Cleaning During the Little Years


Let’s be honest: I wasn’t the best housekeeper even before we have kids. I love a clean space, I love purging and organizing, and I even love a good, thorough cleaning time. But it hasn’t always been high on my priority list. 

So when I read this essay, I thought, “Yes, that will be us one day—horrified at the state of our house.”

My kids have both been less than ideal sleepers. They both took really short, unpredictable naps until they transitioned to one nap. And they are very light sleepers. 

Plus, it’s no secret that I love naps. Naps are how I have survived this 3.5 year season of broken nighttime sleep.

All this to say, I firmly do not believe in cleaning while my kids sleep.

A caveat: perhaps if they took very long, consistent, and/or multiple naps, I might use part of a nap to clean. Another caveat: there are days when the house has felt so beyond repair that to regain sanity, I’ve used some sleep time to clean. Usually I have regretted it because it has resulted in a shorter nap or an exhausted mama. I’m all about trying to stay ahead of the kids in the well-rested department!

I wanted to look at the positive things that come from not cleaning during my kids' naptime, and then I want to share one idea that is helping me keep our house cleaner right now. 

  1. If I don't clean, they sleep longer (the best reason not to do it right there). I thought I was making this up, but they wake up sooner every time.
  2. They will better learn to clean. Because of my no-cleaning during nap time policy, my kids have been forced to tag along while I clean. My son has his own mop now, and both are fascinated by spray bottles. We have invented some fun games while I fold laundry, and they both love to stand in the learning tower and help wash dishes. This is all born out of necessity, but I love that they witness how the house gets from messy to tidy. This also means that more messes are often being made as I straighten up, but I take what I can get.
  3. My husband can step in. My husband works long hours and has a long commute. We are on the same page about house cleanliness (we’d love it if it were cleaner but it’s not always the first priority). The fact that I don't clean during naptime means that he often steps in to clean, but I don't see this as a bad thing at all. We both try to give each other lots of grace. 
  4. I am learning to let stuff go (in, what I think, is a really good way). I’ve learned not to waste gorgeous days when we’re all happiest outside to clean. I’ve also learned what’s essential (clean clothes, clean dishes, food), and that has been really helpful. In a perfect world, my baseboards and doors would be regularly wiped down. In this world, it may be another couple of years before it happens on a consistent basis. 

    I love this quote from "What we neglect when the children are young" and I think it applies to so much more than cleaning: 

    But maybe nobody tells us we will regain our vision, our clarity, because it is the blindness to whatever compromises we need to make—to our houses, our marriages, our friendships, our very senses of self—that will usher us, with sanity intact, through those stages in the first place. If we became too aware of what we weren’t seeing, of what we were neglecting, it would defeat the psychological purpose of not seeing it. Some things are best understood only in hindsight.

  5. I'm a more rested and happier mama.  I remember reading somewhere that if you start picking up and tidying, you’ll get a burst of energy and become a whirlwind. The article said that women should not clean at night or they would stay up way too late. I find the same to be true during precious quiet time. I can easily get going and stay motivated. But it’s the crashing exhaustion right when my kids need me to have energy that kills me.

So what do our days look like practically?

I squeeze in bursts of tidying when my kids are having those rare moments of independent play. I ask them to help me while we fold laundry. And I accept that we may not finish the pile. On beautiful days or fussy days or sick days, we let a lot go and catch up later. My husband helps out, and we both have bursts of cleaning when things get too out of hand. I sometimes let my kids fuss while I finish a chore. I try to keep our house free from too much stuff. These are all little things that help. I long so badly for a sparkling clean house, but for now, this is what works. We aren’t living in filth (most of the time). I try to keep the dishwasher unloaded. I keep our clothing and toys to what feels like a good minimum for us.

But when I look back on my years of motherhood so far, I don’t mentally see the laundry piles or the crumbs. In fact, even in photos, our home usually looks decent. So I’m trying to remind myself that the stuff that needs to get done will get done. And one day, there will be more time for cleaning.

Right now, I want to be a present mama, and this totally means that we use some of our days for cleaning up the house. I want my kids to learn how to tidy, and I want them to learn responsibility. But I simultaneously have to know when to turn off my cleaning frenzy and calm down.

What do I use their naptime/quiet time for? Writing or resting or reading—any activity that recharges me and that I can do quietly. I’ve never regretted not using it for cleaning, but I have regretted it when I spend it doing busy tasks.

One thing I've started this week that has helped tremendously: I read this post on Modern Mrs. Darcy in which she referred to this Apartment Therapy post. In it the authors says that maintaining a clean house involves completing the cycle—so finishing what you start. Practically this means when I make coffee I get everything out, make coffee, and then put everything away. But with little kids and their urgent needs, there are uncompleted cycles everywhere--pajama pants that don't get put away, snack stuff strewn on the counter, and crumbs on the table.

While I have to be okay with incomplete cycles to survive this season of motherhood, I'm noticing that making an effort to complete the cycle makes me feel a little less mentally frazzled. So when possible, I go ahead and throw the dirty clothes in the wash or finish folding the dishrags or put away our craft supplies. This is probably common sense to so many people, but it is helping our home stay tidier and helping me stay saner (there's nothing that will deplete my sanity like incompleteness everywhere!).

Do you think housework must suffer during the little years? 

Related: My thoughts on The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up