How Do You Get a Messy Zebra to Change Her Stripes? (11/5/15)

Answer?  Have the messy zebra fall in love with a military zebra with pretty, neat, stripes.  🙂

I’m 39 (as my slightly younger partner loves to remind me!) and was born messy.  My parents called me pigpen, only in part because of my white, whispy hair that floated around my head.  I got my desk dumped on a regular basis at school.  The family joke was that you could always tell where I sat at supper because of the mess I left behind.  My room was referred to as a disaster area 360 days a year (I was required to clean it once in a big while).  I married a messy guy.  It worked for a while.  We had 4 messy kids.  As I matured, however, I would frequently get overwhelmed, as I’m one of those weirdos who actually likes it neat but couldn’t seem to control the chaos.  You do need some organization the more kids you have just to function.  For years as a mom, having 4 kids in rapid succession, I would bounce from one extreme to the other.  Could I change who I was, my habits, my patterns, devote my precious little extra energy into changing?  Should I continue to get stressed out about messes?  Or, should I learn to let go, embrace that messy part of me, claim it was because of my creative nature and how many kids I had?  I tended to lean toward the latter, snubbing my nose at all those “judgers” out there.  Who cares, right?  If they want to judge me because of the way my house looked, go for it.  I like to go against the flow.  But I couldn’t shake that it still would frequently bother me, myself.  Friends would tell me, it only bothers you because you don’t want people to judge you!  Hmmmm, maybe.  Or maybe it stressed me out because it was chaotic and not what I wanted my house to look like.  But I could never bring myself to really gather up the energy to turn the sinking ship around, so it was usually easier to talk myself into just letting it go.  I didn’t want to die of a heart attack at an early age.  I mean, you have to do one or the other, or you won’t survive!  There are lots of sayings out there that a messy home indicates happy kids.  While that’s true, I know it was overwhelming for the kids too.  When mom did lose it, and expected the house to be cleaned top to bottom, well, everyone gets pretty overwhelmed, and fast!  A typical request would be, “everyone just pick up 30 of their things, before movie time!”  A small dent, but crazy how picking up 100 + things didn’t really do much!

As my partner and I were in the beginnings of our “best-friend-turned-more” stage in our relationship, I remember her commenting “I mean, what am I gonna do, move in here?  We’d kill each other in less than a week!”  We both fell to the floor laughing.  That would be ridiculous to move in together!  And we would kill each other!  A month later, she moved in.

In the beginning, I thought I was doing pretty good.  I did a pretty decent house purging, getting rid of a couple truck loads of extra books, toys, furniture, junk, and trash.  We rearranged everyone’s rooms and seemed to be able to absorb 2 extra people without much overcrowding.  I knew how stressed she would feel with messy, so I tried to do my best.  It would definitely be a point of contention on a regular basis but not nearly as big as it could have been.  I was willing to try to change my ways, and teach the kids to do the same.  Every fight about it led to a bit more change, purging, organization and teachable moments.

But 25 days ago, it all came to a head.  She was frustrated at the mess.  I was frustrated because I felt we had come a long way and didn’t get why she couldn’t see that.  Would this be “our issue”?  Who was going to cave?  Who had to resign herself to a somewhat miserable future in a “no one is really a winner” compromise?  She could try to learn to live with a messy house.  I could try to live with the stress of hoping it was clean enough or she wouldn’t notice that it was bugging her.  Luckily, when either of us gets angry, we become quite productive.  She cleaned.  I cleaned.  She purged.  I purged.  She fumed.  I fumed.

Then, suddenly, it hit me.  Why was it imperative to me to stick with being messy?  Did a clean home actually stress me out?  Would I be denying myself any rights by keeping messy?  I thought I had been giving on this issue.  I had agreed with her most of the time (It’s not like I was ever saying, “hey, you just have to deal with it”) and tried to change my ways.  Like I said earlier, I enjoy a clean home.  I could only see where I had been, but failed to see how far yet I had to go.  I guess it’s one of those hidden issue kinds of things.  I also realized that her need to have a clean home was a need.  An actual need.  Based on lots of things.  At any rate, suddenly, when I stopped to think about my messy ways, only 1 single word came to mind.  LAZINESS.  That summed it all up.  From leaving the baby’s jammies on the floor, to the dishes in the sink.  Sure, I’d clean it up later.  There was only one thing standing in the way of cleanliness.  The idea that I had a right to be lazy.  I can look back on my life and see it for what it is.  Now, when I am tempted to fall into the old habit of “I’ll leave it and pick it up later”, the word lazy just pops up.  Before, when I tried to get new habits, I would quickly fall into the old ones.  Because I thought I deserved to be lazy.  Many people that know me would certainly refute this idea.  I’m typically not a lazy person.  I’m kind of a go getter.  a project starter.  An energetic girl.  But here it is laid out for the world to see!  LAZY!

