I seem to be following a lot of mothers of young families on Instagram. And in amongst the lovely photos of daffodils from the British mums and snuggly blanket moments from the ones closer to home, there are the posts of disaster days, days when nothing got crossed off the To Do list, the only laundry to be done was of the emergency, strip the beds because the kids are sick kind or the sun was calling just a little too winningly to be resisted.
There is so much guilt in those posts! And even though I don’t have children, I understand the feeling at the end of a long day when ‘nothing got done’, by which we mean that tasks on the To Do list did not get completed and crossed off. Because, outside of all-important napping, it’s rare for any of us to spend a day when ‘nothing got done’ being entirely inert. And if we do happen to spend a day that way, it’s because we’re either sick or completely exhausted and there’s so much healing and regrouping going on that if we knew what it was and listed it, we’d be astounded.
But we don’t list those things, do we? We put down things like ‘Write for 30 minutes’ and ‘Do 3 loads of laundry’. ‘Spring clean the pantry’ and ‘Organise craft supplies.’ All of which are admirable and necessary things to do.
But they’re not what makes a life, are they? The things that make a life involve snuggling with your child when they need a cuddle and spending an afternoon catching up with a friend. Dropping everything to help your spouse run some errands because you haven’t really seen each other in days and the workweek is about to begin again. The walk to the corner store that takes nearly an hour because your two-year-old wants to examine every stone she comes across along the way.
These are all good things. As far as I can see, these are the best things. But they’re not the things we think of when we decide we’re going to do all the things. They’re not the things we put on the the lists of things we need To Do. They’re not the things we think about when we’re heaping guilt upon our heads at the end of a day of unwashed dishes and un-spring-cleaned pantries.
But they are the things you remember when you look back on your life.
My mother kept a very clean home. She dusted every day. She washed the bedding on Thursdays and did the ironing on Tuesdays. And I only really noticed the cleaning and the washing and all the rest of it when I was wishing she’d stop doing all that stuff and spend time with me.
I remember the feeling of climbing into bed on Thursday night with the sheets all clean and fresh jammies. It did feel nice. But I have no memory of getting into bed on Wednesday night. I don’t think I ever said to myself ‘Oh thank goodness it’s Wednesday! Tomorrow we’ll have clean sheets!’ And aside from wondering if she was sick, I don’t think I would have noticed if she’d skipped a week. And yet every week she stuck to her schedule.
And at the end of her life, when we were talking about what a good Mum she’d been and what adventures she had had, and I found out that her wedding ring came from India and we agreed that she’d had a big life, not once did I say that she’d kept a clean house. It’s not that I didn’t notice or that I didn’t appreciate it. It’s just that, in those raw, final conversations, it didn’t matter.
So maybe we could lose some of our guilt and start to feel better about the way we’re living our lives if we took a more honest approach to our To Do lists. Yes, write down the tasks you hope to accomplish. One day, pantry, I will get to you! And also write down the really important things you will actually do, like nurturing your toddler’s curiosity, letting your spouse know that they mean the world to you, spending a couple of hours building a friendship, giving your body the time it needs to refresh and heal.
Actually write it down. Check it off at the end of the day. See if that lets you feel better about how you’re spending your time. Put those dirty dishes in their place.