Thursday, July 11, 2013

On the Doldrums (and Why I Decided I Needed More "Sparkle" in My Life)

It's been a few months since Disneyland, where I determined that I needed to do more memorable things during my day-to-day existence and work to make each day meaningful. We'll call this adding "sparkle" to life (thanks Disney firefly trees and smiling employees and pink castles). The revelation came after seven fairly difficult months. They were "doldrum" months - months of listlessness and low spirits. Months of stagnation. Months when some things in life were going very well but other things were just bringing me down a little. There was nothing terrible about these months; I'm not sure I even realized I was low-spirited. But they did seem fairly...blah.

For the record (and for those of you who can count), though the seven months of doldrums lined up exactly with the birth of my sweet baby girl, it wasn't Madelyn that made life difficult. Through the months she has been charming, breathtakingly beautiful, affectionate, happy, and generously good-natured. It has been an absolute delight watching her grow and develop.

I think it was a combination of things. Actually, I blame the house.

I was learning to take care of and clean up after a baby at the same time I was having to learn how to take care of and clean up a house. My very first HOUSE. Our house is small, but for some reason the extra room  and the yard somehow made a gigantic difference in my ability to maintain control of my surroundings. Or maybe it was the baby who limited my ability to concentrate on the house. Or maybe it was that I'd gotten in really, really bad habits the year prior to purchasing a house. Between first trimester sickness and subsequent dissertation writing, my apartment had been pretty well neglected by the woman of the house. (Thankfully, my husband's mother is a wonder woman who taught him that a man can and should cook and clean alongside - and in this case, instead of - his wife.)

So, all things considered, I ended up having a house I loved but didn't know how to care for very well. I had a yard that made me smile, until it disappeared under a jungle of weeds. Seriously? Plants aren't actually supposed to grow in Arizona. Why on earth can weeds grow like they sprouted up in the middle of the Amazon??? (Hyperbolic, yes, bear with me.)

I couldn't figure out how to keep dishes out of the sink, I couldn't figure out how to keep the living room floor bare of diapers and baby toys and diaper bag contents. I couldn't figure out how to keep the bathroom sink free from soiled baby outfits soaking in hot water and stain remover. I couldn't figure out how to keep the laundry in my bedroom from collecting every clothing item we owned between washings. Our study was never even fully unpacked, which means that there were piles of books and papers and odd items all across the floor. Finally, once Madelyn was a little more self-sufficient, I realized I should probably try a little harder to stay on top of things, but as I worked to clean up messes each day, I started feeling trapped in a never-ending dishes-and-laundry drudgery. Still not so good.

I wish there was some way to keep a post like this from sounding melodramatic and "teleological"*. Maybe I should just summarize like this: Keeping a house looking beautiful is hard work! And it requires a consistency that I couldn't commit to. I was a little grumpy day-to-day because I wanted to be sitting in the midst of a sparkly-clean home, but really my house was just sort of messy. It wasn't a good feeling to have a messy house and it wasn't a good feeling to know deep down that I was being lazier than I should have been.

So my first resolution after Disneyland was to do more memorable things, like going to the Botanical Gardens and people-watching at Comic-Con (forgot to blog about that one, eh? Let's just say it's great fun and free(!) to sit outside Comic-Con and admire and "admire" the costumes).

My second resolution was to recommit to my home so that I could BE happier when I was at home. I didn't really know where to start, so I pulled out the hot pink book that has been my mom's cleaning and organization and lifestyle-change staple: The FlyLady.** She has some odd ideas sometimes: her two most-important instructions are to always have an empty, shiny sink and to keep lace-up shoes on your feet all day long. Turns out that having tennis shoes on while you clean and do housework actually DOES make an enormous difference. Hey, I can take the recycling out right now 'cause I already have my shoes on! Hey, I actually feel motivated to do this chore briskly! (Something about tennis shoes makes us walk a little more briskly, right?) Make a before-bed routine where you wash off the kitchen counter and put away the things that started collecting on your floor and coffee table. Make a morning routine where you unload the dishwasher and put a load of laundry in the wash. Then there are ideas like doing all your surface cleaning for one hour each week (specifically, on Monday) - vacuum every room, dust every horizontal surface, use glass cleaner on your mirrors, done! Then spend 15 minutes a day in one particular area of your house for a week doing the deeper cleaning. Switch areas every week. That's it. All your cleaning is done because you have a routine to do it. And not a very demanding routine, might I add. Finally, success!

