Teach me, men, how you ignore clutter
And also here are some offensive thoughts about women
My sister Kelsey and I went to help out my parents recently, and I went on such a tidying rampage that I had to question my seemingly inborn desire to maintain tidy spaces. I cleaned out so many closets and drawers, and I had an absolute blast. No sarcasm.
From whence does this drive come? And why is this energy focused on domestic spaces in particular? (I don’t care that our decrepit Nissan Versa is absolutely filthy, a legitimate embarrassment.) Some interrogations follow.
1. Do animals keep neat homes?
Upon a cursory search, the answer is a resounding yes. Quite simply, animals are good housekeepers because a tidy living environment is closely related to health and survival.
Disease creeps in if your nest is untidy; it could kill your babies. If you sleep where you defecate, for instance, you invite illness and pests. Most birds keep very clean nests, regularly removing their babies’ poops, eggshells, uneaten bugs, and any other debris. Ants carry out the corpses of their fallen comrades. And mammals, broadly speaking, keep clean dens. Naked mole rats build special toilet rooms underground. Squirrels and bears and foxes and all manner of furry beasts want to sleep in clean places.
Humans, you may recall, are also animals.
2. So why is it hard for human animals to keep neat homes?
A few reasons, among many:
We prioritize other things, important things (work, childcare, feeding ourselves and others, sleep, etc.), over tidiness.
We might have an illness, whether mental or physical, that keeps us from cleaning and tidying our homes.
We have too much stuff, unlike animals, who never have too much. (Even the literal “pack rats” store up little bits and bobs for future use or to impress a lady pack rat. Our piles of unread magazines, Amazon boxes, and junk mail aren’t doing much in either department.)
We have homes that are too big and fill up quickly with the aforementioned stuff.
We might live with other animals (see below) who make it difficult to keep a neat home or even seem to actively subvert our best efforts.
3. Why does a messy home bother us so much?
I’ve come to believe that it’s instinctive and hard coded, harking back to our animal natures. A messy home is stressful, and our bodies perceive it as such.
People who say they “don’t mind clutter” are lying (to themselves). We all mind it, on a deep, inborn, mammalian level. And this is fairly well-accepted in research. Some overall findings (as summarized recently by the New York Times):
Clutter is closely correlated with overall life dissatisfaction.
Clutter induces a bodily response, typically triggering increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Clutter typically bothers women more than men. Which causes me to ask…
4. Why does a messy home bother women so much?
Please enjoy this LOL-inducing/teeth-gnashing paragraph from the NYT (emphasis added):
A 2010 study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at dual-income married couples living in the Los Angeles area who had at least one school-aged child at home. The wives in the study who perceived themselves as having a cluttered home or a home that needed work tended to have increased levels of cortisol throughout the day. Those who weren’t feeling cluttered, which included most of the men in the study, had cortisol levels that tended to drop during the day.
Cue anguished laughter. So, WHY are women—specifically wives, in this example—more bothered about clutter than men? Some assumptions and observations:
We’re typically more likely to notice it. The perception is a key part of that research anecdote: “The wives in the study who perceived themselves as having a cluttered home…” We’re paying attention to our homes. We make assessments about what we see. We tend to be detail-oriented creatures, for better or worse.
We’re typically more likely to DO something about it. Oft-quoted, but even in households when men and women are both working full time, and even when the woman has the bigger salary/title, she does much more housework than the man in the house.
We may be experiencing some callback to our biological need to keep the den safe and clean for the babies. Even if we don’t have any babies, this may be something that women just bear, in our bodies, in our spirits. I dunno!
Requisite caveats before you freak out and send me a “well, actually…” email: Yes, of course, not all women. Yes, of course, not all men. We all know outliers! Still, there are trends, and trends that appear in research, that tend to fall along gendered lines.
5. Is this a bad thing? Or is it just a thing?
Do I want an uncluttered house more than Guion wants one because of “the patriarchy”?
Maybe. But I don’t exactly care why I want it; I simply know that I do.
I don’t think all women are “naturally” inclined to be wonderful housekeepers. Aside from being patently untrue, it’s demeaning and limiting to say that this is the sole end of womanhood.
But here’s the thing: Whether it’s nature or nurture or the “patriarchy” or whatever you want to call it, I don’t think it really matters why women are bothered by cluttered living rooms and dirty kitchens and overflowing laundry hampers. We just are. We can either rail against eons of “nurture,” hellbent on keeping us barefoot and pregnant, or we can despise our “nature,” which has made us far more likely to be barefoot and pregnant than the other sex. Either way, being mad about why most of us are annoyed by clutter doesn’t change the fact that we are.
We notice it. We want to do something about it. Sometimes, we are the most motivated and equipped members of the household to do something about it, even as it makes us gnash our teeth and tear at our frazzled mom-buns.
No amount of railing against the unseen masses of men—or the seen ones, who can shuffle through an absolutely wrecked family room and not feel the slightest bit bothered by it—seems worth our valuable and limited energies.
6. Limit your stuff; limit your stress.
The small study’s findings, previously mentioned, ring true in my life and home. My cortisol level undoubtedly rises when I feel that my house is out of order. This is why I spend so much of my time cleaning and organizing our home and thinking about housework. It’s a job that’s never done, and so I am hellbent on finding some joy in it.
And I think I do, really and truly. I no longer feel the need to relitigate why a messy home feels like such an acute pain point to me (compared with my loving and by all accounts extremely helpful, sexy spouse; hi, Guion!). I can instead find some peace in my inner gifting toward housekeeping and save the sackcloth and ashes for a real tragedy.
Meanwhile, do you have a closet that’s out of control? Call me, seriously. I love nothing more than whipping a jam-packed space into shape. My heart is beating a little faster just thinking about it.