Is Housework Stressing You Out? Lower Your Standards.

My dining room table was dirty when I woke up this morning. Some of it was kid debris – a plastic box full of crayons, half-finished drawings, books, birthday cards. Some of it was food debris – crumbs from last night’s dinner. It was dirty when I woke up because it was dirty when I went to bed.

If you just read that paragraph and thought “Oh honey, you are going to have to do better than that. I haven’t seen the top of my dining room table in a month!” then this post might not be for you. But if you read that paragraph and felt a mild wave of panic and thought “There is NO way I could sleep if there were crumbs on the table” then you need to keep reading.

Women, especially moms, tend to hold themselves to high expectations when it comes to domestic duties. The studies are clear – women do more housework than men, across all categories. This is even true when both spouses work full-time. Incredibly, it’s even true when the woman works full-time and her husband doesn’t. (Studies are based on averages and aggregates – your mileage may vary.)

And there is a connection between more housework and less paid work. My friend Tiffany Dufu has a wonderful article in Forbes titled The Surprising Way Housework Factors Into Breaking The Glass Ceiling on this very subject. When something’s gotta give, many women pull back on professional ambitions – which can mean anything from turning down opportunities that would require more energy at work to opting out entirely.

For real women living real lives, there are a few strategies to keep housework and other domestic duties from squelching your ambitions. You can outsource. You can convince your family to pitch in more. Or you can care less.

Of those three options, lowering your standards is totally free and it doesn’t involve any nagging! It requires the least money and energy (though I did recently suggest to a working mom that if the dirty dishes were a problem she should buy paper plates – a marginal investment if ever there was one).

Ideally, everyone in a family would pitch in to maintain the household. If Mom lowers her standards it can help in that regard, too. First, if you let things go long enough, someone will pick up the slack. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. It turns out that both kids and husbands actually do want to wear clean clothes, find their stuff, and eat off plates. They will just put up with the lack of these things for as long as they can.

Second, lower standards makes housework less onerous and give family members more autonomy to complete tasks in their own way, motivating them to help more. When Mom insists that all tasks be done “her” way it’s pretty demotivating. And, worse, when Mom re-does the task to meet her higher standards, everyone figures out pretty quick that the best way to never be asked to do something again is to do it badly.

Ultimately, lowering your standards can get you more help and reduce the workload for everyone. Which leads to yet another benefit – less stressed Mom equals happier Mom equals better quality of life for everyone.

If you’ve gotten this far and you are thinking “No way. Can’t do it.” I want you to try an experiment. Every time you are tempted to do some household task at the end of a long and tiring day, ask yourself this question: “What’s the worst that will happen if I don’t do this right now?” The answer may well be that the table is dirty in the morning. But as author and speaker Laura Vanderkam writes, “There is no 11 p.m. home inspection.” I’d add that there’s no 6 a.m. inspection either. (This is also a good way to prioritize what tasks you DO want to do. If the answer is “I’ll have no clean underwear tomorrow” you may want to go ahead and throw in a load of laundry. But the answer is going to be “Nothing bad” way more often.)

Obviously the table needs to get cleaned eventually. (Those of you who haven’t had a clear table in a month, my hat is off to you!) This morning my kids and I ate breakfast in between the debris, then they put away their stuff and carried their dishes to the sink before being allowed a few minutes of iPad time. I swept up the crumbs and we went about our day. No one was adversely affected by a table that had crumbs and kid stuff on it for 12 hours.

After my husband and daughter left to catch her bus I had a few free minutes before I needed to take my son to catch his bus. I thought about making my bed. But my son called to me “Mommy, COME!” So we sat on the couch and watched a video of a woman unwrapping giant candy. And then I brought him down to the bus and I headed into the office to continue my work building Path Forward so more women can restart their careers and achieve their dreams.

I might make the bed when I get home. But I might not.


Written by Tami Forman, the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.

Originally published December 2016.