embarrassed by it.

Anything else beyond this standard is probably more than is needed at this stage of life.

3. I should allow myself to do the chores that please me and give me a sense of peace and control, but I need to think seriously about this and define exactly what those chores are and how much time I should be spending on them. Again, life comes in phases, and when there are small kids at home that’s by its very nature going to be a messier phase. Thus, I will define the chores that are most important to me, weed out all but a few, and not in any way feel guilty about the ones that get put aside for another phase when time isn’t at such a premium.

How does the above look when put into practice? It’s really a matter of choices. For example…

With regards to my husband:

- If his pet peeve is to see a sink filled with dirty dishes, then I’ll choose loading the dishwasher (his preference) over sweeping the front walk (a chore I might do instead just because the broom was handy and I had a minute). If he wants a spot near the door where he can dump his things when he comes in and they won’t be disturbed, I’ll suggest that we rearrange the furniture so that he has a cabinet where he wants it, and I’ll make it a hard and fast rule with the kids that they don’t touch Daddy’s cabinet, ever. If he just wants to know that there will always be a clean t-shirt in his drawer when he gets dressed each morning, I’ll make the laundry choices that help that to happen—and if it’s too much trouble to do laundry that often I’ll go out and buy him more t-shirts so that I only have to worry about it once every few weeks!

With regards to my kids:

- I will make decisions about how I spend my housekeeping time based on the goal of having a home that is primarily neat and functional for their lives and mine, rather than one that looks impressive to the neighbors or could pass my mother-in-law’s white glove test. That means making sure that the homework area is kept clean and organized and inviting, even if I’d rather spend that time dusting the knick knacks and organizing the gift wrap. It means that I need to tackle the household paper issue once and for all so that I never lose an important note from the school again—even if that means I have to skip my big spring cleaning this year. It means that when it comes time for a new couch, I’ll choose the one with the pattern that best hides dirt and stains, even if I’d prefer one that’s light and monochromatic but would show every spot.

With regards to myself:

-For my own mental health, I’ll continue to do those household chores that I need done to keep me sane, even if my hubby or kids could care less. (Personally, how my family isn’t bothered by globs of food and puddles of water on the kitchen countertops is beyond me; if I didn’t wipe the counters clean at least once a day I’d go nuts.) But I won’t just jump in on autopilot and think I need to do all of those tasks that I’ve been told I “ought” to do. Says who? The only ought in my life when I have kids at home is that I ought to make sure our home is functional for my husband, my children, and myself, and that it is clean enough that it feels like a peaceful, pleasant place to be. Everything else is beside the point.

Okay, so this all sounds good in theory, but what should you do if you’ve already let things go too far? If your family is languishing amid disastrous mess and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get a handle on it, then it’s time to take drastic action. More than anyone, you need a House That Cleans Itself! Finding time to make that happen isn’t easy, but it’s worth it in the long run. Consider going into a sort of “hibernation” for a while, dropping outside responsibilities and extracurricular activities so that you can focus on getting your home back on track. OR maybe it’s time to put out a call for help. Give the book to a non-judgmental friend and ask if they would read it and then help guide you through the system, give you some accountability, and lovingly aid you as you problem-solve your way out of the disaster.

Perhaps it’s time to make some other changes as well, such as asking your spouse to carry more of the load, requiring more from your children, speaking to your doctor about any medical issues you may suspect that you have (depression, anemia, ADD, and many other conditions can contribute significantly to household mess), hiring someone to provide occasional cleaning help or child care, trading off with a friend, having a dumpster put in the front yard, or whatever else it takes to get your home under control.

Remember: Structure. Function. Peace. As a mom, these need to be your priorities and goals, not shiny granite or a sparkling oven or well-trimmed shrubbery. Those can wait until the kids are older. For now, your efforts should be all about creating structure, preserving function, and providing a sense of peace. As the kids grow, the specifics of how that’s done may change, but the goals should remain the same. For example, a toddler could care less about that giant pile of clean laundry waiting to be folded, but a preteen would rather die than have her friends see a pile of her father’s tighty whities on the living room couch. J

You know, being a good parent means that in many ways we must become selfless, and housekeeping is no exception. There are only so many hours in a day, so as a parent your job is to give highest priority to the chores that have the greatest impact on your family’s functionality and mental health. Everything else should be put at the bottom of the list—perhaps even delegated, postponed, or eliminated entirely.

Trust me, speaking as an empty-nester, the day will come much sooner than you think when there’s no one around to make those terrible messes except you and your spouse. So for now, while they’re still with you, throw out the “perfect” home that lives only in your imagination, focus on creating function and peace around you instead, and tell yourself that once the youngest heads off to college THEN you can be the housekeeper of your dreams. Hopefully, by then you’ll have learned that you’re never going to change but that it doesn’t matter because your house is now cleaning itself.

Watch for PART III of my interview with Mindy, where she offers specific advice about dealing with kids and husbands who are messies.
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1 comment

  1. Thank you! It's so easy to write out lengthy to-do lists and forget why we are doing it all. -our husband and children.