I awake with a start. Why do I feel like there is something I should be doing?
Hazy memories whirl around my consciousness. A late night trying to make a deadline. Piles of dishes in the kitchen sink. A load of towels in the washing machine. Remnants of challah dough clinging to the countertop.
I gasp. “EVERYONE! OUT OF BED! NOW!”
My husband pokes his head into the bedroom, tallis bag tucked under his arm. “Is there a fire? What’s the emergency?”
Breathlessly, I reach for the negel vasser cup. “We have to clean the house. Fast.”
“Now? You have an hour to get the kids off to school and yourself off to work.”
“I know. That’s why we need to get moving. STAT.”
My husband glances at his watch. “Won’t the cleaning woman be here in an hour?”
My husband stares glumly at the freshly brewed coffee in his hand, the heat escaping through his fingers with each passing second. “I do not understand.”
I take a deep breath. “If Stella walks in and sees this wreck, she will be out the door before we can say ‘Windex.’ And that is a chance I cannot afford to take.”
My husband sighs. “Sometimes I wonder who is working for whom.”
It’s a fair question. But who has time to answer it when the floors need to be swept?
As a working mother, I haven’t yet figured out how to get enough sleep to function properly and to get around to ironing the Shabbos shirts. Stella has been a gift sent from shamayim: a pleasant, soft-spoken woman who comes twice a week for a few magical hours to tend to the many tasks that don’t fit on my docket. And for her to stick around, she can’t be reminded that she’s working too hard.
It’s hard to wrap my head around my dependence on this woman. Why am I so much calmer when my house is clean and uncluttered? Why does a mess – well – mess with my mind so much?
My old friends who are reading this are either incredulous or having a good laugh. They know the truth: as a kid, I was NEVER the neat one. My knapsack was the one with crumpled papers at the bottom, and I was down to my last pencil before the first month of school had passed. There wasn’t a day when my mother didn’t send me off to clean up my room as soon as I came home from school, and more often than not, I fulfilled that request by hiding as many things as I could under my dust ruffle and calling it a day (Sorry, Ma).
My mother was the type who wouldn’t go to sleep if there were dishes in the sink. I laughed off her criticisms. Still, deep down, I knew that my messes disappointed her. Maybe that’s why, now that I am a mother and a homemaker myself, I have come to equate neatness with success.
If you stop by my house and the playroom is immaculate, with each toy in the right drawer, I’ll probably welcome you with a smile. But if you stop by my house and the kitchen is a disaster area, I will likely offer you a million and one excuses for why I haven’t had a chance to get to that mess and usher you out the door as quickly as I can without being rude.
And it isn’t only your judgment I fear. Chas v’sholom if my cleaning HELP actually sees that I need her HELP to keep all my ducks in a row………
I know this is absurd. Today, I will be heading off to work like a wrung-out shmatte because I spent the early morning hours cleaning up to impress Stella. But I still sigh with relief when things look semi-spotless when she shows up.
When the house is clean, I can reflect and recognize that my sense of panic only reinforces for my children what has been so hard for me: They too will see messes as symptoms of failure and cleanliness as a stamp of success. And I don’t want that. I hate the way it makes me feel, and I want better for my children. Yes, I want my kids to know that seder is important, that keeping things neat and organized will help them tackle the many tasks and responsibilities that will crop up in their day. But I also want them to know that the clutter of life is inevitable. That a mess is not a barometer of either success or failure – it is merely a sign that life is being lived.
After the morning I just had, I realize that before I can teach that to my kids, I need to believe it for myself. That’s not an easy task, but that’s a job far more valuable than jumping out of bed to make sure my house is tidy enough for my cleaning help.
I guess Stella and I both have our work cut out for us today.