There are a few minutes in the morning when the sun hits like a beam through the dining room windows and straight into the kitchen. Even though I just wiped down the counters—all the specks of dust seem to glow on my black matte appliances and charcoal countertops. The light feels like a spotlight on the imperfections.
Behind me, the kids are building a jungle gym with the kitchen chairs. Normally I wouldn’t consider myself the sort of “fun” mom who would allow this, but in the last couple of weeks, my toddler, Nora, has started climbing the tall bar chairs and crawling around on the high-top table. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve told her, “No, we don’t climb on the table.”
So I’ve started turning the chairs over, laying them on the hardwood floor. My big kids drag blankets from their bedroom and drape them over the chairs to make a fort. Rhett, my 7-year-old, climbs under the blanket and directs his younger sister, Allie, where to go. He brought tractors into the fort, never one to leave behind his farm equipment. Nora peers under the blankets, yelling to be included. The sound is muted to a dull roar—thanks to noise-canceling earbuds.
I walk down the hall, past the fort, to strip the sheets off Rhett’s bed. It’s Saturday, and I wash everyone’s sheets on Saturdays. Once I get to the kids’ room, I pick my way through the piles of books on their floor. My careful steps feel like navigating the manure piles in the barn during calving—you can’t help but step on one.
A meme keeps popping up on my social media, saying, “If you have kids, it’s okay that your house looks like they live there.” Looking around the room, I would be lying if I said clutter and mess didn’t bother me. Now, I’m not saying I have one vacuum to vacuum another vacuum, but I’m more of a Monica than a Rachel.
Gripping the stripped sheets in my hands, I think, “Yes, it certainly looks like children live here.” When the piles of toys grow, my anxiety and stress build like a tower that will eventually crash to the ground.
“Mom, Rhett called me stupid, and he hit me!” Allie cries from the living room. I sigh, dropping the sheets.
I walk into the living room, and Rhett ducks into the fort—knocking the precariously arranged chairs to the floor.
“Come on, Rhett! You’re going to scratch the floors! Those chairs are metal, buddy,” I say.
“I didn’t mean to call her stupid!” his voice is muffled by the blankets. “And I didn’t hit her! Stop tattling, Allie!”
At this moment, I don’t know what to say. “We don’t call each other names! We don’t hit!” sound trite, and I’ve repeated those phrases so many times, but my words don’t seem to be sinking in.
I throw up my hands, “Can you two not fight for just a few minutes? It’s barely 8 a.m.!” Shaking my head, I walk back to the bedroom to finish making the bed.
Clutter, dirty floors, and unmade beds can be remedied in a few steps: Pick up books. Stack on the bookshelf. Sweep floors. Tuck in sheets. Stand with hands on my hips. Gaze at my work.
Done. Checked off the list. Move on to the next task.
But my kids? I can’t parent in three easy steps—especially as they get older.
Motherhood often makes me feel out of control. I can’t program my kids’ behavior or snap my fingers to stop another meltdown at dinner. And as much as I try to order our days around strict naps and bedtime schedules, there are still sibling fights to referee and hard questions to answer when I least expect it.
Rhett has come home from school a few times, saying words and phrases we didn’t teach him. (And I’m not talking about the words on his weekly spelling list.) At times, he talks back to me. And the hard conversations I feel unprepared to talk about are right around the corner. Each day, a bigger boy replaces the little boy I once knew—right in front of my eyes.
In those moments, I want to scrub the words from his mouth like fingerprints wiped off the bathroom mirror, then put the conversation neatly away on the shelf. Wipe my hands, admire my parenting handiwork, and move on. Check. Check. Check. But parenting doesn’t work that way.
I like to keep a clean house because I can control it. The wiped-down counters and swept floors make me feel like I’ve accomplished something.
And it’s always been easier to wipe up the spill, straighten the bookshelves, and run the vacuum than to negotiate toddler meltdowns or clean up the pieces after a sibling squabble.
It’s 5:55 a.m., and words fill my notebook that I’ve scratched out since 5:00. I have five minutes until I need to wake the big kids up for school. Taking one last sip of my cold coffee, I stretch my arms above my head, then walk down the hall. The house is still clean, but soon, tiny feet will hit the floor, and the work of parenting and running a household will begin again.
I gently open the kids’ bedroom door and stand on the bottom bunk, reaching into the top bunk and placing my hand on Rhett’s head. His breath is slow and steady; he’s still deep asleep. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath, preparing myself for the day ahead.
Opening my eyes, I tickle his head, “Hey buddy, it’s time to get up,” I whisper. “I’ve got breakfast on the table.”
“It’s so early,” he grumbles, curling into a ball.
“I know, but it’s time,” I say, anticipating what he will ask next.
“Can you carry me?” he asks, his voice gravelly with sleep.
I start to protest; that he’s too heavy and big enough to climb down by himself. But I pause, knowing he’s asking me to step back a bit—that he hasn’t made the jump to a “big kid” just yet. And maybe, while there aren’t three easy steps to raising kids, he’s reminding me I can parent him—one step at a time. I don’t always have to worry about what’s next.
I pull him down and hoist him onto my left hip, feeling the weight of it all. He was the first baby to occupy that space—and the only one to ever have it to himself.
On the way out of his room, I stumble in the dark over a green plastic tractor—for the millionth time. Proof that kids do live here.
And maybe, just like my kitchen in the morning light, there’s beauty in that too.