My baby’s winter clothes have been sitting on the staircase outside his room for nearly a month now. Every morning, I rummage through the piles of tops and bottoms and choose his outfit. Every time I walk up to the attic, I step on something soft: a pair of little sweatpants, a teeny tiny sweater. Every week, after I do the laundry, I put the clothes back on the steps. I took Ben’s clothing out when the weather turned chilly, but I have not been able to find an hour — one measly hour — to pack up his summer clothes and deposit the cold-weather ones in his drawers and closet.
Before we had kid number three, I figured that life would get more chaotic. I had no idea. I had no clue that I’d struggle to get even basic tasks done at home; there are nights when you can find me in the kitchen at 1 AM, washing baby bottles. I had no clue that I’d be late paying bills because I simply forgot about them. I had no clue that I’d be down to giving the baby baths a few times a week, and I tell myself it’s better for his skin but really, I just can’t commit. I had no clue that, once, I’d be that mom who forgot she had to pick up her kid at track practice.
My work, I am on top of. Maybe it sounds awful to say that I always hit my deadlines with projects when I’ve had a child text, “Mom, you’re picking me up soon, right?” (Now I am.) Perhaps it seems wrong to be so responsible about doing a quality job for a boss when you let your oldest son have mac ‘n’ cheese for breakfast because you neglected to buy the only kind of oatmeal he eats, and that’s your peace offering. But there is no margin for mess-ups at work, or else you won’t have work. My kids, my husband, my house: they will still be there for me, unconditionally, even as my high standards come tumbling down.
This bothers me. The icing on my life-is-out-of-control cake is a thick layer of guilt. At home, I never feel like anyone or anything is getting my best, forget about me. Tweezing my eyebrows has become a treat.
Most moms I know struggle with this same hamster-on-a-wheel lifestyle. “I haven’t gotten myself totally together since I had kids,” moans one friend. Her twins are 12 years old.
“You know that Whack-a-Mole arcade game, where you try to whomp moles that pop up with a mallet?” says another. “That’s basically my entire existence.”
Oh, yes, we all know: You have to repress your Type-A instincts and accept that perfection is unattainable, no matter what super-human feats of baking and decor you see on Pinterest. Keeping your sanity as a mother means not striving to have or do it all. But embracing the chaos of parenthood is easier said than done: I struggle to let go of the fact that I’ve been letting things go.
A funny thing happened with the baby clothing sitting on the stairs, though: I stopped wincing when I passed by the pile. I literally decided that I wasn’t going to care, a strange exercise in neglect and indifference that went against every responsible bone in my body. I gave myself permission to not deal, and forced myself to make peace with a mini pile of chaos. After all, nobody gave a crap about the homeless clothing but me. “Mommy, you’re not organized enough!” said no children ever.
I still struggle with many other pile-ups of untended business, from the huge stack of mail on the kitchen counter to the fact that my oldest son needs a haircut so badly that strangers have recently started referring to him as “her.” But accepting that my baby’s closet is currently our staircase is a start.
I’ve also found it comforting to consider what I have accomplished during any given day. I put up a Post-It on my bathroom mirror that says “#wins” as a reminder to mull them over. I may not have gotten to the laundry, but I did help my daughter with her science project. I may have let our poor, thirsty plants go unwatered for yet another day, but I did take an after-school walk with my oldest son. I may have dressed my 1-year-old in clothes I retrieved from the stairs, but we had a morning dance party. Years from now, I won’t recall just how messy our living room was as we whirled around it, but I will remember hugging my baby to my body as we laughed and I loved him so.