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Monkey See, Monkey Don’t

Once upon a time, there was a family of monkeys. Most of the other monkeys lived in trees, but this family lived in a deep hole in the ground. The baby monkeys were always dirty. They looked at the monkeys in the trees wistfully, wishing they could have the fresh fruit from the tree tops. Instead, in the pit, food was scarce and they often found themselves eating whatever rotten fruit remained. The peelings of the fruit remained scattered throughout the pit, and the whole region was infested with bugs and filled with their filth.

The young monkeys knew things weren’t right here, but it was all they’d ever known, and climbing out of the pit was so hard. Even worse, they were regularly made to believe that life in the pit was all they deserved. There were too many baby monkeys, they were told. If there weren’t so many of them, THEN the adult monkeys could make a real home for them up above. If the baby monkeys just worked a little harder, tried a little more to clean the pit up (without the grown-up monkeys ever helping or teaching them how) THEN the pit would be as good as the trees. But the baby monkeys didn’t know how and the grown-up monkeys only talked about the what-ifs. The talk changed nothing.

Eventually, though, as the young monkeys grew older and saw how good life was for the monkeys living up in the trees, they decided life in the pit wasn’t for them after all. They each started to climb, a little at a time. They reached small ledges along the walls of the pit, gradually working their way higher and higher. They climbed at different rates, but called out to one another, helping each other as they could. Some monkey friends from the trees reached out and helped them each as well, but when it came to it, they had to each climb their own way out of the pit.

One by one, they each made it to the ground. They scattered, some to enjoy life at this new height, others to try to find a way into the trees from there. One little monkey lay panting on the ground, contemplating the trees, wanting desperately to join them. But it had taken so much strength just to get to the ground.

So she looked back at the pit. It was not a wistful look, not a nostalgic look, but simply a contemplative one. Sometimes she still believed that was where she was supposed to be, the only place she was fit for – that the trees were no place for the likes of her. But when she looked at how deep the bottom of the pit was, she was proud of how far she’d come.

Then she heard voices from above. “What are you doing down there?” “Why are you on the ground?” “That’s too low. That’s no fit place for a monkey.”

She glanced down into the pit again. Then she picked up a fallen piece of fruit nearby, for energy. It was so fresh! Freshly fallen, and so much better than the rotting fruit and slimy bugs of the pit! Nourished, she reached out and slowly, carefully, flexing muscles she’d never used in her life, started to pull herself up to the lowest branch of the nearest tree.

It wasn’t easy. She had never been in a tree before. All her climbing experience was based on scaling the lumpy walls of the disgusting pit. She was so proud of herself for reaching the ground! But the monkeys in the treetops weren’t. All they saw was that she was too far down still.

Some bark managed to work its way between her mangy fur and scratch at her. Her fingers and muscles ached from the effort. But finally, eventually, she made it to the lowest branch. She collapsed on it, exhausted.

“What are you doing?” the voices from above called again. “Why are you all the way down there? Don’t stop!”

“It’s so hard,” she called back, nearly a whisper. “Don’t you understand? I’ve climbed so far.”

“No, that’s not far, that’s still down at the ground! Monkeys aren’t made to be at the ground, they’re made to be in the treetops!”

“I know, but they’re just so far away.”

“Oh, don’t be silly! It’s easy to get up here! I’ve been doing it my whole life!”

“But I got scratched up.”

“That’s because your fur is separated. You should’ve groomed first. Why haven’t you groomed?”

But she didn’t know how. A tear rolled down her cheek as she looked back, toward the pit, wondering why it was so hard to go so far. The other monkeys seemed to think the treetops were so easy to reach! Maybe she really wasn’t made for the trees. Maybe she didn’t deserve them after all.

Then another voice, much closer, called out to her. “Please don’t worry, sister. They don’t understand. They’ve never been in the pit, and to them this is still too near ground, too near the mud and the filth. They don’t know how hard climbing is when you didn’t spend your whole life already doing it. But don’t worry, your muscles will grow and you’ll be able to climb higher.”

She smiled. And she rested where she needed to, passing the time by studying grooming techniques or contemplating the branches above and considering how to get to them. Other monkeys may already know these things, almost instinctively, but she didn’t. She had to learn.

Maybe the monkeys in the top branches couldn’t understand, but she was glad to have someone who knew that what looked like bottom to them, wasn’t the bottom at all. They just couldn’t know how far she had already come.

Small, Manageable Tasks

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted! I actually regularly “write” new posts in my mind, but time gets away from me and they don’t always make it into actual writing.

But lately I’ve been rather overwhelmed trying to get my new house organized. I try to break it down to smaller things to organize, but sometimes it’s all I can do to make sure that my floors, dishes, and laundry are clean. That’s what’s primarily required for my children to have a better house than I grew up in, and sometimes that’s almost too much, too overwhelming for me. But essential, of course.

