Home > Daily Special

The Life-Changing Magic of Embracing a Mess

By Michelle Lehnardt

a beautiful mess

I knew my little boys needed another story. It had been a long day, full of too many errands, not enough play and an unfortunate fight at bedtime. But darn it, I was going to get that kitchen clean. We’d just had a Relief Society Lesson on “a house of order” and I’d read one too many articles about the importance of “putting the kitchen to bed.” Leaving my seven-year-old to read picture books to his younger brothers, I stole downstairs to wash, wipe and sweep.

Just minutes into my routine, I heard yelling from upstairs, the sound of something hitting the floor, and a cry escalating into a wail. I entered the room to find the usual ruckus– one boy was turning the pages too fast, hitting ensued and the innocent third was knocked onto the floor.  As I wiped tears and settled little ones back into their beds, I grumbled, “It would be nice if you get  along for a few minutes so I could get the kitchen clean.”

“Why?” an innocent voice piped up, “We’re just going to mess it up again in the morning.”


Every January brings an onslaught of organizational articles and tips on decluttering, but it feels worse this year. Every time I see a young mom Instagramming her goal to “rid my house of everything that doesn’t bring me joy” I want to yell, “STOP!” For children, magic hides in a bin of jumbled Legos, an old wood pile, a craftbox full of styrofoam, broken crayons and glue sticks, in a kitchen where they can create new recipes, cut out paper shapes and roll Playdoh on the counter. Childhood isn’t tidy; it isn’t meant to be.

In her defense, Marie Kondo, the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up  makes it clear that her advice is for individuals. We should never throw away other’s belongings or impose our standard of cleanliness. But like everything else on the planet, women, and especially Mormon women, can take anything good and create an impossibly high standard for themselves. Too often we derive our self-worth from our external surroundings, when so many things– illness, injury, work schedules, children– are beyond our control.

After my ‘aha’ moment with my children, I started seeking out different voices. We’ve all heard the adage “I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep” and you’re probably familiar with the comparison of building a family to a construction zone– it’s messy in here! But I wanted some practical advice to balance my desire for a clean house with the chaos of a growing family.

Julie taught me the principle of  ‘purposeful neglect’– making a conscious decision to ignore the garage, the basement, my dirty car, or whatever I needed to completely take off my plate. I don’t feel guilty when I look at our playroom; I’m purposely neglecting the mess.

From Becky I learned to clean only with my children around.* Too many moms use up precious minutes and hours when their children are asleep or at school to scrub the floor. Cleaning with our children teaches them skills and when they see the work we do, they are less likely to complain about unloading the dishwasher or vacuuming the floor. I’m not saying they get excited about cleaning the bathrooms on Saturday morning, but at least they don’t think a good fairy polishes everything while they sleep.

One of the best tips came from a woman with 11 children with an extraordinarily tidy home. She told me, “Oh, you can’t have a clean house now honey. Wait until all your kids grow up and move out.” Did I mention she has ELEVEN children? At the absolute minimum she had thirty years of childrearing before her storage room was clean.

Like you, I’ve been in homes where the family has been trained (usually by the mom, but I can name more than one dad) to maintain absolute cleanliness. No one leaves socks on the family room floor, a child wouldn’t dream of getting a cup of milk without washing the glass and putting it away. And while I’m sure those families achieve that ideal with kindness and love, I know I couldn’t do it without a whole lot of screaming.

Perhaps now I’m coming to the main point– our families are unique with different needs and personalities. No book or method offers a one size fits all solution. I’m a recovering perfectionist trying to minimize the OCD tendencies of two of my children while not fighting with my husband who truly doesn’t see dirt or kill the spirit of my son who invents something new every week** and absolutely must leave everything he owns on the floor.

For us, our comfortably messy house incubates creativity, acceptance, really good cooking, laughter and love. Even now, sixteen years after my ‘aha’ moment, I feel slightly victorious every night when I go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink, crumbs on the floor. That mess, and more, will wait til morning. And I need my sleep.

*admittedly, I could do a lot better at this. I just love cleaning the house when (almost) everyone leaves for work and school.

