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With Kids, a ‘Clean’ Home Is Impossible

So why do I still feel guilty?

Photo: Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

“Y“You know,” I said to my husband the other day, as our youngest was mashing banana into the couch and our oldest was ripping paper into strips and letting them flutter to his feet, “people shouldn’t be so judgy about how clean other people’s homes are. Especially if they have kids.”

“I don’t think they are,” he said, placing his bowl of cereal milk on the edge of the sink and not in the goddamn dishwasher, which is a single step away. “I’m pretty sure anyone who has kids knows how hard it is to keep a house clean.” Then he wandered into the living room and was swallowed by the dust gryphon that lives there, may he rest in peace.

Maybe he’s right, and maybe the actual judgment is being handed down by that menacing trifecta of Me, Myself, and I. I live in a house that’s more than 100 years old with two children and two pit bulls. (And have I mentioned that I’m four weeks away from giving birth to my third? I haven’t? We must not have spoken in the past five seconds then, as that is the frequency with which I mention it.) There isn’t a single place in my house that I can look without cringing about how it could be cleaner. My refrigerator doors are a graveyard of fingerprints and unidentified blobs; my floors are basically like walking on a neglected outdoor patio — dirt, dog hair, food, twigs, leaves, dead woodland animals; even the occasional lovely stream of light coming in through my windows only serves to illuminate the tornadoes of dust whirling in the very air my family breathes. I make the beds every day, and I stay on top of the laundry and the dishes and the clutter, and after all of that is done, it’s time to start all over again because my youngest son goes through four outfits a day and my oldest likes to mine various junk drawers for crap that I hid in there because I wasn’t ready to throw it out but also never wanted to see it again. (Oh cool! He’s discovered my collection of race medals! That’ll teach him about how hard work and perseverance can lead to UGH DID HE LEAVE THIS PILE OF MEDALS BEHIND THE TOILET AND WHY ARE THEY WET THAT’S IT I’M THROWING THEM AWAY or okay I’ll move them to a different junk drawer JESUS CHRIST HE FOUND THEM AGAIN but at least it’s better than when he found a dozen spools of thread and made “booby traps” with them SHIT HE FOUND THOSE AGAIN TOO AGGGGH — you get the drift.)

Every once in a while, a fellow mom will suggest a playdate, and I freeze my face into a rictus of noncommitment until she suggests we do it at her house. I am terrified of other moms settling into our sofa, only to become stuck there by the various breakfasts I allow my children to consume upon its cushions; or to hold their breath for as long as possible because my home smells like dog breath; or to ask to use my bathroom, only to flee its walls after seeing dried pee on the toilet, because five-year-olds (and 40-year-olds) have trouble aiming, and I meant to swipe at it with a Clorox wipe but got distracted by my youngest holding out his finger and announcing, “BOOGER.”

My son recently had a day off from school. We lounged in our jammies in the morning, visited the library and a playplace, ate lunch, and oh my god by 3 p.m. it felt like the Lord had forsaken me and the day would never end and it was 20 degrees outside, and I dug deep, people — I dug beyond every cell in my body begging me to just turn the television on and let my kids get their brains sucked into Blippi’s unblinking eyeballs — and suggested that we make them a purple bubble bath to play in. Meaning I foraged around until I found a few half-dried tubes of food coloring and handed them to my five-year-old and told him to go to town. Genius! They played in that bath for more than an hour. It was even kind of sciencey, in a way. Kind of? Like, learning about colors and dilution and WELP ANYWAY THEY SPLATTERED THAT FOOD COLORING ALL OVER THE BATHROOM AND THEMSELVES AND IT WAS A WHOLE NEW MESS TO PRETEND NOT TO CARE ABOUT. Oh, I should have been watching them, you say? GUESS WHAT, I WAS SITTING RIGHT ACROSS FROM THEM BUT I THINK I FELL INTO A DAYMARE WHICH HAPPENS IF YOU’RE FOUR WEEKS OUT FROM GIVING BIRTH, WHICH HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I AM?

There are days when I feel triumphant. Everyone’s bedroom is pretty much in order, we all get clean sheets once a week, I push the Swiffer around and wipe the yogurt off the TV, there are fresh towels and napkins, and I even Lysol the diaper pail each time I change it. My boys always have clean, folded clothes. I cook every meal except for the one evening a week we order in, and I do all the dishes. We all have what we need, and I’ve come to accept that the ankle-deep tennis and basket and base and spikey balls scattered around my home are now just part of the decor.

But other days, I feel like a failure. My couch is cheap and pilly and the color of death, because that hides stains best. I broke my vacuum trying to suck up all the ash from my fireplace in a fit of DIY mania, so my rugs have their own rugs of dog hair. The dust in this old-ass house has a life of its own and might even be inhabited by tiny ghosts who love to mess with me. My dining table is like an avant-garde menu: Order what you want simply by choosing from what’s stuck to it! There are cracks in my walls, peeling paint, light switches that no longer work because, shrug. Cobwebs, crumb armies, friggin booby traps. I don’t clean so much as I triage my home.

I was upstairs the other day, bustling about, setting it to rights again after our usual morning insanity of getting food into everyone (including dogs) and packing a lunch and dressing small boys and brushing teeth (not my teeth—what are you, insane? I usually don’t remember to brush my own until WAIT I HAVEN’T EVEN DONE IT TODAY AND IT IS 1 PM). When I came downstairs, feeling momentarily cleansed thinking of my crisply made bed, I saw that my youngest had decorated one of our walls in brown marker. BROWN. Which doesn’t even MATCH ANYTHING except for maybe the death-pallored sofa. I firmly but lovingly explained why we don’t do stuff like that, and as I was blabbing on and on, he looked me in the eye and reached his arm out and scribbled on the wall again. In that moment, I had a decision to make, and it’s similar to the decision we all make each day when we — unconsciously, subconsciously, or consciously — decide that life has meaning and we aren’t all just trudging around in a hopeless, lightless simulation. I could sink slowly to my disgusting floor and lie facedown until my husband returned eight hours later, or I could rip the marker out of my child’s hand and write I SUCK across his forehead, or I could decide that life has meaning and act accordingly. I chose the third option. Which is to say, I Googled “get marker off walls” and found a simply delightful YouTube of a woman scrubbing her child’s artwork off the wall with a mixture of water and baking soda. And then I created meaning for myself by gobbling handfuls of chocolate while my sociopathic toddler napped.

Back when my husband and I were living in sin — childless sin, aka bliss — I would toss my clothes onto a chair when changing into pajamas at night. I remember thinking, “Is there anything more luxurious than throwing your stuff wherever you please in your own home?” Now I know that there is, in fact, something more luxurious, and that is the fantasy that a bulldozer will one day demolish my dirty home and all my possessions into a pile of detritus that another machine will then sweep neatly away.

I know I should end this with a call to arms, with a plea to all parents out there to cut each other some slack, to accept the smudged glass of water and relax into the smelly couch and just be glad your children are distracting each other, even if that means ignoring the broken-glass noise and subsequent shrieking you just heard. I think my husband is right: Parents do know, and we feel for each other, but it’s different when it’s your dirt, your child’s boogery fingers. I think the best we can do is just meet in each other’s backyards, let the kids run, exchange anecdotes, enjoy the OH SO NOW I HAVE TO PICK UP DOG POOP?? WELL THEN FORGET IT.

Lindsay Hunter is the author of two story collections and two novels, most recently Eat Only When You’re Hungry. She lives in Chicago.

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