Home is where the anxiety is

A dear friend shared an article not long ago about ‘scruffy hospitality;’ the fading art of inviting people into your home as it is, to share whatever you have. No guest towels, no carefully curated dinner table, no well planned menu. Instead – don’t trip over the toys, pull up a chair, we’re having burgers, and help me finish this bottle box of wine.

I love this concept; it speaks to me of warmth, of being deeply welcome, the easy familiarity of neighbors in a time gone by. It’s real connection, as opposed to the arms-length encounter that is being someone’s guest. The funny thing is, it’s exactly the kind of connection we’re looking for (but rarely find) with all of our cleaning and cooking and Pinteresting.

But as attracted as I am to the concept, I struggle with it. I struggle with having anyone in my home, but especially if it’s not as perfect as I can make it.

I have house shame.

Growing up on the knife-edge of poverty, clean took on an outsize importance. It was the difference between broke and poor – between poverty as an economic fact, and poverty as a state of mind; between giving up, and holding out hope things would be better someday. Families with enough money were free to live in tidy houses or not, as they chose. But for the places we called home – rentals with musty green carpeting and dirt ‘yards,’ trailers with drafty floors, furnished in other people’s castoffs – keeping what we had clean was keeping hold of the last shreds of our dignity; an attempt at belonging, and at trying to make a transitory place feel like home. If we didn’t have solidity, ownership, a place we could get attached to, well –a neatly made bed and the scents of Murphy Oil Soap and fresh-brewed coffee would have to do.

Yet it was never quite enough. In public, I thought I was hiding the truth of my family life behind a bright smile and a way with words (I probably wasn’t). But when someone entered our home, there was no hiding our circumstances. No matter how clean the house was, the bald sofa, stained linoleum and icy walls spoke for themselves, and I would be flooded with embarrassment.

I thought this would end as my outward circumstances changed. I thought eventually my home would be ‘nice’ enough that my house shame would go away. It has not. I am a world away from the way I lived my childhood, but every step up and away only brings brief relief. No matter where I’ve moved or what I’ve done to the places I’ve lived, I still feel like my home is so imperfect that the ‘clean’ part has to be just right for me to be acceptable. The common denominator is me.

All it takes for me to be eight years old again is for someone to stop by while the breakfast dishes are still on the counter and the beds are unmade. Or for me to plan to host a gathering (in the absence of a full-on renovation completed just fifteen minutes before everyone arrives – in other words, any time). Or someone to catch sight of those spaces where I have no control. You know, because I live with other people who get to have a say in how they keep their spaces too, rather than living in constant service to my anxiety.

Cultural expectations play a role too. Women are still judged about how they keep their home – no matter how many other people live there and whether or not they pitch in. Homekeeping is a perfectionist freakshow even without the childhood baggage: a moving target with no criteria for what’s good enough, no finish line, and only a vague hope of avoiding shame and judgment as a reward.

Clearly, it’s the shame and anxiety I need to work on, not my house.

Here’s what I know.

It’s not what I do, it’s how I feel when I do it. I like clean and orderly spaces; they’re soothing to my introverted soul. And there’s an obvious difference in how I feel when I tend to my environment for that reason, versus what I do when I’m hustling for approval or trying to avoid shame. My desk at work is freakishly clear, with a decorative lamp, a bamboo plant and (not kidding) a miniature water-feature. Do I do this because I fear my colleagues will judge me if I have a cluttered workspace? Because I will be ashamed if I don’t do these things? No; I do it without thinking, because that’s the environment in which I feel and work the best. (In case you were wondering, though, they totally judge me for the water feature.)

I can look to other women for wisdom. Other women in my life provide the best examples of how I’d like to allow myself and my home to be, and I have two exceptional role models.

My friend A has a family structure similar to mine – she and her spouse work full time and have one tween. She has a lovely home and a talent for striking that balance between the inviting kind of clean, and allowing her home to look like a real live family actually lives there, even when she has people over. She knows of my struggles, and has been known to initiate conversations like this upon leaving my home:

A: Don’t make your bed tomorrow morning.

Me: Why?

A: Because I fucking dare you.

My other role model is my sister in law. Anthony and Sis grew up in a background similar to mine, so she has a ton of empathy and, I think, similar struggles – she just handles them with way more style. She’s sees the state of her house for what it is – the relative condition of a house at one moment in time, not a referendum on her self-worth – and is candid and hilarious on those days when the whole thing goes off the rails. She once told me of meeting her husband’s friend (who dropped by unexpectedly on an off-the-rails day) on the porch with a smile, cold beer, and the announcement that under no circumstances could he enter the house, because it was crazy in there. In one swoop, she kept what was of value – his company – and let the rest go.

I like other people’s imperfect homes. When I am invited into other people’s homes, I am at my most comfortable when they are not perfect. A little pet hair on the furniture and some dishes in the sink are signs that I have been invited in while there is real life going on. I have never, not once in my life, gone into somebody’s house and thought, “Man, they are horrible housekeepers, and that kitchen needs an update.” I bet most other people don’t either; so I’m not even reacting to the actual people entering my home (who are in the main, nice people, because I don’t invite assholes over). I’m reacting to what’s in my head.

One of the great gifts of my time in therapy was the understanding that, when it comes to emotional baggage, it might not be possible to banish it entirely – and that expecting myself to do that is not kind. The kindest thing I can do for myself is to be mindful of how I’m feeling, rather than try and fix it. When the shame and anxiety percentage dials back from 90 to 40, that’s huge progress, even if it never gets to zero.

Tomorrow I’m not making my bed.



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