Keeping the House Clean With a Toddler: The Sisyphus Problem

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Ready for your Greek mythology lesson of the day? Once upon a time there was a king named Sisyphus. Because of his deceitfulness, the gods forced him to spend all of eternity pushing a large rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again. Sound familiar? I’m pretty sure in the modern telling of that story, Sisyphus could be played by an parent who has a toddler, and cast in the role of “rock,” any toddler.

So is it possible to keep your house clean when you have a toddler? If you asked me, the answer would be a resounding NO. Although, I’ll be the first to admit, I wasn’t too great at keeping the house clean before I had a toddler either.

When Brad and I had company pre-baby, cleaning meant a quick sweep of the house to gather all the clothes, dishes, and personal effects that had found their way to the living room. (Code for we dropped them there and never bothered to put them away). I’d pick them up, push them into the bedroom and close the door. Our visitors were none the wiser.

But with a toddler, there isn’t a bedroom large enough to hold the deluge of toys flooding our floor. Nor is there, to be quite honest, as much of an incentive to pick them up. You see, when you spend an hour organizing, it would be nice to get at least that much time where the clutter stays off the floor. With Oliver on the loose, I’m lucky if I get five minutes.

Cleaning up after a toddler is a lot like trying to bale water out of a boat with a hole. Only the hole is a size of a bowling ball, and I’m stuck with a thimble instead of a bucket. By the time the last block gets tossed in the basket, the container of crayons are littered across the floor. By the time the crayons get put away, the cheerios are crunching their way into the carpet.

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It’s never-ending.

I turned to the internet for advice once and came across a website where the blogger suggests dividing your home into cleaning zones. She then goes on to suggest an order to clean each zone for maximum efficiency (read—hair pulling insanity) and a list of extras you should try to tackle at least once a week—you know normal things like dusting the top of your refrigerator, rinsing off your plants, and cleaning the upholstery on the couch. Huh.

Normal people, do you really do these things?

Because really, when I’m having trouble keeping the sink and laundry basket from overflowing, I have the time to think about the top of my refrigerator.

Before coming to my senses, I tried to follow the advice for one whole week (Note: don’t ask my husband for confirmation as he wouldn’t have noticed, see boat analogy). You know what happened? I spent a lot more time with the bucket of cleaning supplies than I did with Oliver. And while I’m for fostering independent play, my primary goal as a stay-at-home mom is to spend time with my son, to get out and experience the world through his eyes, to do things and go places that will stimulate his imagination.

Not crawl around on my hands on knees with a sponge and a bottle of Clorox.

So I made up my mind—housework will always come second….or forth when I really think about it. Having time to spend with my husband and “me time” also trump cleaning.

I was a little worried when I decided to throw in the err…sponge, that I would spend the day fretting the dreadful state of my apartment. That all that clutter would leave me feeling like my life was in shambles. After all, I’ve read enough articles to know that the state of your bedroom reflects the state of your mind. Or is it your car? I can’t remember.

Thankfully, whether room or car (and yes both are fairly messy at times), my life seems to churn on like the organized chaos that it is. The absolute essentials get taken care—we have clean dishes to eat off and dinner and underwear to put on in the morning. And the rest, we get to when we have the time. So the floor looks like a mine-field of Legos. So the windows are covered in mini handprints. So the top of the refrigerator is dusty.

None of these things are as important to me as spending time with Oliver, my husband, or when I’m tired and need the break, my personal Netflix queue. We all decide what we will prioritize in life. What works for me may not work for you.

Over time I’ve come the conclusion that it makes me happier to spend my time living with the mess, than living to clean it.

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Want some (Not So?) helpful hints for keeping your house clean with a toddler. Here are my favorites that I’ve read and my take on them.

1) Clean while your toddler naps.

You know how I said I prioritize spending time with Oliver over housework? Same with “me time.” I mean when else would I find the time to re-watch every episode of the X-Files. And this blog surely doesn’t write itself. Is it selfish? Sure. But so little of what we do as parents is so I take advantage when I can.

2) Get your toddler to help alongside you.

This one is nice in theory but horrible in practice. Take doing the dishes for example. Oliver loves doing dishes. But for Oliver, doing dishes means splashing in the water for a minute or two and then dumping cup after cup of water onto the floor. Which means for me, doing dishes means getting soaking wet, wiping up puddles from the floor, changing Oliver’s clothes, and then maybe if I’m lucky, washing an actual dish. I still encourage him to help me clean up as I think it’s an important lesson to learn, but you can’t expect a toddler’s methods to be comparable to your own.

3) Contain the mess to a single room.

Sure, if you live in a large home this one may work. But in our apartment, the single, central living room has no other choice than to serve as the living room, dining room, office, and play room. I’ve tried moving all of Oliver’s toys into his room, but you know what happened? It became a game to carry each bin out into the living room and dump it on the floor, thereby spreading the mess out even more. Once he’s older this might work, but in toddler world, contained messes are as rare as unicorns and leprechauns.

4) Clean as you go throughout your day.

I can see picking up the occasional food item or dirty bowl, but this seems like a classic case of spreading yourself too thin. Besides, how am I supposed to notice Oliver getting ready to do a belly flop off the couch if I’m focused on cleaning up the latest mess he’s made.

5) Get up before your kids and clean

Um…no. I need to amend my earlier statement. Cleaning is not forth on my list of priorities, it’s actually fifth. Without enough sleep I turn into a moody, weepy mess that make Oliver’s tantrums look tame.

What other advice have you heard that had you shaking your head? Have you found anything that truly works for you?

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