Inevitable Failure

I have been entertaining a terrifying thought of late: What if I can’t be the person, or parent, I expect myself to be? What if it is simply, and inexorably, not possible?

As I read the comments on my last post, I was struck by the certainty of their message: You should be able to do this. You can make this work.

It was in being struck by their certainty that I learned I am paralyzed by my own uncertainty. I didn’t realize it when I wrote that post, but I have finally arrived at a place of being categorically unsure of my own ability, as a mother, as a teacher, as a spouse, as a woman. Up until this point I always assumed that if I tried hard enough I could make it work (whatever “it” might be). But now, with two children, I’m grasping the startling truth: I may actually be incapable of some things. And they are really important, non-negotiable type things.

The prospect is terrifying.

Now that I’ve had this realization, I’m kind of shocked it took me so long to recognize–or  accept–the truth. I have an entire lifetime of empirical data supporting this hypothesis but since it wasn’t the hypothesis I was trying to prove, I never perceived the patterns. I was so sure that I was the master of my own destiny, that I could mold myself into whatever I felt–or society dictated–I should be. The fact that I hadn’t actually managed to do those things with any regularity–or at all–didn’t seem to register. I was so busy trying to mold my findings to fit my preconceived beliefs that I never registered the data that was completely contradictory.

My house has always been messy. I use that word, because it’s socially acceptable, but it doesn’t even begin to describe the reality. My house is a disaster area. Truly. It looks like something horrible has happened. My kitchen is disgusting. Really. That is the appropriate word. My entryway, that people see when they come over to pick up there kids, is a shit hole. It’s covered in sand and dirt and cat hair and trash. The state of my house is abysmal.

I have always believed that if I just tried hard enough I could keep my house clean, or at least presentable. I figured that if I cared enough, I could manage it. I assumed I just hadn’t found adequate inspiration. My mother is impeccably neat; there is no way her daughter could be incapable of at least a modicum of cleanliness.

But I have been this way for 16 years–my entire adult life. My living space has always been a disaster area. I have NEVER been able to keep it neat or clean. My classroom is similarly disorganized. I have tried numerous systems and none of them has ever worked, not even for a short period of time. I have literally NEVER been able to keep my room or classroom or apartment or house clean. NOT EVER.

And now I really want to be able to do it. I want to invite people over, or at the very least have my daughter’s friends over for play dates, which means their parents have to come to pick them up. I don’t even need my house to be presentable most of the time, I just want to be able to make it presentable when I need it that way. At this point I can’t even manage that. I thought I could just let go of society’s expectations and have people over anyway, but even when they are just in the entryway helping their kids with their shoes, I can see the way they look around, I can feel their judgement radiating.

I get it. I really do. I would judge me too, because a functioning adult should be able to keep their house together. They should be able to do a WAY better job than I’m doing.

And then there is the cooking. There is no one thing that is more important in this life than buying, preparing and eating healthful foods. I can’t do any of those. I have NEVER been able to do them. I fail miserably in this area of my life. The way I feed my children… it feels criminal. It feels like I am abusing my children every time I offer them something to eat.

These two things are the pinnacle of womanhood. Keeping a clean house and feeding our families–that is what women are meant to do. Sure we’re trying to change that, to redefine womanhood and what it means, but it’s going to take a long time to erase or rewrite the expectations that have defined women for entirety of the human race.

So what happens if a woman can’t do those things? What happens if I don’t just miss the mark, but am not even facing the right direction?

The truth is, I am struggling. Mightily. We both are. Just to make this work. Just to get through each day. Most of the time we are not the parents that we want to be. I don’t respond the way I should to my children. I get frustrated. I get exasperated. I get angry. I sigh. I grumble. I yell. My daughter’s new signature phrase is, “Are you mad at me?” Evidently she has reason to suspect I am about 100+ times a day.

I’m trying to do better. I’m trying really, really hard. And I’m failing. Every. Single. Day.

I don’t know if I can be the parent I want to be now that I have two kids (to be fair, I wasn’t succeeding most of the time when I only had one).

I don’t know if I could have been the woman I wanted to be even before I had kids. I’m pretty sure there is no hope for me now.

