Every night, around 7:40pm, I gently close LO’s door and turn to face the mess that is my kitchen. Oftentimes, TMOTH (The Man of the House) is on the ground, picking up LO’s wooden train set and placing its pieces back in their proper spots-or he is at the sink, attempting to noiselessly (a total impossibility) stack some of the dirty dishes to make them more manageable. Even with him there, attacking the mess, at times it feels like its never good enough. Not TMOTH, or his help, but rather, my seemingly endless hours of keeping our home organized and clean. I feel as if I spend much of my day, trying to sort through how to be present with LO while also not going crazy with the insanity that ensues as soon as our day begins with her happy morning squeals.
Whether I take a heavy sigh as I look out onto the chaos of kitchen or swiftly go to the sink and simply start scrubbing what needs to be cleaned, depends on many things, but mostly, where I find my worth. If I am looking for my worth to be found in my perfection…well…let’s just say, I will be heavily sighing (or worse!) the whole night. I will (and have found myself many times!) feeling heavy laden and weary with whoa-is-me feelings. And really, when I’m in my clearer moments, my self-pity stems from my shame that I can’t get it all right–and I feel like I should be able to. I *should* be able to keep my house clean at all times…despite a little person who latest favorite thing is to empty her toy bin and then attempt to place each toy in a cup and then shake it…I *should* be able to cook and serve and eat a delicious, nutrient-rich meal that myself, TMOTH and of course, LO, will like, not just for dinner, but also for breakfast and lunch. And for it to truly be all those things, it *should* be almost entirely from scratch and made up of real foods—and be the perfect blend of protein, carbs and fats. I *should* find time also to wash, sanitize, declutter and organize whatever needs washing, sanitizing, decluttering, organizing in an orderly, timely fashion (i.e. at least once a week) for every room, while also being present and attentive to my daughter’s socioemotional, physiological and psychological needs- as well as my own and my husbands. Overwhelmed yet? Ummmm I am.
While these *shoulds* currently revolve around taking care of a home and a family, before homes and marriage and kids, these *shoulds* existed in full force- they just revolved around other things. I *should* look beautiful everyday, including the first few minutes after I wake when my face can look red and puffy. I *should* look beautiful- at least beautiful enough for others to notice my beauty, but, I *should* also be secure enough with myself that I don’t care whether I am beautiful or not. I *should* succeed at whatever I try my hand at…be it my education, work, new social settings and interactions…and it *should* be effortless, stemming from my natural abilities- and of course, I *should* succeed the first time. And if I don’t, then, at the very least, I *should* be able to feel grateful for the challenge of it all.
Almost ten years ago, a counselor asked me to write down all my shoulds-at least the ones that felt important to me at the time- in an effort to help me realize the standards that I had for myself. Wow. Was it revealing. Seeing my list-page upon page of shoulds- was actually a powerful tool in helping me realize the mantle of shame I lived under. Thin slices (like how I tie in “thinly slice” in all sorts of places?) of unacknowledged shame, each layered upon each other, like the delicate layers of phyllo dough in a pastry, that stacked upon each other are every standard I fail to meet. Writing this makes the exercise sound depressing, but the reality is, I did not experience it that way. Rather, it felt freeing- freeing to see the endless list of shoulds and realize no single person (well, maybe One single person…) could meet every standard I had in my head for what I needed to do or be all the time.
Every so often, when I’d meet with this friend, she would ask me if I’d be “should upon” today, meaning was I living life with my measuring stick out all the time, assessing how I was coming along with my many, many expectations of myself- and for that matter, others. It was hard to get out of that mentality…hard to want to lose that mentality- scary, even. Because without my shoulds, how would I know where I measured up? How did I know how I was doing? What does it mean if life isn’t about should or our to-do lists?
I kept that list in the front part of my journal for a long time. It was a reminder of the perfection I expected of myself and the impossibility of it all. It was a reminder of the grace I’d been given in being freed from my lists- that I could never be perfect, but that that is ok, because life is not actually about that. Life is about living in the moment and truly, it is impossible to BE in the moment if you are concentrating on your lists of shoulds. Seriously. It is impossible. Try it. When I truly am IN the moment, I am not even able to think about the expectations I have for myself or for others because I am simply living. I’m concentrating on LO’s seemingly insatiable desire to pick up a small object and place it in a cup and shake it around like she is an African tribal musician. I’m measuring out the spices that go in my favorite pumpkin bread recipe. I’m listening to The Man of the House tell me about his day and the bizarre story he read in The Express. I’m living in the present and not in the future of all that I *have* to do or dwelling on the past of all that I’ve *failed* to do.
The reality is, the mess I walk into many nights represents a life being lived. It represents the mess that is my life- its imperfections, its failed expectations, its joys and little moments of life. Its a mess that represents the fullness of our lives. Our life as a family is brimming over with good things- even to the practical realities of good food whose traces remain on our plates and on our counters…and, thanks to LO’s fondness of flinging her meals, on our floors.
Now, all this is not to say that I don’t still “should upon” myself frequently…I do. Quite a lot for that matter. And some seasons of my life are better than others in this regard. But, more and more, day by day, I am praying that I can be more gracious with myself and learn to live under a robe of Grace, and not a mantle of shame. Because life goes by too quickly…and I’m never going to get it quite right and if I spend my whole life trying, as Ferris Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
p.s. on a side note, I’d written a draft of this post a week ago and just this weekend, on a retreat, the speaker mentioned this whole “should upon” concept in her talk…coincidence? I think not…