My name is Jill and I am a neat freak. A few months ago, I spent an entire morning in my son’s bedroom repairing and repositioning half a dozen Lego creations into a pleasing arrangement on a set of shelves solely dedicated for the purpose. I took it as a sign that I was powerless over my neatness addiction.
I had been doing so well, too. I hadn’t even entered the boys’ play zone for a whole week just to avoid the temptation to hyper-organize. But that day, I relapsed. And it was not pretty. I’m not sure how it happened. The day started out with such resolve…
After making fastidious work of assembling lunches, packing backpacks, hustling my sons into their jackets and hats, and watching them trundle down the front walk to the car with Dad, I stood on the deck in the sharp morning air with the satisfaction of a child-rearing woman who has accomplished astonishing things (shower not included) between the hours of 5:45 and 7:30 a.m., all without once scolding or breaking a sweat.
I took in the oak leaves still clinging assertively to their wind-tossed limbs and envisioned the day before me unfolding the way an Olympic athlete paces out a gold medal-winning 400-meter dash. That day, I decided, would go something like this:
Take 10 deep, bracing breaths. Step back inside. Hydrate with 16 ounces of suitably refrigerated water. Top off coffee mug and add small dollop of honey. Report directly to uncluttered desk, stepping right over mud-and-food-streaked boy garments still moldering where they’d been tossed before last night’s bath. Ignore mountain of unfolded clothes literally casting a shadow in the corner. Pretend rumpled confusion of unmade beds is not in the least distracting.
Sit down. Stay there.
I was hitting every mark in record time. At this rate, I’d be logging hours before the clock struck eight. But at the top of the stairs, things took a turn for the worse.
The light in my eldest son’s room was still on. I reached inside the doorjamb to flick the switch, and that’s when it happened: All the little Lego people started calling to me – their legs back-bent, helmets misaligned, lightsabers, shovels, nunchucks, and daggers unhitched from c-shaped hands…
“Jedi Master of Order Restoration!” shouted "A New Hope" Luke Skywalker from beneath the dresser. “Thank God you’re here. I’m so uncomfortable right now. Could you please do me the courtesy of picking me out of the large child’s dirty underwear and return me to the cockpit of my X-wing Starfighter? But I’ve lost my helmet. And where’s R2? I can’t fly without R2.”
Unable to resist Luke’s plaintive call, I stepped into the room. That’s all it took. Before you can say 12-Step Program, I was swiftly grouping the assembled kits into like themes – Ninjago Morro Dragons with Chima Rumble Bears, second-generation Moon Landing relics with the comparatively glossy 21st-century City sets (police SUV, construction trucks, family camper van). The Star Wars ships, naturally, got a whole shelf to themselves. And every single Minifigure, reunited with his or her corresponding vehicle, lined up from left to right in episodic order.
Two hours later, back aching, hair unkempt, eyes wild, I reemerged. For five full minutes I stood bewildered in the hall contemplating my mental acuity.
“What the hell just happened?” I said out loud.
At first, it felt good to wrest order from the jumbled multitudes. And then it felt weird, and wasteful, and ultimately futile, because these are toys, woman! Not museum pieces.
In a matter of hours, these very same meticulously constructed wonders of interlocking-brick-system engineering would be pitted against one another in epic intergalactic mega-battles, inevitably dropped on wood floors to scatter in a million sonically unnerving directions, and then rebuilt by little brother into asymmetric bat-lizard-robot-rocket-boats with no means of egress, color consistency, or landing gear to speak of.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m not a crazy Kragle-mom. I have never super-glued any toy whose chief objective is to be deconstructed and reconstructed. I simply like structure. I respect sequences. I appreciate design.
In much the same way I enjoy the secret chemistry of successful recipes, I also enjoy the aesthetics of things built as they were meant to be built. I delight in the purposeful details: the specially crafted levers allowing wings to flap and cockpit hatches to open; the ball-and-sockets for Republic Gunship blaster articulation; the spring-loaded laser shooters that release with a gratifying click.
And yes, I’m highly distractible. I have a thing about crumbs. And hygiene routines. And pididdles (touch ceiling before the other car passes, touch seat if they’ve already passed). I try to say “Rabbit, Rabbit” before anything else on the first of each month. I brush my teeth excessively, in the same pattern every time. I bite my nails so I can file them smooth again.
I eat Ritz crackers down to perfect crescent moons, nibble by miniscule nibble. I count the steps of the stairwells I frequent and associate the number with that place. Whenever I do jumping jacks, I count out 100 then add one for each family member to send good health their way.
Unfortunately though, these habits don’t really jibe with being a parent. Consider the spit-ups, the diaper blowouts, the fistfuls of peas and cottage cheese flung madly about the kitchen. The sticky fingers and snot-slicked faces, the yogurt bubbles and juice dribbles, the blueberry barf. The excess toys spilling over the edge of milk crates and bins even though you made a pact with your husband while pregnant never to let any “cheap plastic crap” across the threshold.
Basically, as a parent, you have to let go of organization as you knew it. It’s all an illusion anyway. Kiss your aesthetically calming décor good-bye and welcome a couch you don’t mind disinfecting every few months. When you find Mr. Potato Head teeth and ears in the Magna-Tiles box, let them lie. When a Popsicle stick gets lodged in the slot-car track, trust that your child will dislodge it somehow. You’ve got to roll with the chaos for the sake of your sanity, your children’s sanity, and your partner’s, as well.
Here’s why. My sense of orderliness has nothing to do with my children’s healthy development. What’s more, I think it actually inhibits my ability to enjoy being with them when they’re having the time of their lives shoving child-safe finger paint up each other’s noses. And that shit is funny, believe me.
My OCD also got in the way of the boys taking responsibility for their own stuff. They would ask me where they left Kit Fisko, Boba Fett, or “Anakin’s Dark Side head” and I would actually know. The precise location. It became clear in about year five of motherhood this was a losing proposition if I ever expected not to feel like a servant waiting on two tiny unrelenting masters.
I’ve improved immensely. These days, I don’t maniacally clean up after them. Not as often, anyway. They know to bus their own dishes to the kitchen and put their dirty clothes in the dark and light hampers. They flush the toilet after number two and switch off lights when leaving a room. When they ask what happened to Sensei Wu’s paddy hat, I do my best to reply, “Probably where you left it.”
Four out of five days of the week, the kids actually remember their backpacks. The fifth day we gawk at each other in the drop-off line and say oh well. “Try to remember tomorrow.” And they do. Sometimes.
That said, I’ve left my mark – or my genes anyway. As anyone who’s been a child or parent knows, those marks are indelible. Last night, my youngest woke up calling for me. When I went in to check on him, he said with a trace of panic, “My aminals are not where they’re zupposed to be.”
And because the tree stays rooted by the apple, I helped him rearrange them – Lion on the far side as protection from any monsters approaching through the window, Elephanté next to offer backup. On the door side, Bunny Sniff-Sniff, Owlie, and Niño resting where he always does in the palm of my son’s hand.