Let’s be honest, keeping a house tidy with young children underfoot is a big job. It requires time, patience, multi-tasking and planning. Most of all, it requires WORK. I know everyone wants to find the “secret” to maintaining a tidy home, but the truth is, it’s just work. Being a stay-at-home mom for the last six months has taught me so much about caring for my children and my home. This is a little bit of what I’ve learned about how to keep my house clean, or what I call “Toddler Tidy,” with three children who are constantly trying to thwart my efforts. I think of it as my own little counter-terrorism plan.
1. Realize that things are different now.
When my husband and I first got married, we lived in a teeny apartment that was just barely big enough for the two of us. We both worked outside the home, and we both worked on keeping it clean. Let’s face it; there wasn’t much to keep clean with just the two of us! Fast forward six years, two houses, and three children later, and there is a lot more space and a lot more mess to clean! It is a big job, and somebody’s got to do it!
2. Get rid of excess. No junk drawer.
One of the first things I did when I quit my job was start to declutter. I looked at all the places in my house that I just didn’t like. We really had WAY too much stuff for the amount of space and people living here. I had a list of closets, drawers and places around the house that were just junky. I took everything out, sorted it, donated or trashed what I don’t use, and put everything back neatly where it belongs. I gave away so much STUFF. My three children now have one toy box full of toys, and I don’t really want them to have much more. When they receive gifts at Christmas or birthdays, we donate some of the old stuff. They just do not NEED more than that. I go through it after every gift-giving holiday or birthday and reconsider what else can go.
I’m still working on my decluttering list (the next big project is the basement storage area), but I have tackled the closets, the space above the refrigerator, all the kitchen drawers, the dressers, the kids’ toy box, and the bathroom cabinets. I have thrown out a lot of junk, donated lots of useful toys, clothes and books, and I am so much happier now that there is LESS TO CLEAN. Now everything has a place, and everything is there where it’s supposed to be. I do not want a “junk drawer.” If it’s junk, it’s donated or in the trash.
3. Just START.
I just became a stay-at-home mom after working in a hospital for five years. I left my job just six short months ago. During the time that I worked outside the home, our house was in a constant change. One minute it would be okay, the next minute it would be in a state of total disarray. I would go into a vicious cycle of “things have piled up, and I am overwhelmed because of the piles, and I am tired from work too, so I can’t start working on the piles.” When things have become so bad that I feel overwhelmed (and it doesn’t take very long to get there!), I tend to shut down. Starting the clean-up is the hardest part. Instead of just beginning, I alternate between hiding under my covers and whining about the mess, hoping someone else will tackle it.
There will not be someone who magically comes along to clean my house for me. This is MY job. I have to be in charge of the clean up. I am in charge of the way we live. Not because I’m a woman, but because I am the one that is home with this stuff (and these children) all day long, while my husband is gone to work and college for eight to fourteen hours a day. If I don’t clean it, there’s no one else who will. And if I want to be HAPPY, I have to maintain my home. This doesn’t mean that everything is spotless and sterile, but it is “Toddler Tidy.” Yes, my dining room floor has crumbs after meals, my living room doubles as a kids’ toy room with legos and matchbox cars strewn about for proof that kids live here, and my laundry pile WILL NEVER END. But my house is clean in the sense that I know where things are, I can begin tasks like food prep without washing a mountain of dishes, I am comfortable putting my mobile baby down on the floor, and I would be okay with people dropping by without notice (except that I am often in need of a shower and a toothbrushing).
4. Maintaining is easier than mountain-climbing. Don’t stop. Ever.
I know you didn’t want to hear that, but constantly doing little jobs here and there throughout your day is SO MUCH EASIER than climbing a mountain of dishes and laundry and clutter to get your home back to a state where you don’t want to move out and start over in a new house.
This is a no-brainer. There are so many housework jobs that have “downtime” built in. If I just put in a load of laundry, I know that’s going to take 45 minutes to wash (and even longer if it’s cloth diapers that have to go through several rinse cycles). So do I sit down for 45 minutes and wait for the washer to stop spinning? Of course not. My early morning usually looks something like this: I wake up and put a load of laundry in the washer, cook breakfast, unload the dishwasher while the eggs are cooking, eat breakfast, clear and wash the table, put the dishes in the dishwasher, hand-wash the breakfast pan (because it’s not dishwasher safe, and it’s also the “dinner pan”), and then go down to put the clothes in the dryer. Then it’s on to the next thing…. When I’m doing one thing, I’m in the middle of several things at once and thinking about what I need to do next.
