"Laundry can't make you a good mom."
Revolutionizing care tasks with KC Davis
I first discovered KC Davis’s work when I was researching my book chapter on “disruptor momfluencers.” Someone had sent me KC’s Instagram post about laundry and it kinda blew my mind. In the post, KC argues that laundry is a necessary chore whereas cultivating a beautiful, curated laundry room is an aspirational HOBBY. Like, one thing is a task, and the other is an aesthetic pursuit (an aesthetic pursuit you don’t have to buy into if you don’t want to!)
KC is a licensed professional therapist, speaker, and the author of How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing. She shares her work on both TikTok and Instagram, where she immediately stole my heart with her bio, which reads: “When functioning is hard.”
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Domesticity is tricky for me. I grew up surrounded by women who expressed themselves through homemaking and the cultivation of interior beauty, so it’s no surprise I inherited a love of domestic aesthetics. I will happily weigh the pros and cons of 6 different shades of white paint for as long as you’ll let me. I will geek out about vintage textile-inspired wallpaper. I will ooh and ahh over the way morning sunshine hits a cobalt blue glass bottle on your windowsill. And yeah, I’m the type of person who is drawn to the trappings of a pretty laundry room.
So I actively participate (and enjoy participating in) the hobby of interior aesthetics. But I (mostly) loathe the drudgery of housekeeping. Sure, there are those rare instances when I find myself alone and uncharacteristically energetic, upon which scouring, vacuuming, and organizing feels cathartic and good. But on a day-to-day level, the relentlessness of keeping a home tidy and clean makes my bones ache. I continuously struggle to square the requisite labor with the knowledge that, in a home which houses 3 kids under the age of ten, tidiness will turn into untidiness within hours. Sometimes minutes. The seeming futility of it all grinds.
I also deeply resent the ways in which domestic labor has been linked to idealizations of “good motherhood.” I firmly believe that mothers and caretakers will continue to be culturally disrespected (and our labor rendered invisible) if we don’t divorce care tasks from performative femininity and performative maternity.
So I was incredibly excited to talk to KC about the assumed morality of housekeeping, the presumptions of “good” motherhood and “good” homemaking, how moms are encouraged to link their worth to their domestic productivity, and why mothers have such a hard time believing they deserve rest.
Here’s my chat with KC!
I see the art of reframing as being a really important component of your work. Reframing things that people socially conditioned as female believe they must do in order to be a good wife, a good mom, a good woman, a good ______. I so appreciate how you examine these particular tasks (and hobbies!) and clarify which are cultural constructs we have the choice of opting out of, and which are necessary tasks that all adults must do. Also the moral neutrality of care tasks! Why do you think it's so hard for people to recognize that care tasks are morally neutral?
So when people first come to my messaging, I want to get really clear on the things that care tasks are and the things that they aren't. There are three things that care tasks are: morally neutral, functional, and cyclical.
Laundry is morally neutral. Laundry can't make you good, bad, right, or wrong. It can’t make you a bad mom, a good mom, whatever.
But laundry is a necessary task for life. And so if we just look at what the function of the laundry system is - it's just to get clean clothes. And that sort of frees us up to look at our own capacity, our own family, our own support, our own energy levels, and figure out what is a laundry environment and system that gets us to the function in a way that works for us.
And then the cyclical portion is this idea that, you know, laundry doesn't exist in two states - done or not done. Like, you're supposedly a good mom when laundry is always done, and you're a bad mom if the laundry is “behind.” I always say, you're not behind on laundry if you have clean clothes to wear, right?
In my family, I signed up to make sure my family always has clean laundry, not that they never have dirty laundry.
Oh my God, even that small reframe shouldn't feel radical, but it does! Like, you're not behind if your family has clean laundry. I've never thought about it that way.
Historically, women have been viewed as only good for making babies and cooking and cleaning and keeping house, but you know, once you go beyond the function of something, the only reason to do it is because it makes you happy. And that's a radically different approach than doing it so it makes you worthy.
I feel like it's tricky to parse the difference between, like, this is making me happy versus this is making me feel externally validated because of how our culture views “good moms.”
Totally. Do I have an organized laundry room because it makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to do and therefore I'm okay? Or do I have an organized laundry room because it's nice to know where everything is and to be able to access things easily, and it kind of makes me happy to see it that way? One of the big differences for me is that when something is truly making me happy because of me, I actually experience happiness. Whereas when I was just sort of doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, the pleasure was derived from me feeling like, I’m okay, I'm okay, I'm okay. And in that case, it wasn't necessarily happiness as much as it was just an absence of anxiety, and I was reading that absence of anxiety as happiness.
