My house is almost always tidy, despite the fact that I have four boys who sprinkle pee and track in mud and wipe boogers on walls (because everybody knows keeping stuff clean isn’t at the top of a kid’s priority list). Even when it’s messy by my standards, it’s not what most people would consider a mess. To me, a “mess” is a few unwashed dishes in the sink, or a small pile of mail on the counter, or my kids’ backpacks and shoes scattered throughout the living room.
Because of this, for some reason, people make the automatic assumption that I have my shit together in all areas. Like my orderly house indicates some sort of superhuman ability to get everything under control.
When someone visits for the first time, they almost always remark in a wistful tone, “I wish I could keep my house this clean.” And I can tell they’re berating themselves a little bit inside. (It’s that same inner dialogue that tells us we’re not good moms or that there’s too much cellulite on our thighs.) I just smile and shake my head, trying to wordlessly reassure them that their house is fine and clutter is normal.
But what I’d really like to tell them is this: My house is not clean because I’m so on top of things, or because my life-management skills are somehow superior to theirs.
It’s because having a tidy home is so ridiculously important to me that I neglect other important areas of my life in order to achieve it. And that sucks.
I need my surroundings to be clean, like, need. If they’re not, I feel like absolute crap — edgy and bummed out and irritable — until I get the opportunity to make things right. An orderly house makes me happy, but the lengths I have to go to in order to keep it that way do not. If there’s a mess that’s bothering me, I’m literally unable to concentrate fully on anything else until I’ve cleaned it up.
But since I also have a regular life with other demands, that means something has to give. That’s why you’ll find me up until 1 o’clock in the morning, staring like a zombie at my computer, trying to meet a work deadline that I let slide in favor of scrubbing the toilet and doing the laundry. Or I’m telling my kids I can’t play with them, again, because my compulsion to finish the dishes and wipe down the counters is too strong to ignore.
I’m not sure why I’m this way, but I know that there are many days when I feel like a prisoner to my inability to let things slide. I would love to spend the evening tossing a ball around with my kids in the backyard or taking a walk, but I can’t bring myself to do it until my kitchen is cleaned up from dinner. And by the time I’m finished, it’s time for homework and baths. I have been late to appointments because I couldn’t leave the house when there was laundry scattered around or a sticky patch on the floor.
So, yeah. My house is clean. It almost always looks great in here. But behind the scent of bleach and the uncluttered floors is my dirty little secret: I wish I could let it go, even just a tiny bit. I wish I were like the friends who wish they were like me. And it bothers me that anyone has ever felt “less than” when they step into my tidy home and compare it to theirs.
But that’s the thing about what we see on the surface. We’re so quick to criticize ourselves according to how much better we perceive everyone else’s lives to be, even if we have very little idea of what goes on behind the scenes.
We tell ourselves we’re not enough because someone else appears to have what we lack, but more often than not, we’re not privy to the whole pie, just a perfectly-presented slice.
The person who’s always posting pictures of lavish vacations or purchases may be dangerously in debt. The person who is enviably slim may be starving herself to stay that way. The smiling, happy couple you see on Facebook might actually be in a deeply troubled relationship. I’m not saying this is always the case, of course — but the point is, we never really know. And we can’t fairly judge our whole story by their single chapter.
So if you come to my house and it’s cleaner than yours, and you start thinking yours should be like that too, remember this: While I was scrubbing and sweeping, you were probably spending time with your family or doing something else I miss out on.
Consider which is more valuable: freshly laundered curtains and polished woodwork, or giving your children a healthy example of work/life balance?
Don’t ever be envious. Don’t ever feel like you’re doing a mediocre job. Just do me a favor. Shrug off your sink of dirty dishes and your pile of laundry and go play with your kids instead.