Spring Cleaning by a Messy Person

My idea of spring cleaning since moving into our house has been to put away winter clothes and take out the summer ones.  I vow to do things differently this time.  Purge will be the key word for spring cleaning this year.  Now that my youngest child is two and there are no more babies in the foreseeable future, I want to clear out the clutter that has accumulated in the past three years since we’ve lived in the house.  On top of that, I want to clean the house from top to bottom, just because that’s what spring cleaning is about, right?  Oh yeah, and because my husband stepped on a scorpion the other night (supposedly they like to lurk in cluttered areas).

This is no small feat for me, and it’ll probably take a good month (or two).  I have never been a neat and tidy person – a former boss once referred to my desk as “organized disorganization.” I have actually gotten better since marriage, as my husband’s cleanliness has rubbed off on me over the years.  He grew up with a military father, so he is pretty good about being neat and putting things away.  The problem is that his idea of clean is to stash everything away so that nothing is out in the open (as opposed to my family, who leaves EVERYTHING out).  The counters and floors may be cleared out, but when I open a closet or drawer or cupboard, it’s jam-packed with stuff and in complete disarray.  So actually he just has the illusion of being clean.  As for me, I’m actually quite organized under a messy cover. 🙂  I guess I should consider myself lucky to be married to a man who is cleaner than I am, according to a friend who constantly picks up after her slob-of-a-husband.  However, my husband seems to complain more than help me clean.

I do prefer to have a clean house, I just hate to do it myself.  I suppose I could hire people to clean the house, but somehow I feel wrong about it.  We had cleaning people in Thailand who came in to clean the house every week (and even washed our dishes!), and it was great, I’ll admit.  But over there we were giving the locals jobs.  Over here, it just feels so…elitist.  Why pay for something that I can and should do myself?  The problem is that I don’t, at least on a consistent basis, because cleaning the house just isn’t a priority for me.  I can see the urgency to doing the dishes or washing clothes regularly, but I don’t see the urgency to having a clean house unless my father-in-law comes over.

One of the tasks I do try to be on top of is keeping the floors clean.  With two kids, there seems to be debris (or toys) on the floor all the time, and I always seem to be stepping on something sticky or crunchy or hard.  I make an effort to sweep the floor twice a week and mop the floor every week or two.  I actually got a little obsessed with finding the perfect floor cleaners when we first moved into the house – spending hours online researching the top-rated vacuums, floor sweepers, and mops.  I may have inherited this from my father, who owns 8 (yes, EIGHT) vacuum cleaners.  At first I tried to make do with a Swiffer, but it just didn’t do the job (plus the smell was way too chemically).  I then moved onto two Sharks (floor sweeper and mop), and despite the very pretty color, were pieces of crap.  The Shark mop leaked water and the handle broke off.  The Shark floor cleaner lost a wheel at the bottom and the canister kept falling off.  I finally donated both after they sat in the garage for months. I have finally settled on a Hoover floor cleaner and Eureka Enviro steam mop.

However, with all this research and trying out different cleaners, I’ve found that nothing works better than the way they clean floors in Kazakhstan: on your hands and knees with an old rag.  And I realize that sometimes the simple and minimalist approach is best, and perhaps that’s how I got into this mess in the first place.  I buy things hoping to make my life easier or better when instead I just end up gathering stuff that contributes to the clutter.  So this year in addition to purging our house of stuff, I’m going to be mindful of my purchases to avoid clutter in the first place.  That might mean to:

  1. Cancel some magazine subscriptions.  I have a huge stash of magazines dating back to 2009 on the floor next to my bed – can you say perfect scorpion hideout?!
  2. Get library books or e-books instead of buying paperbacks or hardcover books.
  3. Invest in higher-quality clothes (for me, not the kids :)) and kitchen appliances.  We got two Black & Decker kitchen appliances for our wedding (our choice so our mistake) and have already replaced the toaster oven and looking to replace the food processor.  They are pieces of crap!  I’d much rather pay a little extra for quality items that are better equipped to handle years of wear and tear.
  4. Prevent my husband from going to estate sales.  It’s his new hobby and I shouldn’t deprive him of that, right?  But we end up bringing home more junk we don’t need.
  5. Stop buying stuff for the sake of scoring freebies.  Sometimes when it’s Clinique Bonus Time, I’ll go and get the free pouch full of samples.  The problem is that the make-up comes in a horrible shade of pink and ends up languishing in my cabinet.
  6. Buy only things I can envision using a year from now.  The juicer I purchased a couple of months ago went from being used daily to now being used every other week or so.  In a year, I’m sure it’ll be stashed away in the cabinet of unused kitchen appliances.
  7. Avoid those kids’ meals!  I find that the fast food kids’ meals are a hefty price to pay when my kids don’t even eat the apple slices (which taste very chemically anyway), and the cheap plastic toy contributes to the clutter in the house (have you noticed that the small toys are more annoying than the big ones?) and breaks after 3 uses anyway.  Since my kids are still young and don’t know the difference anyway, I order a combo meal for myself and a sandwich a la carte for the kids, share my fries with them and bring juice boxes from home.

