Lois Ann Ell writes a monthly parenting column titled, “Unscripted.”
Scanning my backyard on a dewy, bright morning, a yard sale looks ready: Barbie dolls propped next to a tree, basketballs and bocce balls on the trampoline, a picnic table lined with spoons, bowls, sand shovels and an air pump, swimsuits and teddy bears scattered on the grass. There’s no yard sale planned. It’s a Wednesday in January. I shrug, walk inside and pack lunches.
I’m open about the fact that keeping a spotless house is not my strong point, because it’s a trait that’s pretty hard to hide. “Getting ready for a yard sale” works only so many times. I’ve used other excuses too: we have an old house, our pets live inside, and we have three kids. But I can’t blame it on any of these things, because I have friends with more kids and animals and older homes than myself who keep a tight, sparkling ship.
I’m not a hoarder or unsanitary—there’s no spontaneous science experiments growing in any rooms—I’m just not interested in cleaning all the time. You know the saying, ‘cleanliness is next to godliness?’ Yeah, I don’t buy that. I think God is focused on the bigger things, like being kind and forgiving. But many times when friends spontaneously stop by I still silently pray that they don’t roam through the house, but rather stick to the one front room I keep semi-decent.
I’ve received solicited advice from friends—and unsolicited from my mother— about how to have a polished house. I’ve even tried to apply unrelated advice, like when my music teacher suggested I keep my guitar out of its case, in view, so that I’d be motivated to play it more often, I wondered if I should do the same with my vacuum. But even with the vacuum staring at me, I’d stare back at it and wonder about how much those robotic vacuums cost, the ones that cruise around electronically while I sit and strum chords.
Here’s the remarkable thing though: friends and family still always come over, and not to ambush me for a home makeover show. They love to just hang out because they feel welcome and relaxed. They don’t mind stepping over piles of laundry or wiping their cup with their shirt before using it. They don’t care how clean the house is. Let’s face it: I’ve got a fenced-in yard, we are conveniently located, I always feed them, and as my mother put it, my home is like her crazy aunty Betty’s: you never had to worry about making it messy because it already was.
Being a parent has a way of making you realize who you are and who you aren’t. I can cook an awesome dinner with a seemingly bare pantry. I can make a dull book sound like a theatrical performance at bedtime and my kids are always on time to school. Does it sound like I’m trying to compensate? I am. We all do, as parents.
I’ve woken up in a sweat in the middle of the night, eyes popping open, wondering if I’m making terrible mistakes. Sometimes this mid-night terror has me wondering if I’m raising little slobs; if they’re not going to know how to make their bed as an adult. But in the morning when I’m sane, I remind myself that when they’re at school I’ve observed them lining their slippers up perfectly and arranging their pencils tip first. I have seen them at their Tutu’s house, where they return their plates and cups to the sink promptly after meals, and they treat her couches and beds like couches and beds, for sitting and sleeping, not for inside trampolines and forts.
In the self-improvement spirit, I’ll continue to strive for a systematic household with a place for everything and everything in its place; because that’s the other universal element parents share: viewing life through the lens of our children, when they wake up in the morning, their eyes sleepy and dazed yet with a buoyant, shining optimism of a new day, showing us adults that anything is possible, even a clean house.