Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year's Desolutions

When I knock on the outside of this afternoon, it has a hollow sound -- for years my new year plans have included a modest or not-modest list of resolutions -- things I Must Do, and the ways in which I will achieve them, which I try in earnest to do and then fail, and then re-resolve and fail again. Failure is as much a part of the resolution cycle as success is, and I am beginning to think that the approach is the problem -- that going at a fault or failing with a resolution is the wrong way to do it.

For example, let's say that one of my resolutions is to keep up with the dishes. So I write that down with my new felt-tipped black pen, and I declare that I will do dishes twice a day until it becomes like second nature to me. I do this each day for three days, and then on the fourth day I have a migraine and my 7:30pm I can barely even stand up, much less scrub and scrape congealed crap off of plates yet again, so I just don't, and then in the morning I still feel awful so I just stack the breakfast dishes on top of the dirty dinner pots, if I even stack them at all. I tell myself that as soon as I shake the headache I will catch up, and then someone calls to see if I can help them with an errand, and I have to grab a pizza for dinner, and since I didn't really use any dishes that night, why should I clean them? And so on, until they are piled up so high.

A resolution like this tries to attack the end result through a barrage of little Plans and Interventions. But as we learned from the Army Corps of Engineers, when you try to fix something by just attacking the very end result, you can end up with a big mess.

Instead, as I am learning, the process has to be different.

First, I have to actually observe myself making the mistake. For example, with the dishes, instead of taking on new resolutions, I just have to observe myself and my dishwashing habits for a week. When do I do dishes? When do I not do dishes? I leave judgment in the other room and I just watch myself. And I discover something -- I do not get behind in the dishes because I am lazy and disorganized, as I had been telling myself. There are a lot of factors that go into creating the problem. First, I have too many dishes out and available for use. When all of the cups are clean, they do not fit into the cabinets. This annoys me terribly, so I do not ever really want them to all be clean, because that means they are falling out of the cabinet every time I open it. So, instead of berating myself for not cleaning the cups, I get rid of some of the cups. Bam. Problem solved. Or at least the beginning of the problem. Then, I see that I do my biggest clean-up of the kitchen in the late afternoon, at about 3:30 or 4:00pm, right before I cook dinner, which then wrecks the kitchen again. So, even though I am doing dishes every day, I never see the kitchen actually clean. It never reflects a sense of order or success back at me -- only failure and filth. So I switch my dish-doing to the evening, after the kids are in bed. I go to sleep with a clean kitchen and then wake up to one as well. When things get dirty, I think, "My clean kitchen has gotten a little dirty; I should clean it up a little," instead of thinking, "My kitchen is always nasty and will never be clean no matter what I do."

And lastly, I realize that dish doing is a solitary act, and a little lonely, and a little boring, but at the same time I yearn for a bit of solitary alone time in my day. So instead of hating it all at 3pm, children underfoot, hungry myself, mess everywhere, I just let it go until 7:30pm. Then I plug in my headphones and clean while I listen to a favorite podcast. I don't really mind anything else that is going on. And at the end of it, the kitchen is clean, and I've learned a little more about cooking or gardening or world events, and I haven't had to speak to anyone for an hour. (If this seems strange to you, I'm an introvert, and talking to people all day, the way I have to with two young and very-verbal children, is as stressful as a day full of business presentations. Even though the questions are charming -- "What kind of factory do marshmallows come from?" or Norah's favorite, the simple, "What's this?" -- sometimes I just want a break from speaking.)

So what I end up with isn't a perfect solution -- I will still get behind on pots and pans at the end of long days, and I will never really like bending down and standing up a hundred thousand times to load and unload the dishwasher and hand-wash the rest, but it's manageable when I reduce the number of dishes and fit dish-time into my day with the mild reward of listening to a podcast.

But this is not a post about dishes. It's about the way I expect myself to do things, and the fact that it is the opposite from the way that I actually work. Basically, I need a day that has scheduled time for doing certain things -- teaching, mothering, cleaning, resting, eating -- and some wiggle room as well, for picking up slack when I get behind, or for pointedly not picking up slack when I am just too darn tired and finished with it all. Because sometimes "giving up" for an evening is more restorative than anything else.

So I refuse to resolve to do anything this year. I do not resolve to lose any weight at all, I do not resolve to have a cleaner house, I do not resolve to be more orderly in my work or more creative in the activities I do with my children or more or less of anything as a wife. Instead, I am going to do something that I have never done before at the end of a long December:

I love you just the way you are. You're good enough right now. You taught yourself everything you know about how to keep a house clean. You taught yourself how to be a happy mother and wife. You taught yourself how to teach yourself things, and now you teach other people. That's not nothing -- that's something. You're not a failure. You're a ringing success. If you don't believe me, watch your husband playing with your kids when he gets home from work. That's the stuff that matters. That might be the only thing that matters.

Happy New Year!! :)


  1. Love, love, love this! It is brilliant, just like you!

  2. until you drop your phone in the sink... like I did.

    haha, what podcasts do you like?

  3. Jeni, check out Cooking with the Moms. It's totally charming and reassuring and just informing enough to be very useful. It's free on itunes.