So hopefully following these rules, along with purging this year, will result in less clutter for next year’s spring cleaning.  Now what to do about all those toys that the grandparents buy for the kids…

Dealing with MORE Crap (literally)

It is Sunday afternoon.  Daughter is napping, and I’m about to make a quick run to the grocery store.  All of a sudden, I hear “Mommy!  I need new underwear because I did a poo-poo!”

Sigh.  My son.

I come into the bathroom and see that he has pulled down his underwear and shorts and that there’s a great big mess in there.  I put him quickly on the toilet and see that the poop has gotten onto his foot and leg.  I mutter under my breath as I put the underwear and shorts into the washing machine.  I thought I was done with laundry for the day!  And now I have to deal with this shit.  I hate dealing with shit!

After my son is finished with what seems to be a very unpleasant #2 (may be in the territory of #3), I stick him in the bath to wash off his feet and leg.  Except I didn’t wipe his butt first so a little piece of poop drops into the bath.  Ugh!  I’m so not ready to potty-train my daughter and deal with more of this crap.  Then I see that there’s poop on the outside of the toilet as well as the bathmat where he took off his underwear and shorts.  And I still have to clean the poop off my son.  UGH!

Did I mention that I hate dealing with shit?!

I curse and moan as I wash my son off roughly with a washcloth, while he keeps saying “Sorry!” over and over again.  I bark at him for getting his disgusting paws near my head when I take him out of the bath.  I order him to wash his hands really well at the sink as I clean up the poop from the bathtub, bleach it down, wipe the toilet with Lysol, roll up the bathmat, and stick the washcloth into the washing machine along with his soiled clothes.  All of a sudden, I feel exhausted.  I don’t think I have the energy to go to the grocery anymore.  I yell at my son to put on new clothes as I go lie on my bed.

“Mommy! Mommy!”

“It’s quiet time!  Let me rest!” I yell back.

He comes into my room and hands me a piece of paper.  It’s a page ripped out from his coloring book of Dora and Boots on a train.  It’s colored green, I suppose because that’s the only color crayon he could find in his room.

“I made this for you.”

And just like that, all is forgiven.  I gush as I thank him and tell him how sweet he is.

The thing with having children is that there will definitely be stinky times, but sometimes those stinky times lead to sweet moments.  And after all is said and done, dealing with poop is temporary.  A child’s love is forever.


Potty Training vs. Elimination Communication (or dealing with more crap than I can handle)

Spring has arrived, as has that time in our household.  I’m not talking about spring cleaning, although there will be a lot of that in the coming weeks.  It is time to buckle down, stay focused on the goal, and….potty-train.

I feel like I just went through this yesterday, but it was exactly one year ago that I was potty-training my son.  He was one-month shy of his 3rd birthday, and I ignored all the advice around me to wait until my temperamental toddler was ready.  I figured if I put all my energy and focus to getting my son potty-trained, it will happen.  I armed myself with two types of potty seats, M&Ms as reward, and Thomas the Train underwear that I thought my son would be thrilled to wear.  I knew that if I went all in, eventually he would get it.

Three weeks of potty training later, with almost daily accidents, I was chasing my son to get him to use the potty before we left the house.  I was frustrated that he wasn’t cooperating with me fully on this potty-training thing.  As I nagged him one more time to pee in the potty before we left, he stopped in the hallway, looked at me with an evil grin on his face, and peed right there on the floor.  I so wanted to smack him at that moment.  Instead, I admitted defeat.  I gave up on the potty training.

