When Emily Feret had her first child, she felt like a “supermom.”
“I had an easy pregnancy and birth, my baby slept well and my mental health was in a great place,” Feret of Oak Lawn, Illinois, tells TODAY.com.
Eighteen months later, Feret got pregnant again. After giving birth during the height of COVID, life took a turn.
"I developed postpartum depression and sleep deprivation and the stress affected my breast-milk supply," she says. With a newborn and a toddler, Feret fell behind on household tasks.
"Suddenly, there were double the car seats, strollers, high chairs, dishes, laundry and toys,” she says. Feret's husband helped, but as a stay-at-home mom, she did most of the housework.
On TikTok, Feret saw families with beautifully organized homes. “I felt like I was kind of failing,” she says. “My life was the opposite.”
Feret could not find relatable representation on social media nor could she muster the enthusiasm to maintain an aesthetically pleasing home. "In order to 'keep up,' I would have had to constantly clean. And that brought me no joy."
Instead, Feret turned on her camera, giving TikTok a tour of her home, "chipped paint" and all.
“Let me walk around my house and make you feel better about yours," she said in the video captioned, "Normalize being normal," which went on to inspire an ongoing series from her. Others on the platform have posted similar videos using hashtags like #MessyHouse or #CleanHouse.
“Here on top of my shoe rack, I have three socks that don’t match at all and are all different sizes,” Feret said in one video. Opening her kitchen junk drawer, she added, “Here you’ll find such items like tanning goggles, a pet hair brush and — oh wait— a sound machine.”
In another video, Feret removed a bottle of relish from her refrigerator. “This expired nearly a year ago," she said. "How long will it be before I throw it away?”
A change of heart gave Feret the courage to bare all.
“Once I realized that the cleanliness of my home had no direct correlation to who I am and that I was not a lazy person, it was easy to be comical about it,” she says. “The dishes in my sink means my kids ate and toys on the floor means they played. There’s no fear or shame around it.”
A backlash to high expectations
Historically, women have been responsible for keeping house, says Kristen Barber, an associate professor and department chair at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
"This has its roots in the capitalist market of the 1930s and 1940s, when housewife imagery proliferated in product advertisements largely featuring white women," Barber tells TODAY.com. "It's understood as a backlash to the sexual independence of 1920s flappers, who were neither concerned about how their houses looked nor having kids and taking care of husbands."
Television shows like "Leave It to Beaver" helped establish tidiness as a middle-class merit. "It became white women's moral — and following WWII, their patriotic — duty," she says. "And if white women were in the home, then white men dominated social and political spaces, as well as the workforce." Meanwhile, Barber points out, many women of color, poor white or immigrant women and single mothers worked outside the home and couldn't measure up to this standard.
The angst for middle- and upper-middle class women to present tidy homes is alive and well. "It’s no surprise, then, that home-organization shows and books are geared toward women who can afford so many plastic bins and trendy chalkboard labels," she says.
The TikTok movement to normalize so-called "normal homes," is undoubtedly a consequence of the exhaustive efforts of stay-at-home and working moms alike. Even celebrities, who can generally afford to outsource housework, are joining the trend. "Show me your room before and after you clean it," Drew Barrymore captioned an Instagram video of her home, strewn with boxes, papers and cosmetics.
Julia Fox gave viewers a video tour of her "really messy" one-bedroom apartment she shares with 2-year-old son, Valentino. "Hopefully, someone can watch this and think, ‘OK, maybe I’m not doing so bad,'" she said.
Even Marie Kondo threw in the (unfolded) towel to spend more time with her three children in their now "messy" home, she revealed earlier this year. In turn, some fans who read her famous decluttering book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” called out the author for what they saw as desertion.
"That fallout may indicate that our expectations are too high," Rachael D. Robnett, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells TODAY.com.
With an increasing awareness that raising children in spotless homes is hard work, says Robnett, women are illuminating their "invisible labor" that's typically uncelebrated compared to paid work outside the home.
For instance, restocking the refrigerator may seem like a one-shot task, but monitoring low inventory, remembering everyone's favorite foods and planning meals (including school bake sales, sports team snacks and field trip lunches) requires mental vigilance. More often than not, this labor falls on women.
Back in 2017, a viral comic strip titled “You should have asked” by French cartoonist Emma illustrated this frustration: A woman prepares dinner while managing childcare, all without help from her husband. When a kitchen disaster strikes, he is incredulous: “You should’ve asked! I would have helped!”
