Shame and Hospitality

Haley had scheduled the get-together a week in advance. I knew all about it. And then we both forgot.

Haley called me at 4 in the afternoon, “Do you remember that we have people coming over at 6?” My whole day came crashing down.

We hadn’t cleaned the house that weekend, because no one was feeling that well. There was a mountain of laundry in the kitchen in front of the wash machine, and the sink was full of dishes. Toys were scattered throughout the house along with used tissues from all the snotty noses. I had nothing on hand to serve a guest. I wanted to cry.

I snapped at the kids, I turned up the radio and buckled down to cleaning as fast as I could. I cleaned up the bathroom, moved the laundry and swept the kitchen. I felt panicky. We had invited them! We couldn’t cancel now. These people had less children and more money, the least I could do was have a clean house. What would they think if they walked in on the piles of toys in the kid’s room and saw all the floors that hadn’t been vacuumed in 4 days? Do you know how many crumbs can be produced by 4 kids in 4 days? I bet this guest didn’t. They would think I was a horrible slob, a negligent mother, letting my kids grow up in filth.

I folded blankets, I threw toys into buckets. Ms Action started to cry. “I don’t want to clean the house mom, I worked hard at school all day, I’m tired.” She went outside to hang out with her little neighbor friend. I tossed in another movie for the babies and tried to keep cleaning.

Who did these people think they were anyways? They didn’t want to have us to their house because their place wasn’t “childproof”. Did they think our kids were crazy maniacs? Or were they just too good for us? We didn’t know them that well, enough to know they were LGBTQ affirming, but very religious. I thought about a recent conversation where they had implied that Haley should go back into ministry in a more friendly denomination, and not waste that calling and those skills in a different career. Was that why they were coming over? To try to re-evangelize us and tell us how we had let down the church?

Haley got out of school at 5 and when she walked in the door and saw my face, she was like “You know what? I’m going to cancel. It was unfair for me to expect you to clean all this up by yourself just because we forgot we’d scheduled this. We are still fighting that cold anyways, so lets just call it off.”

I was hugely relieved, but felt like such a failure. I felt like I had emotionally shut down. I couldn’t talk about it at first, and it took several hours to pinpoint where the shame was coming from.

When we were first married I promised that Haley could bring home friends or ministry guests anytime, the house would be ready. As a pastor’s wife I was committed to modeling great hospitality. While we church planted, we had every family who showed interest in our little ministry over to our home. When we took an established church, I was so burned out from trying to keep the house perfect at all times while juggling multiple toddlers and usually pregnancy, that we drastically reduced the number of people we hosted, from several a week, to only several a year.

Gradually, Haley began to help around the house, and now we are too the point where household care is done in full co-operation together. But I still carry that shame with me sometimes. A godly home is clean and organized and presentable at a moment’s notice. At times it could feel like a competition, as if the family’s spiritual condition could be determined by how clean the house was and whether or not you had cookies and tea on hand for a guest. Inviting people into your home was a way to show God’s love.

Until Haley got home and decided the stress wasn’t worth it, the thought of cancelling had not even occurred to me. The old ideas of our family image had taken over and I felt like I HAD to be ready, no matter what.  NOT being hospitable was not an option. Turning people away from our home was like turning people away from God.

I am still learning to claim ownership of my space and my time. I’m still learning that having people over can stem from actual desire and interest and not mostly obligation or evangelism.  I don’t have to worry about giving people a good impression of god and the church. I want to get to the point where I can have people over at a moment’s notice if I want to, and not because my house is always clean, but because I am comfortable with being human and having normal messes in my home.


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  • Michael Mock

    We only have the two boys. I can’t even imagine how you could clean a house with four children, especially at those ages. We can only manage it when the boys are out of the house, or when they’re sleeping.

    Admittedly, Secondborn has an obsessive need to come along and re-messify things while we’re still in the process of cleaning them, but even if your kids aren’t quite so… determined… Well, look: kids = mess. That’s just how it goes. Anybody who doesn’t understand probably isn’t someone you’d want in your home anyway.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      There’s a saying: Trying to clean a house when you have kids is like trying to shovel your driveway in a snowstorm.

  • Michelle

    Great post. You know many times I have been ashamed to have people over to my home due to the chaos and the clutter. But over the years, somehow I’ve gotten past it. And then last year sometime I ran a cross a meme that said, “If you want to see my house, make an appointment. If you want to see me, come on over!!” And I loved that and I have clung to it for a long time now. Granted, we’re still fairly busy and hosting people in our home isn’t something we do all that often, but whenever a family drops by (dropping off from a social outing for kids, etc) I just don’t worry about it anymore and it’s a huge relief! I pray you find peace with this, too.

