It’s funny, tidying, isn’t it. Like the painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, it is a Sisyphean task, started all over again the moment we have finished it and so never really finished at all. Yet unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, you see, where the painters get to stop every so often to eat a sandwich or arse about on their iPhones, for us parents there are children that hear us finally ripping off the rubber gloves or putting down the hoover and, to stop us feeling redundant, fling some food somewhere or push over a basket of something.
You become more efficient at dealing with all this, of course. You develop streamlined systems within your own house. Years of waitressing taught me never to walk around empty-handed; never simply to stroll idly (heaven forbid) from one room to the next but always to use that journey to take bits of mess from one room back to that from whence they came. Ever arrived in a room forgetting what you came in there for? Why, you can at least use it as an opportunity to tidy. No trip is wasted ever again. Genius, continuous efficiency.
So the result of all this? As I stride from room to room, always transporting and delivering goods to their rightful places, always cleaning up before the kids’ arrival and after, stooping here, wiping there and scrubbing smears endlessly, I would like to feel like a hero, a god of systems-down-pat. And yet I don’t. Actually, I realise I’ve spent a whole morning sweating in rubbber gloves, of rolling a very heavy stone up a steep hill and I sometimes muse that if the point of a task is usually linked with its completion, why I should even start this at all (I often take the same attitude to my appearance these days).
And it’s not with hopelessness or gloom that I think this - thank God - more like a bemusement. In fact it’s the same feeling that overcame me just yesterday; here, mindlessly chiselling away, in my rubber gloves and dressing gown, at some Weetabix cemented onto the high chair, I felt a sense of detached comedy at the glamour of it all, at the fact I’m sure I went to university once.
So it’s now that I understand why parents love hotels. Back in the day I used to turn my nose up at them, preferring a grittier experience. Even these days family holidays in an Air BnB can be great fun: love my kids, never a dull moment, etc etc. But all this is missing the point: I would bloody love a dull moment. Very occasionally. A true, true holiday for me would entail many such pointless moments of wandering aimlessly from one room to the next with nothing in my hands, just because I could. Wiping and clearing away food or anything would be the job of staff, goddammit. It’s not just as you get older that holidays mean different things- it’s as you have kids. What staying in a hotel means is not just a holiday from tasks, it’s a holiday from your (usual) self.
There is a quicker, cheaper fix, Husband would argue.
‘Why don’t you just not care about tidiness so much. Who do you think is judging you?’
‘No-one, I just like it clean.’ I answer.
‘But if it’s going to be so stressful, shall we just not have people over? You’re being a maniac.’
‘I’m not!’ I shout, repeatedly bashing the moaning hoover into the skirting boards as I see we have T minus ten minutes until Guest Arrival. Please God, don’t let them be early.
It’s not true, of course, when I say no-one is judging me. I am judging me. I have always been a bit of a neat freak but it’s not worn as a badge of honour, it’s a curse which I think comes from my mum’s side of the family. And truthfully, before anyone reading this decides never to invite me over again, I do not measure my friends’ houses in the same way. I really don’t. Like some sort of house dysmorphic disorder, I only see the flaws in my own efforts, be they specks of dust or child-height smears.
There is a conundrum here as well. As I frantically Mrs Doubtfire my way around the house I also have flashbacks to school days where there was always a Dick Mum of one of your friends who wanted their house kept like a show home at all times. You know, the ones where you had to slip off your shoes on arrival then perch on the edge of the sofa the whole visit. In fairness my own mum did not treat our house like this. I think she managed to do what I am currently working on: being realistic with having kids around. Oh, and actually enjoying your friends’ company rather than worrying about rings on the coffee table.
Because if you’re not careful you create another ironic circle: the tidier you are, the fewer friends you have to impress with your tidiness. And the quicker your kids will leave home to go and relax / make mess elsewhere. Before you know it, you’re like a character from Desperate Housewives and the clue to their level of happiness is in the title.