Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The new normal

I have this idea of 'normal'. I think of the kitchen bench as clean and bare; the hall bench, the same. In fact, I think of the whole house as clean, tidy, put away.

Yesterday was the Monday Project.* As I swept under the kitchen table for the third time (three kids plus small visitors drop a mountain of crusts - and we have a mouse), I thought of myself as getting it back to rights. I put away loads of washing off the clothes horses plural so my back room no longer looked like a Chinese laundry. In the bathroom, I cleaned off the grunge and wiped down the benches to get it back to its 'normal' state of pristine cleanliness. I picked up the 30 books that the baby had pulled off one bookcase, and put away dozens of other small objects scattered around the house. I scrubbed the toilet and mopped the floors and cleaned off the benches. Everything looked great, for an hour.

Then the baby had a snack. She dropped great blobs of hommos and smeared kiwifruit absolutely everywhere. After reading on the trampoline, the older kids dumped a cushion, a rug, a book, a hanky, a toy cat, two pairs of grubby socks and a pair of shoes on the clean dining table. Dusk fell. I brought in the damp nappies and a sheet from the clothesline, retrieved one clotheshorse, and re-established the laundry inside. As we sat down to eat, we ignored the washing, and the maelstrom of food preparation on the kitchen bench: vegetable ends, pasta packets, cheese rinds and damp circles where pot lids had rested. The kids brushed their teeth, leaving soft lumps of toothpaste and water all over the sink. Someone dripped a little pee on the toilet floor in their urgency. Someone else forgot to flush.

And at some point I had a minor revelation: THIS is normal. This mess, and these drops of wee, and this hard lump of unidentifiable foodstuff adhering to the table leg. These lines of laundry in our eating place, these chopped up vegetable ends, these dirty dishes - this is it. Any ideas I have of a clean, pristine, perhaps fully adult house, are not normal. They are a momentary graciousness, a Monday Project, but nothing more. Sure, I have to cook and clean and wash every day, but any expectation that the house will feel consistently clean as three kids and small visitors roar through the house, tumbling books and toys from their shelves, eating with clumsy fingers and no sense of mess, is idiotic. It's not just naive: it misses the whole point.

For a neat clean house probably doesn't have children in it. It won't breathe and laugh and yell. The chaos is the sign of life, of hope, of reckless joy that young children bring. The snips of paper littering the floor, the drips of paint, the sticky patches of glue; the small envelopes with 'To my family' lovingly written in wobbly capitals; the daisies and geraniums and random leaves carefully picked and arranged in an old glass jar; the crusts carefully hidden under the rim of a plate... these are all signs of the creativity, thoughtfulness and intelligence my children bring to the household. And I value these gifts, above all.

So it's time to get with the new normal. Stop being annoyed at the smears of peanut butter, the blotches of purple paint. See them for what they are: three young children exploring the world, learning to feed themselves, starting to express themselves. Developing children learning fine motor skills, and when to use the toilet, and did I remember to flush? Healthy children eating juicy drippy fruit. Strong children digging in the garden and getting their hands and clothes and shoes all dirty.

One day, they'll all move out and the house might feel neat for a week. And then I'll yearn for these days, when the house feels warm and full and generous, and I'll find myself inviting some young friends over. I'll feed them juicy kiwifruit, and dig with them in the sandpit, and give them dripping paintbrushes to swirl around. We'll cook something sticky, empty out all the blocks onto the floor, and have a grand old time. The house will get messy, and we'll all relax. And by then, of course, if anyone drips wee on the floor, it will probably be me.

*I mostly clean the house on Mondays.


  1. Love reading your stuff, Ali. It's heartwarming (or something, some better adjective than I can think of right now, or is that an adverb - crap!), anyway, heartwarming despite feeling pushed to the limit by the noisy baby crying in the background at the end of this long night... Thankyou once again...

  2. I would like to think I'd have a better perspective if my kids were little again. Back then I was all about to do lists and checking things off and if I could just get the house cleaned and staying clean then all would be right with my world. I sure had that wrong. This week my youngest (age 21) is moving out for good. He left when he was 18 in really wretched circumstances and I am grateful for the second chance with him when he moved back in a year later. A lot of healing came out of it for us both.

    Kids noise and mess means there is life in the house. It is so quiet without it. And while I love quiet and solitude there is something about the noise of life that is necessary and good, too.


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