Okay, I am relating so hard to this. So how can you distinguish the difference between experiencing happiness and the absence of anxiety? How do those feelings differ?
So the absence of anxiety feels like cosplaying. Do you know what I mean? It almost feels like I'm looking at myself on camera.
Oh my god. Yes.
Whereas if the feeling of happiness is related to a function, it’s like, wow, it feels so nice to come downstairs in the morning and be able to take the cups out of the dishwasher instead of search for them and feel that stress that pops up when the kids are crying and I’m forced to start hand washing milk cups.
Or here’s another example. I recently redid my bedroom after having a mattress on the floor for the longest time. And then I redid it in this like, Little House on the Prairie theme. And it was a big deal because for a long time I didn't care about the mattress being on the floor. It was fine. I have small kids and it was easier for them to get in and out. But I experienced this real sense of calm once I redid the room.
And people will say all the time like, well, I just feel anxious around mess. Or I can’t feel calm when things aren't clean. Or I just genuinely feel better when things are organized and aesthetically pleasing. And sometimes I’ll liken these sentiments to feeling calm on the beach.
The beach is a very peaceful, calming place, but I don't feel anxious when I'm not at the beach.The absence of the beach doesn't make me feel any type of way. And this is where it comes back to function. A functional house is going to make you feel different than a house that's not functioning.
Yup. That’s so true.
Like when my house isn't functioning, I am going to feel more distress. But if I'm being honest, I don't know that the aesthetically pleasing nature of the house works in the same way. Like yes, it makes me happy and peaceful to see something aesthetically pleasing like my redone bedroom. But as long as something is functional, I'm not necessarily feeling distress if it's not aesthetically pleasing.
So sometimes I’ll feed myself the narrative of, like, I just can't relax if things aren't in order, or you know, all I see is the things that needs to be done. But when I get into that headspace, I’ll spend so much time tidying, picking up the toys, wiping down the countertops, whatever, that by the end of the day, I'm not feeling serene and calm. I'm feeling exhausted.
I think if you pay attention to what you tell yourself when your house is clean and perfectly put together, it will sort of mirror what you tell yourself when your house is not clean and perfectly put together. So if you’re telling yourself, I'm a good mom. I’m pulling it off. I’m valid. If that's how you access pleasure from a clean house, that’s different from saying to yourself, it’s a lot easier for me to enjoy my kids when I know where my things are, or, I don't feel as much stress when I know where the clean clothes are and I don’t have to dig around for that one shirt that's buried somewhere in whatever pile. You know?
But going back to your question about hobbies versus functions, I mean, anything above functional is just a hobby. You can liken it to food. We need to eat food in order to live.
But there’s no moral difference between baking a cake from scratch versus baking a cake from a box. There's no character difference. It's not like one person has a better work ethic or better taste; it's just a matter of preference.
Some people like to cook. It’s their hobby, it makes them happy. And so they prefer to bake the cake from scratch.
And other people just don't really get that much pleasure from cooking. Like, yes, they have to do it. It's a functional task. And maybe there are some nutritional aspects that are important to them, but they'll buy the canned corn, right? And the pre-breaded chicken if they can afford it. It doesn’t bother them that they didn’t bake their own bread for sandwiches, you know? And I think we can look at our homes similarly. It’s great if you enjoy homemaking activities like decorating or organizing. It’s great if you love hosting people, and arranging flowers. These are all valid hobbies, and I do think it’s misogynistic to assume that people who care about these things are somehow less valid or whatever.
But I also think we need to recognize that during parts of our history, women didn't have any other source of value to society, except through excelling at these type of domestic tasks. And that historical truth carries over to the present. I don't know of any man who would say, I'm not a good father because I'm not good at cleaning.
Totally, totally. Cleaning has nothing to do with parenting. Ensuring that children have safe, sanitary habitats is one thing, but a streak-free countertop does not go hand-in-hand with, like, respecting, listening to, and caring for children.
Yeah, it's our job to create a sanitary environment for our children, but we can access functionality for way less energy than most of us feel is an adequate expenditure.
