Ask Auntie Leila: My husband adds to the mess


I haven’t done an Ask Auntie Leila in a while, and this question got me going, because the answer is both practical and metaphysical or at least goes to the real differences between men and women. (But as you will see, in some marriages it’s the wife (me) who leaves her clothes on the chair, and the husband (The Chief) who never does… )

Dear Auntie Leila,

I’ve lapped up your advice on a reasonably clean home, but one question remains in my mind. What do you do about the husband adding to the mess? I have tried a number of approaches and currently, I just try not to touch any of his at all! Even trash! He’s a grown man and he is perfectly capable of picking things up himself. And he does, on his own schedule. I also haven’t been saying anything about it to him. This has actually led to more peace in our house since he doesn’t feel nagged and I don’t feel the need to mother him.

However, how do I get a clean and calm master bedroom with a mountain of clothes all over it that aren’t really mine to pick up?

More generally, what do you do about the difference between standards of cleanliness between men and women?


Mountain [of hubby’s clothes] Housewife


Dear Mrs. Mountain,

So, let’s start with the radically practical: do you have wastebaskets in your most used rooms? Here at my house, only the living room and dining room don’t have wastebaskets. The den, pantry, mudroom, study, all the bathrooms, and all the bedrooms do. I think there is a correlation between homes with bits of trash on the floor and no wastebaskets in the rooms. 

I’m not sure what kind of trash your husband is generating on a scale that prompts you to write to Auntie Leila, but having wastebaskets (and they can be small, pretty, and definitely lined with a plastic bag) can really help with this problem. In our family, we are nose-blowing, busy, but also lazy people who cannot be motivated to jump up and throw our tissues or tags or magazine inserts into the central trash in the kitchen. Why fight it? Put a wastebasket within reach.

Likewise, in your bedroom, besides a wastebasket, do you have a hamper? I suggest a large hamper, strategically placed where his dirty clothes usually land. I also suggest, if you don’t have such things, a rack of hooks on the back of the closet door or other convenient spot, a chair for temporary placement of articles, and even one of these — they are called silent butlers or valet stands:



Some people present as slobs and actually are slobs because no one taught them certain habits. Some, paradoxically, suffer from  a certain degree of refinement that escapes normally tidy people. They are paralyzed by their own overthinking and thus a slob is born.

They don’t want to put worn but still wearable clothing into a drawer or closet because to them, the category is all wrong. The item is not perfectly clean, their subconscious tells them, nor is it really in need of washing. It’s somewhere in the middle, and so on the floor or chair (if there is a chair) it goes.

If your husband either of these creatures, true slob or undiagnosed overthinker, he needs to give himself new habits and/or recognize his sorting issue and be helped along that path to overcoming it — or at least to refraining from giving up and piling everything randomly on the floor. But if he can at least be convinced to put soiled things in the hamper, you will have moved the project along considerably. 

In both cases, trash and laundry, the receptacle can be placed near where the offenses tend to occur and then gradually, over months if necessary, moved to a less obtrusive location. 

Another cause of clutter is addressed  in what I consider required reading, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. (affiliate link) Alexander addresses the undeniable reality that people come in the door to their own home and have items they need to put down. 

Instead of thwarting this inevitable occurrence by offering storage places nowhere near the door, simply place what he calls “a waist-high shelf” right there. It can be a chest of drawers, a narrow table or bench (lower than waist high but still accessible), an actual shelf bracketed to the wall, or a lidded barrel, I suppose!

It can have optimistic shallow baskets on it for collecting the various objects into some sort of order. But it all comes down to this, that the entry needs to have a spot within reach for these items one is carrying, or they will end up in the living areas or the kitchen counters, just strewn around and annoying you. 

Now, as to how to address the problem. You are right that the wife shouldn’t mother and/or nag, and I congratulate you for your perspicacity! I’m also proud of you for not giving way to anger or bitterness, but simply wanting to solve the problem. 

The housewife can tidy up after her husband somewhat — this is her job, and there are things he does for her, such as cleaning up the trash that the raccoon got into, killing scorpions, and getting up at 2 am to go into the flooded basement to put the sump pump back on its seating when it falls over, that wouldn’t stand up to the “roommate” model that so many approach marriage with.

