At just after 2 am Pacific time last Wednesday morning I pulled our van into our driveway, arriving home with my youngest three kids (ages 11, 5 and 2) after a week-long vacation at Grandma’s house in Florida. Nearly 17 hours before, we had hugged her goodbye and made our way diagonally across the U.S., taking a variety of planes, trains and automobiles to get back to our home in the state of Washington. We were all exhausted from traveling, yet my kids were still excited to go hug Mommy, who was already sleeping. They ran in ahead of me as I brought in a couple of bags, dropped them on the floor inside the front door, and followed them upstairs. The first thing I noticed once I got upstairs was the clean floor of my girls’ room, which had been totally messy with clothes, shoes, toys, and plastic bins when we left a week earlier. My wife had cleaned it all up while we had been gone, so it was a pleasant surprise to find upon our return. It was a job that had taken her a considerable amount of time to complete and I made sure to thank her for doing it before I went to sleep that night.
At about 5 am my five year old woke me up, complaining of a headache and hunger. Obviously the three hour time change and long day of travel was catching up to her. I brought her to the kitchen to get her some yogurt and a glass of milk. I wasn’t prepared for the mess that was revealed when I turned on the lights in the kitchen. Every surface of the counter was covered with what appeared to be week-old wrappers and boxes from several restaurants, dirty dishes, mail, textbooks, half-filled soda cans and mostly empty cups. I slowly shook my head in disbelief, got my daughter her food. After two bites she was full and I put away her yogurt and milk in the fridge and turned out the lights. The messy kitchen could be dealt with later after I had more sleep.
Thankfully, my younger two kids slept in until about 10 am that day, so I was feeling reasonably well-rested and appreciated the warm sunshine as we began our first day back home. The girls marveled at their now-clean room and I made sure to remind them that it was because of the hard work of their mother that it was so nice for them. They wasted little time in bringing some dolls and stuffed animals into their room to play on the expanse of clean carpet. While they entertained themselves upstairs I snuck away to the kitchen to assess the mess in the light of day. It was just as bad as I had remembered from the middle of the night. Only, this time I started to feel really angry at my wife and two teenage daughters. It felt like a literal and figurative F-you to see a full load of clean dishes in the dishwasher, dirty dishes piled up in the sink and on the countertops, and the rest of the mess all over the place. Even the dining room table, which had been completely cleaned (by me!) after our Easter dinner the day before we left, was full of all kinds of stuff that didn’t belong there. I debated taking my little girls to a nearby favorite cafe to eat because of the mess. I really wanted to teach my wife and older kids a lesson about respect and responsibility. I felt this almost righteous indignation because I had worked really hard to make sure that the house was tidy before we left so that there would be no excuse for it to be messy upon my return. I really wanted to just leave the mess for them to clean up. I didn’t deserve this extra work. This was literally their mess to clean up.
As I was starting to really get myself worked up over this my two year old wandered into the kitchen to ask me to make her some pancakes for breakfast. Pretty please with sugar on top, Daddy? Of course, even though there was not even one spot on the counters clean enough to to fit a mixing bowl, much less a griddle, I told her that I would be happy to do that once I cleaned up a little bit. Without being asked, she cheerfully started to empty the dishwasher. If my little one could help clean, I figured that I really had to figure out a way to get over myself and get a better attitude about this mess, but, oh boy, I was struggling. I decided some upbeat Christian music might help change my angry spirit, so I plugged my iPhone into some speakers and started cleaning alongside my little girl. It took a few songs until I really started to realize that cleaning up someone else’s mess wasn’t really the end of the world. Sure, it was irritating and disappointing. Yeah, it would’ve been nice to come home to a cleaner kitchen. But, as I began to clean, I started to gain a different perspective from my messy kitchen.
For one thing, while we were having a great time at Grandma’s pool and at the beach, my wife was busy working at her job to provide financially for our family and my teenage daughters were busy with school, homework and water polo practice. Because of my wife’s faithfulness in working hard at all times, even while I am on vacation, I am able to be a Stay At Home Dad. I am able to take these kinds of trips with my kids. Sure, it was a working vacation for me because my SAHD duties didn’t end just because I wasn’t at home, but it was still a vacation all the same. Also, it dawned on me that this was an opportunity for me to really practice what I preach, or, at least blog about. Just a few weeks ago I wrote What’s In Your Garden?, a blog post about cultivating kindness and gratitude in all of my relationships by focusing on the positives instead of the negatives. After all, since my wife had done a great job of cleaning up the girls’ room and my girls had taken care of their school responsibilities, cleaning up the kitchen shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right? Even if my attitude hadn’t fully caught up with that positivity, I was sure that it would at some point. Then, my phone rang, cutting off the uplifting music and my mojo along with it.
It was my oldest daughter, calling to talk about some other stuff. I wasn’t really in a mood to talk at that moment and I was, sadly, a little short with her, as I let my frustration with the situation in my kitchen affect my conversation with her. As I was talking with her and flipping pancakes my teenage daughters arrived home from school (it was an early-release day) and came in the kitchen to say hi, as they hadn’t seen me since we had gotten back home. Instead of returning their greetings, I shot a very sarcastic “Thanks for the mess, girls!” at them. So much for that attitude of gratitude. Epic dad fail. That, obviously, set a negative tone for the next few minutes, until I realized what a complete tool I was being. I asked their forgiveness (both my girls at home and my oldest who was still on speakerphone) and shared with them my feelings of frustration and that I was really trying to have a good attitude about it all. They graciously forgave me and I finished serving pancakes to my little girls while the older ones made themselves some lunch. After the kids all finished eating and cleared out of the kitchen, I finally had a chance to eat my own pancakes, enjoying the sudden peace and quiet. It was then that I fully released the burden of being angry about the messy kitchen. It’s just stupid stuff. What really matters to me is relationship with my family, not if my kitchen is perfectly clean.
It took quite a bit more effort on my part to get the kitchen cleaned up. I think I ran the dishwasher three times in the first 24 hours I was back and did a load of hand-wash items as well. I also took moment to consider the fact that we’re fortunate enough to live in such a beautiful home with plenty of food and dishes to get messy in the first place. And we even have a functioning dishwasher to help. It’s really all about perspective. It’s been almost a week since I came home to that messy kitchen. I realize now that it was an opportunity to really teach my family a lesson. Only, the lesson was one of grace, not one of punishment. And it was not just their lesson, but mine as well.
EDIT: Please note that I’m sharing this to encourage others to examine what’s really important in life. In no way was I trying to embarrass my wife or daughters for not cleaning up the dishes. It’s only a temporary mess that was cleaned up within a couple of hours. Much more meaningful to me are the lasting relationships in my life with my wife and daughters.