“When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores,” wrote Emma. “So it’s up to her to know what needs to be done and when. The problem with that is that planning and organizing things is already a full-time job.” Being the director and the executor, she wrote, is impossible.
A mess is morally neutral
Several months ago, licensed therapist KC Davis filmed a TikTok video confronting a week's worth of dirty dishes that piled up in her sink. As a self-described “messy” mom with ADHD, Davis and her husband divvy up chores using the "Fair Play" system, which helps couples redistribute invisible labor. That week, however, her productivity suffered.
"After the first couple of days, I became overwhelmed and just went into avoidance mode," Davis said in the video posted to her account, Domestic Blisters. "I finally created the momentum to do the dishes today, and well, it was bad.”
"I had to stop and go throw up,” she said. “It’s embarrassing and all I could think was, ‘This isn’t functional for me, this isn’t functional for my kids."
Davis has a specific vocabulary for housework.
"The opposite of messy is tidy, the opposite of clean is dirty, and the opposite of organized is unorganized," she tells TODAY.com. "You can be messy and organized. A lot of messy people struggle with organizational systems because they believe that in order to have a clean, functional and organized home, they need to be tidy."
She adds: "The truth is, being organized can make life so much more functional."
Davis redefined chores as morally neutral “care tasks." Her personal bar is functional, not perfect — i.e., when a floor is covered in pet hair, but still provides a clear and safe walking path.
"This doesn't mean an environment can’t have a negative, distressing or harmful impact," she says. "How it became that way, however, is not a character failing. Everybody deserves to function and (receive) nonjudgmental help."
Davis considers: Who has money to hire cleaners? Family support? Young children? Mental health problems? Disabilities? And how does childhood shape our relationships to personal space?
Alexis Novoa, a mother of two in Honolulu who works from home, grew up in a home with dirty dishes, stacks of mail and laundry piled on the couch.
"Every few weeks, my mom frantically cleaned," Novoa tells TODAY.com. "My dad wanted to clean more but the problem became too big so he spent a lot of time in the garage, his safe space."
Novoa also often retreated to her bedroom and she was embarrassed to invite friends over.
"I didn't feel psychologically safe at home," she says.
Today, Novoa has a "toxic" relationship with cleaning and can't unwind unless her house sparkles, sometimes at the expense of quality time with her family.
"If there are dishes in the sink, I can't watch TV with my husband until they're done," she says. "I'll worry I can't cook dinner later and it's a snowball effect."
Although Novoa's husband does half the housework, "he can watch TV knowing the dishes will get done before bed."
Novoa admits the slope is slippery (one load of laundry can devolve into a four-hour cleaning spree), however, tidying feels therapeutic.
"It's satisfying to see dirt disappear," she says. "I'll listen to a podcast and zone out. It’s the only time I can turn my brain off."
With a desire for balance, Novoa created daily, weekly and monthly chore lists, which she offers to her followers for free.
"I don't want my kids to feel any chaotic or negative emotions about their space," she says, adding, "I want to model healthy behavior for them."
Does mess matter to kids?
Do children notice — or mind — if they live in messy homes?
"That depends, partly on how much importance parents place on clutter," says Dr. Francyne Zeltser, the clinical director of psychology, training and special projects at Manhattan Psychology Group, PC. "Up to a certain point, children don't care about clutter."
A bit of mess is normal but if the kitchen sink is stacked with dishes and prevents cooking, it's as problematic as spending hours tidying and having no time for children.
"You'll always have laundry to fold. At a certain point, we can say, 'The laundry can wait. Let's go play.'"Dr. Francyne Zeltser
“The question for any type of pathology is, ‘Does this interfere with daily functioning?’” Zeltser tells TODAY.com.
Zeltser also draws a line between manageable clutter and dirt, which is a health and safety concern.
"What's also helpful for children is the predictability of when the clutter is addressed — not necessarily the clutter itself," she says. "That way, children know what to expect."
Families have different tolerances for clutter: Some tidy as they go, others clean at particular times. Understanding that household tasks are never-ending can help parents prioritize, she says.
According to Zeltser, parents who agree on organizational systems (who does what, when and how) can reduce stress for children. “Let’s say dad get frustrated when the kids are messy, but they are home all day with mom, who has a different set of rules,” she says. “It's on the parents to provide a consistent message.
"You'll always have laundry to fold," Zeltser continues. "At a certain point, we can say, 'The laundry can wait. Let's go play.'"
Throughout the month of March, TODAY.com is celebrating women across generations who have made history and continue to move the conversation forward by breaking stigmas, sparking dialogue and inspiring the next generation.