It happens each evening: I walk through a doorway and inevitably trip over something that belongs to one of the little humans I just tucked into bed. Be it LEGOs, dirty socks, pacifiers, or a half-open book, the feeling is always the same. The volcano of parenting failures that’s been bubbling since dawn suddenly erupts like flaming lava. I’m filled with an anxiety I can’t name.

I spend most days juggling three kids, a full-time job, a marriage, personal fulfillment — all amidst a pandemic — yet, clutter is the thing that breaks me. Sure, one day when my kids are grown I’ll likely miss the plastic menagerie that greets my feet each day, but that day is not today. In every corner of my home lies a reminder that I am not enough: Toys strewn about every living space, piles of laundry in all areas of the house, and a constant parade of crumbs that lead you from room to room like Hansel and Gretel marking their path back home. 

A quick scroll of my Instagram newsfeed seals the deal: Other parents can raise kids and keep their homes clean. They can have well-designed adult spaces with nary a toy in sight. 

What am I doing wrong? I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

“After spending a year home, my mental health took a toll on me,” says Brooke Melrose, mom of three in Medina, Ohio. “I have 3 kids, a dog and husband who have all been here since the shutdown. I can’t do it all, all of the time,” she says.

Clutter, as it turns out, isn’t just about stuff. 

What’s behind our emotional response to clutter?

I talked to psychotherapist and parenting coach Ana Sokolovic, MS, who says, “[Clutter] often has a meaning we attach to it. For parents, clutter can be a mirror for all the insecurities we harbor. It reminds them of the overall mental clutter they need to organize as they manage multiple roles and responsibilities.”

Throw in social media comparison, and home clutter can quickly deflate even the most positive parent’s spirit.  

“Due to social media, culture of neutral colors, impeccable kitchens, and [perfectly organized] Montessori toys, mothers carry stress to emulate the standards brought forth by bloggers and Pinterest,” explains Dr. Sandra Espinoza, PsyD. “There is this idea that you have it ‘all together’ if you [can maintain] a minimalistic aesthetic in your home,” she continues.

Dr. David Lewis, a UK-based psychologist, has coined a term for this phenomenon: Home Dysmorphic Disorder. The concept, he says, “starts with discontent about one, often minor, feature — such as an ornament, picture, or item of furniture. It then quickly spreads, like an oil slick, to trigger unhappiness with the whole room or even the entire house.” 

Our homes are places of security, safety, and comfort. The way we decorate and live in them can be a reflection of ourselves and an extension of our self-image. This is all challenged, Dr. Lewis explains, as we are exposed to the choices and homes of others. Clutter is no longer hidden behind your walls, in a sense. 

A home is a place that a person should experience as a refuge, a safe haven from the world,” Dr. Espinoza says. “We are seeing women [especially] who cannot experience their home as a safe place; instead, they experience it as a place of defeat.”

What happens next is familiar to most of us: burnout. Impatience and frustration directed at your kids. Outbursts like, “No, I can’t play, I have to clean!” I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t guilty of it all. “It’s fairly common for parents to think, ‘I’d love to play with my kids or go for a walk with my family, but there’s just this huge mess,’” notes mental health therapist Billy Roberts, LISW-S, “and this line of thinking can lead to action paralysis.”

“When I first became a parent, I spent tons of time per day cleaning,” Juliana Parker, M.S. APCC, associate therapist and mom of three, tells me. “My house looked clean, but I was stressed out, tired, and felt like I wasn’t enjoying my time with my kiddos because I was too focused on how my house looked. [I had to learn to] gently and slowly release the expectations that everything has to be perfect.”

In the past year especially, we’ve had to face down a lot of the ideals we held for ourselves and our lives in favor of survival. If I could count the times I’ve closed my eyes amidst the commotion of children playing and silently thanked the universe for the safety of our home and the health of my family, it would be in the hundreds. So why am I prioritizing presence with my family and a clean home equally, when one thing is infinitely more important to me?

Now, I’m done apologizing for clutter. I’m done trying to make my house look as if children don’t live here, too. I’m done feeling inadequate when, in fact, I am thriving and raising children who are doing the same.

Parents can refocus some of their energy on their own self-care, which can also involve their children, Roberts tells me. “Going for walks, baking cookies, laughter, can all come before decluttering the cabinets. In fact,” he says, “focusing on self-care will almost assuredly improve productivity around household tasks through re-energizing a parent’s mind and heart.”

Melrose says, “I remember [my mom’s] stress about cleanliness. I remember her cleaning and vacuuming constantly. So maybe subconsciously I want to be the opposite. And I’m OK with it.” 

A few years into my parenting journey, I gave up on staying on top of laundry. “I wish I was a person who can stay up to date with laundry, but I’m not,” I told myself. I wasn’t failing at something, I was choosing to prioritize something else. 

Accept — and maybe even appreciate — this life stage.

As a culture, we seem to obsess over having our houses look like children don’t live there. The problem with that is, of course, that children live there. And as little humans with their own needs and wants, they come with their share of stuff. This is a season of life. 

“My girl’s playroom is in a constant state of chaos… to me,” says Jo Anna Albiar, mom of one in Lubbock, Texas. “I see a mess. But when I get in there to clean, when I get down on the floor and see the little worlds she has created, I stop myself. It makes me so happy to see my 5-year-old do science experiments, run through a rain puddle without shoes, leave swimsuits scattered. I want her to know this is her home. ”

Recognizing my children as their own beings is one of the hardest and most important mindset shifts I am making. My need for a clean, tidy home is not more important than their desire to play; but both things can exist together with cooperation and compromise. For me, that means mitigating my desires for clean floors by designating “dump baskets” in each room — at the end of the day, everything on the floor gets dumped into a basket. I can breathe a little easier, and my kids can still be (ahem, messy) kids.

It also means that I work hard to have my kids understand that we all care for the home. Even kids can have simple responsibilities — whether it’s helping with laundry, cleaning toys, or wiping down counters. Adding onus onto their plates takes some off mine and begins to teach life skills like self-sufficiency and teamwork. 

“To embrace clutter, we must change our perception,” explains Sokolovic. Instead of viewing clutter in a purely negative light, she tells us, we need to see it as a reflection of our current priorities. She notes “It’s an opportunity to smile at the chaos with gratitude that the family is healthy enough to make a mess.”

Clutter in my home is a privilege. To have a house filled with books, art supplies, and plenty of food is something I’ve always dreamed of. The disasters of each day can be tiny morsels of recognition if I choose to look at them like this: “You are doing a good job. You are giving them a life full of love and learning.” 

The truth is that my life — and the lives of the families I interviewed — are not failures, regardless of how cluttered our homes may be. My kids are happy and inquisitive and safe. They have a mom who likes to bake and paint and sit in the grass with them. She makes a lot of mistakes and she doesn’t know what she’s doing most of the time, but she’s always there.

My home is often a mess. I am not. 

Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.