For Christmas last year, my daughters got a dollhouse. By New York City standards, it’s really more of a doll mansion than a house. Four stories, massive terrace on the second floor, private garage, and a charming two-person swing hanging from an attached archway. Every time I look at the dollhouse, I imagine what the doll version of our real apartment would be, an exercise that only depresses and demoralizes me. No parent would buy that doll-apartment—except maybe for New York City parents, because, after all, it would be a space-saver.
My girls love their dollhouse. I love their dollhouse. It fulfills my real estate dreams and allows me to realize my housekeeping aspirations. Because while I don’t have a shot in hell at keeping my real house tidy, I keep an immaculate dollhouse.
My three children are humans (as far as I know) but their effect on our home is not like that of humans. It is like that of weather. Bad weather. Ruinous weather. Hurricanes. Tornadoes.
The eye of the storm is my three year-old, Terza. Her messes are not just epic, but Homeric. I’d be impressed by their breadth and ambition, if I wasn’t so busy having a nervous breakdown.
Terza is an upender. Before selecting a pair of socks, she needs to upend the entire bin and ponder all of her choices spread out before her. Ditto with the underwear and the pants and the shirts—and the toys. She upends packs of crayons, containers full of ponies, tubs of beads, packs of cards, boxes of blocks. Apparently, it takes so much energy to upend everything that there’s none left to put it all away. I try to get her to clean up, I really do. But being a savvy third child, she knows that more often than not, if she stalls long enough, we’ll eventually have to rush off to pick up or drop off a sibling, and by the time we get home, it’ll be past her bedtime and I’ll be so fried and ready for all three-year-olds to be asleep, that I’ll “put a pin” in her mess which is to say, send her to bed and clean it up myself.
The older kids—my daughter, eight and son, ten—no longer create state-of-emergency messes. With the big kids, the mess is less a downpour and more a steady, unrelenting drizzle. They move through the place, constantly dropping personal belongings everywhere, like Hansel with his breadcrumbs—only for no good reason. Hairbrushes, socks, markers, books, headbands, and always, everywhere, endless pieces of paper. I’m surprised they have time to get anything else done, so busy are they picking up items and depositing them in a new location.
I’m surprised I have time to get anything done, so busy am I nagging them constantly to “Put this back where you found it!” and “Put your dirty clothes in the hamper!” and “Put these clothes back in your drawer and don’t you dare put them in the hamper because you wore them for five minutes and they are about as dirty as a Mister Rogers episode!”
On bad days—snow days, or worse, playdate days —it takes hours to wrestle our house into order again. Even on our best days, it takes a full hour– and even then, it’s not clean enough that I’d invite Child Protective Services—or my mother—over. I can never get our house clean. The most I can hope for is that it appears habitable.
But it takes mere minutes to make the dollhouse immaculate—no matter how anarchic the mess. And it does get anarchic in there.
When my girls play in the dollhouse, their dramas are not your usual “family” fare. More often than not, they play with animals, many of which are feral. This results in much stampeding and charging and attacking—which wreaks havoc on a domicile. Even when they play with people, their dramas are tragedies of a very physical nature. Doctors are constantly being sent for because characters are inevitably wounded, sometimes fatally. There is also quite a lot of dancing that goes on in the dollhouse—dancing which brings the roof down, literally.
Every night, the dollhouse looks as if it has been ransacked by a gang of thugs or has just hosted five simultaneous frat parties. The furniture isn’t just overturned; it’s overturned in the wrong room. The fridge is in the master bedroom, the bunk beds are in the kitchen, the sofa’s on the terrace. Most disquieting of all, the charming two-person swing is off its hinge and lying on its side a few feet away.
So, every night, I groan and sigh and shake my head. And then, ignoring the mess in my actual home, I kneel down and set about tidying up the dollhouse. I don’t have to clean the dollhouse, but I want to. It calms me the way a glass of wine or evening yoga might calm a less crazy person.
Cleaning the dollhouse takes about three minutes. I return the master bed to the master bedroom, the fridge to the kitchen, the sofa to the living room. I hang the charming two-person swing on the charming archway created for this express purpose. The dollhouse is not just habitable. It is flawless—ready for its flawless family to move in.
I place the dollhouse Mom on the sofa, the dollhouse Dad in the armchair and the dollhouse child in her bed. Sure, it’d be fun to give her a push in the now-functional swing but it’s night and at night—in the dollhouse at least—children sleep. They do not run into the living room at 3 a.m., demanding marshmallows and begging to watch Mickey Mouse.
Cleaning up my dollhouse reminds me of how well I used to parent, before I had kids. I was the absolute best mother when my kids were just figments of my imagination. I was patient and consistent. Fun but firm. I knew the answer to every question and exactly what to do in every situation. When I was a parent only in my day dreams, I never yelled, never caved, never doubted myself.
My imaginary children were paragons of obedience and self-regulation—they always cleaned up after themselves. They never bickered or whined or raised their voices. They watched absolutely no TV and ate absolutely all their vegetables. They always minded their manners and never minded sharing. They did everything I told them to, just like the dolls in the dollhouse.
Of course, my imaginary kids never surprised me. They never caused me to snort with laughter. They never made me feel like I was having a cardiac episode from such intense feeling—joy and terror and gratitude and wonder, all at the same time.
I remind myself of this as I turn my attention from the perfectly-ordered dollhouse to my real living room. I remind myself as I sweep up crushed Cheerios and load the dishwasher. I remind myself as I put dirty shirts in the hamper and fish out clean ones that somehow found their way in there.
I think about how it’s good to have a dollhouse to dream in and a real house to live in. A person needs both.
Nicole C. Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) and the forthcoming series for children, The Fix-It Friends, out in early 2017 from Macmillan Kids.