So I made a little stick figure picture of what it feels like when people advise me to break things down into smaller tasks. I imagine the person on the left is what those smaller tasks must feel like to them, and thus their advice comes from a good and reasonable place. The person on the right is what many tasks (especially organizing and getting rid of things–in the sense of still being afraid of the consequences of getting rid of something someone else wants to keep or thinks we should have kept, even though I know consciously that it’s my choice now not theirs) feel like to me even after being broken down.


It’s so easy to be so judgmental. I do it. I know other people do it too.

Contrary to what our culture often seems to say, judgments aren’t always a bad thing. You have to use good judgment to determine whether a place is safe to be, whether you need to get out of a bad relationship, whether someone is trying to scam you. Sometimes there’s a fine line between using good judgment to avoid a bad situation, or just being judgmental in a racist way, in a sexist way, in a generally profiling way, or whatever else.

But right now I’m talking about the latter kind of judgments–the ones that are making assumptions about other people.

See, I see pictures like this:

No Job refrigerator vs. Middle Class refrigerator

or this:

iPad, smart phone, and food stamps

and it makes my blood boil. (Figuratively, of course.)

I actually tend to be fairly conservative, politically speaking. But generalizations that becomes stereotypes really bother me.

See, we have very little money. We do have some government assistance. We have as little as we can help having, but we have some. We could probably have more if we sought it, but we won’t do that because our goal is to get off assistance, not to acquire more of it.

But we also have a smartphone. Why? Because my husband needs it for his job. And I’m getting a tablet. Why? Because one tablet is cheaper than the cost to fix or reasonably replace my laptop–especially since we found it with deals.

We also use our food-oriented government assistance toward buying things that are as healthful as we can get. We budget it throughout the month, and yes, occasionally we splurge and get some ice cream or something. And what assistance we get is in addition to, not instead of, income through a job.

I know people who have EBT and are very smart shoppers who buy designer labels second-hand or at steep discounts. I know people who are on WIC and qualify for state-sponsored health insurance and yet have very nice manicures and pedicures and stylish haircuts–ones that they’ve done themselves or their friends have done for them. Or ones they gotten at heavy discounts because they were willing to go to a beauty school and let the students practice on them.

I have also known people who are on EBT or WIC or state health insurance who do not manage these things well and, yes, maybe spend a lot of money on junk. And I’ve known people who do not qualify for any such things but use their money poorly, wasting it on every new gadget or whatever other whim they might have and then not having money to pay their bills.

Growing up, we didn’t qualify for EBT. We didn’t have state health insurance. We were far from rich, but we had a lot more money than I thought we had. Our cupboards and fridge sometimes looked like the left side of the first meme, and sometimes closer to the right side. I think I’ve written about that before, but it’s not really my point today. My point is that there are a lot of different possibilities–those who have more money but use it so poorly they might as well not; those who have more money deprive themselves even of things that others would consider needs, to the extent that they might as well not even have money; those who have very little money but use it so frugally that they can, through discounts and second-hand shopping and such, they don’t appear to not have money; and those who have very little money and happily live on the provisions of others, misusing government assistance that’s provided by the tax money of others and writing it off with a watch-out-for-number-one, “Hey, it’s there, I might as well use it” type attitude.

All I’m saying is, sometimes we get a really good deal on something that seems way too expensive for us, and I’m afraid to even tell people. I see so many memes in my Facebook newsfeed like the ones I posted above that, after a lifetime of feeling the need to keep a “perfect” appearance to homelife that has translated into my current homelife despite being significantly better than how I grew up, I fear being judged by people who care more about the appearance that we’ve overspent than about the explanation of how we didn’t.

Which boils down to this: I fear being judged. Why? I don’t know. It shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter what other people think. But, particularly in matters of finances and housekeeping, I’m extremely sensitive to what others think. I want them to see me as fully capable and responsible. More than that, as I said, I spent all my growing-up years trying to put on a good face and make things look like they were better than they were. But the fact is, if you have nothing and look like you have nothing, people will judge you for having nothing. If you have nothing and look like you have a lot, people will judge you for looking like you have a lot. If you, in fact, DO have a lot, people will judge you for having a lot.

People will judge you no matter what. So my three goals right now are these:
1. Be open and honest so people can see that what I have isn’t necessarily the result of misspending.
2. Don’t care how people judge me as long as I know I’ve done my best to be responsible and to be honest.
3. Don’t judge others in the way I don’t like to be judged.


A Job Doing . . . What?

Talked to my mother on the phone yesterday. Somewhere in there, she threw in, “Oh, by the way, pray for me, I have a job interview Monday.”

“Where, doing what?”

“Well, you know the person who comes to visit your sister and help her out…”

And then my mind was blown.

See, my sister and my brother–the two who still live near my parents–have continued struggles with hoarding. Well, I think we all do in one way or another. But that particular sister, even when utterly disgusted by my parents’ house, has essentially admitted that she doesn’t care if her house is a level 1 or level 2 hoarding house, but she freaks out and cleans furiously if it gets to a level 3. Now, to me, I don’t want my house to class as a hoarding house at all. A level 1 barely classes, but a level 2? No. Not okay to me. (For more about hoarding levels, see here.)

