I grew up in a messy house. It’s hard to write those words. But the fact is, I come from a “creative” family, and creativity comes with a lot of stuff.
But lately, as I read various essays debating whether women can really “have it all,” I feel grateful that my mom was a failed housekeeper. I remember her explaining to me that while our family might not have a perfect house, we had the important things – loving relationships and meaningful work. My mom was busy “having it all”: raising two kids and pursuing a successful second career as an artist. She knew what “it all” meant to her.
So this Mother’s Day, I want to thank my mom, Gloria Blasz Logan, for her messy house and the lessons she taught me about being a woman.
My dad, like his dad, is an obsessive collector – Hawaiian shirts, watches, books, poetry journals, ugly Christmas sweaters (not kidding), you name it. An introverted writer like me, he read endless piles of newspapers and magazines, turning them into hundreds of tiny clippings that covered the dining room table.
He never met a yard sale or a used bookstore that he didn’t like. And he wasn’t selfish in his shopping proclivities: For us kids, he filled an entire room of the house with toys. We called it “the toy room,” and it remained full long after we outgrew play dates.
My dad wasn’t a hoarder, but he accumulated far more than he ever threw away, and he didn’t like people messing with his stuff. If my mom hired someone to clean the house, it was an invitation to a standoff. A professional painter, gregarious volunteer, and voracious reader, she wasn’t as much of a collector, but she had never been a neatnik. If she disliked cleaning to begin with, my dad’s habits made her truly hate it.
Having a beautiful house just wasn’t important to my parents. And while their cluttered, bourgeois-bohemian lifestyle sounds cool now, it didn’t feel that way when I was living under their roof. My classmates at private school lived in houses that were pristine. I rarely brought friends over, and my parents, who were equally self-conscious, sometimes even discouraged it.
Not being able to bring a friend home from school like a “normal” kid was painful at times. But looking back, I see my mother was modeling liberated womanhood in a way that has shaped me much more than my shame about our unkempt dining room.
Turns out, a messy house just might be the new feminist manifesto.
In her recent New York Magazine cover story “The Feminist Housewife,” Lisa Miller cited a survey from the Families and Work Institute, in which women said that they hated doing housework and yearned for more free time. Yet when the women had more free time, they used it to clean. (Unlike my mom, apparently these women didn’t need to read all of Proust.)
“Psychologists suggest that perhaps American women are heirs and slaves to some atavistic need to prove their worth through domestic perfectionism,” Miller wrote.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also writes about the unequal division of household chores in her best-seller “Lean In,” encouraging women to make their partners “real partners” – in other words, loosening their domestic perfectionism so that men can be involved at home.
If you have time to lean, you don’t have time to clean, my mom might say.
But seriously, isn’t the constant pressure to have a beautiful house just an extension of the pressure women feel to be beautiful? While we teach young girls not to define themselves through their appearances, we seem to have no problem letting adult women be defined by whether or not the dishes are done.
My mom, God bless her, didn’t spend much time worrying about what other people thought. Sure, she occasionally felt guilty and embarrassed, but mostly she was unapologetic and defiant.
Our messy house was also a lesson about relationships. Instead of trying to change my dad, my mom chose to accept him – clutter, flaws, and all. She always looked at the positive: “Some men gamble or have affairs. Your father just wants to buy some used books.”
As for me, I take after my dad in a big way, so “naturally,” for my own partner, I’ve chosen an industrial designer who worships minimalism. But like my mom, my boyfriend is incredibly kind and doesn’t judge based on appearances. And like my dad, my boyfriend is looking for a lot more than a domestic goddess.
That’s why I find myself writing tonight, in a new apartment, surrounded by boxes I’m in no hurry to unpack. It’s about to be Mother’s Day, when we celebrate mom for how perfect she is. Or, for me, just the opposite.