I’m a messy person. It’s something I’ve always been ashamed of, because it’s a worse sin for a woman to be messy than a man. In college, no one looked twice at boys whose rooms were scattered with laundry, with beds unmade and school papers everywhere. If you wanted to visit, you just went in, shoved aside a pile of pizza boxes, and sat down. A dirty room, for a boy, merited a shrug and a matter-of-fact, “Dude, this is gross.” A messy girl, well, you thought, “Maybe there’s something wrong with her.”
Women, traditionally the keepers of the home, are supposed to be tidy. They’re supposed to create welcoming spaces where people want to come in, kick off their shoes, have a cup of tea and stay a while. But somehow I missed this lesson in femininity. I’ve always been the person with dirty laundry piled on the floor next to the pile of clean laundry. When I was single and lived alone, I left dishes in the sink for days. I vacuumed pretty much never. I did the quickest, most cursory cleans of the bathroom to avoid total squalor, and deeper cleans only rarely. If someone came for a visit, I flew into action, washing loads of laundry, dusting, scrubbing the kitchen and bath, and generally pretending to be a totally different person. I didn’t like living like this—I’d prefer to live in a clean house. I just didn’t want to, you know, actually clean.
But you know what will make an already messy house a living hellhole? Children. It’s a karmic joke that a person who can’t manage to keep a single-person household tidy will suddenly be responsible for keeping a four-person household tidy, when two of the four can do nothing practical to help.
In fact, two of those four people are like mess generators, mess whirlwinds. Every step they take brings a tornado of detritus: There’s sand in their sneakers, which they fling on the hall floor. Clothes are stripped off and strewn between their room and the tub. Crusts of bread fall under the table; a bowl of rice is flung through the air as an arc of rice hits every corner of the kitchen. Sticky juice residue glues my feet to the floor. The sheer mountain of laundry every week and the never-ending dishes are like a taunt. For someone who never liked washing even one plate, fork or glass and would put it off for days, the mess created by children is like some kind of punishment dreamed up by the Greek gods.
But the good news is that I’m now tidier than I was. When I was single, I was a 4 on a 1 to 10 scale of Single-Person Tidiness. It’s linear, so as a mom, I’m a 4 on the Mom Tidiness Scale. (Tens are the women who painstakingly sort toys into color-coded bins according to a complex taxonomy known only by themselves, vacuum daily, and are unable to sleep if there is a single dirty fork in the sink when they go to bed. Ones are on Hoarders.)
But here’s what’s good: A 4 on the mom scale is not equivalent to a 4 on the single scale—the mom scale is much tidier than the single scale. I no longer let the dishes pile up, because I’ve been through a grueling course of aversion therapy: It only gets worse if you don’t do them promptly. I clean out the backpacks and diaper bag as soon as they come in, because the next day will only be harder if I don’t. I mostly stay on top of the laundry. If I had put in this amount of effort when I was living alone, my house would have been effing pristine.
I still run out of steam in the evenings and collapse in front of the TV, while the Tens are tweezing up all the little shards of paper that fluttered off the table during craft time. But at least I’m not dirty. I can only hope that when the boys are grown and out of the house, my newfound tidiness will stick. In fact, perhaps it will rocket me to the very top of the Empty-Nest Tidiness Scale. I’m going to be cleanest person in the nursing home.