**check out instructables.com


About Michelle Lehnardt

(Blog Team) I'm the kind of mom who drives through mud puddles, throws pumpkins off the roof and lets the kids move the ping-pong table into the kitchen for the summer. Despite (or probably, because of) my immaturity, my five sons and one daughter are happy, thriving, funny people. I'll climb a mountain with you, jump into a freezing lake hand-in-hand or just sit with you while you cry. I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ will heal the earth. Founder of buildyourteenager.com, scenesfromthewild.net and rubygirl.org.

20 thoughts on “The Life-Changing Magic of Embracing a Mess”

  1. I think the pendulum can swing too far in either direction. After five years of homeschooling, the state of my house has been the one thing that I've let go in order to maintain sanity. But a constantly messy house has a psychological impact on family members that is not always positive. This year I've felt that it is time to take the reins and teach my family that we can all take responsibility for keeping our space neater–not perfect, but much neater. Decluttering using Marie Kondo's book is one of the tools I'm using. I do think most of us have too much stuff, many kids have way more toys than they need. We have always been relatively minimalist when it comes to toys, at least compared to many families we know. Yet our children still find plenty of things to do. Cleaning, for me, has never come in the way of spending time with my children. Quite the opposite–I've spent so much "quality" time with my kids teaching them and doing crafts; this is why we need to work on cleaning.

  2. I love the ideas you share here, especially not cleaning when the children are gone (or asleep.) That reminds me of my Aunt's, Mother's advice never do something while the children are asleep that you can do when they are awake. The time when kids are sleeping is time you should use for yourself (read! nap! relax!)

    I have had women ask me how I deal with kids messy rooms. My answer "close the door." Once they hit an age where they are able to take care of their rooms themselves, I just don't go in the messy rooms if I can help it. I do help them clean (and organize)their rooms when they are younger, and I keep my room clean and organized so they have an example to follow. (I will also help them when they are older, if they are trying to conquer a big mess) Many kids go through a messy room stage and grow out of it eventually.

    This past Christmas season we had a daughter getting ready to leave on a mission and a flood in the downstairs bathroom. The family room was piled high with stuff moved because of drying carpet and walls, and because of daughters personal stuff being sorted before her departure. It was crazy. It still is a little crazy even after she is gone because I started a new semester of school and have to work on putting everything back little by little. In the middle of all the crazy disorganization I just kept reminding myself that my family was more important than the mess. One daughter would leave on her mission, other daughter would go back to school in another state, married kids would go back to their busy lives and the little kids would be back in school. I wanted them to have good memories of being together, not of a mom who was crazy because of the mess.

  3. Ah, the ever elusive notion of finding balance.

    I am by nature, quite organized. I thrive in clean environments where everything has a place. Sometimes I am certain that I can't find peace until the house is cleaned.


    I am a homeschooling mom of four young kids. My husband, who does not only not share my enthusiasm for cleaning but seems to have a complete aversion to it, works from home. Despite my best efforts, I can't ever maintain the cleanliness I desire. And sometimes I will lose my voice by yelling to obtain it. And nobody is happy about that. I usually give way to the messes and try to look the other direction. But it only takes so long before the chaos takes its emotional toll on me and I start to feel myself losing it. I envy mothers who can let kids pull out numerous crafts and toys and games all at the same time and happily play with them without their eye starting to twitch from the stress of it all. My sister in law is like this. I wish I could be more like her naturally. And by way of conversation, she once mentioned to me she admires my knack for organization and cleanliness and wishes she could be more like me. Does the pendulum ever just stop in the middle like we all need it too??

    I have seen all the pins and posts about decluttering, and usually I am in the game with all the others this time of year. But this January seems worse than any other before, and instead I am trying to maintain a home that is a balance between my need for organization and my children's needs for creativity. And I'm just trying to let everything else go. It's not easy. But it's nice to know I'm not alone. Thanks for this wonderful post to help me ponder where I stand and where I'm trying to get once again.

