It doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’–why I’m a better parent when my house is dirty

Before I had kids, I kept my house very clean. Even when I was working 80 hours a week, I cleaned thoroughly about once a week–it was my ‘therapy’, of sorts, a chance to think through challenges at work and exorcise some of the stresses of the week. Now that I have three little ones at home, though, the house just does not stay very clean, and it’s hard to get time alone to clean (and not too effective to clean when my son is taking toys out more quickly than I can put them away!).

Every month or so, though, the mess gets to me and I stay up until ridiculously late scrubbing and washing and vacuuming (thank goodness for kids who sleep through noise!) and dusting everything. I had one of those cleaning sessions this week.

And what I noticed about myself the next morning made me reflect on organizing and that ‘golden rule’ for organizers. I found myself obsessing about keeping the house clean, in a way that interfered with how I normally parent. Instead of going straight to playtime after breakfast, I had to scrub the floor of pancake crumbs. I saw a spot I’d missed on the couch cushion and headed for the upholstery cleaner on the way out the front door to play. And I put another load of laundry in while my son was asking for help building his elevated train track.

It was when I actually intercepted him as he was on his way to (without even being asked!) wash his hands before lunch, because heaven forbid that he mess up my clean bathroom, that I realized both the absurdity of my attitude and actions and the connection to organizing.

See, control and order can be a problem for social workers who leave the confines of a direct practice relationship to do macro practice, too. Working with real human beings is messy enough, and when we no longer have the security of the client/practitioner relationship as a formal bound for our work, when we don’t have appointments scheduled on our calendar two weeks in advance, and when we don’t have a treatment plan to follow, we can get pretty anxious. And, given that good organizing means turning over the reigns for a lot of the work to those leaders with whom we’re working, this anxiety can permeate our work and interfere with relationships.

Unfortunately, I can think of several examples when this happened in my practice–the rally that I organized by myself, only to have my core leadership veto the plans two days before because it didn’t meet their needs; the really boring town hall meeting when I served as the MC instead of having a leader do it; the legislative hearing when two of our leaders felt silenced because they didn’t get to speak in Spanish. The times when I clung to control over things that really didn’t matter (just like the clean dining room table), my relationship with people who really do matter (a lot) was compromised. The times when I had my priorities straight, we created a space in which people could come together, comfortably, to build community and practice justice–the important stuff.

So maybe the newsletter article your clients write isn’t worded quite as you would have done it. The flyer they create doesn’t have the same clip art you would have chosen. The decorations they choose for the neighborhood celebration clash with the artwork in your conference room. You don’t like the color of shirt they chose for the grassroots fundraiser. The list could go on, but it shouldn’t. Because, just like whether every crumb is Dustbusted off my kitchen floor, it just really doesn’t matter. People are more valuable than ‘perfection’, and relationships are worth much, much more than the neverending pursuit of some ideal product.

The next time you’re tempted to correct, or take over, or redo, ask yourself if it’s really critical and if it will enhance or detract from your relationship with your leaders, from their sense of authentic power. And then remember my son, with his peanut-butter-hands all over our couch, and smile.

2 responses to “It doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’–why I’m a better parent when my house is dirty

  1. Your blog about cleaning reminded me of the book “Seven habits of highly effective people.” You can read the whole thing, or you can just read my distillation, which is as follows: figure out what’s really important to do and do THAT. So at that moment, you had an object lesson in what was not important (e.g. cleanliness). But sometimes it honestly is. And I know you know the diff because you are one of the most highly effective people I know!
    A member of your Fan Club!

    • melindaklewis

      I did read it for a leadership class at Wash U–the other thing that I remember from that class was a discussion about how there are kind of four quadrants of tasks that social workers face–things that are both important and urgent, which are sometimes our hardest work but demand priority; things that are important but not urgent, which we need to learn to set aside time to focus on; things that are urgent but not important (like some of the ‘busy work’ that our jobs include); and things that are neither important nor urgent, which we really shouldn’t waste our time doing. The good thing about being a Mom is that I don’t have time to bother with the things in that last category, and that my kids are a constant, demanding, vocal reminder to set aside time for those important things–it’s like they make their own urgency, you know?

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