I tried again about a month later, just a week after he turned 3.  After one day, he was potty-trained.  It was a miracle!  No nagging, no chasing, no bribing.  There were only a handful of accidents from there, but within 3 months he was even out of nighttime diapers.  He was officially potty-trained and it was the easiest thing (that time around).

My daughter turned 2 a couple of months ago, and now it’s time for her to get on the potty train.  I heard that girls train earlier than boys do, and I know some of my mom friends who trained their daughters by the time they were two.  I think my daughter will be much easier to train than my son since she’s already pooping in the potty 4 times out of 5 and is generally good at following directions.

People may think 2 or even 3 is too early an age to potty-train, with perhaps the exception of EC’ing parents.  EC, or Elimination Communication (aka Diaper-Free Baby, potty whispering or natural infant hygiene), is potty-training for babies before the age of 18 months. I saw a video of the method when I considered it briefly after having my daughter.   EC requires a lot of attention to your baby’s expressions, holding the baby over the bathtub or toilet, and cueing.  A lot of people are skeptical about this practice or may think it’s reserved for hippie-types in order to avoid using diapers.  However, this method is used by several different cultures around the world (just without the fancy name for it), and in developing countries most babies are trained by the time they turn 1.

I know that this practice is not a crock, because I’ve seen it in action.  When I worked in the refugee camps in Thailand, one of our community health educators had a baby under a year old (she couldn’t walk yet).  The mother held her baby over a basin and made the noise, Shhhh shhhh, to signal her to pee.  And she peed.  I saw accidents as well, but the mothers never seemed bothered by it.  Perhaps because their floors are made of dirt (where it can be covered up) or bamboo slats (where it can fall through or be evaporated quickly) so clean-up is minimal.  Once the babies become mobile, they just go pantless and learn to relieve themselves in the ditch or to squat in the latrine.  It was the same way in Sudan, where the kids are taught early to go “into the bush” to do their business.  It just makes sense for them since they live in places where they spend most of their time outdoors and don’t have disposable (or even decent cloth) diapers available to them.

For us, however, in the typical American world of overly-clean-and-sanitized indoor spaces, this method just isn’t practical.  It makes more sense to wait until our children are ready (around 3 years old), so that we as parents aren’t terribly inconvenienced.  We set aside a block of time to stay close to home and mentally prepare ourselves to deal with all the crap (pun intended) involved in potty training.  Potty-training becomes a battle as we deal with uncooperative children and messy clean-ups.  We constantly ask our kids if they have to use the potty and then rush them to the bathroom so they don’t have accidents on the living room rug.  When they do have accidents, we scream in exasperation (at least I do).  It’s no wonder that some parents put it off and put it off, until one day their kid is 4 years old and still in diapers.  Plus, with a billion-dollar diaper industry making disposable diapers easily accessible and relatively cheap, it’s easy to keep kids in diapers for as long as possible.   Those diapers (and Pull-Ups) are just so darn convenient, especially when leaving the house to any overly-clean-and-sanitized public place where it would be an embarrassment for our kid to have an accident.

In theory, Elimination Communication is an ideal solution to get kids potty-trained early and avoid diapers altogether.  Believe me, I hate using disposable diapers and feel guilty every time I throw away a bag of dirty, heavy diapers that I know will sit in the landfill for years and years.  I admire the American parents who choose to EC their babies as I’m sure it takes a tremendous amount of dedication and patience.  However, in most cases it’s just not practical or convenient for us.

Okay, now I’m off to potty-train my daughter…tomorrow.

Getting Stuff Done means Letting Go of Perfectionism

I had never considered myself a perfectionist until one evening in Kazakhstan when I was cooking dinner for a group of fellow Peace Corps volunteers at my apartment.  When it came time for dessert, I took the cake out from the Soviet-style oven (a tiny oven that heats low and uneven, which you light by sticking a rolled-up piece of paper lit on one end through a hole in the bottom while simultaneously turning on the gas) and saw that it was a lumpy, hideous disaster.  It looked like no cake should, and I was too ashamed to serve it. When I told the others that we won’t be having dessert after all because the cake looked terrible, Jen, one of the volunteers, said, “You’re a perfectionist, aren’t you?”

