A few weekends ago we went to a cookout at the home of one of Trent’s coworkers. As usual, we were the picture of A Family Who Has It Together: I was on the brink of heat exhaustion in the sweater I’d purchased earlier that day and had to wear, not only because it was new and that is how I roll, but also because, hello, most of my “real” clothes do not currently fit me; Mia was decked out in gym shorts and a sparkly semi-dressy shirt, two different socks, and that pair of Tom’s I got on sale from Zulily months ago that neither fit her just right nor match anything she owns, what was I thinking, good lordy; Hayden was looking adorable in a navy pullover with a spit-up pattern and a lovely drool glaze; and Trent…well, he really does typically appear to Have It Together, so we did have him going for us.
We entered Coworker’s home with our respective burdens: Mia was reluctantly carrying her own soccer ball because her parents are such thoughtless slave drivers; Trent was lugging our son, whose 13 pounds feels exponentially heavier when he’s sound asleep in the baby carrier; and I was shouldering the diaper bag, a huge bowl of homemade pimiento cheese, and multiple packages of pita and bagel chips. As soon as we crossed the threshold I was keenly aware of the chaos that we embodied as it came into sharp contrast with our new surroundings. Everything was neat, in it’s place, beautiful. It even sounded clean. There were no laundry baskets on the sofas, neither for keeping animals off the couch nor filled with laundry in various stages of folding. There were no scrapes on the hardwood, no big black scuffs on the walls, no cat claw marks on the ends of the furniture. I did not see one bit of cat or dog hair, save that which is with our family in the way Moses instructed the Israelites to talk about the Commandments: at home, on the road, going to bed, getting up…on our hands, our foreheads, our doorposts and our gates. It is for real everywhere I look, the animal hair, and I was keenly aware of it, and all our other marks of imperfection, as we made our way through this pristine house.
We went on to have a lovely time on the gorgeous patio in the perfectly level and landscaped yard where music piped out of hidden speakers at just the right volume. If I sound a little cynical, it’s because you don’t know me very well, because cynical is an understatement. As I sat there looking at the matching deck furniture and the spotless floor to ceiling windows, which offered a generous view of the flawless interior, I started to feel fat and clumsy and unskilled as a housekeeper, not to mention incompetent as a mother who cannot even equip her offspring with clothing matching skills. It was an ugly state of mind I occupied as the evening drew to a close and we made our way back home.
I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who warned us that “comparison is the thief of joy,” and I was reminded of this wisdom when my husband, who stood in our kitchen later that night drinking from a random beer pint class that had been sitting on our counter for two days, told me that he much preferred our home to the showplace we had just left. “I love our home,” he said. “I love the old furniture you painted yourself, and the magnetic chalkboard you made out of a cookie sheet, and the pictures covering our fridge. It looks like a family lives here.” I looked around, and I was immediately reminded that everything is a choice. Every thought, every feeling, every reaction to every moment of every day is what we choose to make it.
Mia leaves her shoes under the bench in our “command center” every day, and they accumulate there because she “might wear them again tomorrow.” Trent never puts his water glass in the dishwashwer, claiming that water does not dirty the glass and he will “use it again later.” There are baby bottles in all stages of use on our counter, and burp cloths and muslin blankets and teething objects everywhere. My husband and I are chronic stackers: it does not matter if I make a place for the mail (we have two mail baskets) or if I organize bills and papers and coupons into folders, we will just make new stacks on the newly uncluttered counter. Every day when I come downstairs to get a bottle and a cup of coffee, something that used to be on the counter is in the middle of the kitchen floor, compliments of our younger cat Ellie–today it was a habanero pepper, bless her–and multiple times each day I have to remove our older cat Chapin from “his” chair at our kitchen table and lint roll his hair off of the cushion. Lucy the dog leaves her three favorite toys in random places, and if I put them in the basket of animal stuff next to our back door she immediately gets them out. As I write this, a laundry basket, an Ikea stool, the baby’s Bumbo, and multiple pillows form a barrier on the couch and loveseat so that Lucy and Chapin cannot lie on either; while Ellie, who is smaller and able to thwart our efforts, freely stretches out on the back of the loveseat, where we finally just put a throw for her in an effort to minimize the hair accumulation.
And that is just our downstairs. I could talk about how often I don’t vacuum my bedroom, and how I mostly don’t make my bed anymore. I could talk about the train wreck that is and will always be my closet. I could talk about our frustrating back yard with its impossible slopes and poison ivy-infested fence line that looks more like a small jungle than a “natural area.” But at the end of the day, as my husband reminds me often, none of this matters nearly as much as the family who lives here. We eat together every night. We move the baskets and stools off the sofa and watch movies together. We put a blanket on the rug and sit directly on the cat and dog hair and play with the baby. We laugh and cry and fight and play in this house, and mess or not, that makes it our home. Our kids will always scuff the newly painted walls, and the cats will scratch and climb and lie on whatever new furniture we buy, and we will continue to leave a trail of our lives wherever we go: the package of swim diapers that has been on the dryer since mid-August when we put the baby in the pool for the first time, the empty soccer cleats box I still have not thrown away, the handful of thank you notes for baby gifts I still have not written, the drawings and notes and photographs that are slowly covering all the doors in our kitchen like some kind of beautiful paper kudzu.
I can choose to feel inadequate because your house is cleaner than mine or because your backyard is a veritable oasis of recreation and relaxation–and let’s don’t even talk about my car–or I can choose to feel grateful for all my domestic imperfection, because it is a byproduct of my children and my husband and our pets and our chaotic but never dull shared experience. It is a choice I have to make daily, and I hope and pray I keep making the right choice, because making the wrong one is hard on me and harder on these other people who live here. I want to send the right message about what is most important to me, because I’ve seen firsthand how this works, and sending the wrong one makes a mess that is harder to clean up than anything I struggle with in the cleaning department. The choice is love, plain and simple, and it’s a love for these people and not a love of perfection, and when it is at the forefront it permeates everything I do, every word I speak to them, every gesture, every act; and they will carry it with them when they are on the road, and when they are going to bed, and when they are getting up, and it will be written on the doorposts of our house and on our gates, and people who come here will not see chaos or imperfection when they cross our threshold. They will see our home, the place where we are a family together, and they will know, at least that day, that I made the right choice.