I'm wondering how much the aesthetics of the ideal mother play into this. If you ask most people to quickly conjure up the image of an ideal mother, chances are, they will picture her in a domestic setting, they’ll picture her surrounded by the accoutrements of a “well-run” home. They’ll envision a beautifully lit kitchen with flowers on the countertop, candles lit, whatever. And these domestic trappings sort of serve as symbology of good motherhood.
Right there’s also the parenting-centric activities. That ideal mom you described is also building a sensory bin from scratch, involving her kids in cooking a meal from scratch, building an outdoor mud kitchen from wood she salvaged from a barn or whatever. She’s doing all of these very detailed Pinterest activities. And then her whole day consists of setting up and cultivating and designing and cleaning up after activities, you know? And if you’re the kind of person who enjoys that type of thing, that’s awesome! But these activities take so much time and energy, and the idea that you could do all of this Montessori-esque stuff while also making all organic meals from scratch, while also pressing your linens, while also Marie Kondo-ing your laundry, while also ensuring the beds are always made. Nobody can do all of that on their own. And I think what we see on social media is often little snapshots from which we extrapolate a person’s mythical whole life.
Ok, but this is where I get stuck on the moral neutrality. Like, isn’t there an argument to be made that incorporating your kids in making organic mac ‘n cheese from scratch is morally good because you’re teaching them a life skill while also maybe talking to them about food sustainability and the importance of environmentally conscious farming, and like, humane animal treatment?
But here's the thing. Not every good thing means that the absence of that thing is bad. It is a good thing to take your children out to your backdoor garden and pick tomatoes and talk about how food grows and how it’s important that people growing our food earn a living wage. That’s awesome. That is good. But it doesn’t mean that to not do those things is bad.
And here’s why. It’s good to talk to your kids about being stewards of the earth. It’s also good to talk to your kids about their feelings. It's also good to play with your kids. It's also good to make the boxed mac ‘n cheese so you have time to make handmade journals for an event you’re participating in for the purpose of uplifting moms. That's also good. It's also good to take a nap when you're exhausted.
It's also good to just focus on feeding yourself when you're going through a very hard time. It's also good to just put all of your energy into not yelling at your kids when they're in the midst of stress or mental health crises.
Like, you're not doing something bad by not making the homemade mac ‘n cheese with milk you got from a cow at your local organic farm. You're probably just prioritizing something else that is more important in that moment. That's good.
I am living for this reframing. It's so so important.
One of my favorite TikToks is about how, like, there’s not a single second of your mothering journey that hasn't had an entire blog or podcast or book written about how to do it ideally. And so we come into motherhood thinking that it's good and important that I homemake the baby food. It’s good and important that I cloth diaper. It’s good and important that I only breastfeed. It's good and important that I never sleep train. It’s good and important that I do sensory activities. All the things. But there is no blog or podcast or book dedicated to how you're supposed to do all of those things at once, because the truth is, most good moms aren’t.
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The days that I take my kids on magical outdoor adventures are the days when we're getting McDonald's on the way home because we're exhausted. The days when I’m letting my kids help me cook are the days when our house looks like a disaster. And the days when I’m cleaning the whole house top to bottom are the days when the TV is on so the kids leave me alone.
You don't have to do all of the good things all of the time.
Right! Switching gears a bit, but can you talk to me about Spoon Theory?
So Spoon Theory is a metaphor used to talk about chronic illness. It was developed by Christine Miserandino. She has lupus and wanted to express how chronic illness impacted her daily life. So like, if you only had 12 spoons per day, how would you use those 12 spoons? For some people, getting out of bed is one spoon, and showering is one spoon, and making a meal is one spoon, and going into work is two spoons, and so on. So that person can do a lot with those spoons.
And Christine described her life like this: Getting out of bed is three spoons. Bathing is five spoons. And, you know, making a meal is six spoons. And because she has to spend so much more energy on any particular task, her energy is that much more limited. Like, what she has to spend on a day is very different than a non-disabled person might be able to spend. And while this theory is important for understanding what chronic illness is like, it reflects all people, right? We are all different. Our bodies are different. Our minds are different. Our support systems are different. Our families are different. Our socio-economic statuses are different. Our privileges are different, our barriers are different.
And so you might be the type of mom who can clean her whole house and be very patient with their kids, and take them to the park, and make homemade mac ‘n cheese, and like, hold the baby while they nap, right? But I may not have that capacity.
There might be things in my life that limit my energy or my time or my sanity, and I might have to prioritize differently in my house. And that doesn't make me a bad mom. That doesn't make you a good mom.
