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How To Keep House While Drowning Completely Changed How I Think About Mess

A love letter to KC Davis, who taught me how to be a half-assed housekeeper.

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I want to tell you about my new favorite book, How to Keep House While Drowning by KC Davis, a therapist who found herself depressed and buried in dirty dishes and young children in the beginning of a pandemic and decided, thank God, to write about it. But first, I need to tell you about my dad’s car.

Whatever make or model it has happened to be over the years, my dad’s car exists in a consistent state of absolute pandemonium. The glove compartment is stuffed to the gills with loose international change and unmarked pill bottles, extra reading glasses and incomplete CD box sets of Homer’s The Odyssey. The midseat console is a treasure trove of napkins, half-eaten spirulina-forward energy bars, errant newspaper pages, yellow legal pads and black pens. (SO. MANY. PENS.) The seatback pockets house restaurant-grade glass salt-and-pepper shakers and cans of WD-40, each leaking slowly. And everywhere, on each seat and remotely unused floor space, in the cluttered trunk and stashed into the buckets of doors, are jackets and pillows and small blankets. There are enough of them to build a cozy nest for a pack of coyotes. Enough to keep a frostbitten hockey team warm. If you happen to forget a sweatshirt or a child’s lovey in my dad’s car, good luck to you. When you go to look for it, it will no longer be identifiable as itself but rather as a small part of this living, breathing organism of detritus.

Yes, someone once broke into it and it took us several days to even notice it had been riffled through. Yes, my 10-year-old nephew and his friends once found an open bottle of whiskey in the way back. Yes, no matter how long it has been since one was actually inside of it, it always, always, smells like a banana.

But here’s the thing that Davis and her book have taught me, which finally allows me to extend compassion and even admiration toward my father: His car is not a problem to be solved. His car mess — it works.

Lesson 1: You don’t exist to serve your space; your space exists to serve you.

My father’s best life does not include a car that is clean and smells like, well, car. He wants to be able to treat a headache when he has one, write down a thought the moment it enters his mind, season a to-go sandwich when it badly needs seasoning, even if it tastes slightly of WD-40. He wants to make sure that there is always something to wedge between his bad back and an unfamiliar restaurant chair, that there is always another layer to toss onto his rangy, perpetually chilly body. As Davis would tell her readers, and Ted Talk viewers, and podcast listeners, and 1.5 million TikTok followers, my dad doesn’t work for his car; it works for him.

Lesson 2. Mess is morally neutral.

I am a lot like my dad, and I often wonder if I had been born with a penis, I would have been socialized to accept my disarray as the mark of having more important things to do than tidy up, as my dad does, rather than feel ashamed by it. In How to Keep House While Drowning, which was beefed up and published by Simon & Schuster last fall, Davis points out that “Although men may struggle with completing care tasks,” (Davis’s term for chores), “they are less likely to receive the message from society that they are not worthy of love or not valid as a human if they are not good at these tasks.” On her TikTok account, @domesticblisters, Davis recently posted a reaction to a video of a dude making spaghetti and not cleaning up after himself alongside the caption “when your man cooks dinner.” She asks the camera, as she lies in bed, “Am I….a man???”

Davis speaks frequently about how women, and especially moms, are made to feel that if the dishes are dirty or the laundry isn’t put away, we are moral failures. Instead, Davis encourages us to remember that “mess has no inherent meaning” and to perform care tasks because they give us some form of pleasure, such as “resetting our space” when it has “reached the end of its functional cycle.” This kind of reframe can be particularly tricky but even more essential if you are neurodivergent (Davis and I are both ADHDers), as many of us are often notorious for our messiness, and it can be hard to separate the reality that this personality trait actually does sometimes lead to difficult consequences from the sense that we are bad people.

She doesn’t do it for some mythical house guest. She does it for herself.

After a recent, particularly triggering visit to a friend’s absolutely pristine, newly remodeled home, I returned to my very lived-in, somewhat run-down apartment and tried to channel my best KC. A deep sense of inadequacy had overtaken me — that I wasn’t the kind of person, the kind of woman, who prioritized order, that I wasn’t capable of keeping a home like that, and that this truth was at the root of all of my unhappiness. But then I looked around my motley living space and realized that the mess didn’t mean anything; it was just... mess. I am not a bad person because I have to spend 10 minutes clearing off a table if we’re going to eat on it; I am a person who has built a home that works for her and who should perhaps put a picnic blanket on the floor and let the table be what it is.

