Confessions of a reformed neatnik: How my kids taught me to release my inner slob

Click here to view the full magazine article

by Carol Schiller

As a student at Barnard College in New York City, I shared quarters with a variety of women over the course of four years, and with few exceptions, I was the neatest. I despaired at the tower of dirty dishes in the communal sink and gagged at the state of the bathroom. But in my own little space everything was tidy: My homework was laid out in straight, organized piles (even when I wasn't doing it); I kept a daily calendar with assignments, activities and a carefully- dated To Do list; and my clothes were neatly folded and put away. Such fastidiousness was not unheard of, but it was less than typical.

By graduation I longed for a place of my own, and when I eventually got it I kept it spotless. The first piece of furniture I ever bought was a couch covered in an intricately textured white fabric and I disdained to buy a coffee table because I preferred the spare, open feel of the otherwise small living room without it. All visible surfaces gleamed, and each cabinet and dresser drawer was a glory of organization. If I died in a plane crash, a complete stranger could have sat down at my desk, gone through my neatly labeled and alphabetized filing cabinet and sorted through my papers in short order.

My freshman-year roommate, with whom I am still the closest of friends, was and is as sloppy as I am neat, and I always marveled at the chaotic state of her place. "How can you live like this?" I admonished, as I set to work plowing through her years of scattered receipts and paperwork piles, stuffing who-knows-what off her floor into garbage bags.

After my first daughter was born I started to get my comeuppance. There was an onslaught of new items in the house that refused to blend in and defied clean up. I loved that Baby Bjorn, but somehow it was always draped over the back of the couch. There were exersaucers, bouncy chairs, bassinets and more l all seemingly large and in charge of my ever-smaller living room, not to mention burp cloths placed strategically on the corners of couches, and a large, unruly stroller parked right in the front hall now cluttered with car seats and diaper bags.

Still, I had only one child; little did I know that the descent into disarray had only just begun. As our family grew from three to four and then five members, the newborn paraphernalia kept reappearing, while the older-kid clutter expanded and grew like the blueberry bubble gum girl in Willy Wonka.

It took me a while to catch on to what was happening, so vainly I fought it: I switched from reading the New Yorker and the Times to perusing catalogs for The Container Store and Storables. I bought matching plastic bins and labeled them with markers: "Balls and Bouncy Things", "Stuffed Animals" and "ABCs and 123s". I bought a three-drawer organizer and fantasized that in one would be crayons, another only markers and in the third colored pencils.

My college roommate came over, took one look at my labeled bins and laughed her head off.

"What?" I asked, feeling a little concerned.

"You're labeling their toy bins?" she chuckled.

"Yes." I replied defensively. "So it will be all organized and we'll know where everything is."

"Are you crazy?" she laughed. "Just throw everything in!"

I couldn't. Instead, I stayed up late sorting and reordering, putting pencils with pencils and markers with markers, before turning to the dishes to load and unload, the laundry to fold and put away, the now-sticky tables, floors and chairs to wipe. I still didn't get it.

By the time I was pregnant with my third I was still battling in my mind, but the war was nearly lost. At six months along I could no longer bend down comfortably enough to put on my shoes let alone rearrange the toys. If I was too tired to finish folding the laundry, I moved it off the bed and promised myself I'd do it first thing in the morning. I was still holding on, but in spirit not practice.

The white couch I bought as a singleton fifteen years ago has now been lovingly transformed by ickified little hands and feet, "decorated" with Sharpie, and spends weeks on end as the key component in an impressive fort. Indeed, my house is now a near-perfect cross between my old college dorm and a playpen. And I won't even talk about my once-pristine car, which today, of course, is actually a minivan.

These days I try to ignore the hot pink Barbie toothpaste trail in the sink and the jumble of toys at the bottom of the tub. I don't even question why there are colored pebbles, bits of old necklace and hair clips in the small kitchen bowl where I keep the car keys. If everyone's happy, fed and most importantly, alive at the end of the day, I did my job. Throw in a few books read, a spin around the block on bicycles and the homework mostly complete and I'm practically a rock star. It's all good, as people around here like to say, and mostly it is. Yet somewhere I'm sure my inner neatnik remains -- dormant, waiting, watching for the moment the kids are grown and I will have only the reacquired neatness of my house to console me when they have all moved on.

It was only once my son was born that the jig was completely up.

While I nursed, the girls entertained themselves making drawings.

"Look mommy!" they delighted as they pointed to the graffitti on the walls, furniture and, more than once, the living room lampshades.

"Thank you girls," I replied through the half-sleep half-waking state of the fourth trimester,

"but next time could you please use some paper?"

"But we couldn't find any!" they exclaimed.

"Well maybe that's because you didn't put it back in the drawer that's marked 'Paper'." I murmured.

Carol Schiller is a full time mom to three children ages 8, 5 and 22 months. She is also the founder and President of Baby Chaleco, a baby bib company based in Bellevue, WA.

Return to April 2008 list of articles