There are all kinds of secrets to tidying up when you’re a parent. Secrets like “just don’t have any toys” or “make your kids play outside all day” (which is what we did all day when we were kids, wasn’t it?), or maybe less drastic secrets, like “keep the toys to a minimum so kids can do things like art and writing,” although then you have to contend with all that paper. So maybe just let them sit in front of the television all day until they become we-can’t-even-move zombies.
You know, whatever.
But there are two secrets of tidying that I did not expect even a little bit.
The first surprising secret: What you throw away will mysteriously reappear.
Oh, you threw away that nifty little flashlight some family member thought would be a hit, and of course it was, but it has the most annoying voice in the history of whining and it makes that pattern on the ceiling that will keep your kids awake all hours of the night because they imagine the pattern moving and winking at them? Well, it will come back five days later, and you’ll wonder how in the world it walked from the trash bin to your pillow, where it is staring at you, challenging you to dare say a word about where it’s been and how it got there.
Creepy, creepy toys.
Of course you’ll try to throw it away again. You’ll even tie the bag with a zip tie and take it yourself out to the trash receptacle. You’ll watch the toy sink into a pile of banana peels and holey socks, and you’ll grin a little to yourself, because you’ve won this time.
But it will be back. Because your kids will be out on their scooters, minding their own business, and one of them will accidentally graze the trash bin, and it’s enough for that persistent toy to cry out, and they will recognize that noise, and they will go digging for it. In the trash. Where you just tossed a diaper with fluorescent green poop, because your infant ate half an orange crayon while you were cooking dinner.
They’ll bring it in triumphantly. It will greet you with malice, but their voices will hold nothing but joy. Maybe a little confusion. “Look what I found in the trash!” they’ll say. “I’m so glad I found this.” They’ll look at you and tilt their head a little. “Wait. What was it doing in the trash?”
No idea, baby, you’ll say, because you’ll convince yourself they’re asking the same question you’re asking.
How did that thing bust loose again?!!
And then you’ll wait for them to fall asleep so you can play this game again.
It doesn’t matter how many times you try to get rid of this toy. You can wrap it in a towel and turn it off so it can’t speak another word and stuff it in the bottom of a bag, under all the table scraps and old dirty diapers and snotty toilet paper, and it will still come back, a little worse for wear (that’s a slight understatement. It will resemble The Blob.). You can smash it with a jackhammer, and it will still come back. You can toss it over the fence, way off into the yard of a distant neighbor, because they will surely enjoy it more than you did—it’s a minion, after all—and IT WILL STILL COME BACK.
This is a war you will not win. You will have to do what every parent before you has done: accept that this toy is going to be a part of your family for a while.
The next time your kid asks if he can take this keeps-coming-back toy to the children’s museum so it can see what it’s really like to be a spy, say yes. You might just get lucky and see another kid walking out the doors with it.
Or it might be waiting back at the house when you’re all done rejoicing that you’ll never have to see it again. Either way, at least you have learned what it means to be resilient in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
The second surprising secret: No matter how much you discard in this whole tidying-up thing, there will still not be enough room for everything.
You’re not supposed to look at storage solutions until you’ve sorted through everything you own and decided whether or not you’re keeping it. Don’t even think about putting something away until all the discarded stuff has been carted out to the curb. Wait until you’ve tossed out more than half of what you own, and then try to find space for what’s left in your it’s-the-same-size house, and watch how it still doesn’t fit.
You’ll clean out their art supplies. You’ll throw away fifteen thousand broken crayons and two hundred dried out markers, and you’ll sort all the papers and put them in binders and tuck them all neatly away, and then you’ll look at the supplies you have left and realize it’s still not going to all fit in the art cabinet where things like this are supposed to go. How in the world did it all fit before? You have no idea. You’ll try to throw more away. They don’t really need fourteen pencils. Four will do. Still doesn’t fit. They don’t really need more than one pair of scissors. You don’t like it when they use scissors anyway. Still doesn’t fit. They don’t really need crayons at all. Still doesn’t fit.
You realize this is never going to work. There will never be enough space. Because kids have a mysterious multiplying effect on everything except money (too bad).
But you try harder. And you finally cram it all in. “There,” you say. “Now everything has a place.”
You imagine the whole room clapping, even though you’re alone. You pat yourself on the back, because that was hard work, right on up there with rocket science, you’d argue.
And then your kids come home from their grandparents’ house with three manila folders full of original artwork, and it looks like a paper plant threw up in your living room again, and there is no kidless weekend in sight where you can make all those drawings of, what is it—a whale? A giant fish? You (surely not)?—disappear so the kids won’t notice that not everything they draw is a masterpiece.
Back in the manila folders, you say. Back in the manila folders. And they’ll put all those papers back in the manila folders and then you’ll have to find a place to put them. Right now, it’s the top of your piano, where you have to look at them, out of place, every time you reach down to get a diaper for the baby.
And let’s not talk about birthdays and holidays and all the days in between or the days when kids suddenly have enough money to buy what they’ve always wanted—an oversized Spider-Man toy—even though you just got done paring down the superhero figurines because they’ve grown out of them.
How about we just embrace what feels like the truth: there will never be enough room for all the clutter kids come with. And then, if there magically happens to be enough room once every blue moon, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.
That’s how I like to live my life, anyway.
This is an excerpt from The Life-Changing Madness of Tidying Up After Children, the second book in the Crash Test Parents series.To get access to some all-new, never-before-published humor essays in two hilarious Crash Test Parents guides, visit the Crash Test Parents Reader Library page.