I’m sure there will be those who will assure me that I can do it. That I just haven’t tried the right system, or put forth adequate effort. I don’t begrudge them their beliefs–I used to believe them too. But what about the 16 years of empirical evidence? What about all the times I’ve tried, and failed?

And maybe I can figure it out, at least well enough to get by in a society that sets certain standards. The effort required would be gargantuan. Every day I would be fighting against my nature. It would require intense discipline and dedication. It would be utterly exhausting.

I look around, peering into the lives that surround me and no one seems to be failing in these ways. I pick up my daughter at immaculate houses where healthy meals bubble on gleaming stove tops and I drag my tantrum-ing four-year-old into my car with promises of this or that if she’ll just stop, only to negotiate piles of crap all over our house while we wait for the butter noodles to be done for dinner. This is my life, and it doesn’t look like the lives of the women around me, or the ones I’m friends with on FB and other social media.

I have a plan to try to remedy the situation, but honestly, I’m approaching it with a half-heartened sense of obligation and almost no hope for success. I’ve tried all these things before. I’ve read the books, headed the advice, and nothing has ever changed. I’ll try again, because what choice do I have?

But I can’t change who I am. Can I?


  1. Have you considered talking to a doctor or therapist?

    Otherwise, figure out what is actually important to you. (Is it really you thinking you need an immaculate house or the patriarchy telling you you need one?). Then figure out if there are other ways to get what you want. Bringing in more money would allow you to outsource more and help with that negative feeling you were talking about on the previous post.

    Also the “that’s what women are meant to do” thing is BS. A little feminism might help bring clarity and allow you to excel in what you truly believe to be important deep down.

    1. My therapist’s hours have been greatly reduced over the years and now I only get to see her once a month (even though it’s supposed to be twice a month, that never ends up working). I can only afford to see her because she works at a clinic that charges on a sliding scale and I pay incredibly reduced prices. I could never afford most therapists–not the money or the time required to see them.

      We definitely aren’t going to be bringing in anymore money in the near future but if I really wanted to hire someone once month I could probably budget it in (by sacrificing a few other things). But honestly, it’s not the cleaning that feels overwhelming to me it’s getting everything picked up enough to do the cleaning. That is what I can’t manage. Once the surfaces are exposed I know how to clean a room, but it’s getting past all the clutter that I can’t seem to manage. So I don’t know if hiring outside help would alleviate my stress or add to it.

      And you’re right that the “that what women are meant to do” thing is BS, but it’s still a reality in the minds of most people. I guarantee you that when parents come to my house to pick up their kids they don’t look around and think, “wow, HE really needs to clean this place up.” (The reality is, I don’t even care that much that people judge me for what my house looks like, I’m just sick of it looking this way. It causes me crazy amounts of stress and keeps me from socializing with people and that, as much as any societal pressure, is why I want to keep it cleaner.) And my husband is actually quite involved with feeding our kids, but he is also stressed the max and gets home much later than I do (because he takes our daughter to school so gets to work much later than I do) and it just doesn’t work logistically for him to be doing all the cooking if we want to get our kids to bed at a decent hour. So…

      1. I totally get the thing about picking up in order to do the cleaning. It’s like taxes. My husband says just pay someone to do them. But going them takes about 5 min. It’s collecting all the receipts & paperwork, adding them up, etched that takes the vast majority of the time. I couldn’t afford to pay someone for all the hours it takes to this, let alone find someone who would search my house and know where to look.

        Btw, these other houses you visit, do both parents work? Just wondering.

        We also can’t really afford cleaning help either. I wish we could outsource but it’s rather expensive. Like you, we don’t really have any spare tine or other avenues to bring in more money. If only it were so easy! Plus, the picking up. So we carry on.

        1. Taxes is a perfect analogy! It’s so true. It’s the preparing to clean that is hard for me. It’s the clutter I can’t manage. I know how to scrub a shower. That is a satisfying thing to do. But clearing the floor in front of the shower, where all the bath toys and shampoo bottles are strewn about?! That is what I don’t know how to manage. That is what stresses me out.