But that same brother and sister have each done something with their own homes that my parents never did: they sought help. They have people from a particular organization come help them with . . . organization. (Why are those the same word? That’s confusing.) These visitors (different visitors for each sibling, I believe) help them get rid of things they don’t need to keep. They help them generally have a better house than we grew up in.

And this is the job my mother wants and has an interview for tomorrow.

Say what?

But in me there’s a person who always wants to believe the best of everyone when it’s at all possible. A person who firmly believes people can change, and that said change is only made more difficult by others assuming that the person won’t change and treating them as though they haven’t changed even when they have.

And there’s this personal scenario that keeps running back through my brain. See, a couple years ago when we lived with a friend, I hadn’t even wanted to move in with him because, while I was trying hard to learn how to keep a house better, I wasn’t there yet. (I’m still not 100% there yet, but way closer.) But he was my husband’s friend, my husband discussed this with him and he said he didn’t care, and he really needed roommates to help with rent until he got married. So we moved in.

I tried. I tried very hard. And I grew, and I learned. But I still look back on that year (slightly less, actually) with guilt and shame. For one thing, whenever I wasn’t there yet for whatever reason–depression hitting again and I just didn’t care, or I really was trying but was still in the learning curve of how to manage the various things, or whatever else–it wasn’t just our friend who was affected. His fiancee frequently came to visit. His parents occasionally came. And of course we had our own visitors as well, but at least we knew when they were coming. I felt awful when our friend had visitors. I wanted so much to explain to them–even just to explain to him–that I knew this wasn’t a good way for the house to be, that I was trying really hard to not keep it that way but it was so unnatural for me and I’d never been taught how to, that I really was growing and changing and getting better at keeping up with the house but it took such a long time that it was hard to see unless you’d known me for a couple of years.

He was a very easy-going guy. He really never seemed to mind. But I’m fairly certain his fiancee did. And I know for a fact that at least two other friends of ours did–one of whom essentially cut off our friendship for many reasons, but a starting point to the ending conversation was pertaining to the cleanliness of the house, how we’d packed and cleaned while moving, etc. In other words, how the house was while we were there (living in most of the house, with our friend actually living mostly in his room) was affecting, not just us, not just our friend, but many other people as well.

And I have this recurring fear that one of those people affected by that will come to our current home and see that I’ve improved even more, and rather than rejoicing with me over how much more I’ve learned about keeping a clean house and encouraging me as I continue to learn, that they might instead say (or at least think), “Why couldn’t she do this twgo years ago? Why was that house so messy and now she’s actually taking responsibility?”

It’s something similar to various other things I’ve experienced. About correcting the grammar of others, about interrupting people, or in my brother’s case, about irresponsibility. I’ve realized that no matter how you work to change these things, a lot of people will continue to treat you as though that’s who you still are. No matter how many years you’ve been making a point of, say, not correcting the grammar of others, some people will still treat you like you do it every time anyone else speaks.

And that’s what I do NOT want to do to my mother. For one thing, my father is really the hoarder. My mother acquires the traits of those she’s around, absorbs those traits as long as she’s around those people. Therefore, with over 30 years of marriage behind them, she’s absorbed certain of my father’s traits, including the tendency toward hoarding. But left entirely to her own devices, she’s not naturally a hoarder. She’s not much of a housekeeper either, but she can do some things.

But the other thing is, their current apartment, as of the last time I was there (admittedly a couple months ago), was actually being kept in a fairly reasonable state. I mean, my husband is still allergic to it because of mold spores long-since settled into the furniture. My mother spoke of needing to sweep the floor as though it was a rare occurrence that needed doing only because my son got popcorn on the floor, even though I (who hate shoes) refused to walk barefoot in there because the floor was so gross. And I am fully aware that they have about half a houseful of useless stuff packed away in storage somewhere. Boxes of papers they don’t need and such. But still, there weren’t other things on the floor. There was miraculously no cat mess. There were actual floors, not just narrow pathways through large rooms. The dishes, though still not what I would consider well washed, were at least washed and put away.

No, my mother never taught me how to clean or organize. But then, she was working full time and the only driver in the family, and I was only one of five children. My father was home with us full time. The responsibility for teaching us should have fallen to him.

And no, my mother never kept a very clean house. But again, she was working full time. At least some of that responsibility should have fallen to my father.

I have never felt any real connection with my mother. Never in my entire memory, and I have memories from when I was about 18 months. But I’m realizing more and more how much should have been my father’s responsibility that, whether due to physical health or mental health or just his own laziness (and I’m convinced it was a combination of all three), he did not take responsibility for. So right now, I’m just holding out hope that my mother sees how she failed us growing up (not entirely of her own doing), and she wants this job to help others avoid the life that we had. Well, at least the physical household. The yelling and blaming and neglect are something she can’t fix by helping others get organized, but maybe she hopes to at least teach others what she failed to teach her children.

But I have to admit, as much as I hope that’s true, I’m much more inclined to believe that it is as my sister said: “She wins at denial.”

