By JM Randolph, the Accidental Stepmom
The same sense of self-preservation that keeps me from shouldering the responsibility for regularly cleaning the kids’ rooms mandates that, eventually, I do have to go in. Go in as in, “Cover me, I’m going in.”
There will inevitably come a moment when I can’t ignore it anymore—usually because the door won’t shut. There will have been a blowup over a critical piece of sports gear or homework that has been unlocatable due to the mess. By this point, the room makes Hogwarts' Room of Requirement look positively organized, and I am convinced there’s a camera crew from Hoarders lurking outside in the bushes.
There are two ways to approach Going In: with the kid and without the kid. Both have merits. There are some things that you truly need the child for—clothing, for instance. Does this still fit? Are you ever going to wear this without me forcing you to?
That leads to its own battles: If it takes you five minutes of contortions to get the pants on, they don’t fit anymore. There are more holes in your favorite shirt than there are in my favorite dust rag—how about we swap?
When you get the boo-boo face for throwing out jeans that are held together only by the belt loops and one pocket, take the opportunity to remind the children they are welcome to do this themselves without help. Leave out the part about how you’ll never let them leave the house wearing that.
With an overly sentimental child, or one with pack-ratting tendencies, you’re better off making some of these decisions on your own.
When #5 went to scouting camp this summer, I took the opportunity to Go In to his room. He had created two piles the size of furniture as high as his desk. I lost count of the trash bags full of actual trash that I sifted out of them, including the remnants of his lunch from the last day of school, approximately four weeks earlier.
He’s the youngest of five, the only boy. He’s also the youngest in his class, and on the cusp of everything changing at age 11 and the sixth grade. I know if I ask him, he will never let go of a contractor-size bag full of Webkinz that have long since met their electronic demise from neglect; I also know he’ll forget about them if they are no longer in his room. The big plastic fire truck with the electronic siren he got for Christmas when he was 4, tucked under the far corner of the bed? It’s going to bring a lot more joy to some younger boy who comes by it through donation. Broken toys from Happy Meals? Don’t get me started. Shoe box full of rocks collected one afternoon two summers ago? Perhaps it’s time to set them free.
It took me an entire day and night to get his room in order. Through it all, I second-guessed everything.
In the end, I felt happy to clear his space for him. He’d be able to find things and have room to breathe. I kept the Lincoln Logs and Legos; I kept the Matchboxes and exactly one bed-perimeter’s worth of stuffed animals. I rearranged the furniture.
When we picked him up from scout camp, his dad told him we had a surprise for him at home, and that he owed me. Now, I don’t operate under the illusion that a clean room qualifies as a “surprise” for an 11-year-old boy, but it was definitely noticeable, different and an unpleasant task he didn’t have to do.
By the time we got home, he’d forgotten there was supposed to be a surprise. He dropped his stuff in the living room and immediately went for the TV remote. When we redirected him to put his gear away, he picked up his backpack and went into his room. Ten minutes later he wandered out and went again for the TV remote. I peeked into his room and saw the contents of the backpack scattered all over the floor.
His dad asked, “So what did you think of your room?”
He replied, “What about it?”
JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.