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.

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