  2. You are not a failure! I have discovered lately that keeping my house clean makes me feel like I am succeeding at life in general. It is TOTALLY unrelated to my financial state, my career, my marriage, but when it is passably clean, I feel better about everything. It’s a lot of work, though, and to be honest, my idea of passably clean is nowhere near what others’ is. I do apartment inspections in my job, and I’ve learned that most people’s homes are much cleaner than mine. But I’ve been trying to do more. It is really a lot of work!

    Was it you or somebody else who told me, awhile back, to stop comparing my insides to other people’s outsides? It’s not a fair comparison. There is always something you don’t see in their lives, something you are doing better than they are. Not that I’d want you to get joy from others’ inadequacies, but maybe a sense of perspective. You really are doing fine!

    1. I have been reading your posts about keeping your house clean and hearing in your tone and words how good it’s making you feel. It makes me want to have that for myself. I’m just not sure how to manage it.

      And I get that I shouldn’t compare myself to others, I think I’m just struck with the fact that they can manage something that I simply cannot manage. It’s not even like, how do they do it so much better than me, but it’s more, how do they do it at all? When I can do it even a little bit. It’s just proof that this thing I find impossible is totally achievable for them. I am dumbfounded.

  3. I relate to this. I am an extremely discipline person but for the life of me, I cannot keep my house neat. We have a cleaning lady who helps prevent it from spiraling out of control but my there is still a lot of clutter. I’ve been cooking more but I still order in quite a bit, despite my efforts. I think a lot of the women who have immaculate homes have cleaning ladies and maybe even nannies to help manage. And they may have husbands who have more time to help. My husband works insane hours and literally never washes a dish (the cleaning lady is coming in three days, he says). A few weeks ago I went to a book club for new moms and the host, who works full time, prepares an elaborate meal. I felt completely inadequate. But when I saw that her husband put their son to bed I realized that she probably had more back up than I had. It’s really hard. I am capable of losing 20 lbs, running a marathon, taking on complex projects at work. But I cannot keep my space neat.

    1. I think you totally get where I am coming from on this. We are very much the same. One of the reasons I feel so defeated by this is it’s one of the only things I CAN’T DO no matter how much I try. I too can lose 20lbs and train for (and run) and marathon, and earn a graduate degree while working full time and having a kid. I can do all those things, but I can’t keep my house neat! WHY?!

      1. I have no idea why I can’t do this. I tend not to notice clutter as it accumulates and by then I feel out of control. I think it may just be one of my limitations. You have written before about having ADD and I wonder if they are related.

  4. The crock pot and freezer meals ensure my family eats dinner most nights! I subscribe to EMeals, a meal planning website which has a variety of plans that range from easy to more advanced, with the recipes, grocery lists too! I can email you a few if you’d like to try them! Also, would having those shelf/cube organizers all over help keep things picked up? I swear by them. Every few montgs I weed through them to clean them out, but it gives my house the appearance of being clean! 🙂

    1. Oh, eMeals sounds really promising. I’ll look into that. Thanks for the reco.

      We have some of those organizers for our kids toys and they are awesome. I actually love picking up the kids toys because I know where they go and can put them away. It’s all the other shit that I’m always struggling with, but maybe I need to get a few of those and stick that kind of shit in there and then weed through them every once in a while. I worry I would just keep piling them up, but it’s worth a shot. Sometimes when I get really overwhelmed I just walk around with a giant Costco bag and throw everything in it. It’s great for the short term, but then I end up with a Costco bag full of shit sitting in my room for a year…

    1. Well worth reading.
      Also FLYLADY.NET is well worth looking at. And, if as I think is normal for a working woman with small children, 15 minutes is impossible to find…. even 5 minutes will make a difference over a period of time. Just 5 minutes consistently. Honest. Been there, done that. 20 minutes means you are breaking the agreement however! No working woman with small children has 20 minutes.

    2. It did make me feel better! A lot better. And yet… I never see people’s houses that look like that. Are they like me and don’t invite my kid over for play dates because they don’t want anyone to know? I have been in a lot of people’s houses and they always looks so clean, and not just clean but neat. My house, even when it’s “presentable” has “controlled piles” everywhere. I just can’t get rid of that kind of clutter.

