Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Taming the Beast

It's a new year. Time to make a resolution. Hopefully, one you and I can keep. Maybe it will be one (or both) of the most popular -- getting more exercise and losing weight -- or maybe it will be something else. Like many middle-aged women, I could stand to focus on those two, but my more critical need BY FAR is to gain control over my home. The state of my home, to be exact.

Being successful at keeping a resolution comes down to a matter of control. Control over finding the time, means, and motivation to work out. Control over what one puts in or doesn't put in one's mouth. Being housekeeping-challenged, as I am, translates into control over one's physical space. For me, that space is not only my living environment but also my workplace.

Unless I have told you, you probably wouldn't guess upon meeting me that a beast has taken over my house. That's because I hold it together pretty well in public, and my boys are the picture of health. They are smart; successful in school, sports, and other activities; and simply beautiful to behold. We have our family issues, naturally. What family doesn't? Ours come mostly from the fact that the boys are polar opposites.

Yet what has eluded me for the better part of the past near-decade since I've been a full-time single mother is the ability to keep my residence in presentable-enough condition that I feel comfortable having people over. Maintaining a home is a common challenge for any parent, but it is compounded for a single mother (especially of multiple children) because a second adult is not around to assist with taming the beast of chaos within. Add on the fact that I have no built-in support network -- family members to call on to pitch in -- and you have a sure-fire recipe for one abode in CERTIFIABLE NEED OF HELP.

Of course, I could hire someone or a team of professionals to pick up the place. I have done so in the past, though very rarely. That method costs money, however, and money for nonessentials is becoming increasingly harder to come by these days. I could ask a friend for an extra set of hands -- and I have one who's offered hers more than once -- but I have a strong sense of pride and a reluctance to ask for, or even accept, most volunteer help. It comes from a feeling of I chose to become a single mother of two children, therefore, I must accept the consequences. Figure it out for myself, in other words.

Don't misunderstand me. The beast hasn't been a constant for the ENTIRE almost-ten years. I had part-time caregivers and a boyfriend coming in the first few years of single motherhood, so I was motivated to keep my place looking halfway decent. Plus, my living quarters were much smaller: a two-bedroom city apartment. Simply put, I didn't have as much space to maintain. In early 2005, I bought a three-level townhouse with significantly more square footage in a Boston suburb. This enabled me to empty my storage unit and bring all my belongings together for the first time in five years, since I lived on the West Coast. But with the arrival the following year of Charlie, all that extra space got taken up by the additional baby equipment and storage-unit contents. (In case you're wondering how much stuff one unmarried woman could possibly accumulate, let me explain that I've singlehandedly cleaned out two houses.) Oh, I should mention that I had a dog at the time as well, so THREE small beings were underfoot.

We moved again a couple of years later. Finally, it seemed, I had enough room, though my house looks much bigger from the outside. My life was in turmoil for many reasons, including Charlie being an incredibly awful nighttime sleeper and downright nap-resistant baby and toddler. He'd sleep in the car and at day care and later preschool JUST FINE but not in my home when I wanted AND NEEDED him to! Several years into chronic fatigue syndrome by this point, I was in NO condition to gain control over my bigger home.

Things weren't always terrible. I managed during the early years of single motherhood to host playdates, occasional parties, and visits from friends. I remember a housewarming shindig and first-birthday celebration for Charlie in the townhouse. I remember a fourth-birthday fete for him in my present home featuring two ponies giving rides to the kids around our backyard. One mother remarked: "Shelby, you've set the bar pretty high for four year olds' birthday parties!" From the time Christopher was in preschool, I hosted numerous playdates. But it was cleaning the house for one that set off a chain of events that brought my ability to invite people over to a complete standstill . . . DEAD IN THE WATER.

I injured myself almost two years ago from overdoing it with the mop and scrubbing brush. Physical therapy to strengthen my back followed as did my then-boyfriend breaking up with me. (I suspect they were related.) Understandably, it was a pretty low period, and I actually became afraid to clean for fear of reinjuring myself.

When it rains, it pours! Three months later my home sustained what I call an "indoor flood" from a freak, once-in-a-lifetime toilet issue. Since it occurred on the upper level, I suffered damage on both floors after the shooting water (clean, thank God!) seeped through the hardwood floors down to my bed, another bathroom, and a third room. A giant floor-to-ceiling cabinet loaded with family stuff was upended by the water-damage cleanup people, meaning that I needed to find another place to store plates, tablecloths, my mother's first cousin's porcelain horse collection, etc. Well, it's not as if I had ANOTHER floor-to-ceiling cabinet just waiting to be stocked! Where was I going to put it all? On chairs, tables, bookshelves, and the floor.

