Cleaning: The Not-So-Great Escape

>> Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Supernanny scares me.

I don’t dislike the woman -- just the show. Jo seems like a decent woman doing her best to help others and make a living. But I never feel better after watching the show, except to be grateful that I don’t have 5 kids who hit me and beat each other up, which I think ultimately is the true value of the show -- to appreciate what we have.

I never quite understand the lessons I’m supposed to glean from the show. Am I supposed to make charts for everything? Schedule every activity? Girls, you may go the bathroom.... now! Most days I just don’t feel that clever.

Besides, I think that many of these families need therapy -- not charts. Their issues seem greater than learning how to distribute stickers for good behavior and teaching Skippy not to knuckle-punch his little brother.

Or perhaps they just need an actual nanny.

In one episode I watched a woman with 4 children obsess over house-cleaning. “I have four children. I have to keep everything clean or this house will fall apart.” (I’m paraphrasing...) Many of us have long ago learned to re-define what “falling apart” means in terms of a clean house. We’ve learned to wear shoes in the kitchen so we don’t feel unpleasant stickiness and we’ve learned that carpet stains are easily concealed with throw rugs or baskets. But this woman could not stop cleaning.

At one point, all the children were happily playing outside, except her youngest son. He looked around for mama, who was inside mopping the floor. Jo intervened. “Look out there. Why aren’t you spending time with him? You have to go out there and be with your children.”

She followed Jo’s suggestion, but I don’t think her heart was in it. I don’t think this woman’s problem was cleanliness -- she just had too many kids. (Each one more wonderful than the last, I'm sure. But still perhaps too much for her to handle.) When I saw her looking out the window as she washed the dishes, I understood: cleaning was her escape.

I believe this, because I, too, know the joy of losing myself in warm, soapy dishwater. I, too, have enjoyed the pleasant numbness of sweeping the floor and emptying the dishwasher. I’ve zoned out, and relaxed, while folding the laundry.

You see, cleanliness may be next to Godliness, but it’s also right next door to Sanity. Oftentimes, it’s the closest we come to getting a break.

As parents, we allow ourselves very few excuses for not spending time with our children. Our spa coupons sit in our dresser drawer until they expire (which is practically a sin). Our friends offer sitting service, but we don’t take them up on it.

In the pre-child days, taking a break meant reading a book on the couch, resting on a lawn chair in the backyard, or taking a walk. If I read a book on the couch now, some cute little blonde girl would come over and insist I read to her. Of course I could read a selection from the book I may be reading, say the Exorcist, but that wouldn’t do me any good later that night. So I’d have to stop and read about a monkey named George. If I stood my ground and said, “No, I want to keep reading my own book,” I’d either feel horribly guilty, or the little girl would holler and cry until I threatened a Time Out for bad behavior -- neither of which is very relaxing.

If I rested in the backyard, then a little girl might squirt me with the hose or need a Band-Aid or keep picking the flowers until I couldn’t bear it anymore and made her to stop. If I went for a walk with a little girl, I’d worry that she might run into the street or trip over a bump in the sidewalk or get scared by a dog. While these are all sweet moments, I would not consider them relaxing, and they don’t qualify as “taking a break”.

So I clean. It’s the only excuse that doesn’t make me feel guilty. Sorry, I can’t carry you on my back and neigh like a horse right now because I have to wash the dishes; I have to make dinner, so you’ll have to ask Daddy if you want to paint; You want me to help you make a bed for your doll using toothpicks, tape, and piece of printer paper? That’s a great idea honey, but the laundry’s not folding itself...

Don’t get me wrong, we spend a great deal of time honoring their ideas and facilitating their various odd projects. But we still need time away occasionally to rejuvenate. Since we find it difficult to get away physically, we escape mentally by losing ourselves in chores.

Michael’s cleaning escape involves turning on the stereo in the kitchen to near nightclub volumes while washing the dishes. While I’m bathing the girls at the other end of the house, the tub water is practically vibrating from the music, a la Jurassic Park.

“Why does it have to be so loud?” I asked him one night.

“Well, we’re too tired and poor to go out. This is the closest I get to going to the Casbah to listen to music.”

So, not only do we get a break when we clean, if we’re exceptionally clever we also get a night out... sort of.

Ah, welcome to parenthood.

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