Davis encourages us to complete care tasks — the ones we’ve deemed are essential — as gifts to our future selves and to take on improvements in slow, gentle, and quiet ways.cover image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Lesson 3. The question you must ask yourself is what am I trying to achieve and how can I achieve it my way?

On TikTok, you can watch Davis putz around her real-person house with a professional-grade “grabber,” removing trash and laundry and demonstrating how she embraces her natural patterns of housekeeping instead of fighting them. (If dirty laundry always stays on your kid’s floor, get them their own laundry basket.) But she doesn’t do it for some mythical house guest. She does it for herself. This orientation shows up in her house design; arm chairs awkwardly facing toward her bay windows instead of the living room because she likes to watch the birds in her backyard, an entire room devoted to clothes storage because she hates putting away and retrieving clothes from three separate spaces. Davis writes that “the best way to do something is the way it gets done,” even if this means running the dishwasher each night, even when it’s half full, because you are most likely to empty it first thing in the morning. Or throwing away the donations bag you’ve been neglecting for months because you need to accept that you are never making it to Goodwill.

Davis’s work is honest and funny. But most notably, it is kind.

Fresh off of watching Davis’s Ted Talk, “How to do Laundry When You’re Depressed,” I eyeball the once-worn-but-not-yet-stinky exercise clothes littering my bedroom and realize that I do want them to be put away, but I also want them to be easily retrievable for my next workout. I take an under-used stuffed animal bin from my son’s bedroom, tuck it into the closet, and dump all of my workout clothes in it. The next morning, rather than wasting time trying to identify what’s on the floor or retrieve a sports bra from under the bed and a T-shirt from the dresser, I pull everything I need from one place, pausing to give myself a smug look in the mirror.

4. Good enough is perfect.

There is a lot Davis does that makes me feel seen, but perhaps the most powerful is her insistence on showing us herself, and her house, as they are, without the need to stage it for us, or to fall into a “bad mom” bit. In fact, it was the early TikTok videos of her sink full of crusted-on plates and her imperfect attempts to make this situation more livable that first boosted her popularity. (Hot tip: When you can’t bring yourself to load the dishwasher, put the dirty dishes in the dish rack so the sink is usable.)

Sometimes Davis looks up in the middle of a video to sing a quick, reassuring song to her baby across the room, or to run and take her forgotten meds, then seamlessly returns to her viewers. Davis’s work includes heavy doses of permission — to use paper plates when you’re too depressed to clean real ones, to approach housekeeping with minimal effort, to only accomplish the things that are truly meaningful to you.

To a black-and-white thinker like me, this approach is revolutionary. I have led most of my life believing that the only successful way to do something is all at once and without mistakes. If Davis’s edict that “anything worth doing is worth doing half-assed” is really true, then my prospects suddenly seem brighter. When I try applying this framework to the hellscape that is my laundry process, putting two loads in and then abandoning them in the washer all day starts to seem like progress, not deficiency.

She encourages us to complete care tasks as gifts to our future selves and to take on improvements in slow, gentle, and quiet ways.

Unlike almost every self-help or home organization content I have ever consumed, Davis’s work is honest and funny. But most notably, it is kind. She encourages us to complete care tasks — the ones we’ve deemed are essential — as gifts to our future selves and to take on improvements in slow, gentle, and quiet ways. She handles conversations around relationships, mental health, addiction, food, and body image with care and vulnerability. She seeks input to make her work accessible to neurodivergent followers, and I almost cried when I saw that she had highlighted main points and designed an alternative “shortcut” through her book for people like me who are too antsy to read informative texts word-for-word.

In my favorite chapter of the book, which at one paragraph long reads like an ode to self-compassion, Davis reveals her system for cleaning her car. “I dunno, friends,” she writes. “My car looks like sh*t…I honestly stopped putting much effort into trying…this is not about some mythical destination…it’s about…permission to enjoy your life even if your car never gets clean.” Amen. This one’s for you, Pops.

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