Not too long ago, my brother-in-law gave me a present. It was a colorful sign engraved with the popular saying, “Good moms have sticky floors, dirty ovens, and happy children.”
I immediately made a joke about not actually having sticky floors or a dirty oven, so what was he trying to say? He quickly fumbled, unaware of the potentially rude implication. “Oh, no! Your house is clean…really clean. I just thought…the sign…I, uh, thought it was neat.” Nice try, bro.
You’ve probably heard similar quotations on every Pinterest meme from here to Calcutta. “Excuse the mess. My children are making memories.” They are plastered on pillows, coffee mugs, and even — ahem — pretty signs to proudly display in your messy house. That is, if you have time to hang one.
Although I know my brother-in-law meant no harm with his gift, the message of this small sign got me stewing. I’m a mom of two messy girls who are mostly incapable of picking up after themselves. Most days, my house is not in disarray. In fact, it’s pretty dang clean. Toys are picked up. Bathrooms are scrubbed. And I wouldn’t be one bit embarrassed if a girlfriend just happened to drop by. Heck, the floors might not even stick. Now, I’m not requesting Wonder Woman’s leotard or anything, but I do want to explain why I wholeheartedly disagree with this popular adage.
You see, moms have a lot more crap to accomplish in a day than just playing with their kids. Sure, that’s a big part of the job. I love hunkering down for a good game of blocks or a tea party or reading Amelia Bedelia for the thousandth time. There’s lots of music and laughter and fun to be had in the daily makeup of our lives. But I am not at the mercy of my 2-year-old’s entertainment whims, and I make sure she knows that. She lives in my world, not the other way around. And unfortunately, my world requires chores.
Here’s the kicker: The point of this saying, though seemingly silly, implies that a good mother has her household priorities in check. She does not pay attention to laundry piles because there’s a pile of puzzle pieces to be played with. She cares not for sticky floors because her sticky-fingered toddler wants another game of hide-and-seek. She understands the importance of playing with the fruits of her loins and making sure their happiness is fulfilled. After all, childhood is short. Babies don’t keep. And the laundry can wait.
And it is short. They don’t keep. And unless you live in a nudist colony, laundry can wait to an extent.
On the flip side, a woman with a tidy home is apparently not a good mother. She probably locks her disgruntled, terribly unhappy kids in a dark room with a piece of stale bread and the Bible while she picks up the house in peace.
She did a load of dishes while her child played with dolls? The audacity! She mopped the floor while her kiddo ate a sandwich for lunch? Absurd! Her priorities are all out of whack. Her kids are most certainly unhappy. Who does she think she is?
Friends, if the happiness of our children is the measuring stick for good motherhood, we have serious problems. In fact, the times I feel like I’m actually doing something right in this crazy parenting world are usually the exact moments my toddler would completely disagree.
I don’t clean my house because I’m a negligent, fun-sucking mom. Rather, I scrub the floors and the toilets and soak the dishes because I want to demonstrate work ethic to my daughters. From a young age, I want my kids to see that it takes actual sweat-inducing labor to maintain a household. The cobwebs in the corner and the dirty cups aren’t going to disappear with wishful thinking and another round of pat-a-cake. Trust me, I’ve tried.
As with any job, maintaining a household requires discipline and intention and sacrifice and lots of magic erasers. And around here, I try to make our not-so-exciting responsibilities fun. We blast Frank Sinatra or have contests as to who can pick up the most toys in 10 seconds. We twirl while we dust or sing while we fold clothes. If I want my girls to dream big and chase the job of their dreams — whether that’s motherhood, teacher, CEO, lawyer, or masseuse (crossing my fingers) — I’ve gotta be demonstrating honest-to-goodness work on the regular.
But more than just work ethic, I want my daughters to learn that the world does not, in fact, revolve around their adorable faces. Neither does their mother. Though they are the reason I wake up every morning (literally), they are not the reason for my existence. Don’t get me wrong. I want my girls to be happy. I want them to look back on childhood and remember the giggles and games and goofy afternoons. I want them to think I’m a good mother. In my book, however, a great mom allows her children to entertain themselves at times. To grow, explore, and imagine uninhibited. To love, discover, and play without mom’s constant supervision and participation. They need that independence. They need that trust.
In the grand scheme of things, does it matter if my house is clean? Does it matter if your house isn’t? Nope. Nada. I can be a good mother with a clean house just like you can be a poor mama with a filthy one. The important thing to ask is what are we instilling in our kids.
If we’re ignoring our everyday responsibilities just so our children won’t be unhappy or bored, what are we teaching them? If we’re ignoring our offspring to keep an immaculate household, what are we showing them? In the end, what matters are the life lessons we’re silently modeling in our everyday, mundane routines like mopping those sticky floors or cleaning that oven, even if it makes our children unhappy for the moment.