Before long we were reduced to walking in narrow paths through the house. Fine way to live with five- and seven-year-old BOYS! NOT. And forget about indoor playing space.

It was probably several months before I got around to picking everything up off the downstairs carpets so the cleanup people could return to steam them. Yet the damage, both actual and figurative, had long been done: I now had a MUCH BIGGER job on my hands. I was exhausted, and I was defeated.

Even if I could conjure up the strength to deal with it, I wasn't in a position to at this time because I was racing to finish my book-length memoir to schlepp numerous hard copies to Seattle for a writers' conference. I planned to solicit literary agents for representation. I had paid a lot of money to go, and two families would be taking care of my kids during the five days I'd be gone. My focus was elsewhere.

Fast forward nearly a year and a half: the situation is just as bad, if not worse. I came home from Seattle to follow up on agent manuscript requests -- fyi, it's imperative to act quickly as I was vying against other writers to get mine accepted, and agents can only take on so many at a time -- teach memoir-writing for the first time in my life, prepare a workshop with a friend that has yet to find a home, and start blogging every five days beginning the first day of 2012. Keeping all the (mostly unpaid) balls in the air while, oh, yeah, raising two rambunctious young boys has not afforded me the kind of time I need to tame the beast. As months passed, the teaching schedule (and accompanying at-home work) has fluctuated. My friend and I, disappointed but not deterred, are taking a break from submitting applications to adult-ed centers. And I've pushed my blog-post deadline back to every ten days.

Still, that doesn't mean a gap has opened in my schedule to make any noticeable inroads in dealing with the beast! My older son has been given the opportunity to appear in two movies, and I've done a bit of extra work myself. Besides being fun, these pursuits bring in a little money . . . and I need to follow up on any opportunities that do. They, along with all the sports practices and games and other activities in which the boys participate, take me out of the house. I can't clean if I am literally not home, can I?

With the kids out of school in the summer, I had a lot less time to myself to tend to, well, everything! As much as I could, I chose to take the boys away camping. In fact, we doubled the number of nights spent in a tent from nine to eighteen. Don't mistake my reason for heading out of town. It was not to AVOID the beast. It was because we genuinely love sleeping and cooking outside and engaging in healthy activities such as mountain climbing, kayaking, and lake swimming in a new scenic environment. BUT did I also LOOOOVE not living with the beast? As Sarah Palin would say, "You betcha!"

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND. Don't underestimate the power of the idiom!

Then there's the issue of drumming up motivation to subjugate said beast. Not being able to invite people over has certainly cost me socially. (I've just had to suck it up.) But I need to take back control before my sons start to pay.

As boys, they are a big reason why the house is in this state to begin with. They leave their dirty clothes around. They break toys and scatter pieces far and wide. They drop food into the couch. They spill drinks on the carpet. One stops up the toilet with too much toilet paper. The other slipped a penny through the keys of my grandmother's overhauled upright Steinway. The same child poked a hole in the dining room wall. And on and on and on. Boys may not mean to cause damage, but they do from time to time.

Well, I am happy to say that my cleanup plan has finally begun . . . but only in fits and starts. Several months ago One Call Junk Haul carted away some of my unwanted or broken stuff. Last month, I gave away numerous boxes full of the boys' old clothes and baby/toddler equipment at my single mothers' meeting. Then I walked into The Container Store, newly opened down at the mall, and I was INSPIRED! Three days in a row I visited the store FOUR times, and I spent a pretty penny on colored boxes, watertight plastic containers for documents, under-the-bed containers to maximize space, a hanging shoe holder, a necklace rack, and much more -- all for the purpose of bringing some sense of order to my home.

Finding The Container Store was an epiphany for me. A Eureka! moment. Seeing all the attractive receptacles for organization helped me get psyched and envision what is possible for my home. Separating my stuff in an eye-pleasing way would keep me going through the drudgery of cleaning; putting away; and putting aside for disposal, donation, or a different outcome.

Unfortunately, the holiday season loomed shortly after I got on a roll. I stopped sorting papers and wading through the boys' schoolwork and artwork and, out of necessity, shifted gears to prepare for Christmas. So the challenge has now become getting back my drive, mustering up the energy to tackle this gargantuan house project, and carving out the time in my schedule to do so.

The calendar says January 2013. Watch out. I'm going after the beast!

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