Just a Story

The following is just a story. A true story. But not one with any significant point. And yet I feel there is some significance to it, and the conversations have been rolling around in my head for days. So I thought I’d post it here in the hopes of maybe figuring out (maybe not today, but eventually) what the significance in my head is.

My mother was here to visit the other day.

“Can I do some dishes for you?”

“Um, if you want to. You don’t have to.”

“Well, I just figured it’s something I could do to help you out.”

I appreciated that. So she did some dishes for me. Filled the dish drainer (I probably could have fit more in there, but she filled it about as much as my husband usually does, so I guess I kind of overstuff it) and then said, “It would drive me nuts to have such a small dish drainer.”

“Well, they didn’t have any bigger ones at Walmart.”

“Yeah, but what did I always have?” That’s her teacher rhetoric coming out. Or maybe just the way she talks. I don’t know, she started teaching before I was born so I have nothing to compare it to.

“Um . . . a bigger one?”

“No, I always had two, one that I kept next to the sink and one that I kept in one side of the sink. I don’t have it anymore because–well, frankly, because I don’t need it anymore. But that’s what I always had.”

“Seriously? Always? I don’t remember that.”

“Well, since you were 6 or 7 anyway.”

I have no memory of this. None. I remember dirty dishes in both sides of the sink, all over the counter, and on the floor. I do not remember even being introduced to the idea of a dish drainer in one side of the sink until I was out of college and living in an apartment attached to a friend’s house. That friend keeps a dish drainer in the sink rather than on the counter to the side. I thought it was a cool idea when I saw that she does it that way, since it keeps more counter space, but when I tested it out in my own life I didn’t like doing dishes that way. But that is honestly the first memory I have of a dish drainer in a sink instead of next to it.

So I asked my oldest sister. The real irony here being that she and I have had many conversations about how much I remember vs. how little she remembers. But she remembers two dish drainers. She also remembers the sink being so piled with dishes that the second drainer couldn’t be seen, so that second drainer was kind of useless anyway. But she remembers. I have no memory of it.

Later, after my mom had left, I started putting away the dishes she had piled in the empty side of the sink. I’ve considered getting a second dish drainer for that side of the sink, in case there are a lot of dishes to do and I need the extra space. But when that happens, I usually either spread a towel on the table, or I sanitize the other side of the sink and just put the clean dishes in there. And now my toddler likes to stand on a stool at that side of the sink with a dish pan of clean water to rinse dishes in after I’ve washed them, so it’s even less likely that a second drainer would get used.

But as I was examining dishes (about half of which went back to be rewashed–I will never understand how my mother can miss so many spots of food and grease) I thought about this again, wondered if she had sanitized that side of the sink (or even given it a quick wash with dish soap) before piling [relatively] clean dishes in it . . . and found myself thinking that maybe a second dish drainer could be useful after all. (And all dishes that were actually touching the sink went to be washed again.)

More Than the Diagnosis

“Wow, you’re a bit OCD, huh?”

No. I am not OCD. Any more than I “am” PTSD. How can one BE a disorder? I have OCD, PTSD, and dysthymic disorder. They affect who I am, but do not define me.

So I’ve been thinking about a few other, similar things lately. I often say my parents are hoarders. Particularly my father–I’m fairly well convinced that my mother hoards by association wit h my father and her tendency to pick up what those around her do, rather than any personal inclination.

Now, looking at this logically and realistically, since they’ve never admitted it or done much about it, they sort of do let it define them. They have not chosen to rise above it, to be more than it. But at the same time, they are more than hoarders–in both positive and negative ways, but more, at any rate.

So I’m going to try to start saying that my parents have Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, rather than that they are hoarders. At least my father does. My mother . . . well, again, it’s a little up in the air whether she has it or whether she’s just absorbing the behavior of my father. But they both certainly have depression (that they see in each other but won’t acknowledge in themselves so they don’t seek help for it) and that’s another way I need to change my terminology. They have depression.

Because, for my own sake, for my own healing, no matter how much I think I may have forgiven them for various things, I don’t think I really have if I continue to define them by their disorders, conditions, etc. I don’t want to be defined by the conditions I have, and I don’t want to define other people by the conditions they have either.

So I am me, and they are them. And these conditions and disorders and such? They’re things we have to choose to deal with, each individually. But they are not who we are.

I would like to offer a disclaimer at the beginning of this: I do NOT believe that being a COH is equivalent to being a slave or to major child abuse. That is to say, it could be equivalent, but it all varies case by case. My case was what I consider “boarderline abuse.” That is to say, I would be reluctant to call it abuse, but it was pretty stinkin’ close. Technically, I think it classes as emotional abuse and neglect, but I still have a hard time calling it that. At any rate, it certainly isn’t the same thing as, say, Dave in A Child Called It, or an abused prisoner of war. Chains of the past that are hard to be released from vary in origin, strength, and even in their effect on various people depending on their personalities and how they react to circumstances. But the extreme chains of one doesn’t negate the lesser-but-still-present chains of another.

