I have O.C.D., so it’s an understatement to say that I value order and cleanliness. When I was in high school, my friends joked about being afraid to enter my bedroom because it was so clean. When I was in college, I negotiated for the neatest roommate I could get. I’ve spent the last several years as on automotive detailer because I’m so obsessive about cleaning. However, having kids doesn’t fit that personal disposition.
Most Christians have heard the story about what happened during one of Jesus’ visits to Mary and Martha. Martha was the responsible adult. Martha cooked and got the house presentable, while her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. Yet when Martha finally complained to Jesus about Mary ignoring the work to be done, she received this answer:
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
I am Martha. I’m an objective-oriented person rather than a people-oriented person. I like results. I want to achieve the goal, and although I can achieve a lot as a lone wolf, I resent being taken advantage of and having to carry more than my share of the burden.
Still Jesus’ words to Martha aren’t about fairness; they’re about priorities. Jesus doesn’t say, “Cooking and cleaning aren’t important,” but he does assert that cooking and cleaning aren’t as valuable as relationship.
As a parent, especially a parent of several young children, I find myself buried in chores because the children aren’t old enough yet to help carry the load. There’s always a to-do list: dishes need to be rinsed and loaded, laundry needs to be washed or folded, meals need to be cooked, groceries need to be bought, bills need to be paid, the floor is practically a minefield of toys and clothes, the yard needs work, and the children have an entire schedule of needs or wants. Then there is homeownership; the upstairs bathroom has been in the remodel process for the last six months, the gutters need cleaning, and the exterior could use a coat of paint. Also, Abigail and I both have jobs because life and children are expensive.
Forget getting a weekend off, a vacation alone, or even lunch to yourself. This job is all day and every day. It’s easy to get lost in the to-do list for weeks or months at a time, and suddenly, I find myself tired and angry and bitter, and those sweet, or not so sweet, children have suddenly transformed into slave driving harpies.
Yet Jesus calls his followers away from the checklist and propels them into relationships. It’s the relationships—with God, our spouse, our kids, our friends, and strangers—not the chores, that are of higher priority. Yes, chores need to be done, but many of them can and should be delayed when compared to a Sabbath with the family, a movie night, or just getting on the floor with the children and reading books. The grass being three inches longer or the car needing to be washed for almost a year now won’t hurt anything other than my pride, but children long for time and affection—whether or not we perceive it. When I stop with the checklist, I discover something profound: I find satisfaction not in keeping the house clean or preparing a gourmet meal but in delighting in my children.
I remember the moment where I first began to enjoy my children in the face of the mess. My wife was out of town with the girls, Eliza, just turned four, and Lily, who was still three months from her debut. That left me with the boys, Levi (2) and Daniel (1). As usual, I had a laundry list of projects, including painting the upstairs bedroom, and then moving our master bedroom furniture from the downstairs into the freshly painted upstairs room—a feat I accomplished with the help of a friend.
In retrospect, I’m not sure how I got everything finished, but I did. Okay, I confess that the boys did watch two movies in a row at one point; I’m not proud of it. Still as Sunday drew to a close, I could breathe a sigh of relief and pleasure, knowing the bedroom switch would make my wife happy.
The neighbors texted to say they had extra cupcakes from a birthday party, and we were welcome to get some. Even though I disdain sweets, I gratefully accepted. My fear of childhood prediabetes aside, I knew the boys would be elated.
Levi took one look at his cupcake and exclaimed, “It’s beautiful.” He then proceeded to delicately eat it with a few fingers and virtually no mess.
Daniel didn’t say anything because he immediately smashed the whole cake into his face, experiencing the dessert fully but getting precious less into his mouth.
Yet somehow despite the sudden chocolate explosion coming from the highchair, I found myself delighting in my children and their distinct personalities. Levi was like me: cautious, tactful, and almost surgical. Daniel was the polar opposite, courageous and carefree. I identified with one yet admired the other’s fearlessness.
My obsessive compulsive disorder and angst over mess hadn’t vanished, but this surpassed it. Finally, I was choosing the better thing, not just with my head but with my emotions as well. Yes, the mess was spectacular, and the icing was loaded with shortening that left a greasy residue. I should have taken Daniel’s clothes off first. Still, even as I cleaned him up, I was flooded with joy, both theirs and mine.