One morning, my three-year-old Grace ran in from the backyard and skidded across my newly-mopped white kitchen tile, landing in a heap next to the sink.

I went to comfort her, but first noticed the two dirt streaks left by her bare feet when she fell.  With a washcloth already in hand, I wiped up the parallel tracks and then offered kisses to my crying little girl.

As I went through that five-second process, a voice inside my head said, “Look at what you are doing. What is most important here?”

It’s a no-brainer when I look at it logically.  What deserves my best attention?  A floor?

Or Grace?

Sometimes, however, it doesn’t feel so simple.  So for the mothers worldwide who are daily making choices between the “white-glove” ideal and the needs of messy children, here are three reminders that have since guided my life.

(1) We want our homes to be clean enough to be healthy, messy enough to be happy.

Doesn’t it often come down to how we talk to ourselves about the dirt and clutter around us?

When marble tracks weave their way around the living room and the kitchen is speckled with batter splatters, I want to freeze the whirlwind and restore the order, but instead I (try to) say to myself, “It’s okay if toys and project supplies are everywhere. My children are creating.”

Most afternoons, when my children race through the door after a long day at school, a few shoes don’t make it to the bin, inside-out socks are left straggling on the floor, and water bottles, backpacks, and jackets are dropped in a disorganized heap—not the straight line in which I envision them.

I’m tempted to call my children back to the front door and demand perfection, but then I ask myself these questions:

“Is this mess unhealthy?”

“Will freaking out about this make my family happier?”

Usually, it works best to take a deep breath, enjoy my time with my children, and straighten up the doorway together when we do our “zones” at the end of the day.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit these idiosyncrasies of mine, but they’re true.  And honestly, this kind of self-talk makes a difference.

(2) Remember we’re building something.

I could have won the “grumpy mood” award while driving to my brother’s wedding a couple of months ago.  My husband noticed the scowl on my face and asked what was wrong.

“I’m just so frustrated with our house.  The laundry room is buried under board games and mending piles and the floor is covered with crumbs.  I haven’t had a moment to clean and organize the past few days because we’ve had so many commitments, and I’m just frustrated when I have to live like this.”

I closed my eyes and took a little rest to help me calm down, but then later that afternoon, I saw a construction photo of the beautiful building where my brother was married.

It didn’t look nearly as clean and perfect while it was covered in scaffolding—surrounded by building materials and lacking in landscaping.  But no one expected the building site to look pristine.  It was a building site.

Now that it’s finished, it looks like this:

Our homes are the exact same way, but whether or not we’re renovating our kitchens or adding office space, we are building something incredible.  It’s called a family.

Of course we want to keep the construction zone as tidy as possible, and we can build a family that cleans together, but the time for pristine conditions is later . . . or maybe never (if we want grandchildren and other visiting little ones to always feel welcome).  When we’re in the business of growing people, a mess is part of the process.

(3) Know that the real power of a family comes from what can’t be seen.

It’s easy to focus on what’s visible—the perfect pony tail with a crisp white ribbon, the vacuum lines in the living room carpet, the freshly-baked homemade bread . . ..

But the real strength of a family lies in those unseen/unphotographed moments:

  • When your eight-year-old spills his orange juice into his spaghetti, and you treat him the same way you would a guest—“Oh, no problem!  Let’s just get a towel and clean that up.”
  • When you and your teenager have a shared favorite song, and you sing your hearts out while loading rows of red plates into the dishwasher.
  • When your toddler chases you around the kitchen clutching “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”—because he knows you’ll drop everything to read it with him.

Those sweet moments, however, are often scrunched in between the chaos: your daughter can’t find two matching black rubber bands for her braids, your son is mad because his brother took his special penny, a Lego storm trooper’s head slipped between the car seats, and you can’t seem to locate your daughter’s favorite kiwi chapstick.

Our lives are always going to be a balance of clean and messy or frustrating and sweet, but when we keep our focus on creating a healthy, happy family, remember we are building something extraordinary, and create as many “real power” experiences as possible, the satisfaction we’ll feel from our relationships will far outweigh what we get from even the cleanest of floors.


QUESTION: How do you bring balance to the clean house/messy children dilemma?  Is this still a challenge once you have teenagers?

CHALLENGE: Think about your current perspective on family life and identify one reminder that can help shift your thinking and bring more balance to your family experience.

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