Here in South Australia, our covid-19 related restrictions have been steadily lifting. But prior to this, like many other full-time parents around the country, I spent a lot of the last few months at home, with no visitors. It was a blessing in disguise, as my first trimester sickness kept me dreading commitments and social interactions, but I did come to miss my regular outings, the convenience of playgrounds, and the company of friends. As restrictions have relaxed, we jumped back into the world of play dates and catchups; emerging as a toddler and no longer a new mum, but also an expecting mum. It was within a week of resuming play dates and visits that the last few months culminated in a new understanding of self-care, my priorities, and my personality.
Our first group playdate could have easily been at my house, but something about having my friends in my home made my skin crawl; a brand new, and startling sensation for me. As we walked into our host’s home, I noticed an immediate feeling of comfort and calm. Clean floors, open spaces, not a single piece of Tupperware or utensil on the floor in the kitchen, no toys scattered, and empty, pristine benches. This home evoked a feeling of simplicity I wanted for our home. It soon became clear how this was managed, and it was so simple.
A playroom. A room in the house, partitioned with a baby gate which housed all the toys, the games, the clutter. The toys stayed in the playroom, and it made not only for a tidy house, but a wonderful place to sit watch fully over our toddlers and socialise as adults. The playroom was paired with babyproofing almost everything else. All cupboards in the kitchen were babyproofed, rooms that weren’t to be entered were closed, and the very idea of a toddler rustling through the drawers and cupboards created a visible shudder in the shoulders of my friend.
But what was even more eye catching was just how comfortable she was in her space. This was her space, their family space, and they had it how they wanted it, with the compromise of the very busy playroom.
I went home determined to transform our living room into a playroom, to babyproof the kitchen cupboards and bathrooms. I walked into my home that afternoon and realised why that could not happen. And then slowly I realised why it didn’t need to.
I don’t believe there is a right or a wrong way to set up a home. I don’t believe there is one right or wrong way to parent a child, but different ways that reflect our individual differences. For us, our home is set up to include all in all aspects of life, and to maximise interpersonal interaction. Partitioning a play space from a living space creates a dissonance, making all cupboards and drawers inaccessible creates a barrier which may be convenient but is ultimately exclusive. For us, the tedium of reminding our busy toddler that the utensils are not to be spread around the kitchen is a necessary and temporary part of creating an invitational and all involved space.
But what does it really mean for me to have been comparing my home with someone else’s? Obviously I was feeling ashamed of my space, dissatisfied with the home I had spent so much time in recently. On further reflection, these feelings were more about my priorities than my friend’s pristine and comfortable home.
Why was I attracted to the tidy and clean floors? Because I had been neglecting my own. Because I had allowed stuff to accumulate and felt overwhelmed with how much there was to pick up.
Why was I impressed by the playroom and its partition? Because deep down I knew that I had allowed toys to accumulate and crowd our simple, minimalist approach to play and parenting.
In my recent attention to self care, I had been focusing on the wrong things; what to do in my “alone time” to feel settled. But ultimately, I spent my “alone time” either cleaning up mess, or trying to ignore the mess in favour of other enjoyable activities like reading, blogging, sewing, or consuming entertainment. These activities are helpful for me to re-centre and de-stress, but they’re ultimately useless if I persist in doing them surrounded by the disappointment and clutter of a stress inducing space.
To remedy this, I decided my approach to self-care needed to be all day. I need to maintain a healthy space as part of our family routine, not as a burst of energy on a “good” day. Dishes and cleaning up are now incorporated into mealtimes, taking advantage of Reuben’s love for water play and being involved. Maintaining an open backdoor policy comes with the strict rule of “boots off at the door” and regular bursts of sweeping or vacuuming high traffic areas. Spills are cleaned up with an element of play, as Reuben gets acquainted with cloths, and to satisfy the very normal obsession with opening drawers, filling them, emptying them, and then filling them again, one drawer in the kitchen is an allocated “Reuben drawer”.
Through these strategies, and more, not only am I feeling more at peace and calm in my space, but Reuben is learning that cleaning up and “chores” don’t happen magically when he naps. I’m not stressing that the dishes aren’t getting done when I need to sit with my child as he naps, and when it’s my time to really relax and unwind, I can take full advantage of it when I choose to.
Reflecting on the playroom reminded me that we do not want all this plastic junk cluttering our lives. There is so much evidence that more toys does not equal happier children, and most toys only get taken out of the box and not truly played with. The day I realised I could take charge of the toy situation, I did. At least half of the toys, all either routinely unplayed with or no longer developmentally appropriate were immediately boxed up and removed from circulation until the toy box could be closed easily, the blocks could fit in their allocated receptacle, and I could breathe a little easier. From now on, no toy is added without the removal of another. Period.
And so, the envy I felt in my friends house was put to good use. It taught me that my spatial self care matters more than I had ever realised, reminded me of our overlooked family values, and helped to free up my time to actually look after myself. A wonderful experience on my road to learning to listen to and experience all my feelings to their fullest.