Calgary mother Jessica Stilwell’s housework strike hits a chord worldwide

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Jessica Stilwell hit a nerve. The Calgary social worker and mother of three girls is an international celebrity after starting a weeklong housework strike and blogging about it.

Most family homes are controlled chaos at the best of times and the problem of kids who expect their parents to pick up after them is hardly new.

But Stilwell's funny chronicle of the battle of wills waged together with her husband, Dylan, against their entitled daughters got her an invitation to the Today Show and a raft of news coverage, not to mention plenty of debate on social networks such as Twitter.

Stilwell's six-day strike left the family home a smelly clutter of unwashed dishes, congealing, half-eaten food, balls of dog hair and other schmutz. She didn't announce her job action, though her husband was in on it. They secretly washed and hid their own dishes and cutlery.

The family's Great Dane helped himself to some uncleared food, later endowing the house with "blueberry and cookie farts," Stilwell wrote.

Stilwell's 12-year-old twin daughters began loudly registering their disgust as dirty dishes spilled out of the dishwasher and stacked up on the counters and kitchen table. When the girls didn't clean out their school lunch bags, Dylan packed their lunches in (unused) dog poop bags.

Stilwell, who began referring to her girls as the "basement trolls," smilingly turned aside her kids' inquiries about why she was "acting weird."

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The penny dropped with 10-year-old Quinn after a couple of days, but it took until Day Six before the other two snapped, Stilwell wrote. When they began arguing with each other about whose mess it was, she took them on a tour to show them precisely.

Stilwell, who counsels parents for a living and said she's seen some "horrific things," said her kids were great but she worried their cosseted lifestyle, with the latest clothes and gadgets, might be insulating them from real life.

"I want to give them the world," she wrote. "But as I rush around everyday working with other parents and other families, I realized I was doing my own children a disservice. 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?'"

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"I want to end this parenting race with employable, successful, well-rounded happy adults with real life skills."

The object lesson seems to be working, at least a little.

"For now, they each rinsed their breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher," wrote Stilwell. "There are three clean, empty lunch kits on the shelf where they belong. However, I'm staring at a sweater left on my couch and a dirty pair of socks on the stairs ... Baby steps right?"

Parenting author Kathy Buckworth told the National Post that Stilwell's strike tactic might not be the best long-term approach to teach kids to clean up after themselves.

"So I think her thinking 'I'm just going to let the house get really messy and that'll teach [them],' that's not going to teach them anything," she said. "That's going to teach them that mom let the house get messy and they're OK with it."

But family therapist Sara Dimerman praised Stilwell's determination.

"I say hooray to over-worked mom Jessica for having the fortitude to survive the mess and stick by her conviction to show her family that she meant business," she told the Post. "Going on strike is something most moms have thought about, but most haven't moved beyond the fantasy."

Maybe daughter Olivia's reaction once she twigged to Stilwell's strike is the most revealing.

"Dumbest thing ever!! Kids have parents for a reason, to clean up after them."