When my mother came to visit my family recently, I knew more or less what to expect.
She stepped through the front door and my kids recast themselves as rubber balls, ricocheting off walls, toilet seats and each other. They showed off, demonstrating their mastery of jazz hands (who knew?), assembling campy outfits from the Goodwill pile and performing circus tricks dreamed up in front of the bathroom mirror.
Was their behavior, I wondered, any indication of how little attention I had been paying them recently?
Nah, I thought at first. My kids were just excited to have a visitor. But I had been busier and more distracted than usual, and with my mother in the house, something shifted for all of us. I found myself feeling annoyed — rattled, bossy and out of control, like a zookeeper trying to corral a squad of monkeys. My children, it seemed, had endorsed a new leader without adjourning my reign.
With my mother around, I began to notice that my home life had swung toward chaos. Memory game cards were scattered on the floor. In the living room, a toppled pillow fort lay in ruins. Most foul was the inside of my fridge, which looked like a holding cell for an outdoor compost pile.
Sometimes, it takes another person’s presence and perspective to see what’s actually going on in your family.
“Can I make a suggestion?” my mother asked after she’d been observing us for a few days. I imagined that she’d been making notes on her iPad during that time, duly harpooning my housekeeping skills (she hadn’t).
“Okay,” I said, breathing in deeply as my 4-year-old charged at his older siblings with a foam roller that he had repurposed as a battering ram.
My mother had spent an hour folding my family’s laundry, so she reported her findings: a trio of socks, leggings and underwear that my daughter had shed directly into the laundry hamper like a snakeskin. A pair of my son’s knee-high socks, tied together and fashioned into a slingshot, which he may have used to launch superhero figures across the kitchen table.
“Don’t spend any time turning their clothes right-side-out,” she advised, “Make them do that themselves. Just fold the clothes exactly the way they come out of the dryer.”
That seemed manageable — a way to start small when I was obviously overwhelmed. Why hadn’t I already mastered these tricks for spreading responsibility among an entire family? Maybe I was afraid that by putting any more thought into the folding situation, I would resent my role as primary laundry boss even more than I already did.
I have a friend who doesn’t even bother with folding laundry — she and her husband leave clean clothes in a warm pile on the floor and everyone retrieves their items, returning them to closets and drawers, folded or not. That spells textile anarchy to me, but my mother’s suggestion was spot on — it saved me oodles of time.
Soon, I scanned the house for other things my kids could be doing to help out, such as putting their dirty dishes in the dishwasher (not just the sink) and cleaning up toys and arts and crafts supplies before being rewarded with screen time. These were obvious chores kids can and should help with, but I hadn’t yet mandated them consistently.
Completing tasks together makes me feel better, even if my kids aren’t particularly helpful. Perhaps it is giving kids the sense of responsibility that is most important in the long run anyway: When you’re building a tower, it’s easier to stack small blocks one after the other than it is to construct the whole thing at once.
Like other, more organized friends I have, I finally made two separate lists and posted them to the wall: The kids and I would each be accountable for what must happen in the morning before playtime (get dressed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, etc.), and again for what must be accomplished after school (homework, piano practice, lunchboxes unpacked, etc.), before any of us could unwind.
I’m not going to lie — sometimes, giving kids responsibility seems like the worst idea, even if it’s the right one. My 4-year-old uses the bathroom by himself, but he refuses to touch the toilet seat. Instead, he bundles his hands in toilet paper like mummy wrappings — and when he’s finished, he discards them into the U-bend. It causes a real jam, I’ve learned, that can be remedied only by an adult with kitchen tongs. Still, either with age or because he’ll start a plumbing geyser that he takes in the eye, he will learn.
When my mom left our house for the airport, she looked back over her shoulder and issued a reminder.
“Do NOT fold their underwear,” she said, aiming her finger at me.
I nodded dutifully, knowing that the moment she left, I would become a better, more patient mom. It always happens that way. Maybe, I thought as my kids bounced on my toes and flailed their goodbyes from the front steps, I could write my mother back in as my leader, too — just this once.
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