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That Time You Cleaned Up -- "It’s not what you LOOK like. It’s what you DO like."


I have a first world problem, and I am the first to admit that I am blessed to even have this problem. My cleaning lady moved home right before the lockdown and she isn’t coming back.

Initially, her absence wasn’t a huge issue. In the honeymoon phase of the lockdown, we all rolled up our sleeves and kept our two-story home in livable condition. We had time on our hands to do so. No swim team. No ballet. No Friday night spring flag football games to prepare for. We didn’t even have the usual homework battles that sucked time and energy from everyone, including the dogs, who’d bark their disapproval of the drama. But that’s all changed. The honeymoon is over. The jig is up. We’re poor cleaners. We’re slobs, really. And now, back in full swing with school and all the extracurricular activities, it’s a problem. While my kids are overjoyed to have their people and passions back in their lives, and my husband and I are glad that the daily interruptions of “the internet is laggy...I can’t log on” are a nuisance of the past, we are admittedly living in our own filth and desperately seeking a maid in shining armor to ride in on a mop and sweep us off our dust and mildew. But there’s a catch.

The inspection.

If you, like me, have the best intentions when it comes to housekeeping, but also like me, fail each and every day to meet the OCD requirements necessary to achieve the sparkling countertop and clutter-free rooms you so desire, then you understand the stomach plummeting, “oh shit”, “we’re screwed” immediate reaction to a new housekeeper saying, “I will need to first schedule a house visit before giving you my fee.”

We’re doomed.

My mind immediately centered around the challenge. I needed to give the impression that we were an ideal candidate, not just clean, but desirable. She was Harvard, and I needed to take my below average record and hide the fuckery. Stuff the closets! Pack the junk drawers! Throw away the toys -- who needs imaginative play tools anyway? Play outside, you sloppy brats! Mama’s gotta a show to do!

To say I failed the inspection is a brash understatement. For starters, my dogs really screwed things up. As my potential house cleaning savior approached the door, my smallest dog’s arch-nemesis, a cheeky squirrel, chose that exact moment to cross the lawn. Cue the hysteria! Small dog lunged at the front window, nearly breaking through the glass, in defense of her turf. The puppy joined in. (She’s a total suck-up to the little general.) The older dog squatted and peed. It was her only defense. When the inspection got upstairs, I took the audible sigh as the cleaning guru looked at Middle Man’s room with legos scooped up from the floor and scattered across his bed and the “oh my!” when she saw the doll shoes and origami paper tucked under The Girls dresser, glitter stuck to every surface, to mean I was a most undesirable candidate. But unlike Harvard, cleaning services will accept you even if you are a complete fuck up. No admissions scandal necessary. Sure, I’d have to pull a Lori Loughlin and pay a little extra to get my babies the clean home I think they deserve, but it was all very disclosed.

I agreed to the terms. I know that the fee was ridiculous and while I’m ashamed of the price, what choice did I have? I’m Annie, and I’m a disorganized slob.

I didn’t talk to the dogs the rest of the day. I strode through my slophouse with my head hanging and wondering where I went wrong. I mean seriously, do other families go to “Neat Training,” the way I took my traitorous dogs to puppy kindergarten? Did I miss some class somewhere along the way? Because it sure seems like I’m the only one who didn’t register for “How to Work Forty Hours a Week with Three Kids, Three Dogs, Numerous Afterschool Activities, and Keep Your 3000 Square Feet Spotless...and Drink Eight Glasses of Water a Day Too.”


Recently, I picked The Golden Boy up from a friend’s house. I’d never been to this house before, and my inner, jealous voyeur squealed with delight as I walked the steps. Please, Jesus, let it be a shit show. It was a small, mean whisper to a God who probably frowned upon my curse, but I didn’t care. I was out for blood. I needed to see their mess for my own good.

The flower beds were weedless. The flower pots overflowed with blossoms. No brown, crusty stems or leaves stuck in the corners of the porch, mulching without intent. Inside, the smell hit me instantly. Clean! If clean could be bottled, these folks were the manufacturer. The furniture was white. (White!!!) And without any signs of ketchup stains or dog gradoux. (Their dogs must be loyal.) And the kitchen? Oh for the love of hot messes everywhere, why did the kitchen have to gleam? Surely, there was a disorganized spice rack hiding behind the Container Store prototype that their (also completely white) kitchen truly appeared to be.

“Holy hell, did you see that?” I asked my boy as we walked to the car.


“That house! It was….” I searched for a word that would suffice its overachievement.

“Clean?” he asked.

“Well, yeah, but I mean that was really clean. Like, about-to-sell-your-house clean.” I stopped walking. “Maybe that’s it! You think they’re moving?”

“No,” the boy answered. “But I did ask how they kept it so clean.”

My ears perked.

“They have a housekeeper who comes twice a week, ” he said apologetically.

I thought about my dogs. Bitches!

Dog pack, Annie D. Stutley
My traitorous dogs

Back home, I stuck some frozen chicken nuggets in the air fryer. I received the air fryer as a gift from one of my clients for helping them through the lockdown. I’d always wanted an air fryer, but on that day, I couldn’t help but feel bad about my new gadget. My clients are all Mom and Pops business owners. They aren’t glamorous. They’re humble, hard working people. All they could ever afford as a thank you is a simple air fryer (if that), not the big, fat bonus checks all the pretty people in their spotless homes probably get.

