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Kitchen Chaos,
circa 1970.
The author is seated
at the table.
How Neat is
Neat Enough?

By Hannah Nia

I have given the issue of household neatness a good deal of thought since my son was born six years ago, and I continue to feel that, on balance, he is better off if I have the sense of order I need.

I recently read an article in a parenting magazine that raised concerns about the role of the mentally well in helping the mentally ill to parent. Its author quite rightly suggested that the line between well and unwell is disconcertingly thin. She lists, among several other examples, a boy she grew up with “whose mother insisted he eat Popsicles only while in the bathtub, nude, to keep her house and his clothes spotless.” “There are all sorts of crazy,” she writes.

Indeed. But what I found most worrisome about this mother’s odd, maybe even pathological, practice was that it struck me as a really, really good idea. The boy got what he wanted, the Popsicle, and the mom got what she wanted, clean clothes and a clean house. Plus the Popsicle surely would have served as an incentive to the boy to get into the bath, so a clean boy must have emerged from the scenario as a bonus. Crazy? Or brilliant?

In another parenting article specifically on the topic of excessive neatness, the author relates how his own mother now wishes she’d “dusted and vacuumed a little less and played a little more,” but she’d believed that keeping a clean house was what “a good mother had to do.” He fondly recalls not the dust-free surfaces and clean carpets in his childhood home, but the times when his mother would “put on a Connie Francis album and kick off her shoes and we’d dance in the living room, the housework (at least for a little while) be damned.”

Words to the wise, surely. As those of us who are parents have learned (or resisted to our peril), children make us more flexible. They demand we be more accommodating, less rigid beings. If we’re lucky, they help us to be more fun. And that’s all for the good. But what if there are some bottom line requirements entrenched in our psyches that, hard as we try, we just cannot dislodge? For some of us, it’s a guaranteed period of quiet every day. For others, it’s the need to appear presentable in public. For most, though, it’s probably the house thing. I have one friend who can abide nearly any degree of household disorder, as long as there are no strewn coats or jackets anywhere in sight. I envy her. To my own chagrin, I require a much more pervasive degree of household order.

But what of it? I have given this issue of household neatness a good deal of thought since my son was born six years ago, and I continue to feel that, on balance, he is better off if I have the sense of order I need. So: he must put his toys in his toy bins at the end of the day; he must put dirty clothes in the laundry basket; he must keep his shoes in the under-stairs rolling shoe bin, and so on. My husband has adopted similar habits, and the child we are expecting next month will him or herself eventually be expected to get with the program— joyless though it may sound.

But, as I say, I have thought about this issue a lot. Mostly my reflections take me to my own childhood when the chaos and disorder of family life produced a more debilitating brand of joylessness. We were a nuclear family of seven living in a large suburban house in Hackensack, New Jersey. In fact, it was a very large house, given that it was a two-family with a semi-finished attic and a semi-finished basement. In total, there was 3,800 square feet of space in that house and my brothers, parents, and I filled every inch of it. It had two kitchens, three-and-a-half bathrooms, two dining rooms, two living rooms, and nine bedrooms, plus numerous closets and large storage rooms. My grandparents had died early in our childhoods leaving one of the floors vacant, and then the rest of us and our things just mushroomed. Much as my parents would have benefited from the rental income of the first floor apartment (which was the reason they’d bought the house in the first place), the material fallout from the seven of us, five kids and two adults, had just spread too far for them to imagine condensing back into a mere 2,500 square feet.

And the fallout continued to spread until, one by one, we fled the scene. I was the first to leave in 1986 after more than twenty years of life lived in what was more-or-less a disaster area. As I write, I cannot help but be aware of the metaphorical implications of the words I find I’ve chosen. The term “nuclear” family carries with it connotations not just of the “containment,” both familial and national, so characteristic of the Cold War era, but also of detonation— and detonate we did. Our things, as I’ve said, mushroomed; the fallout was everywhere; the disaster area became nearly uninhabitable. My parents lacked the disciplinary wherewithal, of themselves or of us, to harness order. We lived amidst debris.

I could speculate about what made it so hard for my mother and father, both committed, loving people, to inspire healthful organizational tendencies: she had deep feelings of inadequacy induced in childhood by an emotionally remote father and exacerbated in adulthood by the myth of the marvellous mother so prevalent to her generation; he (my father) also bought into this myth and saw housekeeping as her role alone, while he worked doggedly to uphold the complementary myth of the super-able provider. Whatever their wellsprings, my parents’ combined temperaments just didn’t give rise to domestic tranquillity. Physical discordance was everywhere. My mother wept often. She was always overwhelmed. She was frequently angry. We stayed out of her way.

I read once that women whose own experiences of being mothered were unsatisfactory tend to avoid or postpone becoming mothers themselves. And I suppose it is no accident that I am fully forty and quite respectably (even happily) married, but am expecting only my second and almost certainly my last child. To be sure, I have proceeded methodically. I have acquired degrees, a tenured position, a reasonable work-life balance, and a 750 square-foot house. The modest dimensions of this last acquisition have had more to do with the exorbitant cost of property in Dublin, Ireland, where I now live, than with any conscious desire to be short on household space. But short on space we are, and Freud’s theory that there are no accidents often comes to mind whenever I am paring back our household possessions to those things that are functional, pleasurable, or aesthetic. If an item is none of these, it goes. The local charity shops know me by name. But one happy result of my continual de-cluttering is that our very tiny house has clear thoroughfares. Our photos are in photo albums. I always know where the car keys are. True, I fight the accumulation of anything and everything as though my life depends upon it and I drive my husband a little bit nuts. But I tell him that clean doesn’t matter to me as much as neat— I just don’t ever want to be swallowed up by our possessions. The sort of worry most likely to keep me awake nights will center on our space limitations: where will all the new baby’s things go? Is it safe to throw out last year’s bank statements? Could a small corner of the attic be turned into a computer area, or would it be absurd to have to climb a ladder all the time to get our email?

One thing I am sure of, though, is that I have a greater sense of well-being, with my professional rewards, my small family, and my small, orderly house, than my mother ever did. Mine is a life that, I realize, may itself sound a bit small, possibly a bit restrained. In all honesty, I wouldn’t mind being able to loosen up a bit. I must remind myself that “cutting the rug” with my children would doubtlessly bring them more joy than watching me vacuum it all the time. Still, I can’t help but feel that a parent’s genuine well-being, however it is derived, will necessarily benefit the children. I also feel that mine will be better off in the long run with a mother who isn’t undone by the sight of her living room. So, for me— for us— having a win-win plan for Popsicles is entirely sensible. 

mmo : october 2004

The author is a lecturer of English at The Dublin Institute of Technology in Dublin, Ireland. Her doctoral dissertation was on representations of family in contemporary American fiction. She has been married for eleven years and has a six year old son and a new baby daughter.

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