A priest once counseled me to make my children help me more. There are so many of them, he said, and it’s generally their messes I’m cleaning up. What a simple solution to my irritability, my exhaustion, my frustration with my duties!

I’ll forgive that priest some day.

In the meantime, let me explain, Father. When your kids help, it doesn’t help. At least, not for the first 46,923 times you get them to help. They need to be trained, and it would be faster to train an olive tree to grow in the shape of an ampersand. It would be faster to train a cocker spaniel to type in Mandarin.

It would be faster just to do the job myself.

But, of course, that’s not good for them. They need to learn that work doesn’t just do itself. My sons need to learn that it’s not a woman’s job to pick up after them. And the girls need to learn how to pick up, so they can pick up after their husbands someday. And yes, I need some help.

But I’m not going to get it. While pursuing my duty of teaching them to be helpful, what I’m going to get is one of several different types of failure.

The most forgivable is called, “The little weirdo tried.” This is what you get when the sun is shining and your squirrelly little son needs to go outside now.  So you let him take the peanut butter, jelly, bread, and butter knife outside, as long as he promises to bring it all back in.

Three hours later, you open the fridge to find the jelly jar with a knife, a spoon and a pair of scissors stuck in it. The lid is dangling off the end of the scissors, and the whole objet de lunch is about 60% encrusted with grass clippings and miscellaneous filth. But he did put it away! (The peanut butter, however, is gone for good.)

This kind of thing is so darn cute that I can’t get upset. You can just imagine him streaked with mud and muttering intently to himself, “Mama said not to forget the lid ...”

The second category of incompetence is much harder to tolerate. The job doesn’t get done, and there’s also a hefty insult included. Your child does something bearing a faint resemblance to the job you told him to do, but with such obvious ill-will and poor execution that the message is clear: “Mother—For some unjust reason you’ve been temporarily graced with authority over me, but don’t think for a moment that you and I desire the same thing. ‘Clean the living room,’ eh? Well, you want the job done; I want you to suffer.”

Do I exaggerate? Well, half an hour ago, the kid in question was capable of operating a video game console more intricate that the dashboard of a Boeing F-22 Raptor. But now, through some baffling process of devolution, he is no longer able to discern whether or not there is a half-eaten ear of corn in the middle of the rug. Here’s a hint, sonny: There is.

And once he is forced to acknowledge that, indeed, there certainly is an ear of corn in the middle of the rug, he becomes utterly incapable of mustering enough manual dexterity to, oh, pick it up. I won’t even trouble you with a tedious exegesis on the difference between trash that is actually inside the can, and trash that has been chucked toward that general half of the kitchen. I already hate myself for having to explain it once.

In between these two extremes, there are a thousand shades of negligence, ineptitude, laziness and nincompoopery. There’s the badly-wiped table that says more about short arms than it does about malice. 

There’s the 11-year-old girl who, after seven hours of school, an hour of band and a half-hour ride home, really is just plain too tired to hang her backpack on its hook. 

There’s the 8-year-old boy who, despite all that reason tells us, is speaking the truth when he says that his room looks pretty clean to him. 

And there’s the child who just.




But you know what? Some day they’ll all be gone, and my house will be clean. My floor won’t be littered with sheet music, discarded socks and Fig Newtons. We’ll never have to play, “What’s that smear?” When someone sweeps, the floor will end up looking cleaner. There will only be two dishes to wash after every meal, instead of 10. It will be quiet in my house, clean and peaceful. Empty.

Oh, man, it’s gonna be great.