When I was a kid, my room was a mess. I’ve always been a packrat, and every treasure – every rock, twist-tie, shell, scrap of paper, plastic gewgaw – ended up somewhere on my floor. And since I spent a fair amount of time outside, I was always tracking dirt into my room.
There were four kids in my family, and none of us was any great shakes at cleaning. And since my mother was a single parent with a full-time job who was also pursuing her bachelor’s degree (and therefore only able to fulfill her duties as cook, chauffer and nurse, but not maid), not only were all our rooms a mess, but our bathrooms, kitchen and dining room were a mess as well. The only reason the living room wasn’t a disaster was because we never used that room for anything. We came and went through the kitchen door.
When I got older, I became conscious that there was shame attached to having a perpetually sticky kitchen table or socks hanging over the chairs. I tried to keep tidy, but when one acquires slightly more stuff than one’s living arrangements can accommodate, it becomes difficult. Still, it became my obsession. At one point, I had convinced myself that the hallmark of maturity was having a house that was always company-ready.
When I started grad school, my husband quit his job so that I could devote all my time to the work I would have to do. Except that I didn’t set myself a schedule for writing, so I relegated it to the time between chores. As a result, my first semester I didn’t do as much new writing as I had hoped. When I got back from my second residency, my husband sat me down and said “I’m going to be handling things. You’re to work and nothing else.”
For a week and a half now, I’ve let my husband take care of the housework. There are dishes on the kitchen counter, unopened mail on the kitchen table, things everywhere that could stand tidying. The place isn’t in squalor, by any means, but let’s just say that the Queen would not be impressed. I came out of my office the other day and noticed the stuff on the kitchen table and thought to myself “Why did I think it was so important to keep this place spotless?”
Obviously, my husband doesn’t base his opinion of me on whether his socks stick to the floor. My children didn’t think I was a bad parent when the kitchen table had to be cleared of unopened mail and other stuff before we ate dinner. If my mother were to come over to my house right this second, she wouldn’t love me any less if there were dust on all my framed family photos. So, why was I always so wound up about this?
I think it’s high time to consign this obsession with tidiness at all costs to the heap of stuff I’ve outgrown and no longer miss, along with my need to keep twist-ties, scraps of paper and plastic gewgaws.