11/04/2013 03:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How I Made Peace With my Messy Minivan

This morning I washed, vacuumed and Windexed my van. It's an '05, and has some wear and tear, but at the moment, it's looking pretty good. I enjoy my car in this spotless state, but my kids don't enjoy me.

After any valiant effort to clean the car, I enforce strict rules. I announce that the dog is no longer allowed in the main area of the van, and whatever the kids bring in the van, they must bring out.

I'm a real stickler. For a few days. Then my kids break me. They usually start with a straw wrapper.

Straw wrappers are small and seemingly innocent, so when one is left behind and our hands are full of stuff leaving the van, I'll think, What's a little wrapper in the scheme of things? No need to get after the kids for something as small as that. We'll get it next time. Then, a random crayon is left behind, next someone's sock (how one makes it out of the van and the other doesn't is one of life's great mysteries to me) and a lone piece from a game.

Little by little, piece by piece, all of the stuff is back. At this point, the kids have broken me, so why not throw caution to the wind and let the dog back in?

Once I let the dog in, any and all cleaning efforts will be completely erased. The dog's hair doesn't add itself gradually like the kids' stuff, it's an all or nothing deal. One short car ride to school, and not only does his hair add a layer to every surface, it intricately weaves itself into the kids' clothing. While other moms are giving their kids a quick spit-wash as they head into school, I'm giving mine a quick roll-over with the lint brush.

When my van is clean, no one will see it, but the minute it's in its dog-hair covered, stuff-strewn glory, people will magically be invited in.

Just last week, I went out to dinner with a good friend from high school I hadn't seen in years. My car was not in one of its finer states. I didn't have time to clean it before dinner, but, hey, no need to stress, I was meeting her at the restaurant.

When we left the restaurant after dinner, it was late and dark outside. Guess who parked in the closer lot and ended up giving her friend a ride to her car?

That turn of events wouldn't have happened if my car was clean. But, if you are a frazzled, busy mother who had to go down a dirt road in the rain to get her kids to gymnastics, and they spilled happy meals all over the dog-hair covered floor, you can be sure you will be giving an unexpected ride to someone.

I have a vague recollection of my van in its pre-dog, pre-fast food days. My twin girls were babies, and I drove out to visit my friend, Micha, who has three kids that are older than the twins (soon, she'd add a fourth and I'd add a third to complete our families). At the end of our visit, Micha walked out to the van to help put the twins in their car seats for the ride home. When she looked in the van, she smiled and said, "I see your kids don't eat in the car yet."

Over the years, spurts of ketchup that fly out of those little packets have found safe places between the back bench seat and wall of the van just out of reach, tiny bits of goldfish crackers constantly materialize only to be stepped on and crushed into the carpet, and most recently, when one of my kids spilled an entire Sprite on the floor, it didn't even phase me. Why waste energy on clear, liquid spillage?

I still hold onto those fantasies of a clean car in the years ahead. But, on those busy nights, driving the kids from place to place, one of my daughters sitting next to me playing DJ, my other daughter and son behind us laughing and hanging out with our dog, the evidence of our busyness strewn all around us, I can't help but smile and think to myself, this is the good stuff.