I hosted both my children's birthday parties this month, one a simple afternoon party with cake and games, the second a small slumber party with a spa theme. There was nothing pinterest worthy about either, yet they managed to completely deplete me.
For each party I took the Friday off work and spent the entire day cleaning my house, and by cleaning I mean frantically gathering the children's clutter and finding places to put it so I could accomplish the quick task of sweeping and vacuuming my floors. After the parties were over I had a trashed house to contend with and spent another entire day cleaning, so when it was all over I felt sad, resentful and empty. Why had I even done all this? Not the party in itself, but the frantic tidying? I hadn't done it because I enjoy cleaning, or because it would have made the parties better in any way. I did it for the perceived judgement of the other mothers standing in our front entrance for a brief moment to drop off their kids. I did it because as a woman and mother, a tidy house is expected of me, because our living spaces are just as scrutinized and judged as our faces and bodies.
I started to notice it around the time my second child learned to walk. Until then I was mercilessly unaware of my surroundings beyond the the basics of dishes, laundry and basic cleaning. But a second child brought more chaos, more belongings and less free time. Things started to pile up faster than I could deal with them, not dirty things, but little islands of papers and toys and trinkets that needed sorting and returning to designated spaces that only I seemed capable of seeing. Our daughter started having friends over, people outside our super tight knit circle of trust, and I started to really see what our home might look like to others and panic about how to keep it looking better. I internalized something that had never before been my problem, but suddenly loomed large in everything I did.
Wondering if the struggle was universal, I went to one of my online mom groups looking for solidarity, and posted some clutter filled photos in hopes of encouragement. Earlier in the week some women had posted photos of their postpartum bodies looking for sympathy, and were given the same sort of understanding I was looking for here. Instead I was met with shaming, with retorts that they could never stand such a mess, with photos of immaculate kitchens and living rooms. I wondered how I would have been received if I had responded to their body posts with photos of myself in skinny jeans six weeks after giving birth, but apparently while struggling with your weight after baby is okay, struggling with the state of your house was not. I learned that I was right to worry, that everything I was grappling with was definitely a failing of character and definitely my fault.
After that I became even more attuned to the whispered judgments and expectations, as well as the so called solutions. Like those who follow the wave of crash diets, hoping for something that finally sticks, I started trying all the 'methods'. The fly lady and her thousands of emails, toy rotation, simplicity parenting, the organized mum, and the mother of all hopes and dreams: Konmari.
With her cute little best selling books and Netflix series, Marie Kondo promises that using her method will change your life forever. If you go through all the categories in order, your life and living space will forever more be simple and effortless and you'll finally be swimming in free time to actually spend with your children and even your own abandoned hobbies. I really did hope. I used my birthday gift cards to buy her books and my free time to sort not just through toys and clothes, but every last damn screw in our family's toolbox. Did it help? Briefly. Did it change my life forever? Not really.
What happened was my husband would take the children out for a fun day that we all used to embark on, and I would spend the entire day at home sorting through things to get rid of, make the arrangements to get them out of the house and hope that it would be worth it. But the kids would come home laden with more stuff. Gifts from their grandma, trinkets from festivals, freebies from the mall. I would be defeated and angry and sad that I missed out on all the fun, and for what amounted to almost zero progress.
For years I kept trying though. I joined the online Konmari groups looking for inspiration. I tried policing the amount of stuff coming into my home. I tried to get my husband to purge things too. I tried getting the kids involved with chore charts and routines and rewards, but it what it led to was me still constantly spending my weekends trying to rid my house of the excess while everyone else had a good time.
I started becoming aware of certain things in the group. Like myself, the same members sticking around for years. Claiming they needed another round because the first (second, third, etc. hadn't worked). Complaining about parents and in-laws showering their children with gifts they didn't want or ask for. Wondering when they were to find the time to keep doing this between child care and jobs and life in general. Then I wondered 'where are all the men?' I started asking questions that were unsettling to others. Because we all claimed that our husbands 'helped' with things. But why weren't they asking the questions? Why weren't they setting this in motion? Why didn't they feel like this was their problem? Because it's not.
No matter how evolved and helpful a man is, no matter how often he performs daily chores like dishes and sweeping, if your house is a cluttered mess, the judgement still falls to you. As I made close mom friends who let me into their inner spaces without filters, as I met those I could freely text trashed living room photos for a laugh rather than a rebuke, I saw that somehow it was always our problem. I watched friends use their vacation days to clean houses for visiting in-laws, because they would be the ones feeling the shame from his family, despite the house and children being an equally shared venture. It's not that men are inherently lazy, it's that they still carrying our child free and carefree basic expectations of cleanliness that we can no longer afford to live with. They aren't groomed and attuned to the obvious and underlying expectations of our living spaces in the same ways we are. It's why they can calmly sit down and watch a show after dinner without the nagging guilt and anxiety of everything left undone, and why they spend so many more weekends out having fun with the children while we toil at home. They're not the ones asking us to organize our homes at the expense of fun, we are.
A few weeks ago I went to meet some friends for lunch when I saw several young families with babies out strolling in the sunshine on their carefree weekend outings together and I was floored with a sense of loss for those middle years. Despite all those lost days of sorting and culling, despite the books, the groups, the systems and the sheer amount of head space and time, my house is still a constant struggle. We live in a time of excess not just in food, but in possessions, and despite our best efforts, and no system or sense of vigilance can fully change that. We're inundated daily not just with photos of perfect bodies, but with the stark and beautiful photos of other people's curated homes that are far more expected of us than thigh gaps and stick legs ever were. We're told that if we just try this new way of living that these scenes of aspiration and tranquility will finally be ours. Instead we waste our days digging through piles of plastic and papers, missing out on those fleeting years of their childhoods, and everything that really truly matters.