For various reasons (mostly related to sci-fi–yeah, that’s my brain) I started thinking about slavery earlier. I was thinking of Teal’c from Stargate: SG-1, who was born into a slave race and fought to escape that slavery, then fought against the slavers to free the rest of his people. Yet it took him a very very long time to trust his new friends he was fighting with, and even well into the series he had a hard time asking for help with personal matters, even though he would offer ideas and happily work with them in professional matters. And this got me thinking of how hard it must be for a former slave, especially one born into slavery, to ever feel “equal” with anyone else, even his friends. If they weren’t also in slavery, I suspect the freed slave may forever feel substandard, though his friends would never (at least never intentionally) do anything to make him feel that way.

I was actually thinking of writing a story involving this element, and as I wrote down a short conversation to later include in the story (if ever I have a surrounding story to go with this brief concept) I realized something very significant: I feel like this too. No matter how kind someone is, no matter how loving, no matter how they confess their faults to me, I never feel like I’m “equal” or “good enough” when I’m around my friends. I mean, a lot of people often have a sense that everyone else has it more “together” than they do. But it’s more than that. I have this sense of being on a slightly lower plane of existence–like I’ve managed to raise up to a higher plane of existence than I was ever on before, but still never as high as those around me. Like I’m incapable of reaching that plateau. Like I’m forever pulled down to a lower level.

Despite my frustrations when my mother-in-law is helping me–which are not based on her help, but my own feelings of failure–I still feel very comforted when she’s around. I feel like she’s a comforting and calming presence, an anchor of sorts.

My sister told me the same thing tonight about her own mother-in-law. And we agreed that we don’t feel that with our mother. In fact, I had two days with my mother-in-law here followed by one day with my own mother here last week, and the difference was drastic. I could talk to my mother, joke with her, but almost the same as I could with a relative stranger. I lack a connection with her, and what connection I really feel is negative. I feel like her very presence, even when she’s here helping me rearrange bookshelves and get more organized (yes, she apparently can actually do that!) is somehow pulling me down to a lower plane. But when my mother-in-law is here it’s like she gives me a temporary free pass to that higher plane that I’m never actually allowed to live on. I never feel like I belong there, but I can at least be there for a short time and have a respite from the stuffy lower altitudes.

And I’m sure it’s the same with abused children. And with slaves. And prisoners of war. And anyone else in such a situation. maybe it’s a PTSD thing overall, or maybe it’s something else. I don’t know. But I know that if I’m ever talking to someone who was in any such situation, though our experiences will certainly differ and though they may be dwelling on lower planes or have a harder struggle to get up with more chains weighing them down, I do know this: I may not be able to identify with everything they’ve been through, but I’ll certainly identify with that particular feeling.

People love to point out–to me, or just in things they share on Facebook–that you are responsible for your own actions and your actions are not the fault of your past. Even when it’s a generic image shared on Facebook, I always feel like that sentiment is being shot at me like a very insulting arrow. Which is funny, because I do actually believe it. But I feel like people get so caught up on that that they ignore the fact that your past does, in fact, affect how you react to things. If I’m cruel to someone, that’s my choice. If I neglect my son, that’s my choice. If I ignore my house and do nothing to contribute to my family’s comfort and well-being, that’s my choice. But if I experienced these things in my life, they will certainly make those choices much harder. If you’ve been given an example of the wrong thing your whole life in one area and the right thing your whole life in another area, doing the right thing in BOTH areas is your choice, but in which area do you think it will be a harder choice?

So yes, if I use my PTSD (which I’ve only recently realized is almost entirely related to cleaning–how strange that the simple matter of how to clean is the area I react as the most “abused”) as an excuse not to clean, that’s a cop-out. But if I struggle with doing the right thing, keeping a clean and healthy environment for my family and teaching my son how to clean, because I was never given that example growing up, that’s legitimate. The point is, however hard it is, I made my choice–my choice is to fight.

Now I just need to figure out how to choose to believe that I really am equal with others, even if I don’t have a perfect house.

Just One . . . .

“If one person in this house put one thing away where it belongs just once, I’d be thrilled!”

There are certain moments in life that stick in your brain for no logical reason. I thought I’d write about one of my own today. I was a senior in high school. We were in the apartment of the year (as we had a different one every year for 3 years in a row), with the same mess that we always packed away, then released from the boxes upon arrival to instantly fill the new place. I was laying on my bed in the bedroom reading a book for English class. And my mother was very loudly looking for the can opener in the kitchen outside my room.

That’s when she shouted the above sentence. And I glared over my book and muttered, “You wouldn’t even notice.”

I would never say something like that within her hearing. My self-appointed tasks in life were to keep my mother from crying and defend my father as not being able to do anything because of his disabilities (even though he could have done a lot more than he did).

But from the safety of my room, I could at least mutter my thoughts. Because honestly, let’s be realistic here. We had access to half the living room in that apartment, the other half being entirely piled up with boxes of stuff that we “needed” to keep. Of course, we survived a year and a half in that apartment–it being the last in our string of moves before moving to the house my parents lived in from a few days before I left for college, until just a few months ago–without any of the stuff in those boxes. But we couldn’t get rid of any of it either. We “needed” all of it.

