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Mommy Can’t Be Martha Too

We are pleased to bring you another UP CLOSE motherhood submission by Sandra Reddish.  Sandy was raised in southeastern Idaho in the middle of a wheat field near the small town of Ririe, longing to escape to another part of the planet.  She divides her crazy life between being a wife, mother of three wild children, and as a part-time Speech-Language Pathologist. She confesses to being a total bookworm, chocolate addict, and an old movie buff who loves to cook. Her goals in life are to swim in the ocean, be a full-time stay at home Mom, and read every Victorian novel written.  She resides with her young family in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and dreams of building a home in another wheat field, next to the house she grew up in. 

This final destruction was the last straw. It had begun with the hand-covered hatboxes on the dresser, hatboxes that perfectly coordinated with the décor, that were ripped open like presents. The two-dozen pink Gerber daisies thrown down the stairs and used as light sabers were in sad shape–one was even lucky enough to have received a haircut. I stared in horror at the white and pink bedspread now splotched with bright red nail polish, which trailed along the wall, the molding, the closet doors (she didn’t miss the knobs). “What were you thinking?” I screamed at her in horror as I looked around the room.

“I just wanted to make it pretty,” she said, as the tears ran down her cheeks.

“Well this is NOT PRETTY!” After she collapsed in a puddle of tears on her pillow, I raged at her for a few more minutes before leaving her room.
I had spent hours on the weekends and evenings finishing her bedroom: a beautiful bedspread embroidered with flowers; a gorgeous daybed I had painted an antiqued brown copper; a dresser, bench, and small kitchenette I had sanded and painted to match as well. Handmade flowers and butterfly accents graced the walls that coordinated perfectly with the bedspread and the antique copper brown. It was gorgeous, the kind of room my family couldn’t afford until I was a sophomore with only three more years at home. “She is only three years old,” I remembered, as the tears fell on my cheeks. Yet I expected my daughter to treat her room like a display in a museum. “Don’t touch that. ”Leave the flowers alone.” “That’s not a toy.” The nagging voice of the decorator came back to haunt me.
There is a not-so-nice part of me that is obsessive about creating beauty and order in my home. I am working overtime to compete with Martha Stewart. Martha has an entire corporation dedicated solely to creating magic in living spaces that are without the life and the chaos of real living. I am trying to compete with an impossible illusion to make Heaven in the home of five humans, who feel like they are in boot camp.

This preoccupation insists my children need things I didn’t grow up with or they cannot be happy. They need clothes that are always clean, neatly matching and in style, bedrooms that coordinate perfectly from top to bottom and that are spotlessly organized. I spend hours designing rooms, painting frames and decorations, dreaming about curtains, hunting for the perfect touch. We need our home to look beautiful, so we can be happy, I tell myself.

But I seem to forget that these spaces are made for living, not just looking. I lose the balance of teaching and nurturing children to be clean and orderly and to do things for themselves in my quest for perfection. I am a drill sergeant about clutter, how beds are made, and where clothes are put. “Get that expensive bedspread off the floor now, and make this bed WITH the sheets!” I demand as I inspect the bed of Andrew, my eight-year-old son. One would think the national security of our country depended on the condition of an eight-year-old child’s bed from the way I am handling it. Finding clothing smashed in the incorrect drawers and clean clothes dropped in the dirty laundry hamper borders on treason, apparently, as I hound my children about putting things away properly.

When did Martha move in and Mommy move out? I begin to wonder. I come to the realization that my family didn’t apply to live on the set of HGTV. I begin to see what they really want and need is me, their Mom. Me–such a novel thought. They don’t want a mother who is always cleaning, multi-tasking, coordinating, or decorating. What they need is a mom who will be there, who will go out to look for dandelions instead of perfectly folding the laundry. They want a mom who wants to feel the rain and splash in the puddles, who will finish those amazing drapes later. They need a mom who can laugh with them, cry with them, and kiss the boo-boos. They want a mom who lets little fingers cut the cookie dough and who ignores the flour on her nose, at least long enough to make some memories and really live. Yes, they didn’t ask for Martha, they asked for Mommy. So I think I will try to find my life again, because Martha has enough on her own plate.

8 thoughts on “Mommy Can’t Be Martha Too”

  1. This was good timing. I've been obsessed with getting some of our chaos in order the past several weeks. This has taken its toll on our toddler. I recently noticed him grinding his teeth in stress, getting aggressive, more whiney, and Moms in play are always washing dishes. Oops. Refocusing has been good for both of us.

  2. Very well-written, Sandra! I think it is such a hard thing to find that balance between an orderly, clean, pleasant home (that is different for all of us) and having lots of space for our kids to relax and play. The balance is different for everyone. I tend to be a very absent-minded housewife. There are benefits. My kids can make forts in the living room with the couch cushions (we own nothing that is very fancy), and I don't care. But, there are drawbacks…believe me. I have a hard time managing the details of a home, and things get lost or stepped on, or I finally get stressed out and snap when our piano bench is scratched from all of my boys' Hot Wheels races. While my style works for our family (much of the time), I know that I am often more stressed out from being in a "child development danger" zone all the time, and I wish for more organizing skills and more desires to be the "Martha" of the home.

    Many years ago, I took a class at BYU from Kathleen Bahr about work and the family. One of the main takeaways for me is that there is always a pull between the maintenance of a home and the needs of small children. It is almost impossible for us to not feel conflicted as we consider whether we should play Uno or wash dishes or whether we should ride bikes or fold laundry. We only have so much time in a day, and the more kids we have, the more little tasks we have to take care of.

