It’s 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, and where was I?
Was I sleeping? No.
Indulging in a work-night movie with my husband? Nope.
I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen cabinets, giant pregnant belly, tattered pajamas, and all.
Because they were still smeared with leftover finger paint from our inkblot painting experiment two weeks ago.
Because I needed to go to work in the morning, and there would be no time to clean it up until next weekend, and three weeks is far too long to have paint on the cabinets.
Because what would everyone say if they knew? What am I teaching the kids by leaving messes? What chaos is this that we’re living in?
I rode that runaway train in my head as I gritted by teeth and washed away the remnants of a precious moment with the kids. I worked myself up as I thought about how serious all of this was.
That’s about when my husband walked in.
“I thought you were going to bed,” he said, with a mix of confusion and concern.
“I was, but this isn’t done,” I retorted, hoping that my tone would let him know that somehow this was his doing.
“You should go to bed. You’ve done enough tonight.”
“But it’s not done.”
He was right, and I knew it, but I didn’t want to let him know that. I was tired, but I didn’t want to admit that either.
I’d like to say I’m not always this way, but moments like this do sneak up on me more than I care to admit.
I’d had a great weekend and didn’t even notice the paint there until about 9:58, when I actually had been on my way to bed. Then suddenly, it was all I could see. That and the fingerprints on the fridge and the crumbs in that little space under the cabinets that seems to serve no other purpose than collecting crumbs.
The thing that makes all this so complicated is that it’s not even about the mess. (Well, maybe it is a little, but not really.) It’s about what that mess represented in that moment.
That paint, the fingerprints, and the crumbs stood for who I am and the kind of life I’m providing for my family. I sure wasn’t thinking about how much fun my kids must have had, or the many more important things I must have been doing instead of wiping up fingerprints.
I was thinking of all the ways I wasn’t enough. So it really wasn’t about the mess at all. It was about the things that I insist on making so complicated.
The irony is that it is complicated – just not in the way we make it out to be. This moment could have been so much simpler, but I was afraid to let it be.
We can convince ourselves that we need to be on our hands and knees, scrubbing the cabinets late on a Sunday night because it feels that urgent in the same way we convince ourselves that everyone who’s ever given us a funny look or unsolicited advice absolutely knows what they’re talking about.
Maybe they do.
Maybe they have everything figured out.
Maybe they have a magic wand and a clone.
Maybe they’ve invented a self-cleaning house.
Or maybe their oven is also caked in burned pizza drippings. Maybe all of this feels complicated for them, too.
We make things so serious and scary. We worry about what everyone will think or what they’re doing. We ask questions with no answers, like what kind of adults will the children become if we leave finger paint on the cabinets another week? It doesn’t take much to convince ourselves that every little thing we do or don’t do could break the kids.
Of course it doesn’t really work that way. It’s so much more complicated than that even. All we can do is accept that we can’t control everything. We’re not all that powerful, and that’s just fine.
We don’t have the power to change the course of our children’s lives by cleaning up paint, but we do have the kind of powers that matter the most. We have the power to instantly make a scraped knee stop hurting with a superhero Band-Aid and a magic kiss.
We have the power to transform into tickle monsters and tooth fairies.
We have the power to tell the most captivating bedtime stories and whip up the most delicious rainy day peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the world has ever known.
Most importantly, we have the power to teach our children how to value what matters most.
It really can be as simple as showing up as we are, using the powers we have, and making room for those things that matter the most. The trick is giving simplicity our permission and focusing on what actually matters most to us and our family.
For me right now, what matters most is taking better care of myself so that I can be present enough to make those PB & Js, launch surprise tickle monster attacks, and enchant with bedtime stories. That means that next time I’m up late frantically scrubbing the cabinets, I should probably just go to bed.
As complicated as the world is, I can let it be simple where it can be simple by teaching our family’s most cherished values and modeling gratitude and respect for ourselves and others. Maybe that’s how to raise kids who grow up to be the kind of adults who know that the paint is still on the cabinets because they were busy doing what really matters.