I was completely taken aback.  Me, a perfectionist?!  No one had ever called me that before.  After all, I associated perfectionists with being Type-A personalities, anal retentive, super-clean-and-organized, and never happy with anything.  That’s definitely not me, and my husband would wholeheartedly agree, judging from the state of the house, the top of my desk, or the way I cook (I could never follow the advice “clean as you cook.”  I mean, I’m too busy cooking!).

However, I realized the perfectionist side of me definitely creeps in it when it comes to writing or doing something else creative.  Back in the day when I used to write letters to my friends by hand (yes, those of us over 30 actually did this), I would start over if I didn’t like my handwriting or the way a sentence sounded – I’d just crumple up the piece of paper and start with a fresh one.  With this blog, I write a first draft which I need to edit over and over again before posting a copy that I’m happy with.  That’s exactly why I haven’t written as much as I’ve wanted to lately (hmm, 3 entries in the past 4 months?).  It’s not for lack of ideas on what to write, writer’s block, or the lack of opportunity to sit and write.  It’s finding the time to go back and read, edit, rewrite, reread and edit again.  At least 10 times.

The same is true for my creative pursuits.  A few years ago I enjoyed making my own jewelry with silver and glass beads.  The problem is that I never actually made anything because I didn’t like my creations enough to finish them (plus it got very tedious with all those little beads).  Same goes with the countless scrapbooks I’ve started – Turkey trip, India trip, Kazakhstan, Baby #1, Baby #2.   They are all sitting on my shelf unfinished because it takes too much time for me to make the pages look just right (also very tedious), which is stupid considering I’m really the only one who will ever look at them.

Now that I’ve taken up sewing , I find that my perfectionist tendencies are again impeding my ability to finish any projects.  A couple of weeks ago, the sewing teacher showed me how to construct a tote bag.  I brought the almost-completed tote bag home with only the straps left to sew on.  But after a few days of looking at the bag, I decided that I didn’t like how it looked.  So I ripped out the seams and tore it apart.

The thing is, I need to let it go.  I can’t be perfect at anything these days because with two young kids, there’s just no time to strive for perfection with anything.  I need to approach my projects the way I approach parenting (the one area in which I never strove for perfection).  I realized early on that there’s no such thing as the perfect mom or the perfect way of raising a child, so I gave up trying.  There’s nothing more humbling than raising a child and constantly being reminded that you’re never going to get everything right all the time.  Sometimes “good enough” is, well, good enough.  Once I realized that, it took the pressure off immensely.  After all, it’s not like I’m at a paid job where I’m being evaluated and critiqued (except maybe by my husband, but he doesn’t count).  I’m being my own worst critic and I just need to stop.  It’s more important for me now to get these things done than to do them perfectly.  Post a blog entry every week whether I think it’s perfectly written or not (it never will be).  Finish those scrapbooks even if I don’t like the layout of the pictures.  Cook without following the recipes exactly.  Invite friends over even if the house isn’t totally spotless and orderly.  Clean out the closet even if I don’t have the perfect organizing materials.  Just do it and don’t worry about the outcome because it’ll end up fine (like my kids, I hope).  At the very least I’ll learn by trial and error.  Maybe if the pressure is off, I can actually enjoy these things as well.

Am I being an underachiever?  Do I get a failing mark for my half-assed effort in these things?  Perhaps.  But at least this way I can finish that darn tote bag.

Christmas in Mexico Part 2 – Traveling with Children

Before actually having children, I had envisioned myself one day to be one of those rare globetrotting moms, the type you would picture carrying a baby on her back while shopping at the local market in exotic locations around the world.

Yeah, right.  Although I wish that could be me, the reality now that I am a mom is that even the thought of international travel with my children intimidates me.  Whereas one time, I would jump on an airplane and fly around the world on a moment’s notice, now a trip abroad fills me with anxiety and stress. I can barely stomach a family trip to Mexico, let alone the other far-flung areas of the world that I still want to see.  Apparently my adventuresome spirit has left this building.

Even after my parents offered to pay for our trip to Mexico, my husband and I were still reluctant to go, mainly because traveling with kids is a real pain in the ass.  Perhaps if we traveled more often, we would be used to all the hassles and minor annoyances that accompany international travel, and a trip to Mexico wouldn’t be such a major ordeal.  Perhaps traveling with kids is a learned skill and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  However, this was our first trip abroad in two years.  We were rusty and out of practice.  And the bottom line is that traveling with kids is a lot of work for a vacation.

