It's really amazing how small people make such big messes, isn't it?
Probably more than anything, the cleaning, the constant, never-ending, house is NEVER clean from top-to-bottom feeling is what is overwhelming to me as a mom. I tell new moms, in all seriousness, to enjoy their house being as clean as it ever will be, when their children are infants. The toddler stage can get a bit crazy, but you can really keep a handle on the number of toys they have, and they still nap, so it is manageable. But, if you add another baby at some point it really does get a bit harder, there is less time and more mess. I was quite certain that once both my girls were older, that it would be easier, because they would not be as "needy."
Ha! What did I know?
They are still needy, but now they can both make messes. Our house is home to a myriad of small messes, craft activities and toys abandoned. I stumble upon a pile of small pieces of construction paper, some pipe cleaners and a half completed flower. (Which matches the one lovingly bestowed on me earlier.) A cat scratching post covered in a playsilk, with a hat stuck on top... obviously a "fashion model", right? The doll house, emptied of furniture, which is all arranged in Ikea storage bins turned sideways and stacked into an "apartment building." (Yeah, not really sure why we wasted money on the doll house, should have just bought the furniture and some boxes!) And of course, the crumbs, banana peels, cereal bar wrappers, abandoned cups of water... wait a minute, I thought we had rules about where they could eat? The upstairs toys that are downstairs, again. Many, many small hairbrushes which belong to dolls and ponies (or maybe a fairy or two.) What appears to be the hand prints of a small herd of critters covers my back storm door, I can practically imagine their small faces peering, trying to get in...
Which leads me to imagination. My secret weapon in coping with the messes of the small people who live with me. "Reminders" aka nagging doesn't work well for me, and we are not a chart kind of family. (Though we do own a chore chart.) I can't keep track of jobs to assign but I do expect everyone to pitch in as they are able to. As an adult, I tend to find strict "systems" overbearing and overwhelming, and I never succeed at them though I can definitely accomplish quite a lot when I want or need to. And I really find that attitude goes a long way. If I can find a way to make my chores (which ARE that, chores!) more enjoyable, by listening to a podcast, audio book, music; calling a friend; having an interesting thought to ponder, then it is just less overwhelming and more doable. And what is even better? Having little helpers (who at 4 & 6 yo really CAN help!) by my side.
I never really ask my kids to help me do anything other than toy pick-up. Sometimes I use the "accountability" method, and will tell me oldest, "OK, I'm going to turn off the computer and see how much I can get done for the next hour! Can you and your sister play by yourselves?" This method has about a 75% success rate for both girls running to help me, and I would say 100% of the time at least one of them wants to "help mommy". I also do the silent routine where I will disappear mysteriously while they are playing (or fighting) and then one of them will have an issue and come and find me, and then want to join in.
Once I have them "plugged in" I have an official policy of "NEVER say NO!" I mean really, if my child is insistent upon scrubbing a toilet, who am I to say no? Because of this, I have tried to develop a stash of child-friendly cleaners. The feather duster was a big hit until Charlotte disassembled it as she searched for the perfect feather to use to make her "quill pen". But they also love microfiber cloths (which work great slightly dampened.) I also have made my own cleaners, use baking soda/vinegar, and also bought some Shaklee Basic H so I could mix up an effective but CHEAP (per bottle) cleaner because when they get to squirting, they use it up fast! I really need to get more rags, though, they use way too many paper towels.
But really, I do try to make cleaning fun for them. We make up stories about what they are doing, and we pretend that we are getting ready for a party (a FANCY tea party, usually!) The Fancy Nancy books have given me a lot of good material to work with. My husband doesn't care for them (he thinks that they give our 6 yo too many "ideas") but I actually like to point out that much of her "fancy" stuff is invented or possibly thrifted. But it really increases the motivation to talk about making our house "extra fancy!" Today, for example, I put a scoop of baking soda and some essential oils (lemon and sweet orange) in a cup, and mixed them together. I covered it with a piece of tinfoil, poked holes in it, and then gave it to my 6 yo to sprinkle on the carpets before I vacuumed. I sold it as "Extra Fancy powder that takes away the bad smells!" and told her that she needed to "find the floor" of her room (clothes in hamper, books on shelves, toys put away) before she could sprinkle it. She oohed and aahed over it, and had great fun sprinkling everywhere. And it probably did some good and didn't smell half bad. I could tell it definitely inspired her, though, she continued to look for little things to clean and do, with a cheerful attitude, without prompting. Because it was play. And of course it ended as an "extra fancy tea party" with REAL TEA and graham crackers, at a table she decorated with a play silk and some other pretty things. She carefully served the tea, then allowed time for reading (I was able to chose my own book) and a craft, planned and explained by her.
It's so easy for me to forget that for small people who make big messes, play is important and all-consuming (the work of childhood) and really work can and often should be "play" for them. It often feels like drudgery to me, but then I just have to take a moment to look at the work I do through the new eyes of my children, and see the play that it can be. Sometimes it can be work to make my work feel like play to me and them, but I think it is worth doing. I love to capture their imaginations and see how fruitful they are, how they surprise me and go beyond what I even expected. Without threats or punishment. With just inspiration and imagination.
I wrote this post as a Ministry of Reality Monday post... the reality is that there is an awful lot of work to be done in a household with small children, so it really is important to drop the perfectionism and when it is possible, have a little fun with it! And capture some small people with imagination while you're at it.