“Let it go” may be the mantra of mothers everywhere when it comes to parenthood and navigating life in general. Only that’s much easier said than done, especially when it involves the neatness of your kid’s room, or lack thereof. This is an ongoing issue I’ve had for years with my daughter, Sabrina, the nonchalant inhabitant of one incredibly messy room. It is not one I’ve had with my son, Max, who has disabilities. But as Sabrina recently taught me, sometimes there are reasons that go way beyond the obvious for not fighting the clean-your-room battle.
I am what is known as a neat freak: I like our house to look orderly. Really, really orderly. This is not to be confused with being a “clean freak,” since dust doesn’t bother me much. I grew up with a pack-rat dad, and my desire to have a home that does not look like it belongs on Hoarders can be traced directly to that. Having a low-clutter space also calms me, especially when chaos reigns (and it reigns daily).
Every night, before I go to sleep, I whiz through the living room and family room, putting away newspapers, toys, and the TV remote control. I don’t mind; I can sleep peacefully knowing that the couch pillows are in the right place. Although I do occasionally grumble to myself, How is it possible nobody except me noticed there’s a week-old cup of lemonade on the mantle?
My daughter is what’s known as a slob, a gene she likely inherited from her dad. Sabrina does not notice — or seem to care about — an unmade bed, laundry all over her bedroom floor, craft supplies strewn everywhere, gigantic pile-ups of her little treasures, and a mess of paperwork topped by assorted opened tubes of lip balm on her desk. I so do.
Over the years, I have tried all sorts of strategies: making a game of cleaning up when she was younger, incessant nagging, giving her an allowance only if her room was neat as she got older, shutting the door so I wouldn’t see what was inside, and yet more incessant nagging. Several months ago, I crowdsourced the problem on Facebook, and got great suggestions; my favorite was “pick your battles.”
I tried very hard to not care. But I just couldn’t help myself, especially at times when it seemed like Sabrina might no longer have space to actually inhabit her room because the mess was out of control. After days of holding back, I’d finally erupt: “You need to clean your room! Now!!!” And she would … a bit.
This weekend, we had a stand-off. Friends were coming over and I wanted Sabrina to make her room look just a little less like a disaster site.
“Can you please just take ten minutes to organize your room and pick up stuff off your floor?” I asked, sweetly. “Please?”
Sabrina looked at me. And then she said something I wasn’t at all prepared for: “You never ask Max to clean up his room, and it’s not fair that you only ask me.”
WHOMP. That’s the sound of her words hitting my heart, hard.
She was totally right.
Max has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects muscle movement. Using his hands does not come easy to him; even picking a toy fire truck off the floor is hard. “Two hands, Max!” I often remind him, because his left hand works better than the right one and he typically avoids using the less effective hand. And so, I tend to pick up after him, preferring to let Max save his physical energy and his time. Doing homework takes him a while, and if it comes to picking up stuff or getting a math worksheet done, the worksheet wins every time.
So yes, I basically let my son get away with not cleaning up — and I was guilty of holding my children to a neatness double standard. I’ve tried hard to balance out my parenting, giving Sabrina as much extra attention as possible because Max gets (and needs) so much. But in this one thing, I’d failed, and I had my compulsive de-clutter tendencies to blame.
I grabbed my daughter and gave her a big hug.
“Honey, you’re right,” I acknowledged, and of course she had to smirk because what kid doesn’t want to be right?!
She did not clean her room. And I had a twinge of regret when I walked by right before our guests came over and there was literally popcorn all over her floor, along with all of her bedding, and blah blah blah mess.
But I let it go. And then I dashed to the living room to make sure the pillows were in place.