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Messy Lessons



Ellie’s spit-up hits the floor with a slap, a puddle of curdled milk on my recently cleaned hardwood floors. I know that the process of wiping it up will not only soil yet another burp cloth from the stack that just came out of the wash, but that it will also leave an unsightly smear on the floor’s shiny surface, the very one I worked so hard to achieve.

“Oh Ellie,” I sigh, shifting her to my left hip, squatting down to clean up the mess with my right hand. Part of me feels bad for her, for the discomfort the spit-up must be to her, but mostly, I’m tired of dealing with it, tired of the ways her acid reflux messes with my neat little world.

For almost eight months now, I’ve been cleaning up Ellie’s spit-up some twenty to forty times a day, wiping it off of her clothes, my clothes, our furniture, the carpet, the hardwood floors, her toys, her car seat, pretty much anything that comes within a few feet of her mouth.

I’ve gotten used to the perpetual damp patches on my clothes, to the smell of halfway digested milk that lingers everywhere. I don’t even bother to change my clothes anymore unless I am completely soaked.

Now that Ellie’s started solid foods, her spit-up messes are not only wet and stinky; they also stain. I have to inspect each piece of our family’s clothing before it goes into and after it comes out of the washer, pre-treating green, orange, and brown stains, making sure they have come out in the wash.

Sometimes, when I watch her pea and carrot puree make its way back out of her mouth and onto the cute little off-white onesie I just finally got all the stains out of the day before, I want to cry. Sometimes, I do.

You see, I am highly motivated to keep my home, my clothes, and my daughter clean, neat, and orderly. I’m an incessant tidier, the kind of person who lies awake at night thinking about how I could rearrange a dresser drawer. I’ve been this way since I was a kid, at least as long ago as my pre-teen years when I wrote a little pamphlet entitled “How to Organize Your Room” that I eagerly distributed to all of my friends. It’s ridiculous, I know, but it’s always been one of the things that defines me.

And until now, until the birth of my first child, I’ve been able to, for the most part, keep up. Sure, my house has endured its fair share of overflowing laundry baskets, dust ball-covered floors, and crumb-littered refrigerator shelves, especially during the end-of-the-semester grading rush. But those messes were short-lived messes, messes I knew would go away as soon as I had time to attend to them, messes that, once dealt with, wouldn’t reappear for a few weeks at least. In short, they were messes that were simply interruptions to my vision of an ordered home, not messes that challenged the vision entirely.

Not so with Ellie. Her messes, both the piles of spit-up and the trail of toys she leaves in her ever-moving wake, are constant. Until she is asleep for the night, there is no illusion of having a perfect, tidy home, and by that time, I’m often so tired that I can’t even bring myself to straighten up the living room, let alone polish the hardwood floors, especially when I know they’re likely to get dirty again the next day.

I wish I could say that I’ve adjusted, that I’ve happily embraced the messes that come along with the blessing of my baby girl, but unfortunately, my home’s new less than orderly state still bothers me. As grateful as I am to have the daughter I spent many months praying for, as much as I love and cherish her, part of me still longs for perfectly shiny floors, laundry-free days, and a living room that isn’t littered with brightly-colored toys.

Sometimes, that longing spills over into anger and frustration that I can’t have those things anymore. I wipe the spit-up off of Ellie’s face just a tad bit too roughly. I complain to my husband when he comes home from work. The drive for order that’s been with me all these years isn’t dying easily, even though each day with Ellie reminds me that it must, even though I sense God wants me to let it go.

Truth be told, letting my home get messy makes me feel so unmotivated, kind of like I’m still lounging around in my pajamas at 2 p.m. If I’m not living to stay on top of things, to keep things tidy and organized, I start to feel lazy, dirty, and unsettled. Without order as my guiding motivation, I feel out of control.

All of this is a fancy way of saying that order is an idol for me. It’s something that gives me life, that I turn to for security instead of trusting in the Lord. It’s something Jesus is speaking about in the familiar words of Matthew 6:19-20:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

For too many years, order has been a treasure for me, something I’ve worked very hard to lay up for myself. It’s been the goal that’s motivated me to get moving in the morning and kept me working hard day after day. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with order in and of itself or with a desire for a clean home motivating you to get a few things done, but in my case, it’s a motivation that’s become consuming.

God is using Ellie’s spit-up and her toys all over the floor and her baby food finger painting to remind me that my treasures of neatness and order can be destroyed and stolen, that my motivation for each day must be the pursuit of a far greater treasure.

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Abigail Waldron lives in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., with her husband C.J. and their children. She enjoys teaching college writing courses and pursuing her own writing projects, including her blog, Redeeming Themes.

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Messy Lessons

by Abigail Waldron time to read: 5 min