  4. Oh, this is such a struggle for me! Especially considering I have three kids 5 and under and another on the way. There is no way I can expect to have a clean house! I really like the idea of purposeful neglect, it's how I approach laundry. Since people wear clothes everyday, laundry is never "done." But I set aside 2 days a week to do it and don't think about it any other time. It really saves my sanity when it comes to that never-ending chore. And I definitely second the idea of working when the kids are awake versus sleeping. At this stage in my life, I don't feel one iota of guilt for taking a nap when my kids are napping.

    Here's my biggest hangup when it comes to this topic and the advice to focus on the kids instead of the house (which is not necessarily what you were saying): I grew up in a very messy house. And it was embarrassing. I never invited friends over because of this. People who say kids won't care if the house is a mess, just that you played with them, are wrong. They do care. I did. Maybe not when I was 3 or 4, but definitely at 9, 10, 11 and beyond. I'm terribly insecure in all things domestic because I was never taught some of those basic skills like how to clean a bathroom and feel like I've spent my entire adult life trying to catch up and "fake it." So, I'm working on figuring out what is good enough so that my children won't be embarrassed but also won't feel like all I am is a cleaning Nazi.

  5. A time for every purpose under heaven…

    I just finished KonMari's great book and it's the perfect season for me to employ it. I think the chaos leftover from a lifetime of raising children needs to be brought under control. We hope to be leaving on a senior's mission in 3 years….I haven't been able to write for months.. I no longer need the things I thought I might need when another science project or a craft project was right around the corner.

    But as a grandmother, the two storage containers of craft supplies (silk flowers, glitter glue, twine, paints…etc) are right by the attic door and get pulled out for fun when the granddaughters arrive.

    A time for every season and purpose under heaven. The trick is knowing the time…

    And one day they do leave home…and I have no regrets for the clean, but untidy house they all remember….

  6. Oh, I hear you. Too much mess can be embarrassing. Here's how we do the balance at our house: every day, the main living areas– kitchen and family room get cleaned (at my house that's just one big room). The kitchen table is always clean enough to eat dinner together (though sometimes we shove things down to the end of the table). But the rest of the house? Well, sometimes it's clean sometimes it's not. It's a compromise that works for me– most of the time.

  7. If I were writing this piece, I would add something I learned from my friend Michelle (ahem, you, my dear): don't spend more than a couple hours cleaning per day. That seems like a lot, but to really get your house put together when you have a big family would take WAY longer than that, so do what you can for a while and then save the rest for another day.

    Words I live by.

    My brother is building a house and gave it a name. When asked what our house is called, I just said 'Neverclean' ? It is always clean in some places, but never all clean at the same time!

  8. While my widowed grandmother raised her three young children, she wistfully admired a neighbor's stunning roses. One day her neighbor put a hand on Grandma's shoulder and said, "You can't raise kids and roses at the same time."

    That story has been relayed to each new generation in our family. Whether we're tending a beautiful rose garden or creating a pristine home, we need to put our priorities on the people in our care.

    (After my dad, Grandma's youngest, grew up, Grandma grew gorgeous roses–and raspberries.)

  9. I have struggled with this as I have gone back to work. I have also decided some things are better than a tidy house.

    My relationship with my teenage daughter is more important than her room being clean. it isn't worth the nagging.

    My three high school children have to use laptops for homework. We have set up a area in the house ajoining the kitchen with four desks, one for each laptop and one for me. This is were all the homework is done. It is always a mess. But I have to keep reminding myself that having the children on computers in the open is better than tucked away neatly in their bedrooms. Evenings are full of communication and homework as we all sit together and work on homework together (especailly as I start University this year so will be doing homework with them).

  10. Michelle, I just love your perspective, full of wisdom and compassion. I really enjoyed reading the comments here too.

    One of the toughest jobs in mortality is sifting through competing needs and demands and choosing what will take priority in any given moment. In some seasons of life, having 72 hours' worth of time compressed into a day would still not be enough to "do it all". You just have to do a "good enough" job in the most important areas and give yourself permission to be satisfied with all your heartfelt efforts.

