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Mom goes on strike, stops cleaning for a week, chaos ensues

Fed up with picking up after her kids, mother of three Jessica Stilwell went on strike for six days, documenting the mounting mess in photos on her blog. She chats with TODAY's Matt Lauer about what her kids learned from that messy week and how she hopes things will change in her home.

Moms, if labor relations are breaking down, if you’re tired of tripping over toys your kids were supposed to pick up and you’re sick of listening to your own, nagging voice, it might be time to go on strike. Which is exactly what Jessica Stilwell, a Calgary, Alberta mom, did recently.

The mom strike began after a particularly busy weekend when her husband was out of town. The social worker was on her own for the weekend with her 12-year-old twin girls, 10-year-old daughter and a foster baby whom she was caring for temporarily. The first time she had a chance to sit down and look around the house was late Sunday night. What she saw was a mess and one thing about that mess stood out – none of it was hers. That’s when she decided to go on strike.

Stilwell’s strike wasn’t about her normal job and responsibilities as a mom. Her strike was about the overtime – namely, the time she spent performing her daughters’ chores for them. Throughout the six-day strike, she continued to cook and pack lunches. She was also prepared to do laundry, so long as it was sorted and next to the laundry room. But she stopped doing all the chores and tasks that her girls should have been doing for themselves -- cleaning their dishes, picking their dirty clothes off the floor, tidying up after their art projects. When her daughters didn’t empty their lunch bags, she packed their lunches in plastic bags from the liquor store. She wasn’t fed up with her kids and looking for a break from motherhood, but she was fed up with nagging.

“I have GREAT kids. I mean, they are really cool little people and I am very proud of them for a multitude of reasons. And kinda proud of myself that I built them… I want to give them the world. But as I rush around everyday working with other parents and other families [in her job as a social worker], I realized I was doing my own children a dis-service. I was setting them up for failure. I fear we are raising a generation of young people whose attitudes will be 'What are you going to do for me?'” Stillwell posted on her blog.

In a phone interview with TODAY Moms, Stilwell explained that her kids are expected to have “family responsibilities” – chores like making their beds, clearing the dishes and emptying out their lunch kits. However, as the new school year got busy, Stilwell herself has taken on more and more of their responsibilities, often without anyone noticing, even herself. It was only after a weekend when she couldn’t do any of their chores that it became apparent just how much she’d been doing for them.

As the Huffington Post first reported, Stilwell didn’t make a big proclamation or camp out in the front yard in protest. She just quietly walked off the job, waiting for her kids to notice. She did share her plan with her husband, who became a co-conspirator. She also chronicled her strike on Facebook, but her kids didn’t see that. At the urging of friends, she later started blogging about it.

By day two, her daughters noticed something was amiss. “Today she [daughter Peyton] sat down for dinner and looked at the soggy cereal in her spot and exclaimed 'EWWWWW, what is THAT??' As she pushed the bowl towards me, I simply said, 'Why that looks like your breakfast my love” and I walked away,'” Stilwell wrote. Anyone familiar with tweens will be unsurprised to learn that these first realizations didn’t spur action. While the girls weren’t inspired to clean, the family dog did pitch in. “If you leave the dishwasher open all day long with dirty dishes, the extra large dog will eventually lick the entire thing clean,” blogged Stilwell. 

As the days went on, the house got messier and the family ran out of clean dishes (except for mom, who washed a single plate, glass and set of utensils for her own use). Meals were being served on paper Christmas plates and juice sipped from red Silo cups. 

During an interview on TODAY, Jessica, a self-proclaimed neat freak, admitted to Matt Lauer that the mess was hard to take during her strike. "I wanted to clean it. I wanted to make myself feel better by cleaning it. But I made a decision. I had made a decision to leave it alone," Stilwell said.

Even the plastic lunch bags from the liquor store ran out, inspiring Stilwell’s husband, Dylan, to pack lunches in dog poop bags (new and unused, of course). While their younger daughter was initially alarmed at the poo bags, she eventually shrugged it off and made the best of it. But for the 12-year-old twins, the thought of taking the bags to junior high prompted them to dig out their lunch kits and empty them out, making Jessica and Dylan hopeful that a lesson had been learned. But, as kids are wont to do, they just dumped the old stuff on the counter and left the poo bags there as well. Lesson: not learned.

Six days in, the strike ended after the girls finally got disgusted with the state of the house and began blaming each other for the mess. That’s when mom and dad made some jokes, took the girls on a tour of the house and explained what had been going on.

“Dylan jumped up and down yelling while flapping his arms in the air 'I PACKED YOUR LUNCH IN POOH BAGS!!! LOOK AROUND YOU PEOPLE, YOU ARE DISGUSTING CREATURES.' I was worried he was going to have brain aneurysm. I poured him a glass of wine,” Stilwell wrote.

Once clued in, the girls had mixed reactions to the experiment. One found it hysterical and laughed uncontrollably, another got a bit angry. But, in the end, all three acknowledged how much their mom does for them and thanked her for it. Then, they made her coffee and cleaned up the house – albeit with a bit of gagging and grumbling along the way. They’ve all read their mom’s blog and found it to be funny.

Stilwell's strike has resonated with many parents who are not only tired of tidying but also worried about what lessons we're teaching our kids when we clean up their messes for them. "I am guilty of the same thing. It's easier to do it ourselves. We do it better ourselves. Our kids are overloaded and we don't want to load more on them," Lisa Belkin, senior columnist at the Huffington Post, told TODAY. "And then we end up with kids who just don't get it. They don't know how to do it."

So, a few days post-strike and how are things going? “Better, absolutely,” Stilwell told TODAY Moms on the phone. “It wasn’t a magic wand moment for me. It’s not perfect. They’re kids, it’s never going to be perfect.” Stilwell acknowledges that the strike wasn’t about achieving perfection but it was about raising awareness – for herself as much as for the girls. “I didn’t realize how much I did for them,” she said.

Have you ever considered going on strike? What do you think would happen if you did?

Dana Macario is a Seattle-area mom who loves the idea of striking against cleaning up toys left all over the floor.

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