    The best thing thought for me: I think we can all raise good kids while having different styles of mothering. Kids are resilient. I think that kids can really thrive in lots of different kinds of homes, very immaculate ones to the very cluttered ones (clearly within normal limits…not a home that is a health hazard nor a home that has small china dolls placed on low shelves while toddlers play).

  3. I got thinking about my comment. I think my comment makes things sound too "black and white". Clearly, I know that you can do housework alongside of your kids, which is ideal. I know that kids at a young age can learn to wipe counters and sweep up crumbs. So, housework and the work of taking care of young children's needs are not mutually exclusive, but I do think there is a natural pull between the two. And, as a more relaxed housewife, passing on the "love of work" to my kids is something I struggle with.

  4. Sometimes I just have to close my eyes and not notice the things that will pull me into the "Cleaning Captian" mode.

    I am so glad to hear that you have some of the same struggles that I do with my own children! Driving down the streets of neatly kept homes in our neighborhood, it's easy to peer in from the outside and feel like I am the only one who suffers from a case of the Marthas.

  5. Sandra,

    Wow. Thanks so much for telling your story so honestly. I felt like I was reading my own story, minus the decorating (I’m decor challenged). My thing was always cleanliness and order. Up until the birth of my fourth baby (oldest was 5) I had a daily chore list was an insane amount of work. Nothing was out of place. Ever. It was Hell, for everyone.

    I look back on those early years and my heart breaks to realize that my children were second to my compulsion for cleanliness. Obviously there was some crazy mixed in there, need for control, anxiety, I’m not quite sure. I just wish I had seen how conducive my behavior wasn’t to a warm and happy home life. Not that I didn’t love my kids or that we didn’t ever have any fun, but the overall tone in the house was pretty rigid.

    Luckily the fourth baby broke me pretty well. I still get anxious in too much mess or clutter, but my standards have changed quite a bit. Sometimes I think I’ve just swung too far the other way, kind of giving up, so I’m working on a balance of organization and letting it go when I need to, versus being ok with a degree of disorganization until I freak out and make everybody clean like maniacs.

    I relate to not teaching kids responsibility. I would still rather do most things myself because it’s faster and done better. I’ve decided this summer will be the time we’ll work on learning new jobs and working together. I think kids who know how to work feel successful and confident in their ability to do hard/new things and I don’t want to rob my kids of that.

    Last thought, and I don’t know if this will make any sense, I’ve realized that while order is good and often necessary, my reasons for wanting a clean home have often come from the wrong place. I have been all too often concerned (even consumed) with what my home (or my kids hair, clothes, etc) says about me. Traveling along that line of thinking, I realize that in worrying about how I am perceived I am really just accusing others around me of being condemning or hyper-critical. Or I see them as my audience, people I can impress with my great home skills. The sad part is that my family gets caught in the crosshairs of my need to be seen a certain way. So, I’m working on making choices that are good for my family, trusting others will love me just the same even when things aren’t perfect, and knowing that even if they don’t I can have confidence in knowing that my choices are motivated by love and a desire to help my family grow in a balanced way.

    Sorry for the article-length comment. I’m also obsessive about words. My neurosis are legion. 🙂

  6. Funny–when I read the title of your article I thought of the Martha of Mary & Martha fame rather than Martha Stewart. (That may give you an idea of how un-decorated my house is.) As mothers, we can be "encumbered about many things," can't we?

    I, too, appreciated the candidness of your article. "What were you thinking!?" has passed through my lips on more than one occasion, only to be followed by the self-condemning whisper, "What were YOU thinking?!"

    With my first four children I easily kept writing utensils under control. Rarely were non-paper surfaces decorated with modern art. [Enter child #5 who was 19 months old when child #6 made her appearance.] Now I have four older children who control their own writing utensils, and I am somewhat enamored with Mr. Magic Eraser.

    I, too, get anxious when I am surrounded by clutter and with my kids out of school, I am not sure how best to manage my anxiety and their stuff. I am continuously reminding myself that they are more important than the socks stuffed behind the cushions for the umpteenth time and that someday I will regard "a place for everything and everything in its place" as an overrated ideal.

    The fact is that I do prefer seeing laughter in the eyes of my children even more than seeing a clutter-free floor–if only I can remember to notice the laughter and light in the eyes of my children.

  7. A few years ago, I decided to turn my home into a women's self-esteem project — boosting the self esteem of whoever is going to see my home. I used to stress out, frantically clean, and apologize profusely when a last-minute or unannounced visitor stopped by, but now I just let people see my disorganized home. The worst that can happen is that they think I'm a bad housekeeper. I can take it — I already know the truth. They either think, "It's good to see that someone else struggles with this," or "Wow, I'm a much better housekeeper than she is." Either way, they go away feeling good about themselves.

    I still work to improve my housekeeping skills and I have come a long way, but I try to do it for my own sanity (and my family's) and not for whoever might drop by.

  8. I recommend the Motherstyles book. It helped me understand my mothering a little bit more. I am more forgiving of my weaknesses and dislikes about mothering (why is something hard, why do I find something irritating that I have to do for my children, why do other mothers enjoy that sort of thing, why do other mothers do that sort of thing well) and realize my own strengths. I read it and knew YES! This is why I mother. This is what my focus is.
    Obviously, you need some balance in your life. But, you also need to accept your own style of mothering and see the good in it and not worry so much that you aren't blowing dandelions all the time. Read the book and get back to us. It might put things in perspective for you.
    If it wasn't for that book, I would read this post and feel both envious AND superior. But now I understand other styles better and see where people are coming from. It's ok to be you. If you are working on improving, just become a better you, not someone else.


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