Monday, February 4, 2008

Queering Mary Poppins: Cleaning & Organization

In August 2000, I flew into Zurich International Airport, via SwissAir, embarking on a fantastic new journey. After months of preparation, I was to be the latest au pair for a Swiss German family, the Sturzeneggers. The children in my charge? Anne-Catherine, 7. Lucas, 5. Henri, 3. These were professionally "nannied" children, having au pairs for many years prior. Their parents worked full time, the father as an IT consultant and the mother as an opthamologist. I was essentially moving into be the stand-in parent Monday through Friday for an entire year.

Previously, I had worked with children for many years as a babysitter. I did the regular Friday or Saturday night gigs, watching children until they fell asleep, drooling on themselves in front of a Disney movie, waiting for their misbehaving parents to stumble in the doorway at all hours (I once had a drunk mother sign a check to me with her maiden name...talk about the walk of shame...I had to return the next morning for a new check). I also did "special events"...babysitting large groups for parties, outings or even vacations. All in all, I was much more familiar with children than the average post-teenager.

When your kids are cared for by people other than you, the parent(s), there is a TON of scheduling and planning involved. You have to be certain that while you may not be with your children, you have to know where they are, who they are with and what they're doing. Patterns, routines and plans are made in advance to bring peace and consistency...both to your life and to your child's/children's. As a nanny, I was responsible for managing this schedule. And I think that, despite this family's penchant for corporal punishment and a 7 year-old who thought her mission in life was to terrorize and disrespect me, that sticking to a schedule and keeping things organized was a fantastic skill of mine.

I thank my mother for this, most of all, because she was a woman of routine and schedule as well. As kids, we were home from school on time, doing homework until dinner, finishing homework after dinner and then prepping for bed which was always set at an age-appropriate hour. On Friday night, we did something fancy like rent a movie and get some pizza, or visit the local Chinese restaurant where I could get a fruit punch with an umbrella.

Saturday mornings we watched television for a while and then it was time to clean. We started with our rooms, bringing down to the laundry room every single article of clothing that we desired to have washed. My mother did NOT do laundry on any day but Saturday, so if we didn't get it there in time, we were screwed. Then we returned to our rooms, changed our sheets, cleaned bathrooms "from stem to stern", and then proceeded to help with family chores. Often, this meant dusting and vacuuming for me and lawn-mowing for my brother. Now and then, we'd go through our closets to donate clothes or weed through the basement and prep toys for donation. We were constantly cleaning, cycling through our belongings so that we never had too much. My mother endeavored to keep us simple and organized in a mess of affluent suburban excess.

All of this "experience" brings me to the place and the person I am now. There was a discussion this weekend, when I was surrounded by some fantastic mamas, about cleanliness and organization. And Angela told me that irregardless of my children, I will be a clean and organized mama. Not everyone can pull this off, apparently, but I can. She knows it. I was really flattered, because that's what I want to do.

I could get into a whole mess of judgment-based parenting tips, but I'm not going to torture anyone with that...mostly because I'm not a parent and most of y'all will write me off. But I'm telling you, there are three things you have to do in order to ease the chaos of a messy bedroom/playroom (it's taken me how long to get to the point of this post!? JESUS!):

1. Watch how you treat your home, your belongings...take into consideration the amount of time you dedicate to taking care of yourself and what's important to you. I believe that the way your child behaves, treats hir belongings, and just generally exists in your home is a direct reflection of how you treat, care for things, and behave.

2. Everything has a place, everyone has a schedule. If you are interested in allowing your child to engage the free-spirit you felt you were prevented from being as a kid, be prepared for chaos. Kids need boundaries, routines and defined expectations for behavior. This is how we learn how to be good adults. Is is absolutely acceptable for your child to pull every toy out of hir closet during the day, but it is absolutely imperative they every toy pulled out be put back in it's proper place that evening. A few evenings of putting away three billion itty bitty toys (and not being able to do something like watch a tv show) will teach your child to be more careful with hir play planning for the following day, knowing that a messy room is unacceptable AND it is their responsibility to clean it up at the end of the day...which will become something you can teach them to do on their own after a few nights of supervision. Voila! You've established a routine AND brought visual tranquility to your home (or at least your child's living space).

3. Persevere. When the going gets tough, keep on going. It will get easier, your kid WILL get it, and there will be peace not too far in the future. Keeping a clean living space is a fantastic way to decompress from the day, release or manage inner turmoil and to create more time for fun family activities. You will have days where the idea of keeping your eyes open longer than 5 minutes in the morning is an effort of monumental exertion, but the next day it will get easier. The best thing you can do for your kid is teach them how to care for themselves and never give up in the process.

All of these opinions are, naturally, up for debate. But they worked for me...both in my experiences as a childcare giver AND as a child. I realize that there is a rebellious person in all of us, and some of these lessons will take a long time to sink in or will be conveniently forgotten when puberty hits, but we will remember.

Oh, and:
  • Get your kid a laundry basket. Teach them how to use it.
  • Weed through your kid's closet and toys every 3 months. Kids have the attention span of a fly, and there is always something that can be tossed or donated. Have them join the fun, as long as tantrums can be kept at bay and you have the patience.
  • Set aside an hour or two every weekend to clean YOUR room. Your kid will take the hint.

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