What’s more, we still had piles and piles of junk EVERYWHERE, and several drawers and fixtures that functioned when we moved in were broken when we moved out. We kids were blamed for this, and I admit we could have done more than we did. You can refer back to my last post, though, about the importance of being taught how to clean. I mean, my siblings and I used to try to make our own chore charts, entirely of our own accord, so we could keep the house clean. We would go on frantic cleaning sprees. They resulted in failure after failure, never sure how to keep up with things, never sure how to stay motivated, never kept accountable or sure how to keep one another accountable, and often yelled at for throwing things out like, say, a meat tray (“Those can be used for paint pallets!”) or a moldy, cat-pee-soaked t-shirt (“We can wash that!” [if we ever got around to getting any laundry washed]). So yes, I admit that there was often more that we children could have done, but please realize that we were kind of flying blind through a very hostile environment when it came to cleaning.

I’m sorry if the last paragraph sounds very defensive, but these are things people have indicated, implied, or directly stated to me somewhat regularly–that maybe the mess really was our fault and we can’t blame it all on our parents. It’s so hard for me to differentiate what WAS my own fault or the fault of my siblings, and what was my parents’ fault, but it’s even harder for someone who wasn’t even in the situation to really be able to accurately identify this. Especially if they came from a home where they were taught how to clean, or a lot (maybe more than they ever realized) was done by their parents.

Anyway. So back to being realistic about my mother’s statement. In the midst of this huge mess, if one person put one thing away where it belonged once . . . who would notice? Honestly, who would? I was actually really upset by her shouted hyperbole simply because I had actually used the can opener earlier that day and I HAD put it back in the drawer where it belonged. Why it wasn’t there then–who had used it and not put it back, or if it was in the drawer and she just wasn’t seeing it–I don’t know. But really, did she honestly think she would be able to tell the difference if one item was put back where it belonged once? She didn’t even know the difference when we spent hours cleaning while they were out to try to surprise them when they got back. Who could tell?

Picture a beach after a hurricane. Picture debris everywhere. All up and down the beach. Now picture 3, 4, maybe 5 children walking up and down the beach for an afternoon, cleaning up as much debris as they can, with no instructions except “clean the beach,” and no idea what half the debris is. Trying to figure out what to do with it. Not even able to lift some things. Just for one afternoon. Honestly, if no one saw them out there, anyone coming along afterward might not be able to tell that anything was done at all.

Generally, you can get a lot done in an afternoon. Several rooms cleaned up. Lots of clothes sorted through. Under the right guidance and instruction. But without that–without guidance, without instruction, without knowing how to do it–you’ll just wander aimlessly and even if you do a lot, you’ll get very little actually accomplished. Not nearly as much as if you’re taught how to be efficient. Especially if you’re a child. So children wandering on a beach full of debris might get some done, more than if they did nothing at all, but not nearly as much as if an adult helps them get organized, teaches them how to do some things, works with them, and gives them specific instructions.

That mental image of adults and children working together to clean debris up from a beach after a hurricane is kind of nice. A “hope for humanity” kind of image. But now picture that, instead of helping them get organized, an adult out there sitting in a chair, yelling at them that they need to get things picked up, blaming them for the mess on the beach (and hey, maybe some of it is their own mess, who knows? but certainly not all of it), and then yelling at them for throwing some things away because “that can be fixed and I can still use that!” while also yelling at them for not throwing other things away that “obviously” are trash.

Yeah. That’s what cleaning in my house was like. Now, in my house, that adult yelling at us for not cleaning was my father. Most of the time. My mother did too, but not nearly as often. She wasn’t home often, busy working and driving people places. My father was home all the time, and my biggest memories of him (except a few precious memories of wonderfully deep conversations about science or philosophy or the Bible or music or whatever else; and a few weird memories when his inability to do anything was suddenly set aside when he wanted to create various artworks or cook way more food than needed to be cooked at once) are predominantly of him yelling at us for not cleaning, getting upset about things not being clean and throwing things around (which just relocated the mess rather than actually doing anything useful), watching TV, or being in his bedroom asleep while we had to try to stay as quiet as possible.

And no, I don’t blame my father for all those things. I understand some of them. He was frustrated at his disabilities, felt useless or like he wasn’t “good enough” because he couldn’t work to provide for his family. His already-night-owl sleep schedule was extra messed up with various medications he was on. I get that. But that doesn’t absolve him, either.

I’m babbling, though. Covering too many topics. My point is, in a place like that, who would ever notice something being put away where it belonged?

