Each child is finally in bed. The dog and cat are fed. Work emails are answered. All I want to do is vegetate with my wife in front of a Netflix DVD that will probably take two weeks to watch because we keep falling asleep after 15 minutes.
“Somebody has to finish cleaning the kitchen,” Wendy says with all the energy of a poor soul who has traversed half the Sahara desert.
I lie there, paralyzed with exhaustion.
“If I get up a few minutes early, I can …” I drawl before Wendy interrupts.
“I did two loads of laundry tonight. You do the kitchen,” she reasons.
I roll out of bed. On my way, I pass a mound of bristle blocks and kids’ shoes in the hallway, a stack of sorted-through mail on the couch in the living room, and a pile of unfolded clean clothes on the dining room table. These items need attention, but it’s all I can do to step into the kitchen.
I had left the light off because I like to delude myself that a mess is not a mess if you cannot
see it. Upon flicking the switch, the chaos appears. Air-dried marinara sauce on plates, lettuce leaves in cups (my middle son thinks plants will grow in this way), and chunks of buttered brocauflower on grimy countertops leer at me like a culinary murder scene. This is one of those moments when I’m comfortable enough in my manhood to wish I were Tabitha on Bewitched and could simply nose wiggle my way out of this dirty task.
I hold a deep-seated resentment toward the never-ending cycle of do-stuff-then-clean-up that mars typical days that also involve the mental and physical challenges of guiding, educating and protecting children. What makes my hatred complicated is that, even in moments of fatigue, I am at least one part compulsive neatnik.
Within me is a titanic battle that can only be compared to The Odd Couple dynamic between Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. I appreciate the healthfulness of sanitation and the serenity of orderliness, but I also value the freedom to live in a linear fashion, moving forward through life without going back to tidy up. I enjoy the feeling of efficiency when my organizational efforts make Ari’s plastic animal figures easy to find because everything’s in color-coded bins, then I glory in letting go enough to make a muddy mess with Jacob in a back yard that won’t be cleaned up for weeks.
While Jacob, 6, loves to throw real dirt around, he is the most like me when it comes to his approach to neatness. He was the toddler who sang the clean-up song loudest in preschool. Now, he takes pride in organizing his room and even begs to wash my car.
At 3 years old, Ari can be impressively responsive when I ask him to put away his blocks; however, he resembles the Cat in the Hat as he adorns the house with snacks in various stages of consumption and rips through his T-shirt drawer like a dog digging for a bone.
My 10-year-old takes after my wife, who cannot resist the urge to grace any empty space with heaps of clothes or paperwork. For his part, Benjamin not only scatters stuff everywhere, he has become a hygiene rebel. He needs constant reminding to wash at the end of the day and, when left to his own devices at sleep-away camp, managed to shower all of three times in two weeks. He returned home to us covered in a cloud of dust. The beauty of it all? He really doesn’t care.
So why should I? Really, what’s a better use of my time as a dad? Straightening closets for hours at a time or shutting the door on the mess to go kick a soccer ball with the boys? Should I stay in bed or plow through the dishes? As my life gets busier, I’m trying to give in to my inner Oscar Madison with a clearer conscience. The piles may be ever-present, but they don’t mind as much as my kids do when they’re ignored.
Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of three boys.