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Small Talk: When ‘clean’ is a dirty word

As the years pass by and I look back on the first five years of my children’s lives, my memories have softened, but if I were asked to sum up life with toddlers in a word, that word would be “sticky.”

This profound revelation came over me as I cleaned up one day in preparation for the arrival of a longtime friend who had not yet seen my then-new home. The term “clean” was once a simple issue with me, back when I had the time and energy to be a clean freak. After giving birth, I soon had several levels of “clean” for my home.

There was “everyday” clean (the only visitors also had children), “downstairs only” clean (for those who will have no opportunity to explore the upstairs apocalypse), and the exhausting “first-visit” clean. I barely survived the first six months in this house when everyone wanted a complete tour.

I soon spent most of my time with other moms who were oblivious to the stickiness quotient. In fact, in my circle, a too-clean house was considered rude and antisocial. You would receive few visits, and the playgroup all had colds when it was your turn to host. But as I cleaned with extra scrutiny for the arrival of my friend, I came up with a simple test to determine just who is really emotionally prepared to become a parent.

1. Does it bother you to have your elbow stick to the table when you get up to leave?

2. Does it bother you when your shoes make the “snack, snack” sound as you walk across the kitchen floor?

3. Do you classify bits of leftover paint and Play-Doh as dirt or art?

4. Do you think that small toy parts add color to a room’s décor?

5. Do you require that your lawn be free of half-inflated pool toys in order to look groomed?

6. What bothers you more – a stack of dirty clothes that need washing or a stack of clean clothes that need folding?

7. What bothers you more — a stack of dirty dishes or regularly eating off of paper plates?

8. Do you have a favorite color of plastic cup, and do you know the proper way to attach a sippy lid?

9. When you see a glass-topped coffee table, do you see:

a. a handsome piece of furniture?

b. a certain trip to the emergency room?

c. the need for Windex in industrial-sized drums?

10. Do you own or have you ever lusted after white carpeting?

11. When you see a child wrestle a 2-day-old Cheerio away from the dog, then eat it, do you feel:

a. nauseous?

b. relief at one less thing to vacuum up?

c. delight that the child is finally eating something?

If any doubt remains after checking those answers, you can ask just how much they like sleeping in, or sleeping, in general. That one’s sure to break the tie.

Everything in life should be this simple.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer who has never fully reclaimed her neat freak status. Contact her at