Embracing life’s messiness
One of my earliest memories is of the beach.
They’re just snapshots of that trip, back when I was 2 or 3: watching hulking storm clouds gather outside our hotel room; Dad winning me a pair of toy clowns from a claw crane. I remember strolling the boardwalk with him early in the morning while Mom got ready, and scraping my knee after a fall.
And the dirt, of course. Always the dirt.
As a child, everything was “dirty” — especially sand. I could not stand to muss my clothes or feel grit between my fingers. A memory of a young cousin once happily sloshing in mud with his sludgy trucks still fills me with disgust.
But now, of course, I have a child myself. A 1-year-old who is already capable of all sorts of chaos — especially in the kitchen.
Cabinets are locked and secured. Anything within reach of Oliver’s curious hands has been moved to higher ground. I routinely sit on the floor and strain to see what he sees, knowing the responsibility of keeping him safe rests squarely with Spencer and me. If there’s a speck of lint on our toy-strewn carpet, his baby radar will find it immediately.
Before becoming a parent, I guess I knew that messiness — gross, awful, sticky messiness — is just part of the gig . . . but to fully appreciate that, it’s best experienced firsthand. At all hours of the night. Usually with a mop and bucket.
Don’t worry, friends: this is a family column, and we don’t need to discuss particulars. Illness, diapers, endless laundry — I know you’re all capable of filling in the blanks.
Most messes are currently contained to mealtime, thankfully. Jailed in his high chair, there’s only so much mayhem a toddler can cause.
Though the boundaries are always shifting. Oliver is no longer content to be spoon-fed, for example. I know our goal here is to help him become independent, but handing Oliver a spoon? Willingly giving him access to projectiles? Stand back. Sweet potatoes on the floor. Mashed corn in his hair. Juice on your jeans. A layer of Puffs cereal dust coating his hands, your hands, the high chair, the kitchen table . . . and snacks chucked into corners I never fathomed he could reach. Oh, are the Nationals calling? Kid has an arm.
Because he has been a little behind on milestones, we have an awesome team of instructors helping us get him up to speed. The longer we work with these folks, the more I’m convinced they’re present as much for us as Oliver. They have given me so much confidence as a parent, and I find their advice invaluable.
Like dutiful students, Spencer and I have followed their recommendations for cheering Oliver on with his eating, crawling, talking. He is such a funny, curious kid — and he’s changing all the time. I listen to what the professionals suggest, and we’ve had no trouble following the program. Until recently. Addressing the fact that Ollie — like his mother — does not like to get anything on his hands, his instructor challenged us to resist the urge to clean everything up immediately. “Let him make a mess!” she said, spooning puree onto the tray of his high chair. “Let him have fun!” I watched with barely-masked horror as Oliver stuck a finger in the vegetables. He was unsure, looking for my reaction — so I smiled uneasily. Like so many times in the last year, I had to remind myself that it’s not about doing what’s easiest for Spencer and me (not destroying the kitchen, say). I don’t want to pass my idiosyncrasies to him so quickly. It’s about what’s best for Oliver.
And what’s best is, apparently, letting him mash food in his hair.
Ollie is getting into it. And Spencer and I are adjusting to these sensory food experiences, too. Now that our son reaches for the spoon and “feeds” himself (and us), I’ve had to relax about messes. The kid is going to wreck the place; our living room is already proof of that. I can agonize over it or accept that all will be fixed after bedtime.
Or, you know, when he turns 18.
We’re buying stock in antibacterial wipes. They’re on the kitchen table, in my purse, on side tables around the house. When the situation really deteriorates, we whisk Oliver straight to the bathtub . . . where he merrily splashes Spencer until he’s forced to change his shirt. It’s a sweet and messy life. But hands can be washed. Stains can be soaked. Though it goes against every “but it’s dirty!” bone in my body, I try to sit still. I don’t want my child to remember me pulling away.
So yes, Ollie, I’ll take that soggy Puff from you. Someday I’ll welcome sticky hugs, too.
What won’t we clean up for our kids?