I have had several sink issues over the years. Mostly flies. Fruit flies, drain flies, gnats ― it’s unclear what specific infestation of little winged creatures have taken over my sink area, but the cause was evident: the dirty dishes I’d left stacked there for weeks at a time. I once looked inside a pasta sauce-encrusted pot to see it teeming with wriggling white maggots, a detail so disgusting I hesitate to share it in publication.
There are a few reasons I’ve struggled to wash my dishes in a timely manner. I’m a recovering alcoholic, and in active addiction, I neglected a lot of the tasks of being human. After a nasty relapse that interrupted a nine-year period of sobriety, I had to call my mother to get on a plane and help me dig out of the mess I’d been living in. We did something like 15 loads of laundry; the clothes had been previously coating my bedroom floor in a pile several feet high.
But even in sobriety, I have always had a hard time with domestic duties. I’m the poster child for adult attention deficit disorder, which I was finally diagnosed with at age 30, and let me tell you now that executive function comes in mighty handy when it comes to household maintenance. When I look at a messy room, my focus is pulled in 50 different directions. Where a neurotypical person might just start picking up trash or putting items back in their places, I get truly paralyzed by all the possible approaches and instead, half the time, do nothing.
I also just don’t always see mess the same way a neurotypical person does. In past relationships, the trail of clutter or unnoticed drips and spills I left in my wake were a constant source of conflict. I didn’t know how to explain that it wasn’t that I was being lazy or careless ― it was that my brain functions differently.
I’m also a single mom to an almost-10-year-old and that means I’m always trying to do 15 things at once and to fit cleaning in between the more pressing matters of parenting. You can bet I clean that tub approximately five seconds before I’m putting that kid in it. Then I scrub the rest of the bathroom while he soaks. On a good day, anyway.
When COVID hit and we were suddenly confined to our homes, my already iffy housekeeping skills took a hit. My son and I were suddenly generating more garbage, dirty dishes and clutter than ever. In my early efforts to excel at pandemic momming, ongoing Lego projects with hundreds of tiny pieces took over the living room floor and goopy science projects dripped everywhere. The laundromat shut down and our dirty clothes piled up.
Not only were we trapped in our cramped New York City apartment, that apartment was becoming less pleasant by the day.
With the exception of perhaps the kitchen sink, nothing was the unsanitary kind of dirty. But that didn’t stop me from feeling a toxic, oozing shame about the mess. Despite understanding the unique challenges I face when it comes to domestic duties ― ADD, single parenting, lack of childhood modeling ― I always felt deep down that there was something fundamentally wrong with me that I couldn’t manage the way others seemed to, and that was a constant, underlying source of shame.
Then, I stumbled on the Instagram page for Struggle Care, a philosophy developed by licensed counselor KC Davis, to help people who struggle to complete what she calls “care tasks” because of functional barriers like mental health issues, neurodivergence like ADHD or autism, chronic pain or sickness, or temporary life stages like grief, postpartum, trauma, or being a caretaker to small children or another family member.
Davis told me she developed her approach after becoming a stay-at-home mom when her second daughter was born three weeks before the pandemic lockdown. Without access to the family and child care resources and support she had intended to rely on, things began piling up around her and for the first time, her house “stopped functioning.” Eventually she was diagnosed with postpartum depression.
One day, while both kids were napping, she decided to clean up using an organizational method she’d developed for herself and she casually filmed it and put it on TikTok, suggesting it might be helpful to people who struggle with depression or ADHD or who have children and are overwhelmed with cleaning. The clip went viral and she started answering questions from followers, of which she now has more than a million.
“People would say, ‘This is so helpful, I have so much shame around this.’ And I would respond and say, ‘Well, there’s no reason to have shame. It’s not a moral failing to have a messy house.’ And that’s where kind of the first pillar of Struggle Care came from ― that care tasks are morally neutral,” she said.
In fact, this is the first message I stumbled upon on Struggle Care’s Instagram page ― an image of several household messes that reads “Mess isn’t moral.” The caption says: “Being messy isn’t a character failing. Struggling with care tasks happens to lots of adults for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s as simple a hectic season of life. Sometimes mess even means good things about you. Dishes mean you fed yourself. Perhaps you prioritized more important things like relationships, career, or mental health and healing.”
Another image reads, “It’s not failure, it’s laundry. Laundry is morally neutral.” Another: “Housework is not motherhood.”
Reading these messages feels like exhaling a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
It was at once a revelation and utterly simple. Because, of course, struggling to do my dishes doesn’t make me a bad person, or a bad mother. Dirty dishes don’t say anything about my character. So why have I been telling myself they do my whole adult life?
“I think it became a tool of the patriarchy to keep women in their place, to be honest,” said Davis. “If you made a clean home and home cooked meals, and all these sort of these care tasks, if you make them moral obligations, and you praise people that do them and shame people that don’t do them, well, you sort of lay out this achievement scale for women.”
And of course a lot of women have been soaking up these messages connecting our proficiency at care tasks with our value our whole lives. Davis points out that, societally, we have a concept for men who are good dads but not great at care tasks. “Sure, the kids are going to school with their shoes on backward but he’s a GOOD DAD.” Yet we don’t really have the same concept for women.
A good mom is expected not only to be emotionally present and engaged in the work of parenting, but to keep a spotless home and put nutritious meals on the table as well.
But either way, one aspect of Davis’ approach rings true to me and that’s that “shame is the enemy of functioning.” Shaming yourself into doing your dishes works about as well as being shamed to lose weight, which is to say not at all, and in fact, the opposite result is usually achieved.
Neither of us is saying it’s fine for kids to grow up in a toxic biohazard. The message isn’t that a safe, sanitary environment isn’t important. It’s just that a compassionate, shame-free approach to overcoming whatever issues are causing the problem is more likely to help than beating yourself up.
Although Davis shares some tips and strategies that help her, she’s not selling a method that teaches you how to clean your kitchen or how to fold your clothes. Instead, she’s providing a foundation of moral neutrality and self-compassion that allows you to then gently build skills and find the routines that work best for you. Only by treating yourself kindly can you find the motivation to perform the self-care tasks you’re struggling with.
Davis said the videos that most often receive comments from followers who feel they’re finally able to start on a long-delayed care task are the videos about shame reduction and being kind to yourself.
“You deserve kindness regardless of your level of functioning,” she said. “The first and most important intervention of struggle care isn’t how do I get the dishes done or how do I complete care tasks. It’s starting to be kind to yourself right where you are.”
After decades of feeling like a failure or worrying that I was constantly falling short as a mom, that message was just what I needed to hear. I’m still working to keep my sink clean, but I’m also no longer telling myself I’m not good enough because it doesn’t come easily.
It’s obviously important to teach children responsibility, and I want my son to grow up having learned the domestic skills I didn’t. But I equally value his innate empathy and understanding.
Once when I made a self-deprecating comment about my housekeeping, he responded like some kind of underage sage: “Well first of all, Mom, it’s a pandemic. And also you don’t have a boyfriend or a husband so you’re doing everything by yourself. So I think you’re doing a pretty good job.” It came naturally to him to treat me with a kindness I have never afforded myself on this topic.
I want him to grow up treating himself with that same kindness when he falls short of perfection. And in the end, I think that’s more valuable than a spotless sink.