A few weeks ago, a news story broke about a boy who yelled at his mother, refused to clean up his mess, then took his pants off and hid. I couldn't understand why this made national news, since it sounds like a normal Saturday in my house. I read on and saw that the mother called the police and they arrested the kid. I thought, "Oh, this must have happened in Germany." But then I learned that the boy lives in Connecticut... and is 18. The story made me sad and happy at the same time: sad that the messy state of my home won't improve as my kids get older; but happy that, once they reach a certain age, I can report their slovenliness to the cops.
We go through our clothes and toys a couple times a year and give stuff to goodwill. We try not to buy plastic toys. I avoid toys with multiple pieces, like puzzles, blocks and anything else educational. But despite these crap-avoiding efforts, our house is overrun with clutter. I simply can't keep it tidy. I knew things were bad when my husband walked around with a toy stroller tied to the outside of his leg.
"What on earth is that?" I asked.
"I am never going to trip over this frigging thing again. Now I always know where it is."
It made sense. Too much sense. We had to get the clutter under control.
I fantasized about a Pottery Barn-esque toy room for my kids: Labeled baskets that said Legos; Toy Cars; Dollhouse Furniture. Polka-dot-painted wooden letters spelling out my kids' names. An easel in the corner with paint brushes ready for their every creative urge! A wooden train set expertly laid out on a darling rug. Stuffed animals and dolls sitting prettily on pink shelves. Hairbands hanging off grosgrain ribbons. A toy kitchen with little silver pot neatly on the stove. A sewing corner.
I created such a room. I surveyed my handiwork and sighed with joy. My daughters jumped up and down and clapped their hands. Beaming, I left them to enjoy their new playroom.
An hour later, I went in to check on them and gasped in horror. My kids weren't sitting on the rug smiling beatifically and braiding their dolls' hair. They weren't creating watercolor landscapes at the easel or stirring up pretend confits in the kitchen. My kids weren't even in the toy room anymore.
I heard the train engine making a sickly hiccupping, whirring noise. I followed the sound and saw Thomas the Train grinding through a doll's previously lovely locks. It was on its way to boring a hole through her scalp. One of the big, wooden name letters had been removed from the wall and was tied around her neck with needlepoint yarn, giving her the appearance of Flavor Flav. I looked around and saw that all of the dolls were being strangled with wooden letter necklaces in this same rapper-bath clock manner.
Over at the easel, Teddy Grahams were floating in the poster paint jars. On the toy stove, someone had been cooking up a pot full of miniature horses. Barrettes had been clipped to a Kermit the Frog doll's feet and hands, Spanish Inquisition-style. The stuffed animals were imprisoned beneath an overturned laundry basket. A FurReal cat reached its paw through a hole in vain: a toy cake had been placed ever-so-slightly out of its reach.
The Pottery Barn catalog kids were either Stepford children or robots -- or those photoshoots were staged! I decided to make my own home dummy-proof. I got three big bins and told my kids: "Dirty clothes go in here. Toys go in here. Books go in here." I fancied myself a genius. I was finally going to have a clutter-free home.
The next day, my oldest daughter's 20 outfit changes were balled up under her bed. Underwear was in the book bin. Books were in the hamper. And toys were all over the floor.
That night, I bought industrial black trash bags and told my kids to throw everything on the floor into the bags.
"Don't throw our stuff out!" they screamed.
"I'm not throwing it out. This is just how we're cleaning up these days."
"What if I want my clothes? And my toys?"
"You'll dig in the bag," I answered. "If you want it, you can look for it."
The next day, my daughters wore the only clothes they could find: Christmas tights and bathing suits. They played with an old piece of a string and a wooden spoon. No one had touched the trash bags. And my floors were clean.