Books we love: How to Keep House While Drowning

Rev. Eliza Jaremko shares how she is learning to keep house like Mary and Martha.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“Care tasks are morally neutral,” KC Davis writes in her book How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing“Being good or bad at them, “she continues, “has nothing to do with being a good person, parent, man, woman, spouse, friend. Literally nothing. You are not a failure because you can’t keep up with the laundry. Laundry is morally neutral.”

In the last year, I’ve read a lot of fiction (historical fiction is my jam), theology, biblical commentary and spirituality, but this little self-care book has changed my way of thinking more than anything else. KC Davis is a licensed therapist and creator of Struggle Care. As a parent of young children during the pandemic, Davis explores how home spaces have changed into live-work spaces, but our judgments of ourselves (and our levels of cleanliness) have not changed. Her book gets to the heart of the struggle of so many adults who are trying to juggle it all, dropping balls and feeling like failures.

Davis’ book may be categorized as self-help, but it is a philosophy, not a program. While the book does give some practical advice about organization, laundry, dishes and personal hygiene, this is not the focus of the book. Instead, Davis gives permission to readers to think about their living spaces differently: “You don’t exist to serve your space; your space exists to serve you.” She moves away from the judgment many feel about having the perfect home and leans into having a home that meets your needs.

As a pastor and parent who struggles with juggling work and home life, I am grateful to this book for the gift of permission. The permission to live in my home without fear of judgment. The permission to leave my children’s toys on the floor. The permission to sit and enjoy a book as a care task. The permission to look at piles of laundry and think, “I’m grateful to afford clothes for my family and a machine to wash them” instead of, “I’m a failure as a mom and person if I don’t fold these clothes.” As Davis writes, “care tasks are morally neutral.” A house’s mess does not have a value of worth – it simply is.

The book reminds me of the classic biblical story of Mary and Martha, who Scripture tells us Jesus loved (John 11:5). In Luke, we hear of a time when they welcomed Jesus into their home. While we don’t know the cleanliness level of their home, we do know that Martha seemed to be worried about it, while Mary was not (Luke 10:38-42). We often pit Mary and Martha against each other: the doer vs. the thinker, the servant vs. the contemplative, the clean one vs. the messy one. We do to Mary and Martha what we’ve done to ourselves for centuries: we judge worth based on housekeeping.

Yet, Jesus himself pushes against this. He sees how Martha’s tasks are overwhelming her, so much so that she is missing out on the gift of life right in front of her. Jesus gives Martha permission to stop for a moment, to sit for a while, to let go of worry, to let go of judgment, to sit with Jesus. There is always a time for tasks, but how will we make time for Jesus?

Two millennia later, I sit in my home, writing amidst the mess. There’s a wagon in the middle of the floor, piled high with pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals. There’s unfolded laundry in a basket beside me. I sit here with KC Davis’ words in my heart, “you must know, dear heart, that you are worthy of care whether your house is immaculate or a mess.” I sit here knowing Jesus loves my children’s imaginations that turn wagons into hotels. I sit here knowing that because Jesus loves me unconditionally, my worth rests in him alone (and never in that laundry pile).