I recently took the morning off to tidy up the house. Taking a full morning seemed unnecessary, because I'm constantly tidying up the house, so I expected to spend the majority of the time finishing up Veep or, perhaps, finally starting Game of Thrones.
But two hours in, I hadn't even made it past one corner of my older child's room. And that's when I looked up to see it. On the freshly painted wall, right next to the window: a doodle.
What followed might have appeared to someone peeking in the window as a full-on conniption fit. But from where I stood, this was an extremely reasonable--rational even--response. I don't really remember what I did during the rage, but I do know that Legos were poured into the trash and I punched a pillow.
Later that afternoon, when I picked up our children from their day camps, I had decided to approach this calmly. They were children, after all. So I would play good cop before abruptly switching to bad.
As they piled into the car, I inhaled and exhaled to calm my raging heart. "Hey girls..." I started, as if I were casually going to ask them about their day. "I was picking up your rooms earlier and noticed something on the wall."
My older daughter Lowery, with her mouth full of string cheese, responded, "The drawing?"
I cleared my throat. Deep breaths. Deep.
"Yes," I said. "I was just casually curious about it. No biggie. Just wondered, you know, who did it..why it was done...what artist influenced it. Kind of had a Kandinsky vibe." The Oscar was mine to lose.
"I didn't do it," Lowery shrugged. "Do you have any gum?"
I looked at her for a beat and then reached in my purse for the gum.
"I didn't do it either," my younger daughter London offered. "Can I get gum, too?"
When we got back to the house, I asked the girls to follow me upstairs. If this were a movie--and it should be--this part would be shown as a montage (rolled at double speed) of me walking them rapidly around their rooms, pointing dramatically at piles of laundry, books, strips of paper, uncapped glue sticks, stuffed animals, blocks, and hair bows, while Aretha Franklin spelled out words on a loop.
By the time Jim came home from work he found the three of us yelling, crying, and throwing things into the large, open trash container I had pulled in from the garage.
"What's going on here?" he asked, loosening his tie.
"THAT is what's going on here!" I pointed to the doodle on the wall.
"Ah," he said. "Who did that?"
"Well, according to Ocean's 2 here, it happened during one of their birthday parties. A 'party guest'."
"Grab a trash bag and start chucking!" I commanded. "No one eats dinner until I see the floors!"
As we continued to clean their rooms, my stress level grew higher and higher. Because with each item I picked up to sort--like an innocent backpack--I found even more shit within it. In one instance, I picked up what I assumed was an empty shoe box to find it full of dried out markers, three socks, an array of paper clips, a Star Wars action figure, a doll's comb, and the crust off a discarded sandwich. As I went to dump the entire thing in the trash, my younger child yelled out in pain, "But that's special!"
An hour into this chaos, my husband pulled me aside.
"You are sweating quite profusely," he said with a worried look. "Why don't you take a break?"
"Oh, a break you say!" I yelled, dabbing my forehead with one of the girls' swimsuits that no longer fits. "If I stop cleaning for one minute, more piles up!"
As I continued to rant about the level of clutter in the girls' rooms, the baskets of laundry in which I couldn't tell clean from dirty, and the dried globs of toothpaste on the bathroom counter, my husband searched my face for any signs of the woman he married, wondering if this was in fact love, or something he could easily walk away from. He sighed, having weighed his choices, and walked back into Lowery's room while I stormed down the stairs to the kitchen.
I took my anger out on a clove of garlic--finally achieving a "mince"--and threw a random assortment of food into a pan, too angry to really care about what it would be once cooked.
A half hour later the girls came quietly and cautiously into the kitchen, as if the house were the woods and I the coiled snake.
"Mom..." Lowery whispered. "We're sorry."
"Oh?" I snorted as I aggressively stirred my pan of refrigerator findings.
"We really are!" London said, wrapping her arms around my left leg.
"Me too," said Jim, peeking out from behind the doorway, only his face visible.
"Here's the problem," I said, finally putting down the wooden spoon that was splintering under the trauma of my stirring. "No one jumps up to do anything until I've reached my breaking point."
"We clean our rooms when you ask us to," offered Lowery.
"Yeah, but only when I ask you. And apparently you think shoving everything into your closet is 'cleaning'."
"Isn't it?" London asked, her big green eyes innocently peering out from beneath her mop of bangs.
I looked for a moment at my younger child, who was blinking up at me. Then at my older child, who was wondering if her friend Jade's mom ever acts like this. And then to my husband, who was anxiously fiddling with his wedding ring, his body still protected by the door frame.
"I don't like this pattern," I said. "The one where I have to hit a breaking point before any of you take me seriously. I don't like exploding. I don't like wasting a nice summer evening cleaning. And I really don't like how unbelievably stereotypical this all is--am I supposed to handle cooking and cleaning because I'm a woman? What is that even modeling for you girls? I don't like this pattern! I don't like raising my voice! I don't like any of this!"
"But you like us, right?" Lowery asked.
"Now's not the best time to ask," Jim interjected. "Let's just all vow to be more mindful of our messes. We are all responsible."
I knelt down on the kitchen floor, and my kids rushed into my arms. Jim, feeling safe enough to come fully into the kitchen, knelt down to put his arm around my shoulder.
"We finished the rooms and the girls want to show you how it looks," Jim said, kissing my cheek. "They are really proud."
The four of us walked slowly up the stairs, weary from the evening but finding hope swell with each ascending step. I squeezed my husband's hand and whispered, "That wasn't directed at you."
"I know," he squeezed my hand back. "Because I always put the cap back on the toothpaste."
I walked into my older child's room to see the bed was made, the bookshelf organized, the laundry put away, and the floor completely free of clutter.
"And check this out!" Lowery flung open the closet door to reveal it was also clean, clothes hung uniformly and shoes lined up neatly at the bottom.
"Now mine! Now mine!" London yelled, pulling on my arm as she jumped up and down.
"Wait!" Lowery exclaimed. "Before you go, look at the wall!" She pointed to the space beside the window.
"Oh wow..." I gasped. "The doodle..it's completely gone!" I rubbed the bare wall where the scribble that had started it all once was. "How did you do that?"
"It was just pencil, Mom," Lowery shrugged. "All you gotta do is erase it."
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