What I Learned the Week My Kids Were Away

Last Monday morning my in-laws picked up all three of my children, packed them up in the car and drove them all the way up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a week at their quaint cottage on a remote lake. Here are some photos I took of this beautiful place last year when we visited.

I figured I’d miss my kids, but to say I had been “looking forward” to my “staycation” at home, sans kids, would be an understatement. I had planned out many projects, the first and most important of which was to organize my entire house from top to bottom. For weeks, actually years, I have been longing to bring order to my home. This week my goal was to clean out every closet, organize every drawer, wash all the sheets, catch up on all the laundry, clean the carpets, go through all the toys and maybe get a mani/pedi and enjoy a few glasses of wine too. Simple, right? Well, not so much. But when I am motivated and have time, nothing can stand in my way.

I proceeded to spend THREE FULL DAYS doing all of the above. I only left the house for a couple of short runs and to go out for dinner one night. It was intense. As I worked I thought about how all my effort would be undone within hours, if not minutes of my children returning home, but it felt so good to gain control over my house that I just kept going. Would I yell and be totally irritated when they get home and undo it? Most likely. But, the way I see it, if I could enjoy organization and order for even just ONE DAY it was time well spent.

Here’s what my house normally looks like:

But after “Project Organization”, my house was just the way I yearned for it to be. The kids’ beds were folded like those in a hotel room, their stuffed animals sat upright on the closet shelf and John’s train was set up perfectly with each train in a clever spot on the track. Their books were actually on the bookshelves instead of the floor, their clothes were folded and placed with care in the proper drawer instead of crammed in however it would fit, the bathroom counter wasn’t covered with toothpaste and their coats and shoes were placed neatly in the proper spot in the back hall. All their little knick-knacks, collections, cheap souvenirs and jewelry that covered their dressers had been tucked away… out of sight. The coloring pages and stickers that were taped to their walls and doors had been cleared away to create a new blank slate. You could actually see the carpet in every room. Everything was photo ready. Picture perfect. IT. WAS. AWESOME! I actually did document it with some photos so I could look back and remember how nice it once looked before it was all undone.

As the week went on I began to make a mental list of all of the things that were wonderful about my week long vacation from being “Mommy.” Here’s what it included.

  • I wake up to the sound of birds singing instead of a wee one in my face asking for cereal. I don’t have to talk to anyone until after I drink my coffee. I make breakfast ONLY for myself and eat while I write or watch The Today Show.
  • Wait, do you hear that? Nope! Absolutely, nothing! IT IS QUIET! No bickering. No fighting. Noone asking for stuff. Nothing. Quiet.
  • I can go out to run whenever I want. In fact, I can DO WHATEVER I want WHENEVER I want!
  • I put the toys away and they STAY there!
  • I didn’t run the dishwasher for four whole days and it did not include putting away a dozen plastic cups that the kids took one sip out of before they got another one.
  • I only went to the grocery store ONCE and I shopped BY MYSELF! No mysterious products appeared on the belt at check-out and I did not even once have to say, “Don’t hang on the cart!” or “Stop touching your sister!”
  • Dinner is a salad and that is all. No customized plates, no cutting up kiddies’ food. I sit down to eat and I don’t have to get up 30 seconds later to get someone water, or ketchup or more, more, more. Clean up takes 5 minutes.
  • I can eat a snack without hiding in fear that someone will see me and also want a snack. And the next child, and of course then, the third.
  • I can finish an ENTIRE SENTENCE!
  • When I leave the house, the only person I have to put in the car is myself. I don’t need to load my purse with spare clothes in case of a potty accident. No snacks required. There is no bickering about who gets to sit in which booster seat. I get in and go.
  • I don’t have to listen to the CD from Vacation Bible School on repeat every…single… car trip.
  • I was NICE, like the old me. All. Week. Long.

I was aware of each and every one of these luxuries the entire week and enjoyed them to the very fullest as I knew it was just for one week and it would go by quickly. But, as the days went by here’s what I discovered.

While the kids were away and everything was all perfectly tidy and sublimely quiet, the way I have dreamed for it to be for almost 8 years, I caught a glimpse of what life will be like not all that long from now when our last child goes away to college. The house will be quiet and clean and picture perfect, the way it was this week and the way I have longed for it to be for so long. Here’s the thing… “perfection” is a little over-rated.

This week, I thought about the moms who have often told me, “Someday you will miss the mess.” To them I’ve usually nodded my head with agreement, but secretly said to myself. “Nope! I will celebrate when this mess is gone. Or maybe I will miss it then, but right now I want it picked up, damn it!” But after having lived here for seven whole days without the mess, I see that without my kids home, it is not really “home” at all.

As I removed their mess from these walls, I removed the life and energy and spirit and joy from this place. After having tucked away their knick-knacks and collections and souvenirs and pictures, this might look sort of like a perfect HOUSE in a magazine, but it didn’t feel at all like HOME. I had created order, but as a result I had eliminated the character, personality and vibrance here. The villages they build for their Barbies on their bedroom floor, the forts they create out of pillows and blankets in the living room, the aftermath of the shows they put on in the basement; all of that mess usually makes me cuckoo. But when it’s not there, I realize that those messes are actually their little lights shining. That clutter is the essence of some of the most memorable parts of their childhood. It is virtually a shadow of their unique personalities and a trail of knowledge and happiness. This week I realized that life without it (the mess and the noise) feels pretty lifeLESS.

“Busy mommies on the run”, I know you long for tidiness and organization and order just the way I have. And while I wish that you someday also get a chance to have a break from being Mommy for a bit and that you can feel the joy of creating order now and then, I know that most of the time you are living in chaos. In that state of disorder, I urge you to gain comfort and perspective from what I have learned after having glimpsed the “perfection” that seems so out of reach. While it feels really good to gain order even for a short while, it will soon all be undone. Know that life without the mess and noise is not at all “perfect” because it lacks the character and personality that makes our days joyful and full of life. Life with kids is meant to be messy and noisy because that’s what makes it full and worthwhile.

Was it nice to get organized and have quiet for a week? Yes! Will I be irritated when all my hard work goes down the toilet? Probably. Will I try to help my children learn to be better at putting things away? Most definitely! But, I can also say that after glimpsing the future, I am beginning to learn to let go of my preoccupation with getting organized and embrace the chaos. Soon it will be gone and I will be one of those very wise moms saying, “Trust me, someday you will miss the mess.”

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