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Clean Freak Mom: I’ve tried not to care about house cleaning but…

If you could gather all of my former roommates together for a glass of wine and some lighthearted conversation, one by one they would tell you that I’ve always been a clean freak. Tracy (1986-87) might tell you she resented it whenever I picked up after her, but Melanie (1987-88) would say that my addiction to cleanliness meant less work for her. Michelle (1989-90) might tell you about the day I came home early and, unaware that she could see me through a crack in her bedroom door, threw a fit over the pan of dried-up macaroni and cheese she had left on the stove. Caroline (1998-99) would just shrug, take a sip of her Merlot, and tell you that I moved out shortly after her cat peed on my futon.

I’m sure they would all laugh at my current living situation, because, in a karmic sort of way, I’m getting exactly what I deserve. My latest roommate knows no bounds when it comes to making a mess, but this time I can’t move out. He happens to be my son A.J. – who happens to be a toddler and happens to have a fondness for activities like throwing globs of hummus onto the floor, smearing poop all over his bed sheets, and wiping his snotty nose on my kitchen towels. With him on the scene, let’s just say that dried-up macaroni and cheese is no longer the worst of my problems.

I thought I was handling the situation pretty well, all things considered, until this morning, when A.J. decided to join me in the bathroom while I was getting ready for the day. As I applied makeup to my face, he sat on the floor behind me playing with his toy cell phone. Or so I thought. Halfway through putting on my mascara, I glanced down to find him matter-of-factly sorting through the contents of the wastebasket: dirty Kleenexes, used Q-tips, yesterday’s dental floss, a wad of hair from my hairbrush. I didn’t step in until he paused to examine a used maxi pad.

“Aaaaaagh, stop!” I cried. “Why do you always have to find the grossest thing in the room to play with?”

I grabbed the maxi pad and threw it away, then shunted A.J. back to the living room – but not until I washed both of our hands. Exasperated, I sat him down with his toy airplane and went back to my room to get dressed. “Calm down,” I told myself, pulling on my jeans. “It’s a toddler’s job to play with gross things. He can’t help it.”

But my old clean freak sensibilities had been provoked. I try so hard to be an easygoing, take-things-as-they-come kind of mom, but I’ve never overcome my clean freak roots. I’m not sure how I got this way. As kids, my sister and I shared a bedroom, which was about as disgusting as any other kids’ room. After my sister moved out, and I had the room to myself, I may have tidied things up a bit, but as of high school graduation, there was nothing extreme about my need for cleanliness.

It must have been the college years that did me in. Between my searches for identity, love, a part-time job, and a viable major, life felt so out of control sometimes that the only thing I could do to restore order was clean the toilet. Enter my roommates, whose reactions to my overzealous housekeeping probably should have made me stop and think but didn’t. They couldn’t possibly prevent me from doing what I was doing – not once I’d discovered the giddy sense of rightness I got from a freshly vacuumed rug or a squeaky clean countertop. The illusion of control had me hooked.

After I finished grad school, I did away with roommates altogether, scrimping and saving so that my little cleaning problem and I could live alone. And for ten years, that’s exactly what we did-until I fell head over heels for a man who had never owned a working vacuum cleaner and wasn’t even remotely offended by that nasty smell inside his refrigerator. I knew I couldn’t change him, but I was willing to clean out his crisper drawer, so we got married and lived happily ever after.

I realized then that once we had kids, my inner clean freak would suffer, and I knew from the start that kids were messy. But I guess I knew this in the same way I knew that Botswana is in Africa, or that the cockchafer beetle is a type of insect: as a fact with little or no personal frame of reference. It wasn’t until our son came careening into our lives with a trail of food, toys, and bodily fluids in his wake that I finally understood how difficult it was going to be.

I wish I could say that life with my charming little son has transformed me, that one look into his beautiful brown eyes puts everything into perspective and that I’m now able to laugh at the fingerprints smeared all over my appliances. That I no longer notice the clutter, the smell, the stickiness, or that weird stain on the wall across from the coat closet. But the truth is that I do notice. I cringe every time I look at the giant toy bin we used to call our living room, and my blood pressure shoots up every time a stray Cheerio goes crrrunch under the ball of my foot. And since the latter happens about 70 times a day, I figure I’m due for a major cardiac event by the end of the year.

If I survive, I hope to see the day when I can live in a tidy and pristine space again. Hopefully it won’t have to be in an asylum. I like to picture myself in the airy sunroom my husband promises to build for me one day – a room filled with plants and books and attractive, carefully placed knick-knacks. A room with no trace of stickiness, where I can recline on the sofa and read in peace, or sip my coffee while watching the birds frolic outside my window. A room where roommates are not allowed, not even my husband and son – unless they wipe their feet before entering, leave their Cheerios at the door, and promise never, ever to touch anything.

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