Kids live here

March 04,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I like to keep a clean and organized house.  I also have a husband and two kids, a dog, a cat and a rabbit (although the rabbit is probably the neatest, cleanest creature in the house).  I have alway refused to give up the daily battle with organization and cleanliness mainly because it's connected so closely with my own sense of well-being; I just can't let things go, I really can't.  I know exactly how long I can make it before the spilled Legos, trail of discarded socks, and dirty counter top erode away that sense of well-being and I explode, turning suddenly into a grouchy, nagging whirlwind of a neat-freak in front of my family's eyes.

I am also pretty lax about letting my children explore their own creativity in often messy ways.  I might let L. make off with an entire roll of tinfoil so he can create heat shields for a hypothetical rocket ship.  The other day I let the kids eat peanuts at the kitchen table, and looked the other way when L. broke out a stapler and created his very own peanut-cracking device.  The results were messy, to say the least, but the kids spent a good 1/2 hour not only getting valuable protein from the nuts, but keeping busy too in companionable partnership while I finished sending off some important e-mails. One of L.'s favorite pastimes is to mix chemical concoctions at the kitchen counter.  For this purpose I have a set of old plastic spice bottles filled with old, hardly-fragrant spices.  Both kids are happy to play mad scientist while I cook, the smell of spilled cinnamon and ancient bay leaves mixing in with that night's spaghetti sauce.

It's a balancing act, really, just like everything else in life. I refuse to let my children's things take over, to the point where we're unhappy and frazzled, but I also want to respect the fact that they live in our house, too.  It's a hard line to walk--this one of keeping a neat house and letting your kids roam wild with their games and imagination. I know that for the sake of peace and sanity I need the house clean, but I also hover outside my body a lot trying to see the world from my children's perspectives.  My favorite red paisley couch throw looks best when folded neatly across the back of the sofa, yet for the kids it's at its best when propped up on pillows so it dangles to the floor, forming a neat cave they can dive under at a moment's notice. T. likes her stuffed animals to get a daily airing, so she carts them out of her closet and spreads them across the house--this way she's always sure to see a friendly furry face wherever she goes.  Me, I like them in a basket, behind closed closet doors.

Not long after we moved here and L. was barely two, we were invited to a party--a rare night out for us.  The host couple had two small children--two girls--and when we left our house to drive over to their house, we closed the door on a living room filled with tinker-toy parts and matchbox cars, tripping over sandbox shovels on the way down the front porch, and had the door opened at their end on a pristine, immaculate designer home. The only evidence that small children lived there were two small pairs of Mary Jane slippers tucked neatly under a wooden bench in a Martha Stewart-esque kitchen. Later, after a tour of the house, we discovered that the only toys to be found there were in the children's rooms, upstairs, tucked away in gingham-lined baskets in the closets.  I remember at that point in our lives, living in a too-small house with toys underfoot constantly and a small puppy and a carpet that never seemed to stay clean, that way of life seemed so tempting and enviable.

Why can't WE live like that? I asked my husband grouchily as we climbed back into our car after the party.

You wouldn't want to, my ever-so-wise husband responded.

I wouldn't? I replied, unconvinced.

But he was right, of course. No sooner had we crossed the threshold into our own home when I realized that it was good to be home again, after a night out; good to see L.'s toys heaped in corners, and his refrigerator art flapping in the breeze from the kitchen ceiling fan.  Good to peek into his room and see him, huddled under his covers, that small person who lived with us, and made our first house a home--messes, and toys, and laughter, and all.