And one of the most powerful realizations I’ve had is when people will basically infer they’re a better mom than me or whatever, instead of defending myself, I began saying, Yeah, maybe! Maybe you are a better mom.
But my job is to be the best mom that I can be. This is what I've got going on in my life. And this is what I'm capable of doing in a day while still being present and engaged with my children. And my mental health is the best resource that I can provide for my kids’ mental health.
I feel like it can be hard for moms to trust their own ability to know what their limits are, or what their capacity is. I feel like a lot of moms can get stuck. I know I do. Like, do I really not have the capacity for x, y, z? Or am I just being lazy? It's like we're trained not to trust our own sense of wellbeing
Totally. This just happened to me yesterday! I had one pill left in my bottle of ADHD medication so I didn’t take it yesterday because I wanted to save it for today. I’ve been a little bit sick the past four days with a mild stomach thing. And I haven't been sleeping super well. And because my husband was out out of town, I had parented alone all weekend. So yesterday when our nanny came, and my husband went to work, I was so exhausted that I got into bed and was like, okay I’m just gonna rest for five minutes. And I probably spent all day there. And the whole time, despite what I’m preaching today, the whole time, I was low-key beating myself up. Like, this is not how I should be spending my day. I should be doing something productive. I’m just being indulgent. And you’re right. We've been so trained to not believe our bodies when they are screaming for rest.
Even in this story, I literally named like six factors that make my decision to rest super valid! And yet, I couldn't really lean into that truth at the time. I mean, I was at least able to allow myself to rest but it was still hard for me to make peace with that decision. Especially for women, we live in a society that encourages us to find our worth in our productivity.
And this is also why an understanding of the cyclical nature of care tasks is so important.
If we believe everything has to be done before we deserve the right to just take a day for ourselves, then we're never going to take a day for ourselves without guilt because care tasks are never done.
Before kids, my husband and I would work Monday through Friday, and then spend the weekend sleeping and laying around, right? We would watch TV and do nothing. And maybe go out to dinner one night. And yesterday, I was reflecting on how spending the weekends resting and doing nothing felt so valid back then. Fast forward to today. He’s a trial lawyer and often has to work seven days a week. And I’m a mom of two small children while also doing my own (non-domestic/non-childcare) work all week. And we don't get weekends off anymore. And I was sitting there thinking, why is it that now I feel weird about taking a day to rest?
And for me, I write books, and run a platform for a living. It’s not like I’m paid by the hour. So it’s hard for me to get used to the idea of taking a day to rest so I’m able to be creative and pump out content the next day, because I start thinking, like, I’m paying for childcare right now, and I don’t deserve to do anything with that time except be productive because if I'm paying someone else to care for my kids, and I'm like, absconding my childcare duties, I have to be doing something worthy. And society has told me that taking care of myself isn’t worthy.
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I do wonder if even just a little awareness can break through all this toxic noise? Like just continuously reminding ourselves that we have been conditioned to feel as though we don't deserve rest and meaningful self care?
Our society tends to define good motherhood by how sacrificial a mom is. And there are certain moms in impossible situations who sacrifice everything for their children. And that is an incredible thing that should be honored. But I think we get tripped up when we carry the narrative of maternal sacrifice into situations and seasons of life where it’s unnecessary. Like, I would stand in front of a bullet for my kid, right? I think any mom would, but I also don't tell myself that I'm a bad mom on every day that there's not a gun around for me to stand in front of.
I try to remind myself that I have an identity outside of my role as a mother and that it's a valid identity to have and take care of. And I think this is really where the self-compassion piece comes in. I told you I spent the “whole day” in bed yesterday. But actually, I responded to all my emails, did some other things, took my kid to occupational therapy, etc. In reality, I was actually probably in bed for what - 4 hours? Like, ok KC, that seems reasonable! But yeah, having self-compassion and asking myself how I’d feel about a friend telling me a similar story. What would I say to them? Would I say, sounds like you’re being a lazy, awful mom? Or would I say, I don't know dude - sounds like maybe you deserve four hours!
Um, YUP. Okay, I should have asked you this at the very top of the interview, but how did you get invested in this type of work? Was there an inciting incident or anything?