  • Jayn

    “They didn’t want to have us to their house because their place wasn’t “childproof””

    For me, the validity of this would depend on what sort of plans you had. My SIL has kids and there’s been exactly one time she’s been invited over when I’ve said that the kids weren’t also welcome, which is when we were playing DnD over here. It wasn’t just that our place isn’t childproof–the kids had been over plenty of times–but that we wouldn’t be able to really supervise them at all.

  • Drea

    Hi Melissa,
    I struggle with a fear that my house is a reflection of me, so I never want people over unless it’s perfect. The problem is, I never have people over then, because my house is never at the standard that I want. Have you ever tried the flylady techniques? (just google flylady) She has helped me immensely in letting go of that fear, and even helped me get a little more organized

  • Kristen

    Amen sister. My mother tries to drive the point home to me about having a perfectly clean home at all times (and forwards that flylady stuff to me all the time) but the truth is, when kids are sick, when I am sick or injured (as happened at Christmas) housework is going to suffer and I refuse to make apologies for taking better care of my kids or husband or myself than my home in those times.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I remember when I was about 14 and my group of friends would alternate whose house we “hung out” in after school, but we had one friend who very rarely hosted. The reason was that her mother was ashamed of her house not being clean enough. None of us cared, we’d just sit in our friend’s room and all of our rooms were messy, but the mom was adamant. She was just too ashamed of her home. And it bothered me a lot because she was prioritizing something silly like tidiness over giving her daughter opportunities to be around her friends.

    Then I grew up and had a house of my own, a house that I DO NOT keep very tidy. And I can certainly sympathize with the guilt.

    We only have one child and we already struggle with keeping things neat. When he was younger, it wasn’t too bad. We’d keep his toys in his room and that’s where we’d play, so I could at least keep the living room neat in case of guests. But now that he’s a toddler, he wants free range of the house, and that kid is like a tornado.

  • Africaturtle

    Oh Melissa! I hear you!!! And it did me ggod to hear your story and the reader comments too! See i don’t really like cleaning but still do often but with 4 kids it hardly ever shows and my husband has torn me down so much over this subject time and time again ( you let you kids live in filth, this is unacceptable, it’s YOUR responsibility since your the one home full-time, and just general ranting and raving about “messes” around that *shouldn’.t * exist). And since i already have a strong inner critic whose voice sounds much like yours (in this article) i just feel like a complete failure so easily. I’m so happy that Haley looked at your well-being as more important than the state of the house or a commitment with friends. This shows me that i am not crazy to think that such love and respect do/should exist in a healthy relationship!

    • Michael Mock

      You know, if it bothers him that much, he could pitch in and help…

      • Olga

        I agree with Mike. I was for years repulsive of cleaning because of how much guilt was dumped on me by those who did not want to clean themselves but had a very high expectations for my life to be spent cleaning.

        It’s unfair to expect much cleaning from a woman with small kids. It’s better if she keeps herself and the children sane, rather than running around shouting at people and wasting her last energy on vacuuming.

        Melissa and Africaturtle, try the FLYLADY system. Google it. It will provide huge relief and keeep your home guest ready.

        Great post, Melissa,


    • Rosa

      You know this, but your husband shouldn’t tear you down.

      Among other things, usually the reason one parent stays home is to PARENT. That’s different from cleaning house.

  • Kalvin

    I like your entire article, but these three sentences are my favorite part – “I am still learning to claim ownership of my space and my time. I’m still learning that having people over can stem from actual desire and interest and not mostly obligation or evangelism. I don’t have to worry about giving people a good impression of god and the church.”

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Even though I am a Christian, and I hope what I believe to be God’s love shows through everything I do, I never want to do something kind for someone or help somebody out with the only reason being so is that I can evangelize to them. To me that seems like I am using them, and that is wrong. I want to show kindness to people because I value their worth as a fellow human being (and as a friend if I know them personally).

  • Rosa

    This totally hits home, partly because i keep intending to invite you all over for an afternoon or for dinner & we’re so overscheduled i haven’t made the time for it (and because i want to cook & make the house look less like a tornado hit it first.)

  • Amy

    O my gosh… isn’t that interesting what pulls up and pushes buttons?? Wow, Mel.. I so get the shame connected to the home and it’s order. I love how Haley and you work as a team in your home and family…and that you were both able to let it go and cancel. There will be other times.
    It sounds like you had big time burn out from your church days.

  • e

    I am not a natural house cleaner. A certain level of disorganization never bothered me. Then I married a man who is kinda OCD about tidiness. Then I had four children and thus began the balancing act between the level my husband wanted me to keep and what I could realistically do. Now, 13 years later, I have learned to step up the housecleaning because that is what he likes and what helps him relax at home. It also does help the family run more smoothly (gosh darnit! he was right about that :p). He has learned that if something isn’t the way he likes it, the world will not end and/or he has two hands that are perfectly capable of doing whatever he would like done differently. This compromise has been working well, though we have to tweak a bit here or there. I’ve had times where the house was so bad when they were little that even I cringed when people came over, but I realized that my friends understand what’s it’s like to have kids, even the ones that don’t have kids. If it was ever too bad for me to even look at, well, we’d have coffee outside on the porch lol!

