My family lives by the Five Second Rule. But even my five and seven year-old understand that the Rule has its exceptions, that it works in some situations and not in others. For example, if we’re eating dinner at my grandmother’s house upstairs, as we frequently are, and my kids drop a cookie or a grape or a meatball, they’ll pick it up off the floor and pop it right into their mouth.
“I can eat this, even though it dropped on the floor,” reasons my five year-old daughter, “Because Nonnie’s floor is so clean.”
“I just scrub it dis morning,” confirms my grandmother in her thick Italian accent, “With Cholrox.”
As a matter of fact, the Five Second Rule is really the Ten-to-Fifteen Second Rule at my grandmother’s apartment. Hell, that piece of penne could sit on the floor for a good minute and I’d eat it without even dusting it off. I’d wager that Nonnie’s floor is more sterile than your standard tray of surgical instruments. That woman goes through more bleach in a month than I’ve gone through in the three years I’ve lived in my apartment.
In my apartment, the Five Second Rule is null and void.
Woe betide the child who drops a cookie on my kitchen floor.
“Throw it out!” I bark, “That cookie’s not worth it.”
Its not like our apartment would be featured on “How Clean Is Your House?”. We don’t have vermin. We wash our dishes and throw out our garbage. We even manage to take our shoes off at the door, most of the time. And bi-annually, I unearth the vacuum and the Swiffer and tell my husband, David, to man up and tackle the bathroom. You can’t eat off the floor and the beds are never made and you could probably fill a bowl with the dusty, desiccated Cheerios lying under the furniture, but its not like our house is condemned or requires an intervention or anything, though you’d think so from my grandmother’s reaction.
The state of my apartment is a cause of immeasurable shame for my grandmother — her mad wife locked in the attic – and she goes to great lengths to insure that the shame stays secret. If I mention that the super’s stopping by to fix something, she will be at my door in five minutes, in her mumu, irate.
“I’m gonna help you clean,” she grunts, “You can’t let him see you house like dis!”
We’ll spend the ten minutes it takes to make the apartment presentable (the upside of a tiny living space is that though it only makes a few minutes to make a colossal mess, it takes the same amount of time to set it right again). I’ll be feeling satisfied and ready to tackle my deadline, but when I suggest that the place looks pretty good, probably good enough to let in the super, she gasps audibly.
“You CRAZY?” she’ll sputter, getting red in the face, “Dis is a disgrace! Looka da dust behind de TV! Che disgrazia!”
When I suggest she calm down before she gives herself a heart attack, she’ll become even more chagrined.
“Please! How I gonna calm down with alla dis DUST? Hurry up and help me move de couch!”
Unlike Mommy Dearest, Nonnie is not just mad at the dirt, she’s mad at me too, for allowing the dirt entry.
But I have a good enough head on my shoulders to understand that as close as I am to being a slob, it’s at least as close as Nonnie is to being obsessive compulsive and this, combined with the fact that she’s related to me, makes her an unreliable judge. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past three decades, it’s to never give serious regard to the input of family.
Now, the input of people outside my family – that is altogether a different story.
A few weeks ago, one of my mommy friends came over with her two kids after school for an impromptu playdate. The kids entertained themselves by jumping on the bed and applying zombie tattoos while we sipped tea.
In the middle of our chatting, she offered this unexpected compliment: “I love coming over here because you’re not one of those moms who’s worried about making her house always look neat and tidy.”
My hackles were instantly up: “You mean, my place is a pigsty?”
“No, no,” she laughed, “I just mean, its very honest that things aren’t . . . perfect. It makes me feel better about my own house.”
She could tell her clarification was only making me more dejected, which made her rush to clarify even more: “I only mentioned it because I know you don’t get offended by this sort of thing.”
I stared at her blankly while she tried to illuminate the ways in which the compliment was indeed a compliment: “Plus, sometimes those people with their immaculate houses are the unhappiest people. Whereas, look at you, how happy you are!”
Happy is not the word I’d use to describe my emotional state at that particular moment. And she was wrong on another count – that I’m not the easily-offended-type. Of course, I take pains to foster the illusion that I’m brimming with self-acceptance, but in fact, I am desperate for the approbation of others and wildly sensitive, as are all people who hide behind self-deprecating humor. Now, I was heartily offended, and a chain reaction of defensiveness unleashed itself on my unsuspecting guest.
“Oh. My. God,” I reeled, “You’re right. I am such a slob!”
I walked over to the couch and started putting the pillows, which the kids had tossed to the floor, back in their rightful place. I fluffed them, for extra measure It what people do in sitcoms. Meanwhile, I rattled off a whole list of excuses:
“If I waited ‘til my house was in order to have people over, we’d never see anyone!” I told my friend, who hid behind her cup of chamomile and strategized about how best to beat a hasty retreat with her kids.
“And every spare second I have, I’m working or attending to the kids’ needs, which never, ever end,” I went on, “so when can I clean?”
“Oh, I know,” she agreed.
“Plus, as soon as I clean this dump up, the kids walk through and mess it up again!” I lamented, picking up stray Legos and discarded pajama pants and pairing shoes in the closet.
“Totally,” she nodded.
I continued on this over-zealous cleaning jag, ala Joan Crawford, for the rest of the playdate, which made my house look picture-perfect and my poor friend rue the day she’d ventured honesty with me.
When David returned home, he was alarmed. “What happened?” he asked, “Why does the house look like this?”
“Did you know its not just my grandmother who thinks we’re slobs but regular, mentally-balanced people, too?” I asked him, “We need to mend our ways. For the sake of the children. People will talk.”
David, who unlike me, is immune to guilt and the threat of public disgrace, was not perturbed: “We do the best we can. We’re not great at keeping house, but we’re not bad either. And we’re great at other things. Don’t worry about it.”
As is my habit, I did the exact opposite of what he suggested and fixated on the matter. While I couldn’t manage keeping the house in tip-top shape, I could manage not letting people visit until it was. But even that required too much energy to sustain and eventually I caved and consented to a last-minute visit from an old college friend and her toddler.
The house was not just in its usual state of casual disrepair but a real, authentic hovel. The kids’ room looked like the scene of a crime: all the drawers of the bureau open with clothes spilling out, the entire surface area of the floor covered with books left open and undressed dolls, some of which had lost their heads at the hands of my daughter. Milk cups were on their sides on the nightstand. Picture frames were crooked. It was like the sack of Rome.
“Your house,” said my college friend, laughing, “looks like a tornado hit it.”
“I know,” I agreed, walking out of the kids’ room, ”Just don’t tell my grandmother. And don’t let the baby eat anything off the floor.”
To read more of Nicole’s adventures in Mommyland, visit her blog A Mom Amok at amomamok.com.