There is a poem that ends with the verse: cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow, for children grow up, as I've learned to my sorrow. So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust go to sleep. I'm rocking my baby and babies don't keep.
I remember seeing these lines repeated often in cross stitch catalogues my mother used to get. At one point I wrote it down just to remind myself that that was the kind of mother I was going to be - the cool mom with the messy house but happy kids.
But what author Ruth Hulburt Hamilton doesn't allow for in her poem is an answer to the question of who is going to do the cleaning and the scrubbing. Because at some point at least rudimentary cleaning has to be done - laundry, emptying the trash, washing dishes, picking up items off the floor that could be potential choking hazards or food dropped off the dinner table that we don't want the kids to eat three days later - petrified.
The poem from whence the lines come is titled "Song for a Fifth Child" so perhaps children one through four are taking care of chores. Maybe dad is a CEO and they have a housekeeper. Maybe the mother is just one of those people who never needs sleep so she can rock her baby and then clean house at 3AM.
And then there's this nugget, also a frequent needlepoint sampler: "I hope my children look back on today and see a parent who had time to play. There will be years for cleaning and cooking. But children grow up when we're not looking."
Are there years when we don't have to clean and cook because I must have missed them. I seem to recall cleaning and cooking even when I didn't have kids.
It didn't occur to me when I jotted the verse down that if I didn't do the cleaning - who would? Maybe my future husband would but shouldn't he get a chance to rock his baby too? No, the logistics of the whole thing were definitely lost on the 12-year-old me. The me that planned to become an artist and live with my husband in a studio apartment that I fantasized looked suspiciously like our basement play room (I didn't exactly dream big).
I write this mostly in jest but this is the kind of thing that preys on the minds of mothers. Are we spending enough time with our kids? Can we spend enough time with them and still have a house that won't be condemned by the department of health and sanitation? What are outside expectations of mothers? The expectation is that you're available to make healthy meals and help your kids with their homework and you have a house that's pretty clean. Not immaculate but seriously if little Jimmy gets picked up from a play date at your filthy house it doesn't matter how much rocking (or playing) you are doing - little Jimmy's mom is going straight home to tell little Jimmy's dad about what a slob you are. Likewise if little Jimmy gets picked up from a play date at your spotless house - little Jimmy's mom is going straight home to tell little Jimmy's dad about how anal you are. And I don't mean to vilify other moms, you can substitute your neighbor, your clergyman, your friendly campaign pollster, whoever it is who makes it past your front door. Mothers (and fathers) are being judged all the time, constantly looking for that elusive balance between work and play.
But back to our two bits of prose. Here's the point that the poets miss: kids love to clean and cook so why not combine the two; you'll get bored rocking after a while anyway. If I give the twins each a sponge they are off. They clean up and down the stairs, they clean in the bathroom sink, they clean the kitchen table. They love to wipe up spills both large and small. They love to wipe up the water left on kitchen floor after it's been walked across on a rainy day (consequently they've been busy this week), they love to point out all the spider webs underneath chairs that never, ever, get cleaned up.
And as for cooking, they love to pour ingredients into bowls and they like to add eggs to batter after I've broken them open. When they get bigger they'll get to use the apple peeler and the nut grinder and maybe they'll thrill to grating cheese.
These activities keep us all in the kitchen together, I can get dinner made albeit much slower than if I didn't have so much "help" and they get a mother who has time to play and still give them meals that don't come with a prize in the box.
But then eventually there will come a day when I'll say "hey guys, want to clean the sink or ride on the vacuum cleaner?" And they'll be too interested in Legos to come running. Or worse they'll say, "sure Mom, what will you pay me?"
Those kids. They grow up so fast.
song: Where do the Children Play? • artist: Cat Stevens