“Girl, the dishes will be there tomorrow.”“There are more important things than a clean house.” “You could spend your whole life cleaning, and you’d still be behind, why not spend a little more time with your kids, instead?”
“I know you want to keep things nice, but it’s just as important to take care of yourself.”
“How often does your bathroom really need cleaning? Honestly!”
All of these are delightful pieces of advice, friendly reminders to parents (but mostly to moms) that life is short, and there’s really no need to spend all of it doing boring chores. Before I say what I’m about to say, I want to stress that I understand that these tidbits of wisdom come from a very good place, a place of kindness, and caring, and even love.
Maybe these tidbits are extremely helpful to some mothers. Maybe, for some moms, a platitude like “the dishes can wait” is exactly the gentle and nurturing reminder that she needs to give herself a freaking break once in a while, accept that she can’t be perfect, and let her hair down.
It’s just that, for me, and (I suspect) plenty of other moms like me, they feel a little bit um, off.
I’m a mother to a toddler, and I’m told he’s at one of the most “intense” ages there are. Intense doesn’t have to mean bad. It happens to often be a really fun age, actually. He’s learning new things incredibly quickly, he’s getting better at communicating every day, he’s affectionate and loving, and he no longer needs to be carried 100% of the time. It’s great!
But, of course, he’s also loud, obstinate, clingy, and requires pretty much constant supervision because, yes, he will take things out of the garbage and eat them and, if you are extremely lucky, those things will be food.
I’m also, frankly, really freaking busy. I’m not busy in that, “You ever notice how our culture glorifies being busy and everyone says they’re busy these days?” sort of way.
I’m busy in that, “I am bone numbingly tired and I have not stopped going since seven in the goddamned morning and there is no way I will finish all of the things that were on my MUST DO TODAY THIS IS URGENT list before I inevitably pass out” sort of way.
I’m extremely lucky to be doing this whole parenting thing with a fabulous partner, but that fabulous partner and I both have to work, and the money that we make goes for luxuries like bills and the occasional food item, so we have no money for childcare. That means that we are constantly trading off. One of us is caring for the kid, the other one is working, and vice versa. All of the many household tasks required to keep a family of three going (six if you count the cats) have to happen in the spaces in between, or, often, in the hours right after the kid goes to bed.
I’m going to level with you for a second: It blows.
And I get stressed. And I complain. And it is right then, when I am complaining that the house is a mess and I’m never going to catch up and I had twelve things to do today and accomplished three, it is exactly at that moment when someone tells me – sweetly, earnestly – that the dishes can wait.
I know the dishes can wait.
I know the dishes can wait because they are already waiting. I know the dishes can wait because they have waited for as long as they possibly can. I know the dishes can wait because three times today I had to wash a child-safe plate before I could get my 1 year-old something to eat.
I understand very well that the dishes will still be there in the morning, because they always freaking are. Almost every morning, I get up, and I stare at the dishes that are still very much there, and I curse.
The same thing is true for nearly every other chore that folks are encouraging me to put off a little longer. Trust me, I have already put it off as long as possible. If I’m complaining about it? That’s because I can no longer get out of doing it. And it isn’t because I’m lazy – although, I might be lazy – it’s because I have too many things to do than can actually be accomplished, and so my life is a constant exercise in bumping things down to a lower priority until they become really, really urgent.
I think part of the problem is the image that we have in our head of motherhood, and of womanhood in general. When I try to summon some image of who the “the dishes can wait” platitudes are for, one face swims into view. It’s Aunt Petunia, from Harry Potter. In the books, several mentions are made of Aunt Petunia’s “surgically clean kitchen” and at least one reference to her “pre-bedtime wipe down of all the kitchen surfaces.” And I’ve known people like this. There are people who just can’t fall asleep until they know that all their stuff is clean and in order.
I’m not like that. Most of my mom friends are not like that.
Our kitchens are not “surgically clean” (seriously though, do NOT do surgery in my kitchen) and the surfaces only get wiped down when something gets spilled directly on them, if that. We are doing the best we can, but we are treading water. Our houses are messy and we know they are messy and we know they are probably going to stay messy for a very long time. We aren’t demanding perfection of ourselves, and we really don’t need to be reminded that perfection isn’t required.
When we complain about the dishes, or the laundry, or the bathroom, it isn’t because we’re trying to stay 100 percent on top of all the household tasks and we’re worried we might slip just a tiny bit behind. We aren’t stressing out about that one knife with a little peanut butter on it in the sink.
No, when we complain it’s because we desperately want to have enough energy tonight to wash a couple of coffee cups, so we don’t have to do it before we drink our coffee tomorrow morning. We’re hoping to wash the toilet maybe once a month, preferably before our in-laws come over this time. We’re wishing like hell that we had time and energy to vacuum, because wondering what's sticking to the baby’s feet is getting kind of old.
When we talk about the dishes we feel like we should be doing, what we're actually talking about is the desperate – and often hopeless – desire to get just a tiny bit ahead. Or maybe it’s the desperate desire to just not get any more behind. We aren’t forgoing valuable family time because we’re obsessed with having a clean house. Rather, we’re working our butts off to have a house just clean enough so that, once in awhile, we can actually take some family time.
I want to not have to fish a sippy cup out of the sink before I get lunch for my kid. I want to be able to run a bath without thoughtfully touching the inside of the tub first to see if the grime is really “too bad” this time.
If you want to say something helpful when it looks like I’m struggling, I understand, and I appreciate it. But please, refrain from telling me that the dishes can wait. Because the truth is that they've already waited exactly as long as they possibly can.
Believe me, if I could possibly spend any less time on the housework, I would.