Choosing chores over children

Sometimes I Choose Chores

“Will you sit and knit with me, Mama?” my seven-year-old asks.  A request to melt any mama’s heart.  Yet I reply with a list of morning chores I have to do, trying to keep my tone neutral so as not to also say, “See how much work I have? See how hard my life is?”  The dirty cloth diaper needs to be rinsed out – the sooner the better.  The breakfast dishes are piled on the counter, soggy cereal drying to the sides of the bowls.  It will be annoying to have to scrape it off later when I can just rinse them out now.  Crumbs are everywhere on the floor – if I don’t sweep, the mice will come.  I have a small window to get it all done after one meal and before the next, especially since a large percentage of that time will be spent changing (more) diapers, wiping butts, helping with sips of water, tying on capes, and kissing bumps and scrapes.

“Help me sweep the floor,” I say to Katherine, “then I’ll be finished sooner and we’ll have time to knit.”  She frowns, “I don’t want to sweep.”  Not wanting to engage in a battle over sweeping by holding her to my request, I let it go, shrugging.  She hovers around me as I go about cleaning up, like a puppy underfoot.  My mind drifts to Ma in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  We’re reading On the Banks of Plum Creek at bedtime and the story is fresh in my mind.  I am intrigued by the strong rhythm of their daily chores, children who help without being asked, the simplicity of survival on the harsh prairie.

I don’t long to milk a cow at dawn, or polish the stove, or do the laundry by hand, day after day after day.  The combination of obligation and monotony would not outweigh the benefits of its simplicity, at least not for me.  But there is something to be said for a routine that never waivers, and upon which survival depends.  If I don’t clean the poopy diaper or rinse out the dishes first thing in the morning, scalding hot water and anti-bacterial soap will kill whatever grows in the meantime. Therefore, it is easy to feel the guilt of pushing my children aside.  I don’t really need to do the dishes right now, but I sort of wish I did.

All the slogans about choosing laughter over squeaky-clean floors and messy kitchens being happy kitchens let us off the hook.  Choose your children over household duties.  There will always be laundry, but your toddler will grow up.  I don’t disagree - but what if I want to do the dishes and put things away?  Piles of stuff distract me and I function better all around when my surroundings are sparse.  So I’m torn between wanting to do household chores and cherishing every moment of my daughters’ one-, four-, and seven-year-oldness.

But just the other day, I had a rare morning alone with Katherine thanks to a dual play date for her two sisters.  “Knit with me,” she implored as soon as they were out the door.  I surveyed the mess and sighed. “Let me clean up, then we’ll knit. We’ll have time,” I promised.  She scampered off to her room and I powered through the chores, in total, uninterrupted, quiet.  Twenty minutes later she reappeared. “I neatened my room, Mom.  Are you ready to knit?”  I was.

It dawned on me, as I snuggled down on the couch with her, as promised, that I am still in the throes of early childhood, when needs run high, interruptions are constant, and just underneath the surface of all their cuteness, my kids can be exasperating.  But my morning alone with Katherine was a reality check, a glimpse of what the future will be with children who can wipe their own butts, get their own drink of water, and tie on their own dress-up clothes.

Maybe I’ll make it through without Ma’s strict cleaning schedule.  Or maybe that wouldn’t help anyway.  After all, Ma only had one small room to keep clean and could fit all of the family’s possessions in a covered wagon.  Besides, for all we know, she may have been just as exasperated as I am, and that sentiment simply isn’t captured in the books because it was written by her child.

Regardless, I’m hanging onto hope that one day my three daughters and I will happily knit together by the fire. In the meantime, to give myself permission to do chores, I may paint across my kitchen wall: Clear counters keep me calm