“Blessed are those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth?” That’s what scripture says, right? So can I just go ahead and inherit it now, please? Can I please just pass the inspection test, afford the housekeeper, the gardener, the organizing specialist, the life coach, the fitness trainer ...the whole they can fix my life?

Man, that clean, white house really got to me.

“What’s Mom’s problem?” The Girl smelled the fried preservatives and meandered over to the bar and plopped on a stool (probably tossing God-knows-what onto the floor so she could sit.)

“Mom feels bad about our house.” Just hearing The Golden Boy say it made me feel like a total turd. Then he explained the greatness of his friend’s house. Did he have to go into such detail? Thanks for knocking me when I’m already down, kid. But he ended with, “Anyway, seems pretty uptight to me.”

“Humph,” I chewed on his last line.

“That’s why my friends like coming over here,” Middle Man chimed in. He’s eleven going on aspiring frat social chair. The social benefits and disadvantages of any given situation are what move him most.

“Because it’s a disaster?” I offered.

“Because it’s like, I don’t know...real. Kids like that.”

Maybe I am a turd…

“Remember, Mom,” The Girl, took a bite out of her nugget and spoke casually. “It’s not what you look like. It’s what you do like.”

My eyes lifted. Who’s the kid with the big lesson? When did she become the Dalai Lama...or Yoda?

But she got me thinking. They all did, my whole motley crew.

It’s not what I look like. It’s what I do like.

I don’t run an uptight house. You can eat in the living room. You can eat anywhere. You can make forts with the good throws and tuck them into the fancy furniture. You can’t throw paint at my walls, but you can get messy. You can have as many friends over as you want, as long as they let me sleep in on the Saturdays when I’m not driving swim team carpool. You can toss water balloons off my balcony and have nerf gun battles in the hallways and up and down my rickety stairs. My couch is big enough for piling on kids (and dogs) and Mom and Dad for movie nights. My kitchen is wide enough to fit all the cooks on Thanksgiving Day. I have a little office with French doors that let the sun bathe the room just as my writing hour draws near, and bookshelves line the walls, beckoning me to curl up on my orange chair with a juicy story. It’s a home. And I guess, maybe I do that well. This isn’t to say that clean houses aren’t homes. But perhaps my focus on other houses made me blind to what I have created for family and friends.


I know enough to know that I can do better, though. I can manage my children better, set expectations, and follow through. I can trust but verify that they are learning responsibility and doing their part to make our home welcoming and efficient. I can set better expectations for myself too. So what if I’ve always been messy? What’s stopping me from not being messy? If I can answer that, maybe the next time I’m inspected by a housekeeper, I won’t need to pad my application. But I also know that I can stop expecting everyone else to be just as guilty as I am of my ineptitude. If I can recognize that what I “do like” matters more than what I look like, then I should be able to grant the same compassion to others.

And perhaps that’s what the most humble of us truly do. It’s not about money, possessions, or the appearance of your house that makes the humble, humble. It’s not even as simple as placing your worth below that of others. It’s about seeing yourself through an honest lens, admitting where you fall, and deciding if your worth is enough for you to try for another inspection. It’s about stripping the labels off those we envy, hate, or don’t understand and measuring them by their actions rather than their appearance, money, or yes, even their political parties.

We all have messes and we all need to clean up. We can fix it, as a whole team.

And it starts at home.

Thanksgiving in my messy home.

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Annie D. Stutley

the short story

Back in 2017, “That Time You” took its first steps—a blog that humorously and inspiringly chronicled the chaos of everyday life. It was a canvas for what I referred to as “gaffes with glory” (what others may call hot mess success tales) and also resolutions for how to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges, plus personal victories within the daily hustle. I've never had all the answers, and truth be told, I still don't. Yet, I spoke the language of the Hot Mess and Walking Disaster, understanding that we don't need to have it all figured out or succeed at everything to truly grasp our purpose.

However, 2021 brought a drastic turn: I faced a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis and tragically lost my mother during my sixth round of chemotherapy. My path forward seemed impossible. Stumbling took on a whole new weight—it became a burden I struggled to carry in a place where trust felt elusive. “That Time You” evolved at that point because I evolved. Stripped of my plans and the future I had envisioned, I found solace in my one constant: my faith.

Since surviving cancer (and the loss of a parent for the second time in a two-year period), I transitioned into a full-time editing role and also poured my energy into contributing monthly to three different magazines. “That Time You” was put on a purposeful pause—two years for recovery, rediscovery, and revision. I'm gearing up for a relaunch. This time around, whatever I share with you will be rooted in the wealth of experiences I’ve gained over the past three years, because sometimes stumbling becomes an essential part of our path, forcing us to dust off our fuzzy socks and bravely venture forward, wiser.

“That Time You” lives on, on this site, and I do promise to continue to share my misadventures with meaning and celebrate blunders alongside triumphs. Yet, I’ll be chronicling the certain enlightenment amidst life's darkness—a testament to faith and, hopefully, a guide for uncovering God's presence in every situation, whether it's the mundane or the profoundly challenging.


Thank you for being a part of this journey.

Much love,


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