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Happiness is a Messy House

March 30th, 2009

By Rebecca Walker

Growing up, my mother taught me three things about keeping house. The front door and interior entryway must always be well lighted and inviting. The bed should be made no more than thirty minutes after rising. The dishes must be washed or put in the dishwasher immediately after each meal.

By example, she also taught me that clothes and other items should never be strewn about, and one’s personal space was a reflection of one’s mind. It should be orderly, beautiful, and open to being rearranged at all times.

As a young adult, I pressed these essentials into service as a foundation for living, my own coda for domestic harmony. Nothing interfered with my rituals of moving methodically from bed to closet and from desk to sofa straightening, positioning, and stepping back to admire my work.

A few months before I gave birth to my son, now three, I had an inkling that what I considered a simple habit of fastidiousness might be something, well, more. To begin with, my baby shower yielded several items for which I could find no suitable place. I agonized for weeks about a diaper genie, for example, only to conclude with horror that the only place for it was sitting directly outside my front door.
A co-sleeper also presented a fundamental challenge to my inherited sensibilities. Because my bedroom was small, the bassinet had to sit flush against my bed, complicating the making of said bed enormously. I was unable to adequately smooth the duvet, essentially giving the effect of an un-made bed all day long, which made my skin crawl every time I entered the room or caught a glimpse of it from the hallway.

As my son grew older, the chaos spread. No matter how many brightly colored baskets or smart wooden block boxes I bought, there seemed no way of keeping his room, or the rest of house, tidy. In between writing articles, granting interviews, and packing to leave home to lecture, I found myself picking up his crayons, cars, and stuffed animals at the first hint he might be done playing with them.

I began to grow frustrated by the state of affairs.

I brought my concerns to a friend, who promptly told me my complaints were nothing new. “You’ve always had a bit of an OCD,” he said breezily. “Don’t you remember your apartment in college? We couldn’t get a piece of pizza without everything being in its proper place.” “It’s who you are,” he said. “As for the impact on your son, perhaps you should see a psychiatrist.”

My partner, whom I felt should be equally concerned with the increasing lack of order and my fear our child would grow up to live a messy, uncouth existence if we didn’t instill my inherited values immediately, shook his head in futility when I raised the subject.

“I have given up talking to you about space,” he said one morning, channeling his inner Freud as I begged his counsel on what I called the “Lego situation.” “Your urge to control the environments in which we live is irrational,” he said in his most professorial tone. “It is either a coping mechanism from childhood that serves you and hampers others, or it is a function of your creativity that serves you and hampers others. Either way, the outcome is the same.”

This gave me pause. Then, as if in a trance, I reordered the towels on the bathroom shelf by color, size and level of sumptuousness.

But my partner had struck a chord. My son, after all, was not a little adult. At three years old, I knew he should be capable of putting his toys away, but certainly not before he finished playing with them. My desire for order could not be good for his creativity either, as the latter depended on experimentation, openness, and, alas, some degree of mess.

When I looked at the roots of compulsion lurking beneath my mother’s directions for proper living, I had a revelation. Somewhere along the way, I had started connecting the orderliness of my home with survival. I truly believed that if my living space were not perfectly tidy, everything—not just my house, but my life—would fall apart.

At my dear Sigmund’s advice, I looked back in time and searched for clues as to why I felt this way. My mother’s family was poor. The shack my mother lived in as a child had no running water, cracks between the floorboards, and tin sheeting for a roof. My father’s family was working class with constant financial struggles.

I imagined what it was like for my grandparents to have so little control over their environments. Their worlds were unforgiving and unstable–sharecroppers like my mother’s parents could be evicted without as much as a week’s notice. They must have grasped at whatever rituals they could—planting prized hydrangeas, keeping clothes and linens sparkling clean and freshly ironed, displaying fresh fruit in simple bowls on the kitchen table--to ease a pervasive feeling of powerlessness.

As I lay on my perfectly made bed, I considered my mother’s rules for keeping house as more than a casual set of directives. They were more of a survival kit, passed from generation to generation. This is the way to stay sane in insane times, parents must have indicated to their children. Your house must be your sanctuary. It must suggest a sparkling future. Room must be made for your ship to come in.

Unlike my grandparents, I don’t have to worry about sudden eviction or the wind howling through cracks in the walls. But the world is no less troubled, and humanity no less precarious now than when my grandparents were alive. The difference, of course, is that I have a great deal more privilege than they did. I have more control over where I live and what I do, when I move, and how.

This raises important questions.

If my “irrational relationship with space” is a living survival kit, an heirloom passed from generation to generation, can I afford to let it go? If the same relationship is an outdated coping mechanism that makes everyone around me crazy, can I afford not to?

I made a commitment to put the happiness of my family first on the day my son burst into tears when I reflexively put his train set away before he finished playing with it. I sat on the floor with him as he cried, looking from his sad, red face to the box of neatly arranged train tracks and back again. I was mortified, and vowed to do better.

It has been a struggle of epic proportion, but today when the floor of my office is littered with wooden blocks, stuffed pigs, and bright yellow school buses, I make an effort to step over them rather than tossing them into a bin. I try to allow anything at all to happen in my son’s room over the course of a day, but things still must be put away at bedtime.

But I also heed the patterns of the past. Every couple of days I move through our house the way my mother did when I was a child. I straighten stacks, reposition pillows, and put fresh flowers on my desk. I bring everything that is out of place, back into alignment. My son watches closely, and I know I am passing on the family tradition.

Yesterday morning he woke up full of energy. “Mommy wake up!” he yelled. “We have to make my bed!” I laughed and pulled him over for a kiss and a tickle. I was elated. My sweet boy wanted to bring order to chaos. He wanted, instinctively, to smooth the ruffled covers before he started the day.

His great-grandparents would be proud.



Comment #1 by Anonymous on December 9, 2008 - 9:15pm

love it!

Comment #2 by Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau on December 28, 2008 - 11:48pm
Hi Rebecca- I loved the article and mentioned it as part of my blog posting today. Here's the posting: I hope you are well! Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau
Comment #3 by Stephanie Klein on February 9, 2009 - 10:51pm

Great article!

It takes a lot of courage to re-envision a legacy, especially one as fundamental and experiential as how we relate to our space.

Thanks for sharing your struggles, hope and success!

Stephanie Klein
Professional Organizer & Style Consultant

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