It’s one of those stupid little things–just one sentence shouted in frustration–that for some reason has stuck with me my whole life. As I’ve gotten older and learned how to clean on my own, I’ve learned something very important that, in all honesty, I really knew at the time but wasn’t sure how to do: it definitely takes a lot more than just doing one thing every day in order to keep a house clean.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this that housework is not my specialty. I hope you’ve seen that it’s also something I’m working REALLY hard on. It’s crazy having something that seems like it should be so simple–that most of society expects to just be something every adult knows how to do–that I have such a huge learning curve on. It’s so hard for most people to understand that, too. Even if their parents never taught them how to do it, many people still at least watched their parents doing it and could learn by example. There’s a world of difference between that and this cycle:

  • No one cleans.
  • Parents get tired of mess and yell at kids to clean. (Or, alternately, kids get tired of mess and decide to clean on their own–yes, this really did happen.)
  • Kids try to figure out how to clean.
  • Kids get yelled at for touching some precious Puzz3D/moving something they shouldn’t have (but had no way of knowing they shouldn’t have)/throwing something away that looked like trash to them but apparently was SUPER important to keep/etc.
  • Kids get worn out trying to get the whole overwhelming mass of junk cleaned up/trying to figure out WHAT to clean up and what not to.
  • Kids give up.
  • No one cleans.
  • Repeat as necessary–but don’t bother rinsing because, hey, who knows if we really need to or not?

I’m not saying that it’s my parents’ fault if I don’t have a clean house. But I am saying that I’m having to learn a lot of things as an adult that I should have learned as a child, or even as a teenager. I had no idea until college that laundry might ever involve anything other than throwing clothes in the washer, turning it onto who-knows-what setting (I mean, as long as water’s going in, right?), adding some soap, letting it do its thing, then throwing them in the drying and putting them on whatever setting (really, why were there so many choices? couldn’t they just put an on button?) until dry.

I mean, I knew enough to know that the masses of laundry all over the couch and floor probably weren’t the best choice and it’d be great if they were in the dresser. But, hey, that was a luxury, really. I was super self-conscious about the smell that emanated from the clothes I wore, and the fact that I wasn’t always 100% sure whether they’d been washed since they were last worn or not. (Or was 100% sure that they hadn’t been.) But at least I had something on.

Anyway. I’ve learned a lot–SO much–from college roommates and in various ways since college, about how to clean. I know how to clean a shower now. I know how to clean a bathroom sink. I know that the faucet should probably be smooth metal colors and not just mottled toothpaste spit. I know how to scrub a sink, and how to make sure dishes actually have all the grease off of them and not just all the obvious bits of food. I know how to vacuum edges of the room and not just make the middle of the room look good. I know how to mop a floor either with a mop or on hands and knees with a rag, and how to do so in a way that doesn’t involve bathing suits and the floor remaining wet for the rest of the day.

But maintaining a regular cleaning schedule? That’s the hardest thing for me to learn. I’m getting better at it, though. So much better, in fact, that I was almost completely caught up on dishes and it looked like I’d actually be able to stay caught up!

Then, for various medical reasons, I’m not allowed to do any heavy lifting or stand/walk around for lengths of time, at least for the next few weeks. This at the same time that my husband is, when not working, busy studying for an important exam he has coming up–one that will mean getting a required certification for his job. I was SO CLOSE! And now everything is slipping away again.

So today my mother-in-law is graciously here helping me. And I love her for it. And I appreciate her help. I really, truly do. Yet, when I look at her pulling a jar out of my sink that has now-moldy smoothie remnants, and scrubbing my stove of all the random bits of food that I’ve managed to cook but worn myself out too much to clean up after . . . I feel ashamed. I feel like a failure.

I couldn’t figure out what that would be. Feeling like I’ve failed to not be caught up when I really should be is one thing. But feeling like I’ve failed when I have a legitimate medical reason that everything isn’t caught up? I don’t know why that is. I was toying with various reasons. Maybe because she’s my mother-in-law, and even though I really see her as more of a real mother to me than my own mother, I still feel like she doesn’t understand why cleaning is such a huge learning curve for me. And she really had a busy summer, and hasn’t been here to see that I’ve stayed more caught up on things the past couple months (and especially the past month or so). Maybe because she keeps such a clean house that I feel like even at my best I’ll never live up to her standards, even though she doesn’t say anything to me to indicate that she sees me as failing in any way. Maybe because I married her son and I feel like she might see me as not taking care of the house the way her son deserves.

Then I asked my sister why she thinks it is that I feel like a failure even when I know that, at least for this once, the mess is not my fault. I’ve been doing everything I can (and perhaps slightly more than the doctors want me doing right now) and just can’t do it all while having to stay sitting so much.

Her answer hit the nail on the head. She said, “Because dad expected us to just know how to do that stuff. He was so wiling to teach us all kinds of things but with housework he somehow expected us to just know, which left little room to accept failure.”

She’s right. She’s absolutely right. Which means, in reality, it’s linked to my PTSD. Regularly feeling like a failure growing up, because I couldn’t figure out how to keep the house clean the way we were constantly yelled at to do. Because things that society expects me to know,  as a grown woman, are things that I’m still just learning now, and I feel like I should already know them. My siblings and I were always expected to already know them.

There are other things that’s true of too. Cooking–our father always wanted to teach us how to cook, but rarely taught us much, and we were so often left to do it on our own that we sort of just figured things out as we went. (Without even being able to Google to find out how to do it!) But that’s something that we could ask our father about if we had a question, and he would answer us. It’s not something he treated us like we should already know.

