It was one of those days when abandoning the house seemed easier than cleaning.
We could just walk away with our shirts on our backs and start new. We could find an empty house without a carpet of Legos or a laundry pile that’s taller than me. I always thought the mess would get smaller as my kids got bigger. It’s not happening.
When my kids were toddlers, I organized their toys each night. It was like therapy after a long day, putting the wooden puzzles back together, sorting the cars and Little People. I had a particular fondness for Fisher Price Peek-a-Blocks and cleaned them with soap and water, individually. Now, instead of brightly colored, chunky things, we have a zillion teeny things, like Polly Pocket’s shoes and Lego pistols. They blend in with the rug beautifully. I have to feel around on my hands and knees before vacuuming to avoid the crisis that unfolds at the sound of the clink! Then I’m reaching into the powdery dust of the vacuum bag to find their most favorite tiny thing.
I am a fairly organized person and the mess kills me. Lately, I can only keep one room neat at a time. Today, my bathroom is spotless but you might trip over something on your way in. I’ve tried baskets of all shapes and sizes, toy boxes, hanging organizers and bribery. I try to place things strategically, like a big basket by the door for shoes. I rotate bigger items, like the kitchen set, GI Joe’s Terror Dome, and the easel. These tricks work half of the time. The other half, my living room looks like a looted toy store and there’s a big empty basket by the door surrounded with shoes. One time, a parent from our school rang the bell unexpectedly and there were so many shoes in front of the door, I could not open it. “When do they learn to put stuff away,” I ask people. (Another question I ask is, “When do they learn to eat?” Look for a future essay on picky eaters.)
After the kids are in bed and my husband and I are sitting down for the first time that day, we look at the tide of toys on the floor and beg each other not to clean. We want to be proactive but somewhere on the list of family priorities, resting comes before cleaning. When I hear the Lincoln Logs clanging in the bucket as my husband dumps them in, I say, “I already put those away three times today. What difference does it make? Just leave ’em.”
I don’t mean to give the impression that my kids are spoiled or careless. They truly play with all of their toys and they combine genres, so to speak. They’ll build a fort for the Star Wars guys and a trash truck full of Smurfs will pull in with Ariel at the wheel. What looks like a mess could be a carefully constructed plot point in a story they’ve been writing for a week. “Don’t clean this up,” my son often says, “We’re still playing with it.” There’s something to be said for continuity.
In the hour before company arrives, we spring into action. I rally the troops and we sweep the place like a well-oiled machine. Pop-ins walk in on a different scene. “Sorry,” I say, “I’m not a good housekeeper.” Our house isn’t dirty; it’s cluttered with the stuff of four living people. Four people, playing, growing, creating, relaxing and sometimes cleaning.
So on this day when abandoning my home felt like a sensible option, I took a deep breath and looked around me. My son had his nose in the Legos, building a masterpiece. My daughter was chatting happily with the dollhouse family. I could muster all of my energy and tear through the house on a spree or I could take a book outside and read. I chose the book. Sometimes a mess means peace.
After reading under the trees for a good while, I went inside to make smoothies and tackle the laundry.