I have three amazing kids who are smart and funny and most of all exuberant. I know it’s a cliché, but they really do fill our home with love and laughter. But they also fill it with crap. I am swimming in art projects, cracker crumbs, and Legos. I try to keep ahead of it, but I’m not exactly organized myself, and I hate housecleaning. Frankly I’d rather take them to the playground than spend quality time with the vacuum cleaner.
I am very okay with that until my friends come over and I see my house through their eyes. I’ve been to their homes, and they’re not spotless. But they’re a lot tidier and cleaner than mine. And so are their kids. Mine have cookies in their pockets and peanut butter smeared all over their faces, while their darling organic vegetarians snack happily on raw carrots.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit. They are true friends and I love their kids. It’s just amazing how a knock on the door can change me so quickly from being joyfully relaxed to an embarrassed slob. Is there a middle ground? How can I love my lived-in house in front of other people?
Don’t despair. It’s only nor- WAIT! What’s that I hear? Is that the tapping of stilettos on linoleum? And the rustle of a starched apron tied crisply around a shirtwaist dress? And what’s that smell? Mmmm, fresh linen, and homemade cookies in the oven. Can it be? Is June Cleaver really here?
Well, actually, no. June Cleaver is fiction. As in made up. As in a lie. June Cleaver doesn’t exist, but her ghost haunts every mom I know. Every single one of us thinks we need to be perfect (and by we, I mean our kids, our houses, our hair, our everything). But it’s impossible. Heck, I can’t even sit down wearing stilettos, never mind vacuum the rug in them. Still, we can’t help but feel judged when our imperfections are exposed, especially in front of people who are closer to perfect than we are.
One of the funniest moments of my momhood was when I opened the dishwasher to find my toddler’s soaking wet but very clean shoes in the dishrack. I had told him to put them away so they wouldn’t get dirty. In his mind that meant the dishwasher. How could I argue with that? It was our first mutual belly laugh, and I will always smile when I think of it. Still, if my friend had walked in at exactly that moment I would have blushed and shut the dishwasher with a slam. Bye bye, happy memory. Hello, imagined social stigma.
I’ve also been in the unhappy position of being the more perfect one. My friend’s house is very cluttered with memorabilia, furniture, books, and photos from her late grandmother’s house. Somewhere underneath that is a layer of stuff from her kids, and under that are her own yearbooks and clothes that used to fit and actual vinyl albums that she can’t play any more but hates to part with. Her house has the pleasant musty smell of an antique shop mixed with grape juice. It’s cozy and welcoming, the place I always picture when I want to curl up with tea and a good book. But in that imagined picture, I am always alone, because when I visit, she is a whirlwind of rearranging and dusting and apologizing, and somehow we always end up drinking diet coke and freezing outside at the rusty patio table. My presence makes her feel bad, and that makes me feel bad. So she comes to my house instead, where she can feel imperfect in a different way, and I, again, can feel bad.
Isn’t it weird that we’re each haunted by the same ghost? Picture June Cleaver in her stiff bouffant, laughing maniacally and pointing at every dropped sock, shedding cat, and spot of ketchup. For a ghost, she sure is loud. But remember: she is a lower-case-c cleaver. And “cleave” has two meanings. One is to join with, as in the traditional wedding vows “cleave unto her husband.” But the other is to split or divide from, as in hack in half with a meat cleaver, preferably with great force and possibly homicidal thoughts, wearing a butcher’s apron over torn jeans and bare feet.
I would invite you to cleave away from June Cleaver. Remove yourself. She isn’t real, and neither is the perfection that she represents. When she pops up with her white gloves and Chiclet teeth, hand her a mop and banish her to the laundry room while you leave your cereal bowl in the sink, blow bubbles with your kids, and let the dog jump on the couch. It will take practice, but when you relax into your life and enjoy every dusty corner of it, your family will, too. And so will your friends, even the organic vegetarians with plastic-wrapped couches and putting green lawns. Offer them a cup of tea, and when they ask to see your record collection, dig it out and reminisce about the good old days, when houses were meant to be lived in, kids were allowed to be kids, and June Cleaver was nothing more than a TV character.