So, the thing is... messiness just might be a virtue.

My friend Tammy says that she lives in a “mixed” marriage because her husband likes very understated Christmas decorating and she likes more lights than Vegas. This past Christmas she inadvertently gave her house a “mustache” by hanging icicle lights across the front of it. After first hanging the lights and then having to take them down and REHANG them, she's starting to see the beauty in her husband's point of view.

I live in a mixed marriage, too. My husband and I are polar opposites in a lot of ways. I am perpetually too warm and my spouse wears his thermal underwear to bed if the temperature dips below 75 degrees (or for nine straight months if I'm pregnant and in charge of the thermostat.) I am a morning person and he's a night owl. He's a gear-head and I never even bought a regular stroller for either one of my kids. Dark chocolate versus milk chocolate --you get the picture.

But by far the biggest way we differ is that he is Messy and I am Neat.

When we were first dating, my code name for him was “The Messy Boy.” As in, “Tonight I'm going out with the Messy Boy.” Or “The Messy Boy and I are going skiing.” or “I think I have to marry that Messy Boy because I'm very afraid that I love him.” He, one of the most organized thinkers I have ever known, a man whose office is almost always immaculate, simply doesn't have the eyes to see the mess at HOME. And he certainly doesn't have time to be bothered by it. It just never enters his realm of consciousness --if there is fun to be had, why would anyone care that there is no identifiable floor space in the entire house? “Adventure now. Dealing with mess, LATER.”

As an illustration of his predisposition toward messiness, I offer the following example. A couple of years ago, we had this terrible fruit-fly infestation. It was HORRIBLE. We had to cover every single glass of any beverage immediately after sipping because if we didn't, an army of fruit-flies would invade. I know some cultures eat bugs as a source of fiber but I just couldn't bring myself to drink out of a glass with a fruit-fly swimming around in it, let alone THIRTY of them. It was like living in a cloud of gnats. Gross. As you might imagine, I ripped the house apart trying to find where they were coming from. I mean, we didn't even dare keep FRUIT in the house!


My husband plays soccer and at some point, it was the beginning of a new season and he went to go get his gear bag ready. Inside was a banana he'd put in there at the end of the last season. Hence our contribution to the fruit-fly population. Neither one of us was very surprised, now that I think about it.

But he KNOWS he's messy and has, since we started dating, compensated by bringing in a housekeeper once a week. Once a week, for about, oh, twenty minutes my house is completely pristine. It's a good compromise for us. Because I am more comfortable when there is at least some sense of order and I think our children are, too. Children like routine and structure and I can't ignore all chores during their waking hours because A) it leads them to believe that some wonderful fairy comes to clean the house after they go to sleep (and that's supremely terrible if that fairy happens, without fail, to be ME) and B) I spend all my child-free time cleaning the house. Chores are part of life, after all and part of what we model as parents is how to balance fun with duty, right? But they don't HAVE to be polar opposites.

I tell my children that getting messy is part of learning but then, just yesterday, I asked Ana to get up after she laid down in the dust in the backyard because “you're getting all dirty.” As soon as I said it, I realized that I was wrong, which necessitated an apology and about three hours of Ana coming to find me wherever I was in the house to ask "Were you WRONG, Mom? Were you WRONG?" Because I really do BELIEVE that getting dirty is part of playing. You've got to put your hands in mud (and in Jane's case, eat a little of it) to really know what mud is all about, to know what it FEELS like. And what's the worst thing that could happen --that they actually earn their nightly baths?

One of the best stories I ever heard of a parent encouraging messy experiential learning came to me a few years ago from my friend Linda. (Her comments are in parentheses.)

**A prominent physicist was interviewed and asked if anything from his early childhood had influenced his professional success. He answered that he attributed his ability to think and problem-solve to his mother. As an illustration, he told this story:

"When I was a small boy of about four, I was trying to remove a heavy bottle of milk from the refrigerator to pour myself a drink. In the process, I dropped the bottle to the floor and milk went everywhere. My mother came to the door, surveyed the ocean of milk and said, "What we have here is a large mess. We'll have to clean it up, because that's what you do with messes. But since it's here, would you like to lie in this lovely puddle of milk before we clean it up?" (I love this part, because it recognizes how sensory young children are. What small child wouldn't love the feeling of lying in a huge puddle of milk? But how many mothers would think to suggest that? And then actually allow the child to do it?)

So I lay down in the milk puddle for a few minutes. Then my mother gave me sponges and rags, and showed me how to clean up the milk. (Again, this is so cool, because she let the responsibility for cleaning up the mess belong to the boy, but without any scolding or belittling. Just so matter-of-factly, 'that's what you do with messes.')

When I had finished cleaning up the milk, my mother took me out in the backyard. There she gave me the milk bottle, filled with water, and let me practice carrying and pouring it so that I could discover the best way to grasp the heavy bottle without spilling it. (Incredible. This is what makes this mother so great. She takes this "accident" and turns it into a learning opportunity for her child, in a controlled environment where he can experiment as much as necessary, and no one has to worry about another mess. She doesn't TELL him how to carry the bottle, or even SHOW him. She gives him the opportunity to FIGURE IT OUT FOR HIMSELF. Everything about her approach is the epitome of helpful child guidance. She doesn't yell. She acknowledges the child's needs. She lets him take responsibility for his actions. She helps him learn strategies for what to do when he next finds himself in this situation.)**

This story epitomizes the type of mother I want to be. I think there are days when I seem to be making good progress, yesterday aside. While I haven't actually invited my children to lie down in a puddle of milk, I have invited them to lie down in a PUDDLE. Does that count? And living in my “mixed” marriage has really helped me to see that messes don't have to be avoided or cleaned up according to some arbitrary timeline. In fact, I now consider any cleanup that happens before the fruit-flies invade to be near perfect.

Because I know what my husband would have done if he'd been the parent in the spilled milk story. I can picture it as plain as day. Not only would both of my children be lying in the milk puddle. I'll bet you a million dollars that the Messy Boy would have been right there with the rest of the family, showing them how to make big milk waves.


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(c) Barbara Cooper 2002

Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (3.75) and Jane (15 months). She lives in Austin, Texas and neither one of her children actually drinks much milk.