    I had twins more than 10 years ago. (This is by no means the hardest mothering challenge out there, but it definitely stretched me.) Since I already had some health issues at the time, I knew that I would have to be so careful with my resources (everything became stripped down to the barest bones version of itself). Particularly for their first six months of life, I told myself every day that feeding and clothing the six members of our family was my only job. Anything else that got done was a bonus. This thinking completely liberated me. I savored those fleeting moments with my babies and did the bare minimum in the house. We by no means were living in complete squalor, but my husband and I were not concerned if a bowl of pancake batter sat out until the evening or a Playmobil castle decorated the living room for days. I could sit and nurse and change diapers and play games with the older boys without the additional weight of feeling guilty about things left undone.

    Another story comes to mind. My older, very wise sister was going to host some guests a few years back. The guests unexpectedly called to announce they were going to be arriving much, much sooner than anticipated. My sister had a very full life at the time (teaching yoga, raising three sons, and making life work with a husband in Afghanistan). After the phone call, she paused for a moment to make a choice. She could have a very clean house for the guests when they arrived. Because of her already exhausted state, this would entail yelling and getting very angry with her kids while they all scrambled to clean. Or she could do the bare minimum to make the house passable and trust the guests would understand. This would create more peace for her own family. My sister chose the latter. She told me that she would rather have the clutter of blankets, books, and backpacks in a home that still had the emotional atmostphere she wanted most for her kids.

    One of the most important things I have done for myself in working through anxiety is this: I work to focus on what I did get right and what I did do well rather than all that I could have or should have done. It helps me make peace with all the botched projects, missing pieces, and jagged edges of my life.

    Thanks again for an amazing post, Michelle.

  11. At four kids, I've hit the point of "clean enough" in my every day. I, like you, tidy the downstairs enough, and with only the children's help. I can't go very long with my living areas messy, it disturbs my peace and makes me into a crazy person. If I let it go too long, that's when the yelling happens to get things under control. But still, I needed to read this and remind myself that my housekeeping and parenting decisions are good and good for my family. 🙂 I am ok with intentional untidiness.

  12. Love this. For my own sanity I made a rule not to clean when kids were sleeping–partly because they need to see it's work, but more because that time was too valuable–I do paid work (grading and class prep), or I write. I do wish the house were cleaner sometimes, but most of the time I prefer the trade-off.

  13. I've discovered that it goes both ways–too much clutter and mess can drive away the Spirit (especially if it's ongoing and not just temporary), but too much stressing about a messy house and nagging my family can drive the Spirit away too. I'm constantly re-evaluating my approach, especially when it comes to bigger tasks and deep cleaning (not the daily stuff that always gets done). One of my goals in parenting is to teach my kids how to be responsible for their things and the things of others, and also to work hard. I also want them to feel loved, supported, and to have space to be creative. As you point out–sometimes those goals conflict.

    Right now I work full-time and my kids spend alternating weekends with their dad. I constantly feel the pull between cleaning when they aren't home so we can enjoy our time together, and leaving the cleaning for when they're here so they can learn how to work together. Most of the time, I just have us all clean during the times they are home. I've also started a rotation of having them help with different jobs in the evening after I get home from work–preparing dinner or doing dishes together with a child is a great way to reconnect at the end of a busy day.

  14. My kid once asked me why our house is always messy. I told her she could have the mom who makes cookies and plays video games, or the one with a clean house. She chose the cookie making mom.

    Sadly I am a third generation slob, and my husband came from a family who ran a motel. Some days I count it good if our house doesn't smell, and others I try to keep it less cluttered.

    When we were selling our house and had to keep it show ready for 6 months I almost went crazy. We didn't do anything in our house because we didn't want to make a mess. No craft projects, no Legos, no meals that resulted in dirty pans. I hated it. I'd rather have a house that looks like we live here than an inhospitable showroom.

    We are not hoarders, but by the standards of our new neighborhood we are definitely the most relaxed housekeepers. And for some reason all the kids want to hang out at our house where we have snacks and craft projects and a mom that is okay if you mess up the kitchen. Sometimes I even successfully get them to help clean up.


Leave a Comment