6. Do your most unpleasant task first thing.
Don’t do the easy things first, and then wait until the end of the day when you’re tired to do the thing you hate the most. For me, laundry somehow robs me of all joy. So I start laundry first thing in the morning, when I’m most energetic and ready to get my day going. Then I can get it out of the way and not worry about a mountain of clothes wrinkling up in my bed when I’m ready to go to sleep.
7. Never go to bed with dirty dishes in the house.
This is my personal rule for world peace. I hate it when I wake up in the morning and I have to clean the kitchen before I can begin making breakfast. If I stick to this rule, it makes each day start and run so much more smoothly. Personally, I clean up after every single meal, because I know that if I let dirty dishes slide, there is only so much they can pile up before I feel overwhelmed and mentally shut down.
8. Ask for help.
It’s really okay to ask your husband for help when you need it, even though he’s been working all day. But you need to be direct (and being pleasant always helps, too). Instead of “Will you please DO SOMETHING around here?!” which is too vague and slightly insulting, try something specific: “Will you please push pause on that show/game/homework for a minute, move the wet clothes from the washer into the dryer, and bring the dry clothes up in the basket for me? Thank you!” A real thank you, not that sarcastic kind.
9. Take a break and go outside.
We all need a break from the endless cycle of keeping house. You need sunshine and fresh air and time to relax. Bonus: you aren’t inside the house making a mess that you’ll have to clean up later… though if your kids are like mine, you’ll likely have to give three baths once it’s time to come in!
10. Identify your triggers for laziness or distraction and set healthy limits.
Does the TV/internet/sleep/Candy Crush/Pinterest keep you from getting things done? Give yourself limits. Set goals and reward yourself with time off to do the things that you like to do to kill time. Want to spend an hour online? Tell yourself that you have to scrub the bathtub or sweep and mop the kitchen floor first. And do it.
11. Break bad habits and make a routine.
If you have bad habits like letting all your clothes get dirty before you start doing laundry, or throwing things on the floor, or letting things go until they pile up, break those bad habits ASAP! When you are done with things, put them where they belong. Drawer, cabinet, dishwasher, laundry basket, shoe closet, toy box, trash can, recycle bin: these are acceptable places for things that you are finished using. Every little moment adds up to a cleaner big picture!
12. Give your children jobs, too.
Oh, every task is a teachable moment for a child. My sons are 5 and 3, and I try to find tasks that they can perform well (doing something well makes you want to keep doing it!), and I give them little jobs to help me out. When I’m unloading the dishwasher, they sort and put away the silverware. When I’m folding a load of clean towels, they fold the washcloths into squares and put away the kitchen towels. When we get home from an outing, they remove their shoes and put them in their “cubbies” in the closet and hang their jackets on their pegs. If they make a mess or spill something, they go get a towel and wipe it up. At the end of the day, they pick up their toys and load them up in the toy box. They are still really young, but they love helping and learning new tasks. They know where everything goes. Sometimes letting little ones help requires a bit of patience (because you will definitely do those tasks faster and better than their little fingers do), but the more age-appropriate managable tasks you give them, the better. I try to give my little guys as much responsibility as I know they can handle. They’ll learn that having a tidy home takes work from all of us, and they’ll be better people for it.
13. Cultivate happiness.
Attitude matters. Attitude is probably the most important thing when your life is changing in such a big way – having children, leaving a job, and realizing that you are in charge of how your family lives. If I do little things that I know will make me happy later (such as making sure the kitchen is clean before I go to bed at night), I make sure to notice. I say to myself, “Wow, I really love starting breakfast in a clean kitchen!” It is important to concentrate on the good things and not to dwell on the negative.
When I’ve let things go (yes, it happens) and there is a big mess to tackle, instead of letting it overwhelm me, I try to see it as a challenge. I try to concentrate on how I will feel when all the work is done. “I am going to be so happy when this mess is gone!”
And then I just start. Dig in. GO!