    As for the planning stuff and forgetting, oh my goodness, we were the worst for that! I have stuff, my husband has stuff and the older two are in many different things. We were forever getting dates/activities mixed up. My husband found this website with a phone app called Cozi where you can make a family calender online that either of you can enter info into and it sends reminders for you both, emails or if you have smartphones, to your phone. You can also make grocery lists on it. We’ve been using it for a couple of months now and wow! so far we haven’t forgotten one thing! Technology can be so cool :D

  • ‘Becca

    I have struggled with this, too. I grew up in a town where many people (especially, the most socially powerful ones) held the opinion that a home should be as clean and neat and fashionable as a hotel, at all times, and if it wasn’t it reflected poorly on the character of the woman of the house. Although I often invited friends to my home, sometimes later I would learn they had gossiped to one another and their mothers about my mother’s housekeeping. It was painful because I preferred our more interesting home to the others, yet I was bothered by my parents and brother making messes that inconvenienced me and letting things get truly dirty and smelly, yet I felt strongly that this was the fault of each of them–not just my mom–and that the ideal was for all of us to cooperate to maintain an interesting yet hygienic home.

    As an adult, I’ve gradually become aware of how much I internalized the idea that my self-worth is directly tied to the condition of my home–even though I resisted that idea all along, even though I am now the family breadwinner and my partner has more time at home, if people come over when the house looks messy I feel ashamed! I’m working on it. It helps a lot to visit other homes in the city where I live now and see that other people can host parties without apologizing for their clutter, mismatched furniture, or dust.

    C.S. Lewis wrote that keeping one’s home with a focus on how it appears to guests is the kind of Pride that is a Deadly Sin. I remind myself of that frequently! I try to focus on being friendly, rather than apologetic and shameful and defensive, to guests–to think of hospitality as sharing the pleasures of my home as I enjoy them myself.

    • Olga

      Yes, when we put cleaning ahead of everything else, we need to consider the impact on our children and their future life.
      My grandma house was like this. When I come to visit, at 5 y.o., I would receive a cloth for dusting and hear, “if you love your grandma, help her.” Grandma believed in keeping house clean, children well fed, everyone having chores… Nothing wrong with this, and she was very kind, loving grandma in my life. But I still have difficulty dusting, 30 years later I resent dusting and have to have an internal conversation with myself to push myself to do it.
      I guess because in my head dusting became connected to pushing me into submission by methods that I cannot say NO to.

  • Cheri

    I’ve struggled with SO much guilt over the state of my house the last few months. I’m a single parent, and though I work from home, I still don’t have tons of time. Add to that some near-crippling depression while changing psych meds, and I never seemed to have the emotional energy for cleaning. I knew I had the physical energy, but I just *couldn’t* get myself to do it. I’ve recently realized something similar to what you did in this post; mine came in the form of a list of my priorities. I realized that I will never be able to do everything, and that some things are more important than others. First is my daughter, second is my own health and well-being, third is my job, and then fourth is housework. Actually my boyfriend comes somewhere before housework too. So having this list helps me realize that, when the house is a mess, if one of the higher priorities isn’t taken care of, I have absolutely no reason to feel guilty about not cleaning. It was pretty much an epiphany. ;)

  • Olga

    Hey Cheri,
    I feel for you. Been there…. And I really like the way you have tackled this, and how you realized that your other priorities like bf and kids and your health were higher than cleaning
    seriously, try Flylady system. It adds 15 min routines to your priorities list , and you will be amazed how much you can do 15 mins a day and how much better yuor home looks. And yes, how much happiness comes back… It was like a therapy for me to read endless testimonials in her Yahoo group, most people feeling like you before and much better after :)

  • Mashroom

    Ah! My husband’s (and his mother’s, and her mother’s) obsession with a super clean (and always clean) house makes perfect sense now. It’s a religious thing. Got it. (they seriously spend like 4-5 hrs per day cleaning!)

    My mom was always into the ‘house should be clean, but we shouldn’t spend ALL our time cleaning, would rather live!’

  • Rebecca

    Oh…this is sooo hard! I’m not the world’s best housekeeper anyway, but with kids underfoot now, it seems IMPOSSIBLE. I always feel so bad if people come over and it’s a mess…which it usually is! I stress myself out so much trying to be a good host. But I know that’s my issue. I’m working on trying to be more ok with being “real.” I’m trying to apologize less for the mess. (Do you know I actually even have apologized to the teenage babysitter!:-)) My Mothers of Preschoolers group leader actually put a picture of her messy living room on the screen at a meeting one time to remind us to be real with each other. It’s hard though.