“MOM! I was getting something out of the refrigerator and the couscous fell out and the top fell off of the container, and it went all over the floor! Can you help me?”
I rolled my eyes. This was the second interruption I’d had while at my desk. I told everyone at noon that I was going to be reading blogs today. It was 7:30 pm. I just sat down to read thirty minutes before.
My immediate response was to help. Of course I would help. Couscous is hard to clean up. I envisioned the mess, little congealed balls of pasta exploding as they hit the tile, tiny bits rolling under the oven, the fridge, everything. They smear when you wipe them up. What a mess.
But then – she’s ten, almost eleven. She knows how to wield a paper towel. She can do this.
“No. You can do it.”
“But MOM! It’s all over! It will take me forever!”
“It won’t take forever. But it might take some time to do it right. Get the paper towels. You can do it.”
I heard the stomping, the muttering. I went back to reading blogs. I expected the guilt to follow, imagined its tentacles squeezing my conscience. I’m a MOM. My job is to help my children thrive, grow, succeed.
No. Cleaning up a mess for her, at the very least supervising her while she does it, won’t help her in any of those things.
The guilt never came.
Maybe it was the week I had. I had juggled all the balls unaided, deflected chaos, managed daily schedules, and solved problems. I tackled large projects. I threw a birthday party sleepover. I was going to sit still and read some blogs, darn it all.
Or maybe it is because I’ve spent so much time wallowing in mom guilt that I’m over it. I can’t still allow myself to feel badly for all the things I don’t do for my family – my weary soul can’t take it anymore. I’m breaking free from being everything for everybody. After years of preaching it to others but not always believing it myself, it’s time to take my own advice. Don’t feel bad for not doing it all.
It’s easier now that they are older. That I am older – I literally can’t do everything. Things are more of an effort these days – I’ve decelerated as they have become more capable. We’re trading places, slowly.
I make a mental list of all the things I recently no longer felt badly about: Not making dinner, cleaning, or washing that one shirt that was found under the bed after I did the laundry. Watching my own TV shows, reading for hours, going out with friends. If they haven’t dressed appropriately for the weather – hello, it’s 45 degrees outside, shorts are for summer. Saying no, I won’t help you find your iPod, notebook, permission slip, phone, shoes, hat, hoodie, book, headphones.
And saying no, I won’t help you clean up that mess.
In grad school, I was rushing around in my apartment to get to class on time. I had a long, busy day planned, and in my haste to grab something out of the fridge for lunch, I knocked over a pot of soup, spilling it on the floor. I couldn’t be late, so I cleaned up what I could but had to leave most of the mess for later. I spent the whole day thinking about what waited for me when I got home. After that, I learned to take my time in the fridge.
That lesson was a valuable one. Although small, it shaped me in a big way. It taught me to take my time, that lack of physical deftness was a real obstacle. What this meant for others, for me. I found out that I was meant to be more deliberate.
I don’t know what lesson my kids will learn from having to clean up a mess in the kitchen, other than to be careful. I don’t know what else they will learn from suffering through a chilly day with only half of their bodies covered other than to dress appropriately for the weather. Maybe they will learn common sense, basic skills, self-sufficiency. Maybe they will learn something more about themselves.
As for me, I’m learning not to feel bad for letting them learn these things. I’m learning to be nicer to myself.
It is a good lesson.