He walks in to a mess.
I'm working on laundry. I've already folded and put away four loads, and now the final basket waits for me on the couch, beside a heap of clothes needing hangers. The kids opened a box from their grandma this afternoon; paper and new outfits for each of them litter the opposing couch. Breakfast dishes sit heaped to one side of the kitchen counter, Legos and empty plastic eggs are strewn on the floor. All of us have been busy with other projects today, and it shows.
"How was your day?" he steps over Legos to get a glass of water.
"It was great," I say. I tell him about conquering most of the laundry and playing in the sunshine, about the writing and the research I finished this afternoon. Neighborhood children trail through the mess toward the backyard to join the crowd on the trampoline. We talk for a few more minutes before he asks, "What do you want to do for dinner?"
I laugh. Usually I already know the answer, but not today. The baby needs diapers anyway, so I tell him I'll run up to the store. As I dig for my purse in the mess, he says, "It sounds like you've had a productive day."
"I have," I say. Then I look at our disheveled living areas. "Thank you for letting me decide what 'productive' means."
As I drive toward the store, I think about how much I appreciate that freedom.
I love spending my days with my four small children (most of the time). I love homeschooling the older two, I love writing during the margin hours, I love time to play with my kids. But I also love order and predictability, empty counters to greet each new day, a finished product to show for my work. I am constantly walking in this tension, balancing a very real need for order with the equally important need for time. Finding a balance between the two - when there are no performance reviews, when it's only me and the kids day after day, when the days are always mine to define and manage - has been the hardest part of staying home with young children.
For years, if there were Legos on the floor in the afternoon, I thought I'd failed that day. I would say things like, "I don't know where the day went!" or "I didn't get anything done today!" As though a clean floor were the only measure of success, the only goal worth pursuing.
My husband has widened my view of success. We are always trading time for something else, he says. Time for money, time for relationships. What do you value? What is most important to you? Trade time for those things, he says. Fit the rest in where you can.
It has taken me years to internalize his approach. My image of a good mom includes a house that is always tidy, and that ideal runs much deeper than I would have ever guessed. When I think about his questions, the answers are clear. I value connections- the connection between me and my kids, me and my husband, me and my friends, me and you. I want to choose relationships over tasks. I want to spend my days just like this one, outside in the mornings, creating in the afternoons.
But when I create order I am also nurturing my relationships. One of the ways I show my family I love them is by providing a clean place to sleep and reliable food on the table. They crave order too, and I love them well when I make their world predictable and comfortable.
So maybe the answer is not choosing one over the other. Maybe the answer is in living in the tension.
I can't deny the importance of a clean space in our lives. Nor can I deny that days spent playing and creating are important too. Maybe the answer is to see both as a success.
Back home, I clean the kitchen before making dinner. My husband plays on the trampoline with the kids for a while, then comes back in to the kitchen. "I am not sure how to help you," he says. "I can help with the house or I can help with the kids, but I can't do both. I don't want to leave you with it all the time." Since his accident, he has to prioritize how to use his energy.
I grin as I offer back his own advice. "Choose relationships," I say. "I'd rather see you play with the kids any day. We'll fit the rest in where we can."
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