Or changing clothes and underwear. I remember one time, when the pipes leading to our shower were broken (or maybe it was during that winter that we had no water in our bathroom at all, and no heat?) and we were going to my grandparents’ house to take showers. I was in late middle school at the time. I knew enough to know that I needed clean underwear each day. (Though I fear some days it was just changed to a different pair of dirty underwear. But I was working with what I could, and figured it was at least better than wearing the same dirty pair of underwear twice in a row.) So, since we were showering at my grandparents’ house, we were having showers in the evenings rather than in the mornings. (That’s part of why, for a very long time, I was extraordinarily particular about showering every morning. I never felt clean when living at my parents’ house, and showering every morning was sort of a way of going against what we’d so often had to do. And a way of trying to wash the house off of me before I went out to face people in the world.)

Anyway! So one morning during that period of time, I was looking for a clean pair of underwear in the morning and my mom said, “Really? I usually change my underwear after I shower.”

*blink* *blink blink* Oh. Because it would still be 24 hours of clean underwear. More or less. Change it after the shower, not in the morning. Pretty sure I was 13 or 14 years old. No one had EVER told me that if I was going to shower or bathe every day, it was most logical to change my underwear right after that, rather than at the opposite end of the day. Why my mother assumed I would just know that, I have no idea. That’s one of several things she responded to, when I was a preteen or young teenager, in a way that seemed to indicate, “But you can do things however you want.” Things that she should have taught me, or my father should have taught me, but neither of them did. And my older sisters didn’t because I’m pretty sure no one ever taught them either!

But most of those things–brushing teeth regularly, changing to clean clothes and underwear after a shower rather than just first thing in the morning when your shower is every evening, various cooking skills, and a host of other things that my parents didn’t take the time to teach us–those are either things that aren’t quite as huge a learning curve (or at least haven’t been for me), or (in the case of cooking) that people don’t really expect every single person to be able to do perfectly and don’t treat you like you’re completely inept if you’re unaware of how to do it.

Cleaning, though? That’s something that you actually have to be taught to do, and yet so many people learn elements of it as a child or by example that it doesn’t even occur to them that someone who struggles with it may not have ever been taught. And it’s something that my parents seem to have expected us to know how to do even though they never taught us how to do it. They yelled at us for not doing it, yelled at us to do it, and on rare occasions sat down long enough to help us pick all the clothes up off our floor and put them in our drawers. But they never taught us how to do it. And certainly never taught us how to do it regularly.

There’s a thing about being a parent, though. Sometimes you can learn along with your child. Learn to see the world through a child’s wonder; learn to think differently; learn to care about the simple things again. And in my case, I want to make sure I teach my children how to clean, and how to do so regularly. So I’m learning along with my toddler.

After lunch today, he took his own plate to the trash and scraped the remnants into it, then gave it to me to rinse. While I did that, I gave him the dish cloth to wash the table. As a toddler, he can already do things (without even being asked!) that I never learned to do until I was in college, or later.

So we’ll keep learning together. And meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to look at those successes, and not focus on feeling like a failure.

Yes, that’s right, two posts in one day. Because it’s just one of those days.

The kind of day where everything feels like too much. The kind of day where our finances are stretched to the max despite our careful planning. The kind of day where the burden of my parents’ lack of financial planning is falling on their children, however indirectly. The kind of day where I so seriously appreciate my husband’s hard work and the income he brings, but the stuff to do around the house is piling up due to my own health issues.

Yesterday was a determined day. The health issues I’ve been having recently (which I’ll be seeing a doctor about tomorrow) are making a lot of things super-difficult, but I was determined to do things anyway so I set up dishes at the kitchen table, with a wash bin, a rinse bin, a dish drainer at the edge, and another bin on the floor to catch the water the drained from the dish drainer. And I’m going to do that again today. Because I will NOT be my parents.

But while I do that, there are other things piling up. More messes that I need to supervise my son in cleaning up. But he doesn’t understand “Mommy doesn’t feel well and can’t move that fast.” He understands Mommy is there to help him clean up his toys and his books, but he doesn’t understand that Mommy can’t chase him around the whole house getting all of them.

But I will not, will not, will not have a house that’s “messy just because of the kids,” or “messy just because I’m sick.” Because that’s what I grew up with. And it’s NOT going to happen to my children. They will not grow up believing everything is their fault. They will grow up knowing responsibility–you took it out, you put it away–but not being told that every general mess is their fault. Nor will they grow up believing that a gross, dirty house is just the way it should be. No. Not my children.

It’s one of those days. One of those days where I just want to cry and eat cookie dough and watch sappy movies. But I’m not going to. Because I am determined to be determined, even when I don’t feel very determined. I owe it to my children. More importantly, I owe it to the adults my children will one day be, and to the spouses they will one day have, and to my grandchildren, not to leave my children with the same emotional scars and baggage, the same sense of everything being their fault, and the same super-high learning curve of how to keep a reasonably clean–not necessarily spotless, but livable and sanitary–house for their families.