I’ve been getting lots of questions lately about how we structure life around here, or how I get it all done. Really the answer is that I don’t get it all done. But it is worse than that I think – I don’t even try. One of the biggest personal lessons I have learned in housekeeping and child raising is that “done” is a total myth. The more I have adapted to that understanding the better. The more I embrace a lot of my daily work as a cycle that goes on and on instead of discrete tasks that need to be completed, the better. Not only does it relieve a lot of tension surrounding what you are trying to do in a day, but it actually gets much better results.
I don’t keep it a secret that I know what it is like to step on jam blobs, or face a mountain of laundry that harbors a mysterious yet hideous smell. It is basically daily that I marvel at the volume of what I sweep. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and I frequently fail in my quest to be in the ballpark of both of those things. But the truth is, it isn’t so much about “getting it all done,” it is about keeping on doing it. Much like sanctification, it is not something at which you arrive. Not anymore. I used to be a person who loved to make everything perfect and then enjoy it without messing it up. God wanted me to get a bigger perspective, so I have a lot of children.
I am a very unstructured person by nature. I am not a person who enjoys schedules that follow the day around in 15 minute increments. Some people love that, but it doesn’t work for me. I tend to juggle things, in a constant mental state of triage. So the question about when I clean, what the kids do, and how it happens is something that has no easy answer. It has changed many times through the years. Our kids give up on napping while two. I usually keep them having a “reading rest” for a while after that if possible, and that has long been a time that I use for getting something, anything, done. Blaire is the only napper in our house now, and so the other four are out and about all day – stuffing backpacks full of dress ups, launching complicated scissor work at the dining room table, reading, doing puzzles, playing high speed tag, setting playmobile pieces all over the floor, making a restaurant in their closets with all the duplos they can find, dragging “cozy blankets” through the house to set up caterpillar camp in the living room, and generally living large. I try to keep things orderly mostly by keeping a spot things can go back to.
I have greatly enjoyed the help of housecleaners at different times – I have them come when I can turn on a show for the kids, and the youngest is sleeping, then we clean together. It makes me feel like I got on a moving sidewalk. I am still cleaning, at the time when I could have anyway, but I get a lot more done! Sometimes I would leave for the last little bit and run to the grocery store while the cleaner babysat. I have hired younger girls who didn’t mind mopping and vacuuming at night to be date-night cleaning sitters. Kids in bed, we go out, she stays and cleans out the fridge, or the bathroom or something. That was a good idea, and I should start doing it again.
The kids help me pick up what they have been playing with, as well as what they haven’t been playing with, and I tolerate quite a lot of daytime mayhem so long as the attitudes are good. When the kids are all being cheerful and having a wheeze of a time with the huge set up all over the family room, I am o.k. with that. Play is their work. As they have gotten older, so has our strategy for teaching them to help. The older four are now capable of good help, so we use it. I don’t want them to just follow directions though, I want them to find their own ways of doing things. Usually when the playroom has gone thoroughly to seed, I call the four of them to report for duty. Then, I tell them to go down and look at the playroom and pick something that looks big to clean up. They have to come report to me what it is that they are going to take responsibility for, and then they go do it. Each of them has to do five different picking up jobs, and our theory is that twenty jobs should always be enough to clean up the playroom. Sometimes for fun I take pictures of the playroom every 5 minutes and we enjoy the slideshow of what they did when they are done.
But I think the fundamental thing that helps me deal with this is that I see two of my roles as being very similar, but a little different. I am a housekeeper, sure. The cleaning and the management of basic household flow is my job. But the other side is that I am a homemaker. And a homemaker does what? Makes a home for people. So when the mess is alive and growing in our house, I try to balance the roles of homemaker and housekeeper. Nothing is more homey to children than a rollicking good time. Nothing is more homey goodness to them than being welcome.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I am all about maniacal messes. I like the house to be orderly, but I am always trying to find ways to make it hospitable to its first guests, the ones who live with us.
This might also explain why I do things like paint a mural (a speedy hustle of a painting job on a Sunday afternoon). I see that as being one of the homemaker kinds of jobs, because it was something that I wanted to give to my girls. It is not indicative that I had a ton of time when every other part of the housework was completed and at rest. The truth is that I probably had some digging out to do on Monday morning. But tomorrow always has more to do in it. Sufficient unto the day are the housekeeping jobs thereof.
I streamline some things very dramatically (sometime I’ll tell you about how we have no dressers), and other things I complicate for fun (like getting a sweater for one child done over two weeks and a lot of hours). I keep a tall plastic laundry hamper in the hall closet for all the kids’ jackets, sweatshirts, and outerwear by season. Because they can get things in and out of it, dump it out, pick it up, and stick it back in the closet. Because we don’t have time to hang coats up. Because we want to make a huge mess in the kitchen making pasta. I could write a very lengthy post about the journey to the system that I currently use for the laundry. But I’m still hoping that I can weather the storm of a new baby with the laundry staying on track.
The truth is, this is my life work. I’m not supposed to finish everything in one day. I am supposed to get better and better at it. And believe me – there is a lot of better that I could be at it.