A neighbor came into my house this morning.
Dropping her girls off for their daily trek to the bus stop with mine, she had considerately righted my pot of mums blown over in last night’s storm. The pot had not so considerately slimed her with green goo growing on its side. Ushering her into the bathroom to wash her hands, I thought, oh God – is it clean? Is the hand towel fresh enough? Will she drown in the puddles of water the girls perpetually leave around the sink? Has too much time elapsed since I wiped the scum out of the sink? Lots to think about in the few short minutes it takes for proper hand washing technique.
Then she had to walk back through the dining room to get to the front door. She noticed our retro console radio, one that provided the soundtrack for countless cocktail parties my husband’s great aunt threw in her heyday. Instead of zeroing in the connection she had to it, having had a similar one growing up, I fretted about the piles of paper schmagma she might notice on top it. Or the tiny pebbles of Play-doh scattered about the floor that I made a mental note of last night to sweep up before they came over.
I felt like she’d judge me if I didn’t have a perfectly clean house. I worried the outward appearance of my home would reflect the inner workings of the care of my children, my family, my self. Is the put-together, in-control image a facade? Off-guard, unawares, does this tell the true story?
This feeling, concern, compulsion is not inspired just by this neighbor. It is the panic that ensues whenever someone drops by unannounced. With a constant flow of laundry, dishes, corrected school and artwork, mail and printed matter, any given surface in our house is clean for no longer than an hour. And that’s the clutter. Never mind the dust bunnies, the ring around the toilet, the smears, the crumbs . . .
And then I saw a picture on Facebook. It was of a woman I haven’t spoken to in years reading to her two children in a home I’ve never been to before. The kids nestled in close to her, all three seated on the floor, their backs up against the front part of the couch. The scene, a simple and common occurrence in the life of a family, somehow spoke of the love of a parent and child, of the connection, of the amazing gravity of this stolen moment. The picture was taken at wide range, including the bookcase behind them, the TV stand, the windows – a pile of laundry haphazardly spread across the couch. Yet, all that blends into the background, pulling this trio into sharp focus.
Truthfully, I was happy to notice that pile of laundry. Because it meant I wasn’t the only one with messy mounds of stuff we’d failed to put away. But what struck me more was that this mother only saw the story in front of her. She wasn’t looking over her shoulder at jobs left undone, chores to do. She hadn’t ‘unshared’ this photo because her house wasn’t perfectly tidy.
When my youngest was maybe eight months old, another mother of three came over to take photos of my girls. I may have worried about not having a good backdrop for her practice shots to build her portfolio, but she was only concerned with their pudgy little faces, their sparkling eyes. In fact, she told me it was refreshing to visit the home of a woman/mother who didn’t feel like she had to make everything perfect before accepting a visitor. She begged my pardon, assuring me she didn’t mean it as a critique of my homemaking skills. I knew she didn’t. But it still gave me pause. First, was my house that nasty, so obviously not cleaned up? Second, I couldn’t claim the freedom from judgment she charged me with. I’d just run out of time and/or energy to make things better before she arrived.
But none of us have the time and/or energy to have show-ready homes at all times (or anytime). So why do we still beat ourselves up for not achieving it? Why do we make excuses when others enter, apologizing for the mess, fibbing that’s it’s not always like this? Why can’t we own that big dust bunny in the corner? Why can’t we see the life around us and not the litter?
Why are we always so ashamed of what’s inside, when it’s usually what makes us the same? If we only aired our dirty laundry, it would become fresh and clean.