The last time the kids had a week off school, I was home too, and on the very first day, that Monday, I blinked twice and suddenly there were six children running around my house. For the record, I only have two.
I took stock of the situation, evaluated the variables, and knew there was only one thing for me to do: Bake cookies. And so I did. And the kids kept on coming, for the rest of the week.
Minus the cookies, I grew up in a house like that, only it didn’t really happen until we were teenagers. There were four of us, close in age, and our house was always the hangout house, but not because of a well-stocked pantry or a doting mother. My mom was too busy to keep the pantry stocked or to dote. She was working full-time, taking classes, and trying to have some semblance of a social life, too. But she was easy to be around, in our teenage years, and put up with an endless stream of kids going in and out of the house, sometimes to hang out in the basement with my older brother, other times to gather around our living room table and play cards well into the night. Poker, usually, but euchre too.
Our house then, like mine today, is something of a mess. Four teenagers in the 1980s meant there wasn’t a whole lot of tidying up happening. My mom would come home after a long day and look around, distressed, and just not have the energy for it. Not only do I not blame her for it, I apologized to her decades later, when I finally understood what it meant to work all day and then come home to a domestic disaster that hadn’t been there in the morning.
I don’t have teenagers yet, but I have two kids who leave their stuff everywhere. Legos, still, always underfoot. Socks. What is it with 7-year-old girls and socks? The minute any of them arrive, the socks go flying. Toys. Books. Homework. Pencils. Every night we spend 10 minutes looking for the TV remote because the kids misplaced it, and we find a mind-boggling collection of items in the couch cushions.
But our house isn’t just full of stuff, it’s full of kids, and it took me a while to realize that I was following a family tradition.
My mom was smart to let all those teens in the house. Even in our “bad” rebellious stages, she knew where we were: We were home. She knew our friends, too, and they all liked her. They called her by her first name—a practice I embrace—and found her easy to talk to, laid-back and understanding. She liked to swear and didn’t consider topics taboo. This was unusual among our friends’ parents, who were often older than ours and didn’t seem to have come through the 1970s the same way.
When I look back, I know that there are things I’d do differently. My father, on his second round of parenting, explained the difference between letting your own kid have a glass of wine at 18 and letting other kids do it; you can’t make those decisions for other parents. I agree with that now, although at the time I was glad my mom was so lenient. That’s another reason everyone flocked to our house; there weren’t a lot of rules.
While there won’t be any underage drinking in our house, we’re still pretty lax, as parents go. When the house is full of kids, they’re all running wildly into the backyard and then back inside, filling up water guns or loading up Nerf darts. They’re loud. They call us by our first names, because that’s what we’re comfortable with, and they always pop their heads in to say hi, which I take as a compliment and not just politeness. One day a friend of my son’s showed up unannounced. “Nathaniel’s not home right now, but he should be back in about 15 minutes,” I told him. “Oh,” he said, “Um…can I just hang out with you?”
Who could say no to that?
So our house is going to be the hangout house. It’s exhausting, frankly, and contributes to the chaos. And all the oatmeal cookies I made on Tuesday were gone by Wednesday afternoon, and I’m too busy to make another batch today. But we know where our kids are, and we know their friends, and I can only hope that when they’re all teenagers, they’ll still come, and still want to hang with us.