      But still, it did help to know I’m not the ONLY one in the world living in a perpetually messy house. Thanks for sharing that. I definitely felt something unclenching inside as I read it.

  5. OK. Insides versus outsides judging. You are really good at this. I am too. Not having full facts makes this easier. We are taught to do this. We rarely look behind appearances of perfection and see when there is despair, abuse, hopelessness, loneliness, fears and self judgment happening. We are shown airbrushed ads of women’s figures and homes and lives and told these are real and then we judge ourselves as failures.
    We, women, are not told to focus only on our personal unique strengths and to ignore any areas that are less than perfect. 100% of our actions are to be perfect rather than human. Men get equally distorting but different messages. Actually we are all human and imperfect.
    Mindreading and assuming negative judgements. You think you are good at this but aren’t … because no one can really read minds. We just project our own insecurities onto others. We ignore that other people may have other things on their minds (like a dying parent, or need to stop and get milk on the way home, or something a boss or co-worker said or did, or the unwashed laundry) and assume they are assessing us and judging us. REALLY???? Is that actually what you are doing every minute ~ judging everyone around you and seeing the scab on their little finger instead of worrying that you will be late to pick up your son because you always hit every red light when timing is tight?
    You are a brilliant writer because you describe the human state so well. I remember the unachievable standard you once set for redoing your backyard…and the unbelievable results you achieved against all odds of reality.
    You are not a failure. You are a wonderful, kind, grace-filled, self-demanding and self-judging human. I wish I were more like you….. instead of so much like me. (And my kitchen is totally clean at this minute in time.) You are AMAZING!

  6. I also think you are doing fine. Of course that is cold comfort when the house or the food is really bothering you. If its really something you want to do (and not just patriarchy BS like Nicoleandmaggie said) then I’d recommend some sort of step wise (baby steps!) action plan for dealing with it. You’d need to get MV on board, maybe even your daughter? (does she like “helping”? its not terribly HELPFUL but can make the whole doing chores thing more fun and like a family activity. I persuade my older son to “help me” make lunches and clean up the kitchen and frame it as “mommy has a LOT of work to do in the house to keep things nice & have good food for all of us but if you can help me, it’ll go faster and then I’ll have more time to play with you”.
    I feel a lot like I’m failing with food for my kids because they are so picky and we often fall back on boxed mac & cheese, hot dogs, etc… (the things I SWORE I wouldn’t do up I had two eating kids) just for something to be EASY for once. I’m trying to let go of the guilt bc doing easy dinners that they quickly gobble up without fuss or negotiation DOES lead to more time & energy for us to play with them after dinner.

    1. We used to make sure my daughter cleaned up one thing of hers every night but we fell off that wagon. We need to get back on it though, I believe it’s important to start on that stuff early. I’m already worried I waited to long to work that into the routine.

      As for the boxed foods, that is all my kids eat. Seriously, we have about ten dinners we cycle through and half of them are actually breakfast food. Mac n cheese, butter noodles, fish sticks, hot dogs, those are our staples. The closest we come to a “home cooked meal” is when MV makes turkey burgers. It’s just abysmal what I feed my kids–but they won’t eat anything else!

  7. So I am the woman who cooks homemade meals almost every night… But guess what? My kids don’t eat them! They get leftovers from lunches and cottage cheese and green beans! You would see my posts on FB or on my blog and think, “she makes great food for her kids,” but that’s not what’s going on. They’re picky and eat a few different things and I’m ashamed of their meals at night. But they’re fed, and it’s still real food (just not variety or balanced – Matthew eats few veggies and Bryson eats little meat). My outside can make moms feel bad (the kids don’t eat crackers, bread, potatoes, pasta, processed foods, or fried foods) but my inside feels bad too (they eat way too much yogurt, nuts, fruit, meatballs, and pouches).

    For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing well for a household with both parents working. Someone will always have a cleaner house (I know this because mine is not that clean), more balanced meals, etc. but only YOU are giving your kids the perfect amount and quality of love for them… And that’s what matters.

