I’ll come clean. I’m not a very tidy person. This is fine when you’re single, but becomes problematic when you have living with you tiny, tireless mess machines whose entire purpose is to make your house look like it’s been squatted, then burgled. Some days I fear visitors coming round in case they see the living room and phone social services.
Still, I can’t get past the futility of it all. As soon as you tidy mess up, your children start making it again, often while you’re tidying it up. It’s an endless, morale sapping task. At least Sisyphus kept himself fit.
My wife isn’t very keen on house work either. She doesn’t grasp the most important tidying technique of the parent of small children, the art of polishing poo. She starts, then see’s how dirty everything is, gets sidetracked and spends hours scrubbing the kitchen cabinet doors. It all annoys her so much it reminds her about things that annoy her about me. I’ve learnt to keep my head down when she’s cleaning.
I know my own personal untidiness is now irreversible, but I’m determined not to let the curse of untidiness be passed on to my children. At least once a day, I try to get them to tidy something up.
It’s a good job my son’s not a librarian. In his library the shelves would be empty and all the books would be in the middle of the floor in a huge pile. Back in the day there were some other people who liked to put books in a big pile, and that didn’t end well.
“Tidy up the books, please son.” I say in my calm, serene, but irresistibly steely authority voice.
“No.” My son says, distractedly, “You do it, Daddy.”
The only way to understand how aggravating and demoralising this response is is to actually have children and waste the first four exhausting years of their life trying to teach them to be polite, thoughtful, conscientious human beings.
We have words about his attitude. I ask him again.
“But Daddy? I have a Tummy ache because I’m so hungry and thirsty.” he tells me. We discuss this. Turns out it could be fake news. “But, but, but… I’ve hurt my leg.”. “I’m tired.”. “I’m busy thinking about how much I love you.”. “But Daddy!”. “Please Daddy!”.
The battle of wits goes on and on. Finally, after a mixture of threats and promises, my son caves and starts tidying up the books. For ten long, fraught minutes he toils, sighing and huffing, winging and complaining, agonising and feigning illness.
“Are you proud of me, Daddy?” he asks finally, beaming with pride about his achievement. Books have been placed neatly back on the shelves. Four whole books.
“Yes, very proud. Now can you tidy up the rest?”
He looks at me as if I’ve just asked him to strangle an enitre family of guinea pigs. Together we work, I pick up books and say things like “Let’s put this one on the shelf too, shall we?” as if that sort of means that he is doing it and not me. The next half hour is agony, his tireless ability to whine and resist and flag and be distracted is amazing, almost admirable.
In the end, I’ve done most of the work, and it’s taken ten times as long as if I had just done it myself, and he immediately wonders off as if to emphasise that he has learned nothing, that all I have achieved is to waste his time as well as mine.
This is where the parent has to really dig deep, swallow down the despair, ignore the futility and senselessly plough on. “Now.” I say, surveying the remaining explosion of mess still covering the floor. “What about these toys?”