I love this so much. Mostly because this was me in high school. Ah, angst!
“Someday,” Sophia smiled broadly at me as she climbed into my minivan, “I’m going to come over and clean your car!” It was a sweet offer from a sweet friend but there were two problems with it:
1. Sophia is my son’s friend and she’s five. What does a 5-year-old know about clean cars, much less the work-life balancing act of a work-at-home mom?
2. That actually was my car cleaned. Knowing her mom’s predilection for neatness, I’d cleaned out all the wrappers, old homework papers, Legos and other effluvia before I’d offered to pick up the carpool. At least I thought I had.
My face flushed a bright red. “It’s okay, Miss Charlotte,” Sophia chirped. “My mom told me not to say anything so you won’t be embarrassed but I still like you even if your car is really dirty. I can teach you how to clean it! I’m really good at cleaning!”
It is a measure of how desperate I was that I briefly considered her offer. Knowing her family – her mom is my friend who rubber-bands a paper towel to each foot as she cooks dinner so she can mop up spills on the fly (seriously, she does this) – she probably could teach me a thing or two about tidiness. I stopped myself just short of asking her if she knew how to get a fruit bar unstuck from the upholstery in the back seat.
For some this little anecdote would be just another funny conversation with a small child but when I got home the squalor of living with four children under 10 and a husband who doesn’t have the time to clean much had me in tears. I am, by my nature, a very neat person. My roommates in college would tease me for my everything-has-a-place attitude and inability to sleep with a dirty dish in the sink. And yet here I am in a house with clutter on every surface, fingerprints on every wall, toilets with a scum ring and windows that have not been Windex’d since we bought them. Three years ago. It’s to the point where I am too humiliated to invite friends in any farther than our front room and I avoid going in the downstairs bathroom – the one my three boys with bad aim use – completely.
Clearly this wasn’t working and I didn’t need a 5-year-old to tell me that. But what to do? One of the main reasons I am a work-at-home mom is so that I could keep my job but without having to outsource the childcare or housework. It was, when my husband and I first discussed it, the best of both worlds. And it worked through kids one and two. But at some point after the arrival of child three, it started to decline. After the fourth, I realized it has turned out to be the worst of all options. Not only do I work but I also do the childcare, cooking, cleaning and errands – in a house that is occupied and therefore being destroyed almost all of the time. I’m exhausted, cranky and psychically overwhelmed by the mounting pressure of undone chores. Of course the kids should help out – heaven knows they make most of the messes – but as young as they are, “doing chores” ends up being as much work for me as it is for them. I know this is my fault for not teaching them properly or whatever (I curse the day I told them they could pee standing up like daddy!) but at the end of the day this just feels like one more thing on my too-long to-do list.
Entropy is the worst. It’s ruining my life.
I once watched an Oprah show years ago where Oprah said that having a house cleaner (or 10) is her one indulgence. At the time I thought to myself that if I ever have a house so big I can’t clean it myself then I need a smaller house. Turns out that this is one, of many, ways Oprah is smarter than I am. It’s not the size of the house. It’s the size of the people living in it – the smaller, the worse-r.
I called my sister, still crying and using my sleeve to wipe up my tears since I couldn’t find the tissues under the pile of unread mail on my counter. “Get a sister-wife. I hear they’re all the rage these days,” she deadpanned. (Ah Mormon humor! Who knew polygamy would be so trendy?!) “Or, you know, hire a house cleaner.”
“But wouldn’t that be failing?” I sobbed. “Why am I a stay-at-home mom if I can’t even manage my home? Aren’t house cleaners for rich people who “do lunch” and dye their dogs pink? Or have their own talk show and billion-dollar multimedia empire? Besides, we can’t afford one!”
I could hear her roll her eyes through the phone. “It’s only been in the last 60 years or so that women have been expected to do everything without help. It’s not failure. It’s reality.” She added, “And yes, you’ll have to give some things up to make room in your budget but what’s more important to you – a clean house or fencing lessons* that the kids will never use unless they’re assaulted by a very polite ex-Olympian with a spare epee?”
I pondered this. It would mean taking something away from my children in exchange for getting something for myself. But doesn’t a less-crazy mom benefit everyone in the end? Plus, not only would this help placate the kindergarten critics – I wish it were only little Sophia who has commented on my dirty car/house/shirt – but it would be one less carpool I’d have to drive. “Do you think Nana the dog from Peter Pan is available?” I finally asked. She laughed. I stopped crying.
The next day I ran into a friend at the gym and told her about my problem. “Oh I have a house cleaner!” she exclaimed. “And I don’t even have a job.” She added, “When I made the decision to get healthy we decided to hire someone to help around the house so I can focus on going to the gym and cooking healthier meals.”
It kind of blew my mind. In Charlotte World, you just keep adding stuff on until you get your superwoman medal in the mail or you collapse. Which is maybe why I dream about being institutionalized? But my friend’s comment makes sense. If you add something major onto your plate, you need to take something else off. It’s the law of the universe, as explained by a mom. It also made me wonder what other kinds of concessions people make to live a healthier, less-crazy life.
What do you think? Is it cheating to have a house cleaner, buy pre-fab healthy meals, outsource the laundry, get groceries delivered or something else? Life is all about sacrificing one thing for another and I need to know if this is one of those things that’s worth it to let go. I need tips! Also, has anyone else ever been called out by a small child??
*Yes, my kids are really taking fencing lessons. But before you say “anyone who can afford fencing lessons should be able to afford a house keeper!” I’d like to point out that they’re through the community ed department in the school district and they provide all the equipment and they’re more just a way to keep the kids moving than train future Olympians. It’s cheap. It’s an hour a week. And: swords + my boys? There’s no way we could have kept them away.