    1. If my kids ate a green bean I would seriously throw a party. A big one. Except I wouldn’t because then I’d have to clean my house. 😉

        1. My son will only eat broccoli. Luckily, he’ll eat it 3 meals a day if we give it to him. I figure, a green vegetable is a green vegetable. I’m not worried.

  8. My therapist asks me a lot: “So WHAT if you are a failure? What happens then?”

    Well… uh… then… I’m human?

    That said, I get incredibly stressed out by having a messy house. I don’t care about the DIRT or dog hair or whatever, but I do care about clutter. It’s too much for me; it makes me feel stressed and grumpy and cranky. I have been experimenting with leaving dishes in the sink, and I can KINDA manage that during the week, so long as I’m not sitting in the kitchen for the day. But on the weekends, yeah, no, that doesn’t fly.

    But I make a clutterless house my priority, because it’s important to me. I have lots of those fabric collapsible boxes from Target, where I “file” mail and junk and papers during the week – I basically throw all my shit into that during the week until Friday night, when I’m sitting down in front of the TV and can mindlessly go through it. It works for me.

    I think, really, you just have to find a system that works for you – and your family’s schedule. I feel like you need less of a therapist and more organization/administration coach to help you figure out a system that works enough so that the anxiety you feel from the mess is muted somehow, you know?

    1. I do need an organization/administration coach to help me figure out a system. Is that a thing? If so, where might I find one? I really do need some small concrete steps to take. I have a few in mind. This months it’s about THE STUFF. Next month it will be about picking up.

      1. FLYLADY.NET
        You will get lots of emails to start with but hold the idea of a coach and taking only short periods of time to do what she says. Getting tidier is a process. She even says which room to do the 15 (or 5 minutes) in.
        She has timed herself emptying the dishwasher and making a bed and says KNOWING how long it takes makes it easier to get it done. USE A TIMER to know when to stop.
        By the way, above in replies you asked if other women were not inviting people into their houses due to chaos…….and I remembered your posts about how hard it is now to make/have friends….. the two items seem connected. Fear of being negatively judged by appearance of own home versus magazine/online images ~ so avoiding the exposure and feeling alone because you do not open your home/self.
        I think it is not about neat/clean/tidy not being a priority but the pure overwhelm feeling of ‘what can I do’ preventing action. One thing I saw one of my children do was a note posted on their refrigerator with household maintenance things that could be done in 2 free minutes and in 5. Result of actually timing the event so it is clear and honest and real. Both child and spouse did them because they didn’t have to think about what they accomplish…….. And it made a difference.
        I raised 2 children as a single mom almost their entire lives and worked 55-70 hour weeks at paid employment 12 months of the year. I have read your posts for a long time and am in awe of what you are doing. Please show kindness and grace to your own self and teach your children to do the same. Count your achievements and efforts not just the places where you fall short of total perfection. What you are doing every day really is objectively AWESOME, allow yourself to know this.

  9. I learned a life-changing concept during part of my graduate classes in, of all things, business. It’s the difference between maximizing and satisficing. It’s a model for decision-making in a business, but I’ve applied it also in my personal life, the gist being “good enough is usually good enough.”

    I just found and scanned this…maybe it will help explain:

    I know it doesn’t solve any of the limitations you’re dealing with, but maybe it can help reframe things…?

  10. Meh, messy house…I would hope that people coming over who have young children would realize that it’s damn near impossible to keep clean! I love Lori’s suggestion about trying to reframe. Going through that exercise really helps. And p.s., I feel like I operate at about a C-level these days. Getting used to a new normal….

  11. You can. I did. My teenage bedroom and “adult” living space was ridiculous until I was 27. Every single dish I owned in the sink or on the counter. Piles of STUFF everywhere I looked. Dusting only happened when I moved. Thank goodness that happened every couple of years.

    I literally just decided to change it all. I moved into a studio with zero space, I got rid of the knick knacks that need dusting, I found a home for every single thing or threw it away. I make my bed every single day. It is a way of life. It is ongoing effort and cupboards forever left open because my brain just doesn’t notice them.

    You can do this. I did.

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