In other words, you’re not roommates who should adversarially divide up the tasks equally. It’s normal for the woman to be more concerned with tidiness and the man to take on heavier tasks (which is why, by the way, it’s utterly stupid for men and women to be housemates; besides chastity issues, they will default to these natural roles with none of the grace of marriage to help them over the resentment of feeling taken advantage of).

  • (All that said, full disclosure, I am the chair-putter-onner of clothing in our master bedroom, and my husband is the stow-everything-awayer of our relationship.)

But all this doesn’t mean you can’t get him to cooperate! Here is the strategy I recommend:

First, you put the needed objects into the rooms, as described above. Wastebaskets, hampers, horizontal surfaces in key spots. Display them prominently, use them yourself, point out their existence. “Oh look! A receptacle for unwanted items!” See what transpires.

If the difficulty doesn’t magically disappear, move on to Plan B, which is remarkably enough, to have a conversation about these matters, including reference to your own progress. Yes, talk about it! Without rancor, blame, scape-goating, or accusation. “Did you notice that thanks to Auntie Leila I have improved so much in my housekeeping?” You don’t actually have to mention my name, of course… “I’ve been working hard on making our home reasonably clean and attractive — what do you think about that? I am hoping you have tracked an improvement!”

Eventually, you want him to want to affirm you in this endeavor with deeds and also to do what men do so well, solve some of your problems. “I have a little difficulty with daily clutter, though. I’ve tried putting in some measures like hampers and a landing spot for things we want handy, but what do you think about these things that keep turning up?” And then mention what they are. Let him figure it out. It may take time.

My Marine son-in-law says be straightforward and don’t beat around the bush. “Here is this credenza I bought with your hard-earned money [he didn’t quite put it that way] — please put your keys on it and your boots under it.” “See this large hamper in the middle of our bedroom? Please put your dirty clothes in it every night or at least morning, for the love–!!” “Looks like a gorilla came through here! My new hamper must be invisible!” (Humor is something men consider straightforward and helpful, yet women rarely use it, oddly.)

On other occasions, be sure to be appreciative. “Thank you so much for picking up that trash. It’s amazing how much better I feel about my day when things are tidy!” “I’m grateful you used the hamper. You are the best.” 

Also be appreciative in a verbal way (not just in your head) about the non-housekeeping tasks he undertakes, whatever they may be. Everyone needs to be affirmed, and I bet there are many things he does that you take for granted. “I am so relieved you spoke to the mechanic about that problem — I just am not up to dealing with that! You have the right way of taking care of it.” 

I’m sure things will improve somewhat, over time. But even if they don’t, I think it’s in the job description of the wife to pick up after him if necessary. I realize this opinion is rather countercultural, but it’s only the sense that we have other, more important things to do that makes the task unpleasant rather than peaceful. Our husbands work hard and really, he probably just doesn’t see the problem. I know there are bad habits I have that I just don’t see — even after having been told… and asked… and praised… 

So there are some practical thoughts. You have already seen that if we tidy with love, love will prevail.

Lots of love and a big hug,

Auntie Leila


bits & pieces

  • Reading in spare moments (this whole blog seems right up our alley!). Moms today tend to grab their phones when nursing the baby, but try to have interesting books (see my Library Posts for inspiration) in strategic places. Also put a reading rack in the bathroom. Five minutes here, five minutes there, adds up to a lot of reading!
  • Style Reveals the Man — Joseph Epstein, excellent prose stylist, on F. L. Lucas’s book on the subject of what constitutes excellent prose, Style. I would have my high school upperclassman read this article, and I plan to search out the book as well!
  • A long read, and a shocking but a necessary one, of lessons from revolutionary Russia: Suicide of the Liberals by Gary Saul Morson. “Revolutions never succeed without the support of wealthy, liberal, educated society. Yet revolutionaries seldom conceal that their success entails the seizure of all wealth, the suppression of dissenting opinion, and the murder of class enemies.”
  • My South African friend Anel sent me this lovely recording of the Our Father in Afrikaans, performed with great delicacy by the Cape Town Youth Choir:

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