So I've been a therapist for a long time. And I've worked in mental health even before I was a licensed therapist. And I also have ADHD, which actually wasn't diagnosed until last year. So I've thought deeply about mental health for a long time. And then the pandemic happened and I got locked in my house for two years and I was just like, I have nothing to think about except my house. I had my second baby right before lockdown and my oldest hadn't even turned two. So I had a newborn, my husband was working all the time, we were in a new city where I didn’t know a lot of people, and pretty quickly, things became not functional in our house. And so, as I was trying to figure everything out, I started posting on TikTok and connecting with other people that were similarly struggling. And I realized that so many people felt so much shame. It was wild to see 20,000 people comment about feeling ashamed because they felt like they were alone in this struggle.Tiktok failed to load.
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And so I started talking about the intersection of home care and mental health and how mental health impacts our ability to care for ourselves. And I started thinking that there had to be a better way to address when daily care tasks are difficult.
The stereotypical approach has been to simply tell people they’ll feel better once their homes are in order, or that the home is a reflection of the mind so a clean home equals a clean mind. And it’s so backwards.
I mean, yeah, it's true that I feel better when my house is functional, but also, the reason it's not functional is because of what's going on with me. It’s not the other way around. My mental health is not a result of my house not being clean. Like, I would’ve kept the house functional if I had had the skills to do so.
Or the support.
Yeah, and the more I thought and talked about it, the more I realized there weren’t many corners of the internet addressing the intersection of mental health and care work. I mean, there’s the aesthetically pleasing side of motherhood represented on social media, where everything's sort of picture-perfect. And then there’s the I'm a hot mess mom side of the internet. Two extremes. And I wanted to create real solutions for how somebody could make their space more functional. I wanted to relieve distress. Maybe it’s just the mental work of understanding that care work is morally neutral. Maybe that mental work is all you need. But maybe you can recognize that care work is morally neutral but also be like, I still need clean clothes and I can't seem to do it. So I wanted to find creative, accessible ways for people to make their spaces more functional.
What made you bring your frustrations to TikTok (and social media in general) versus, I don’t know, just talking to your therapist about it or whatever.
I was putting random things on TikTok just for fun for my friends, and then I posted this one video about cleaning. And I almost didn’t post it because I was like, what if people judge me? Or what if this doesn't have value to anyone but me? But I did post it and was amazed to see how it resonated for so many people. And some of the comments! Like, this is the first thing that's ever helped me. So it seemed like a need I could meet. I'm also a pretty open book when it comes to sharing about struggles and whatnot. And when I realized it was helping people I wanted to keep doing it.
So cool. This is my last question. I shared one of your Insta reels [I can’t find the exact reel but below is a great TikTok by KC about mental health and the postpartum experience!] about how well-meant comments about “enjoying every little minute” or whatever can be triggering for folks (they DEF were for me!) and I got some pushback from a couple moms saying, essentially, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about cherishing the fleeting beauty of childhood.” And it really struck me. Like their inability to acknowledge that other people's versions of motherhood might not look like theirs, and that's okay! How is making more space for others’ realities a threat to your own, you know? Just still trying to wrap my head around it.
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I've gotten some similar pushback from people who are like, when I say “enjoy every little moment” or whatever, I'm not trying to shame people. I just wish someone had reminded me to appreciate my kids’ babyhood or cherish those fleeting moments, and then I’m like, Oh, so it's about you then. Right? That's not about the sleep-deprived, stressed mom of a newborn in front of you at the grocery store. That's not about what she needs to hear. That's about what you regret, or what you wish you had heard.
One of the best things I’ve ever learned about interpersonal interactions is to share your experience rather than your advice. Because when you look at the mom in front of you, and she reminds you of what you miss, or what you regret, or what you wish you had known, that’s all ok. But most of us are not authentically sharing those feelings. An authentic way of sharing those feelings might be, hey there, I know it's so hard. I remember those days and as hard as it was, gosh, looking at you, I almost wish I could go back. That's about you. That's you sharing what's going on with you. That also offers an invitation. But just to say “they’re only little once!” is this bizarre condemnation. Like, if you were a good mom, you would be enjoying this more.
It’s also an erasure of someone’s lived reality. Like, maybe that mom with a newborn isn’t enjoying that phase of motherhood, and that’s ok!
It’s totally invalidating. It also misses the point, that like, if someone is struggling, it’s probably because they don’t have the support they need.
Right! Also, your feelings of nostalgia and regret about your early motherhood are totally valid but you can express them to a friend, right? You don’t have to express them to a random stranger at the grocery store.