Imperfect House, Imperfect Mom

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I’m an imperfect mom. I snap and yell at the girls when I’m overwhelmed and frustrated. I’d rather read a book in utter tranquility than play the scene from Cinderella in which she loses her glass slipper at midnight…for the tenth time in less than an hour. I cannot relate to mothers who coo and cuddle with their children so effortlessly, because cuddling is a motherly phenomenon in which I consciously engage with deliberation rather than ease.

And I clean our house about every three months or so…literally. It seems justifiable to ensure our living space is tidy, but sterile? There’s no way. It seems I gave up on cleanliness shortly following our first child’s birth. I realized I was chronically sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, and generally weary to the bone. Something had to slip onto the back burner, and housework so comfortably maneuvered into that place.

Over time, I permitted cobwebs and their inhabitants to share the cozy nooks of the unlived corners that hadn’t been touched or swept in months. I wrote off the dust bunnies behind the corner cabinets and the couch, because they weren’t noticeable. Cleaning toilets and showers occurred when rust stains formed a decorative ring around the bowl or drain.

Once Sarah was born, dusting and vacuuming became dirty words that caused me to cringe and cower, partially because I was thrust into the realm of full time caregiving in addition to full time motherhood, but mainly it was due to my avoidance of facing my imperfect house. I have erroneously believed that an imperfect house reflected negatively on my identity as a stay-at-home mom, because, well, everyone knows that stay-at-home moms have nothing better to do with their time than clean, decorate, and bake!

There is an inherent perfectionism in me that fuels control, especially over situations that appear completely unmanageable. I grew up in a home rife with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so perfection in cleanliness and tidiness was implied and expected. I never felt quite comfortable in this environment; our home was almost always spotless, but the expectation is that it would remain that way.

As a child, I avoided my chores, because I concluded that my work would never be good enough, perfect enough, orderly enough. As an adult, I avoid housework, because I do not want to admit the visible imperfections in my home that reflect poorly on my interior imperfections.

I think there is some truth to the theory that our homes are a reflection of our interior life. I think of the controlled environment in which I was raised, but I also consider the hoarder and the collector. Somehow it seems we all regard our homes as a psychological extension of ourselves…which means I’ve been neglecting some aspect of myself in favor of more appealing uses of my time.

I cannot get past the glaring abhorrence I have of housework. It seems almost absurd and puerile, but no professional organizer’s advice has ever proven effective for me to get beyond my avoidance.

I recently forced myself to clean the entire house, top to bottom. It was a “come to Jesus” moment in which I simply took a deep breath and dove in, head first. I got out all of my cleaning gear and began scrubbing without much thought. But, as is always the case, the more I cleaned, the more I noticed the things wrong with our house…and, in turn, with my motherhood.

Oh great. The paint’s peeling on the front door, and there’s mold or mildew or something on the side of the house. My thoughts wander to the netherworld of our home, so I start checking baseboards. They’re so layered with dust and grime I cannot possibly get them clean. Oh, I forgot that the windows haven’t been cleaned in…years? I don’t think I’ve ever washed these curtains…

…and so the ruminations continue, spiraling into a deluge of disgust, and this is cause enough for me to throw in the (dirty) towel and toss my hands up in the air in a fit of surrender. Am I surrendering to my house or to something else?

I have to admit, there is something psychologically liberating about housecleaning. Once I sweep away the cobwebs, dust off framed wall hangings, freshen up the mirrors and clean sinks and toilets, I do feel something within me release. There is satisfaction, confidence and (momentary) elation when I see the fruits of my labor.

But I know I will not pick up the microfiber cloth or dusting mitt for another three months. Why is this? Why does this internal battle ensue every. single. time. I. clean? I am baffled by this peculiarity, this foible of my character, and yet as soon as the thought exits my consciousness, I turn around and watch my preschooler wipe sticky, gooey fingers all over my shiny, spotless mirror.

But she is laughing. The sheer joy of childhood makes the messes worthwhile, I suppose. I confess that I’m not always convinced of this, which is why I recognize my imperfections as a mother. I’m not sure why a well-swept and shiny home reflects my measurement of success as a mom, but it always has in my mind. These days, however, I’m not so sure I didn’t adopt some of the OCD-like perspective from my family of origin.

These days I see my children growing up in an imperfect home, but it is one in which they do not view imperfection. They live in a home that is full of love, of sharing and purpose, in which they are allowed to play and get messy sometimes. Spills and soils are expected here, and they are teachable moments for me as a mom – to model genuine patience, to comfort when the tears of disappointment surface, and to remind our girls, “Hey, it’s okay that you spilled on your shirt. I can wash it, and sometimes Mommy spills, too.”

I recently read an anonymous quote that struck me with its timeless wisdom, because it is so fitting for the guilt that resides within my psyche on occasions when I face the reality of our imperfect home and my imperfect nature as a mother: “Our house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.”

Perhaps it’s time I revisited my understanding of motherhood as it relates to precision or imprecision, flawlessness or flaws. The truth of the matter is that most moms are good moms, and we don’t have to achieve faultlessness in order to provide warmth and love for our children. The proof is in the pudding…smeared all over my bathroom mirror.

Copyright 2014, Jeannie Ewing

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About Author

Jeannie Ewing is a writer, speaker, and grief recovery coach. She is the co-author of From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph and Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers. Jeannie was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and a dozen other podcasts and radio shows. She offers her insight from a counselor’s perspective into a variety of topics, including grief and parenting children with special needs. For more information on her professional services, visit her websites lovealonecreates.com or fromgrief2grace.com.

10 Comments

  1. Thanks! I really needed this post today. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with things that need to be done around here but lack of time, money or know how get in the way.

  2. This is a great article. You shared yourself and that is a great gift you gave to all of us readers. Seems like I would feel comfortable in your home, and appreciate the way you spend your energies on that which is truly important – your beautiful children. No need to torture yourself! Keep strong for what is today.

  3. Loooooooooove this! And mostly because I now feel liberated to admit I only clean the house about 4 times a year, too, haha! Thank you for such a great article and a good reminder about what’s important!

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