Car shame: is a messy vehicle just part of the parenting ride?

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

When a group of new school mum friends organised a night out I was quick to put my hand up as a designated driver. 'I don't drink, so may as well play taxi for a few others', I told them. 

I made a mental note to tidy up my messy car well ahead of the night out.

And then, like many mental notes before it, it was lost amongst the overwhelming long 'to do' list that lives in my brain. Make dentist appointments, find the missing school hat, RSVP to 10 kids' birthday party invitations… 

Naturally I forgot all about cleaning the car. Five minutes before I was due to collect three of the school mum friends I attempted to panic clean. There wasn't time to vacuum, so instead I threw a picnic blanket over the hideous crumby mess on the back seat and shoved piles of miscellaneous kids crap into the boot. 

I hoped that the other mothers would understand and, while I felt fairly horrified by the mess on show, assumed that owning a messy car was just part and parcel of modern parenting.

Unfortunately for me, the three women I picked up that evening were a lot more car-proud than me. They were all visibly shaken by the picnic-blanket-back-seat situation and aghast by the collection of crumbs/sand/sticks/lolly wrappers on the floor. 

There is only one way to describe what I felt during that short drive: car shame. 

Although I was alone on that occasion, car shame is actually pretty common amongst parents. In fact, a recent survey from the UK revealed that 53 per cent of parents are embarrassed to give someone a lift because of their messy car and 45 per cent have actually refused to give someone a lift. 

Survey respondents admitted to leaving an array of junk in their cars. The list includes, McDonald's cups, chocolate bar wrappers, mouldy fruit, such as apple cores and banana skins, as well as empty lunch boxes, drink bottles and Tupperware. 

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Frankly, it's a relief to know that I'm not the only person driving around in a veritable trash-can. But the issue here isn't that parents (#notallparents) have messy cars – it's why. Why, when the mess causes so much embarrassment, don't we do something about it? 

I asked messy car driving parents in my network why they let their cars get into a state. Jess, a mum of two primary school aged kids said that having a tidy car isn't a priority. 

"I have so much to get done in a day and my car is literally a way to get from A to B," she says.  

"But I think the major reason the car is messy is that I don't care. If I wanted it tidy I would find the time but I have more important things to focus on." 

Emily, who has younger children, said that keeping her car clean isn't worth the effort involved. "My kids like to carry a lot of crap around with them but aren't big fans of putting those things back in their original place," she tells me. 

"If I was to keep the car clean, I'd be cleaning it every day, sometimes, multiple times a day." 

For me, it's all this plus the classic parenting mantra 'pick your battles'.

We're often told that women can have it all – but realistically, that doesn't include a tidy car. If my kids are fed and happy and my house is presentable and my work is getting done then, well, the car can just be messy.