I was dragging my heels on the 2nd 50% of improvement because I felt like I already spent hours a day, cleaning, picking up, stressing, barely keeping my head above the junk of 7 people.  Then, I was expected to do even more?  How?

25 days in to a pretty clean, orderly home, I know how.  It’s not that I now have to dedicate double hours picking up and cleaning.  It’s a change in attitude.  I can either be lazy, or responsible.  Now, I sit in a house that feels great to me, hopefully great to her (right, sweetie!?), and the kids are much happier too.  I actually spend less time cleaning than I did a month ago (but quite a bit more than I probably did a year ago).  I wish I could tell everyone exactly how to keep a clean home with 7 people, or how to organize, or that I’m an expert now.  It’s only been 25 days.  But I know it’s for keeps, because it’s a mindset shift.  My kids don’t have to spend half a Saturday picking up the toy room.  Not because I do it for them.  We got rid of a lot of stuff.  Now any mess they make is MANAGABLE.  They don’t get overwhelmed and throw fits.

Don’t get me wrong, even I can see we have a ways to go.  Sometimes I feel like the cleaner I get things, the more little details I notice and can feel overwhelmed by them.  For example, if we had a messy room and we picked it up occasionally, it would feel pretty good.  Now, since it’s already picked up, i start to notice the corner with the dirt in it.  The window that needs washing, the grout that needs scrubbing.  The crack in the paint on the wall.  I’m just learning to function at this next level.  I struggle to find balance in feeling proud of how far I’ve come, but overwhelmed at how far I still need to get us.

And do you know how freaky fast a house with 5 kids can go from company-ready, to disaster?!  Just drop by on a Saturday morning when we are foolishly trying to sleep in, and hoping they aren’t burning anything down.  (At least hoping not have to get out of bed before 6am!)  This morning I was so excited to write this blog about how great our house looked, and it was like a tornado went through!  (First-snow-of-the-season-find-snow-gear-before-school-panic.  You know, that kind of disaster.)  But the cool thing is, now it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to get everything put back together.

I’m heartened to learn I can change even after 39 years.  However, it is frustrating for both of us to be constantly after the kids to pick up as they go.  That’s a balance too, of recognizing the change and not freaking out about the fact that we have to celebrate them putting away shoes which we’ve been working on for 8 months.  I think that’s why I’ve never put much energy into training them to pick up as they go.  First, because I couldn’t do it with my own stuff, second because it’s way easier to do it for them, third because it takes WAY longer than you think it should, so you give up early after you’ve reminded them to take their plates 100 days in a row.  But I think the thing I have to remember is that kids take a few steps forward and one back pretty frequently.  It’s hard not to think we aren’t going anywhere, or we just started over.  Also, in the past, when you are barely keeping your head above the mess, there’s no energy to follow 5 little people around constantly gently reminding them to pick up.  I am busy!  Our MO is usually mom is in the kitchen making dinner, and the kids are somewhere in the rest of the house making huge messes.  Hey, as long as they weren’t bugging me, I figured it was worth it!  So, now that things are a little more under control, guess what?  I have a lot more energy to keep on top of everyone.  And it’s a lot easier to remind a kid to pick up the 1 or 2 things he left behind, then the 50.

OK, i will share a few tips that work for me.  I am not by nature super organized (I’m sure this is a surprise by this point).  So I do better if there’s just LESS CRAP!  I can help the 3 year old put 1 puzzle away that he got into, but not 14 that he got into.  So I got rid of a lot of stuff.  I can be unlazy enough to keep 20 toys organized, but not 200.  So if I have few enough things, I can manage to keep them fairly organized.  THEN, the next step for me is making sure everything has it’s place.  I know lots of people that can keep everything on earth in labelled boxes (hey, Grandma!), and it works great.  I just need way fewer boxes.  Over the past year we have slowly incorporated special places for skates (do you realize how much room 7 pairs or more of roller blades take up?)  We got a barrel for hockey sticks, baseball bats, lacrosse sticks, and street hockey gear.  We got extra shoe cubbies. We have 3 small baskets of toys I can now manage to rotate instead of a bottomless toy box filled with broken doodads.

What I’ve hopefully trying to get across is summed up here:
1.  Turns out you can change.  I can if I’m not being stubborn about it
2.  Creativity doesn’t mean you have to be a disaster
3.  Sacrificial love means getting your partner’s needs
4.  Clean houses are great
5.  I can stop being lazy and now have the luxury to sit on the couch and blog
6.  Tune in again in 10 yrs and see how the kids turned out.  😉

HOWEVER, I am ALWAYS open to ways we can motivate the kiddos to be more responsible for their stuff.  I realize I’ve created this environment, and have to recreate it and it takes time.  But tips are always welcome!

Now this is the “messy” room in the house…the toy room
How the toy room used to look!

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