My partner and children are so messy that I no longer feel relaxed at home

8 Apr 2024

"This probably sounds petty but I can’t live with my wife’s relaxed attitude to mess.

I’m 38, my wife’s 36, and we have two young children aged five and three. Toys and clothes they outgrew years ago are still lying around, just so much stuff!

I instigate big sort outs, but my wife seems totally laid back about the mess – and says by the time she gets on top of it the children will have probably left home and she’ll miss them. I don’t think I can wait that long! Can I re-frame this, or is there a way of getting her involved?


Clutter is a spectrum, and it sounds like you both have very different tolerances for it. Perhaps what feels like a mess to your eyes, brings – from her perspective – comfort and a lived-in feeling. Part of that will depend on the household she grew up in and how much that contrasts with your boarding school childhood, where you would have been expected to keep things in order. It might be that if things aren’t orderly you feel insecure, or unconsciously in trouble.

Many boarding school men I’ve worked with have felt like they’ve lacked the experience of a loving home, and I wonder how you feel about being a husband – and a father – at home. When you say you instigate big sort-outs, I feel the frustration behind your words, and I wonder whether to your wife and children this feels like control and order, rather than simply spending time together within a normal, slightly messy, family home.

You say your wife is laidback about clutter, but here’s a shot in the dark: perhaps, for her, some of the outgrown mess is more emotional than physical. If she’s working very hard, it’s possible she might feel she doesn’t get enough time with the children. Those clothes might be a way of holding onto these years, as young children grow up so quickly; physical clutter is often representative of emotional baggage.


It’s telling that your wife is already talking about missing your children when they leave home – perhaps there’s something out of balance with how much time she spends at work that’s bringing up an anxiety about having an empty nest. Have you chatted with her about this? It’s a real struggle in the early years when juggling parenthood, career and identity, even without the added current pressures of childcare and living costs.

Having not seen your home, it’s hard to know whether yours is the mess that most families with young children and two working parents experience. You make no mention of it being unclean – and a weekly cleaner suggests this is not a concern. However, your different tolerance levels are leading to clashes, while in reality it’s possible for both of your needs to be met.

Perhaps you need to have a space of your own somewhere in your home that’s calm and free of clutter so your mind can feel calm. That might be a study or shed, but can also be your shared bedroom, all of which make for a good practical compromise.


You’d need to be clear with your wife about your need for order within the space, springing from your childhood, and how it affects your sense of safety and calm with your family. If you’ve explained this previously and she’s not respectful of that, I’d urge you to repeat your needs clearly – limiting uncluttered space to one area of the house shows you’re taking into account the realities of your young family – and make sure she understands how important this is for your wellbeing.

As for the reframe you’re asking for, I’d invite you to experience your home from the eyes and needs of your children. Play is a very important part of development, and that involves allowing your children the freedom and expression to create – and brings inevitable mess. Their childhood might be more wild and free than your boarding school experience. Experiment with rolling up your sleeves and joining in with their play: as if you’ve been given the opportunity to experience the playful freedom of a carefree childhood.

When we have children, however neatly we’ve packed away our own childhood in a trunk, it will come back to us. It might be that the mess you’re living in reminds you of your childhood and your parents or teachers’ discomfort around it – or perhaps it makes you uncomfortable because it feels so alien to your upbringing. You might find that revisiting that time helps you understand what it is about your home that you’re struggling with. Do you feel like you’re abandoning your boarding school post where you were responsible for keeping everything neat and tidy? What did mess mean in your house when you were growing up? Were you free to play? By working out where your emotions are coming from, you have a wonderful chance to relive a childhood – through the gift of your children – with less responsibility and structure, where no one is in trouble and everyone is free to play.


It sounds as if your wife is working hard, and neither of you subscribe to twentieth century values when women were expected to fulfill the traditional home roles. Do question yourself, though, to check whether you’re bringing any bias or resentment to this situation: would you like to be more involved with the clearing? Are you good – maybe better than her – at these domestic roles? Or do you have an expectation that she should be a homemaker? Could your time, energies and responsibilities be renegotiated? Does she earn more than you and how do your finances dictate your lifestyle and power dynamics?

I sense how responsible you feel in your household, and you describe your wife’s attitude as relaxed. There tends to be a balance between laidback and uptight in any partnership, and you might find that your role of order is pushing her to seek balance. It’s possible that if you ease off a little, she will find she has space to take some of that responsibility off your shoulders.


Finally, during these fleeting years with such young children, I’d recommend you invest in a pair of reinforced slippers so your feet don’t get hurt when you step on stray toys and Lego.