One thing I wish I had more foresight about before making an international trip was getting my children’s passports early!  (Unfortunately, I don’t have much foresight when it comes to my kids.  I’m more of a take each day as it comes, while some of my mom friends are already looking into Kindergartens for their toddlers.)  With both kids, I got the passports exactly one month before the trip.  Not recommended.  I spent two days frantically filling out passport applications, getting passport pictures at Walgreens (which my children were not very cooperative with, so both ended up with passports that look like they’re about to cry), and going to the passport office/post office with my husband and kid.  On top of the passport fee, I had to pay an extra $60 for rush delivery.  Three days before our trip, our daughter’s passport still hadn’t arrived.  My husband, the negative thinker in the family, kept going on about how I should’ve gotten her passport earlier and now we paid for the trip and we’re not able to go, blah, blah, blah.  We don’t fight much, but the stress from getting passports led to a couple of tiffs between us.  Luckily the passport came the following day (as I knew it would).

Then there’s the packing.  Packing becomes a huge project before a vacation with kids.  I used to be the quintessential last-minute packer.  The night before one of my international stints, I would pack 6 to 12 months’ worth of my stuff into one large backpack and a carry-on.  Now, packing for me and two kids requires preparing days in advance.  I make lists so I don’t forget anything, buy things from the store that might come in handy during the trip, and pack a lot of extraneous supplies for “just-in-case”-moments.  My husband and I packed our clothes and toiletries into one suitcase, while the kids got their own big suitcase.  Soon enough their suitcase was full, and then their clothes (although smaller, I packed a lot more of them – 12 outfits for them vs. 6 for myself), diapers, beach toys, books, swim gear, and separate toiletries started to spill over into our suitcase and carry-on luggage.

The actual travel to Cancun required a 1.5-hour drive to Phoenix, two 2-hour flights and a one-hour layover in Dallas.  That was the easy part.  Fortunately for us, our kids are phenomenal travelers on airplanes.  They love the adventure of flying on an airplane, and when that novelty wears off (after take-off), they have their v-readers, coloring books, DVD players and snacks to keep them sufficiently entertained. Of course the trade-off is that I don’t have the chance to relax. I’m always making sure they’re sitting down and buckled in, fetching their entertainment and snacks, telling them not to kick the seat in front of them or catching them from spilling juice.  I can never relax enough to nap, let alone read a book or magazine, because I’m constantly in serving mode in order for my kids to raise the least amount of fuss possible. It pays off, though – on every single airplane ride, they have been complimented by a fellow passenger for their good behavior.

We opted for what we thought would be the easiest way to travel with the kids – the all-inclusive resort.  We didn’t even have to leave the resort grounds because everything was provided for us – the beach, swimming pools, entertainment, shopping, food and drink.  In a sense, it was nice that we didn’t have to worry where our next meal or snack will come from and that everything was a 5-minute walk or shuttle ride away.  However, it was still work bringing the little ones everywhere, and as kid-friendly as the resort claims they are, there are still some things that just aren’t suitable for young kids, i.e. the hard floors in our room (both kids fell off the bed during their sleep).  The buffet wasn’t easy either since the kids aren’t old or tall enough to get their own food.  And when my daughter got Montezuma’s Revenge in her swim diaper by the kiddie pool, the only place I wanted to be was back home.

Back in the day, the way I used to travel was with a Lonely Planet guide book in hand, hopping around the country to different hostels or guest houses while learning about the culture of the country and trying out the cuisine at food stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.  I had the independence, freedom, and adventurous spirit to travel in that way. Not so now.  There would be no adventures or learning about the culture or trying new foods or attempting to speak Spanish in our trip to Mexico.  I didn’t even get to go snorkeling in the ocean, my favorite outdoor activity.  Every day we carried three enormous bags of toys, clothes, towels, water, etc. out to the beach or kiddie pool, where we spent most of our day watching the kids have fun.  We might as well have been on a beach resort in the U.S. (although it wouldn’t have been as warm, which was my parents’ beef about traveling within the U.S.).

Perhaps when the children are old enough we’ll be able to travel the way I enjoyed at one time in my life.  We could be one of those rare families that travel around the world, exposing their kids to different cultures, cuisines, and lifestyles.  But first, my adventuresome spirit needs to come back!