The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Messy House By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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Amongst the things I did not realize about having four children was the fact that there’d be so much stuff to manage. I’m not even talking about the doctors’ appointments or school forms (there are those, too, groaning to-do lists’ worth). I’m talking about physical objects. I’m not a terribly orderly person. Here I need clothing for each child—and must shepherd clothing from the first to the next to the next and so on. We are playing with a baby doll stroller and games I have no idea how to play. We are in the land of Itsy Bitsy Spider and Dr. Horrible’s Singalong. We have diapers and deodorant on the shopping list.

What we have, really and truly, is a totally very cluttered house.

Two parents working, four kids—teen to toddler doing their busy, very often messy things—and well, chaos. Up front: if I/we were better at cleaning up, surely our children would be too. I get that. Still, here we are.


I’ll admit that as a writer now blogging too and having spent a number of months helping friends with a children’s store do their Facebook page, I got sucked in by design blogs. Talk about making my personal mess look, well, messier. Suddenly, not only did I want a less tornado-struck house, I wanted our stuff transformed: boots and shoes lined up just so, toys in proper bins, papers filed in labeled folders, and on like that.

The design blog world seems to be cousins to the food blog world—and my kids are quite the cooks, and our town seems to have become collectively swept up by the local food movement—so along with having the house look nice, we’d already been moving toward our kitchen becoming an even more central place. Our freezer is filled with homemade (by the twelve year-old) tomato sauce and a jar sits on the counter with granola I made.

Despite having skirted wanting to measure up to parenting magazines, this blog invasion on my consciousness (and attendant assault to my self-worth) has caught me by surprise.


About two months ago, I got all worked up and decided that I was going to change the household’s totally chaotic course, stem the piles-of-everything tide and get things back together so the house could become more pleasantly inhabitable. I didn’t quit my job or decide to ignore my kids, either; I just determined this was my mission in a hell or high water way.

What the hell was I thinking?

Stealing snatches of time from the ether, I’ve begun. It’s been a process and although I’m not sure you would come to my house and have any idea of how much effort I’ve been putting into the great rescue-the-house-from-entropy project, I’ll just assure you, I’ve steadily been chipping away at rogue toys, outgrown and to-grow-into clothing (and offloading clothes and toys the fourth—and final—child has outgrown). I’ve been weeding out canvas bags and orphaned plastic containers whose lids abandoned them along the way. I’ve gone through one pantry, cleared off surfaces, returned books to overcrowded shelves. Like so much of domesticity and of the custodial chores associated with parenting, I am struck by how humbling these tasks are, how small and tedious and unglamorous—and necessary.

In a way, that’s what it is to write honestly about motherhood; you must believe the essential nature of what we are doing overrides the fact that what surrounds the family’s relationships—materials we use to build our relationships—are these little details, ones seemingly worth ignoring. Except, these details are where we live.

Do I lose my feminist credentials by affirming that these concerns matter? If I’m not aspiring to design showcase house standards maybe I’m still okay? As I sorted through piles on my desk, I read about a book for people like me (coming out in January) called Pretty Neat: The Buttoned-Up Way to Get Organized and Let Go of Perfection (by Alicia Rockmore and Sarah Welch/Seal Press). The writers coined the phrase “org porn” and fix a feminist stare on exactly my quandaries: how’d a gal like me start wanting things to look so orderly, even perfect?

I’m thinking that like every other way I tend to be hard on myself, I’ll read that the showcase house contains those same issues females seem particularly vulnerable to, or some of us, at least. I hope to cast a savvy feminist eye on this by January (sitting in my somewhat neat house).


Check out Sarah Buttenwieser’s blog, Standing in the Shadows:


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