How I Learned To Release My Inner Control Freak

by Colette Sartor
Originally Published: 

I am a haphazard housekeeper at best.

I didn’t used to be. Before I met my husband and had my son, my house was pristine, every surface a glorious, bare expanse: no pictures, no tchotchkes, no vases or plants. My bed was made, my books shelved, my paperwork and bills hidden away.

I even had rules about the way I kept my refrigerator: containers lined up by size, cheeses and meats in the deli drawer, fruits and veggies in the crisper and only liquids on the top shelf, since that’s the tallest shelf and liquid containers are the tallest items in the fridge. No top-shelf solids—not ever.

Back then, I lived alone with two cats. I was an entertainment lawyer who worked crazy hours and ate out all the time and could afford to pay someone else to clean my apartment. I had everything figured out. I was the model of efficiency, the tamer of chaos, the Queen of Cool.

I was an idiot. I was also the product of a childhood home where chaos ruled. It’s not that the house where I grew up wasn’t tidy; it was. There was a different kind of chaos, a chaos born of two unhappy adults who were great parents in many ways but who were lousy married people. There were constant screaming matches over piddly bullshit like who should change a light bulb, complete with packed bags and slammed doors and cars driven away by someone who vowed never to return but who of course returned a few hours (or days) later with promises to us kids that they would never, ever fight like that again.

As an adult, I thought I could escape all that by living in an immaculate apartment where nothing was out of place, even in my refrigerator, and by avoiding emotional involvement, except, of course, with the wrong kind of men, whose argumentative natures rivaled my own. But I was determined to do better than my parents, which meant calming the chaos I thought was intrinsic to any relationship. Love might mean fighting and crying and screaming and making up, but I would take that turmoil and fix it. After all, I was the Queen of Cool.


Enter, finally, the right man, whose steadiness, good humor and comfort with silence soothed me, a man who taught me we could disagree without exploding and gave me the courage to leave law and take myself seriously as a writer. He’s not demonstrative, not prone to “I love you”s or handholding or hugs. He is a man who acts on his emotions and waits for me to notice.

We had our first fight a few years into our relationship when I was pregnant with our son. I didn’t know we were fighting. We were removing an air-conditioning unit from a top floor window when we both lost our grip and the unit fell, shattering on the concrete below. “Dammit, dammit, dammit!” I yelled, then ran for a towel to wipe up the puddle from the unit’s drip pan. When I came back, my husband was gone. I found him, red-eyed, on the back steps—this big, stoic guy. I’d never seen him upset. I hugged him, mystified.

“We’re fighting. Why are we fighting?” he asked. Fighting? That was as bad as it got for us. Peace reigned—momentarily.

Enter, then, a child and a huge German shepherd who sheds more than two cats combined. Enter writing and teaching and earning dramatically less money and being governed by my growing son’s school schedule. I work every waking minute, which means I barely have time to breathe, much less worry about whether there are only liquids on the refrigerator’s top shelf.

My husband and I still don’t fight much, but we’re usually running in different directions trying to get things done instead of enjoying each other’s company. Sometimes I wonder whether or not we’ll ever have time to be in love again. Sometimes I wonder whether he still thinks I’m worth the effort, because even I know who’s the more demanding one in this relationship.

Enter, then, New Year’s Day 2015, when on top of everything else, I have been slapped by an ongoing family brouhaha (not involving my husband and son) that would put the most florid, ridiculous soap opera to shame. I huddle under the covers in a daze for most of the morning. There is mail scattered across tables and desks, waiting to be sorted. There is dog hair in every corner, books piled on the floor beside our overstuffed bookshelves, ancient grease coating the stove hood and a refrigerator that spits out containers upon opening and that has smelled faintly fetid for weeks. Finally, I get out of bed, pull a sweater over my pajamas and go searching for a snack. In the kitchen, I find my husband disassembling the fridge and scrubbing every inch with disinfectant.

I stop in the doorway to watch.“What’re you doing?” I ask and brace myself for a snide answer about how someone has to clean up around here.

He glances at me. “Something smells,” he says and keeps scrubbing. I wrap my sweater tighter. All I want to do is crawl back into bed and feel sorry for myself. I don’t want to help. The refrigerator could stink for the next 30 years, and I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass. But in the world where I grew up, not helping him is grounds for a knock-down drag-out.

“Here, let me,” I say in my least gracious voice and start taking bottles off shelves. He pulls out the vegetable drawer filled with rotting cauliflower and ancient onion skins and empties it into the trash.

“You don’t need to.” He keeps cleaning, keeps scrubbing the smell away, and I know he means it. Suddenly, helping doesn’t seem like such a chore; suddenly, it seems easy to pitch in a little, then to kiss his shoulder and leave to shower instead of going back to bed.

This chaos? This is love.

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