The day we finished decluttering and organizing and cleaning in our study felt SO GOOD. The rest of the house was clean too because we were expecting a house guest. When I finished vacuuming the (empty) study floor and looked around at a sparkly clean, well-dusted (even the baseboards!), well-organized room and knew that my entire house was sparkling too...yep, that was a feeling worth gold. I wanted to hold on to that. I wanted to bask in my house because suddenly the little home that I loved had become a beautiful, peaceful place where my family and I could feel safe and content.

I have tried to maintain that place. I have scrubbed my little arms away in some of the hard-to-reach places that haven't been perfectly clean since we moved in. I have done better about cleaning up after myself after I make dinner. For the most part, I've succeeded. And that, my friends, is an extremely satisfying feeling.


*Teleology is the idea that phenomena move toward certain goals of self-realization. It was a word we often used in my Master's programme when discussing the Holocaust within a broad historical context (because it's hard NOT to view the Holocaust as inevitable if you do a blow-by-blow overview of increasing Antisemitism throughout the centuries, even though the Holocaust was not and never should be considered inevitable.) It embarrasses me to say that I spent WAY too long trying to remember this oh-so-useful word now that it's been a year since I finished my programme. It makes me wonder what else I've forgotten!

**This is a book I do recommend. Know, though, that it's not actually as much about how to clean your house as it is about how to change your lifestyle to create manageable expectations and routines (what I needed, actually). There's a lot of feel-good personal encouragement in the book and letters from women who have had success changing their lives so that you know you're not alone. The book has been very successful, it seems, but it was self-published and could have used a good editor. I'm just warning you in the spirit of full academic disclosure before I endorse fully ;)


Emily and Mike said...

I love this. I'm going to have to get that book. I have felt the same way but sadly enough for years. Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone and can get better:)

Dave said...

Hmmm.... now I know why Amy has been walking around the house in her professional work attire but with tennis shoes on her feet. Fun times!

Rene said...

The Fly Lady to the rescue--yet again!!! My life still goes better when my sink is shiny. Unfortunately, I have to pull myself back to that point far too often, even now. These baby seasons are precious, Amy. Don't be too hard on yourself if all you get done in a day is smothering the Mads with tons of kisses (a bunch for me, too). Hugs to you!

Becca Meservy said...

(Love the tennis shoes idea. :))
This is admirable. The motivation, the resolution, the optimism. Pardon me while I laugh up my sleeve. I wish you a heartfelt "Take Luck! You're gonna need it." You go "sparkle" that nest!!
But caution, don't let your clutter-free goal define you. My advice is to do what you can do and do it with your child there. Start small and have them "work" along side you. Otherwise, your child will assume you are their maid and worse, never learn to work. But also, with her there, you will be reminded why there was "proof of exploration" left on your sink, "proof of your service" still needing to be washed in the sink, and "proof of your rising capabilities" waiting to be put away in your drawers. And you will not see it all as a smothering oppression, but an energizing act of love and service.
With Love, Becca

Laura, RN said...

I read once about a sixty second rule. If something around your house can be done in sixty seconds (like putting away your shoes, unloading the silverware, filing that paper, or scrubbing the bathroom sink) then just do it! Don't let it wait! It has kept my house liveable :)

Amy said...

Thanks for the comments friends! @Becca - no worries; you give great encouragement (love the parallelisms too, because they're true!). I noticed on Amazon that several reviewers discounted the entire book/system because they felt like every time a family member ran water in the sink, they had to run in with a towel and wipe the sink dry to keep it so nice and shiny. Eventually, they became exhausted (predictably!) and gave up completely. I would like to say I am very flexible in this regard. I find what works for me and I try to make as much of it a routine as possible (like the 60 second thing Laura - love it!). Though Madelyn contributed a lot to the mess, of course, I don't think it was the fact that "mess" existed that bothered me. I think it was that I knew deep down that I was contributing to the mess as much as, if not more than, my baby. Children messes I expect and can deal with happily; messes I make and don't clean up myself, or any mess I wait so long to take care of that it takes WAY more time and elbow grease to fix...THAT leads to doldrums. Not a happy thing :(

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