I’m a bit of a neat freak. I’ve always liked having things organized and in their place. I’m not too over-the-top about it. I won’t kick you out of my house for not using a coaster, and if you happen to spill crumbs during a meal, I probably won’t hover over you with a mop and a wet rag (I’ll just wait until you walk away).
It gives me a sense of calm and order when things are, well, calm and orderly.
So, you can imagine that I’m not a huge fan of the disorder that sometimes comes with having a small child at home.
Babies and toddlers are messy. Mealtime, bathtime, playtime — no matter the event, a small child can turn a room upside down in a matter of seconds.
For a long time, this bothered me.
During mealtimes, I would spend as much time picking up fallen peas and chicken nuggets as I did actually feeding my son.
At playtime, I’d trail closely behind him, automatically scooping up whatever toys he left strewn behind once he moved on to a new activity.
In other words, I didn’t fully embrace the chaos of the moment and save the clean-up for later. I tried to catch the rain as it fell.
I’d watch other mom friends who were less-obsessed with keeping everything neat and tidy every second of the day, the ones who let their kids dive into a plate of spaghetti and meatballs without a backup outfit or who happily helped tear the house apart in the name of fun.
It seemed so liberating, just letting the little ones be little and not obsessing over the resulting mess.
And through my observations, I came to this realization: by embracing the natural messes of childhood, I would actually be fostering my son’s independence and creativity.
By checking my instinct to jump in when things got messy, I’d be nurturing his ability to fix things himself.
Instead of focusing on the mess, I could focus on his incredible abilities — not that I didn’t appreciate them before. I’ve always worked to foster an environment where he could explore and learn.
But instead of creating double the mental load for myself by trying to keep everything perfect, I could just be fully present in the moment.
Since that realization, I’ve made an effort to tame my inner perfectionist.
Instead of concernedly hovering while he eats a bowl of cereal and taking over when he gets more milk on his shirt than in his mouth, I let him finish on his own and then just get him a new shirt.
I let the toys linger on the playroom floor a little longer and let the clean-up signify the transition to the next activity.
I watch him paint and don’t worry if he flips from page to page before the paint dries. Sure, the pages might stick together, but he’s entertained, engaged, and the activity book was only $2. It’s not like it’s a treasured family heirloom that must be preserved (yet).
My son has always been an active, spirited little guy. My attempts to keep things neat and orderly barely phased him, I’m sure. But, shifting my focus away from the mess has helped me appreciate our home and experiences more.
More than that, I hope the change has allowed my son to continue to feel free to play, explore, and make the messes that make childhood memorable.
I’ll be right there alongside him.