I am compulsive about tidiness. I cannot stand a pile of crap on a counter. I am grossed out by the flecks of husband beard trimmings that remain on the counter even after a good wipe-down or my own hair that is everywhere after I blow-dry. (And there is a lot of this. I once checked the bottom of my Dyson only to discover I had to cut a ponytail’s worth of hair out of the front spinner—I could have wrapped a rubber band around it and shipped it to locks of love. I dry heaved for weeks over this.) My husband once told me I may take my detailed deep cleaning sessions a little too far. He said it kindly, after I broke our shower door by giving the rubber part by the door a bit to rough of a scrape down.

So since my first child started crawling, I have quite often felt a tight knot in my chest as I walk around the house and step over toys smattered all over the floor. I adopted the philosophy “A-B-C” earlier this year when my daughter was also on the go and after everything—”Always Be Cleaning”.

This is not to say my house is always in order. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. My Auntie Sara visited once and I apologized for the mess, and she said the best thing ever: “Nonsense! This is your life! Thank you for welcoming me into it!” If you visited my home at any given hour of any given day, you would see the constant chaos. And if you could see inside my chest, you would see the knot that tightens and contracts with every sighting of a puzzle dumped out in the living room, a hot wheel car on top of the toilet, and a naked baby doll on the piano.

I want to be clean. I want my counters and table always wiped. I want to not walk around and fear Spiderman’s hand crunching under my foot at any moment.

I imagine sometimes that I am in a war. An epic battle. Me versus the toys. They explode all over the house, and I am constantly acting out of defense. I tend to one mess, and another is happening elsewhere. I ready the troops (my four year old and two year old), but they are spies from the other side.


As a two year old, Vivvi immediately forgets she should be cleaning when she touches a toy. It’s as if the toys cast a magic spell that says, “Play with me!”—like an adult turning on an Internet browser that is open to Facebook. You are suddenly scrolling and it is five minutes later and you ask yourself, “What was I supposed to be doing on here again?”

And with Wally, just saying “let’s pick up your toys” is not enough. So I tell them to pick up each toy by name: “Wally, pick up that blue block and put it in the bag.” If I am lucky he picks it up. “Now pick up that red block. That one over there.” I point at it. He looks the other direction on the ground. “No, behind you!” He spins a few circles like a dog looking for his tail. When I finally get Wally to grasp the concept of pointing, he finds it and picks it up. He stares at me blankly. “Put it in the bag, soldier!” Most of the time I lose my patience and he ends up in timeout. (Man down! Man down!)

So, as the sole survivor, I finish it myself. I know this solution is unwise and they will never learn that way, but I would rather pluck my arm hair out one strand at a time than continue this process. A lot of training is involved—training them to see the mess, training them to value tidiness, training them to understand the concept of pointing, training them to not be two and four years old. Ain’t nobody got time for that, especially when it involves having to brainwash the secret agents from the other side. This is war.

Today, though, my mind was blown. I was taking care of some things on my laptop, and I noticed Vivvi had joined me in the living room. She was checking out a toy basket, saying, “Finding my blocks.” She pulled out stackable numbered cardboard blocks, dumped them, and squatted, and stared at them. Then she went to work, pulling the smaller ones out of each other, trying out which ones would stack from the ground up, discovering how the small fit in the big, testing stacking sideways versus open side down. She only spent a few minutes, and nothing too exciting happened, but she was focused. Her little mind was at work. She examined. She talked to herself in her high munchkin voice. She sighed a few times. Then she left the room.


It was only a minute or two, but as I watched her like a fly on the wall, something dawned on me. The messes didn’t make themselves for no reason. They were quickly made, like little explosions around the house—I had that bit right. But they weren’t there for the sole purpose of constricting my heart. They were signs that said, “A mind grew here,” and “Fun was had.” They were evidence of imagination at work. They were the collateral damage of something worthwhile.

I walked around after I put Vivvi for her nap, and the little colorful objects everywhere mattered a little less. I even managed to write this all with three disassembled puzzles at my feet. Maybe this revelation will help me with my heart palpitations. Maybe I can bring myself to wave the white flag of surrender. I have for today at least.

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