Whether you’re a parent or not, there are times in your life when the to-do’s, the bills, the career, and life starts to pile on your life with no reprieve in sight. Before parenthood, these phases were blips and moments hung sporadically across the timeline; as a parent, these phases are simply called everyday. Parents certainly don’t own the rights to feeling stressed, but children basically function as gasoline accelerants on pressure. I have endured plenty of rough days, weeks, and even longer stretches in my life, but each of those moments lay squarely on my own shoulders to persevere through. These days, anxiety saturated periods are compounded by these odd little creatures I willingly brought into this world; each situation faced carries the additional burden of two beautiful little ankle biters depending on my composure and success.
Believe it or not, but I am imperfect husband. It’s difficult to admit, but I’m not always the pinnacle of perfection and manhood my poor wife thought she was getting when she married me (wink wink). I have several irritating habits (like my innate superpower to not hear a word my wife or daughters say if there is a basketball game on TV), but there may not be one my wife finds more annoying than my habit to leap into panic-ridden housework at sporadic moments. It’s certainly not a conscious decision (would anybody actually choose to clean the house?) but rather some version of a nerve induced tic where the pressure of mounting responsibilities manifest themselves in cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, or reorganizing the closet.
Perhaps there may be a wife or three out there that is thinking: “I’d love it if my husband did chores whenever stressed!” It’d be one thing if I was cleaning while grinning and whistling like the eighth dwarf, but unfortunately I’m usually scrubbing dishes with jaws-of-life force with a dirty scowl on my face and disgust in my veins. Not only am I emotionally inanimate during my cleaning obsession, but I usually choose to start doing this when my wife is incapacitated in one way or another (breastfeeding the newborn, bathing the toddler, etc.). She basically has to watch me pace around maniacally without the ability to help or intervene.
Again, I do not consciously decide to clean; somehow the habit pervades my actions and I proceed accordingly. When I am at my most stressed and anxious, it is usually when control is out of my grasp. Cleaning offers a repetitive and assured method to attempt to gain the lost control. As I sense clutter around me, I feel more stressed and desperately seek organization and clarity in my surroundings. Unfortunately, however, I live with a toddler so organization and structure isn’t something normally found in our household. Our most stressed periods of life occur when we are at our most vulnerable; whether there’s a health scare, a career in jeopardy, or a relationship on the rocks, stress hits its crescendo when the circumstances are out of our control. If I can see a way to work through an issue on my own, I can typically self-manage anxious feelings. If, however, the situation is beyond my control, I have no choice but to combat stressful feelings with vacuuming. Or yard work. Or hundreds of other household chores. I have this illogical illusion that if I can keep my house or my room or my office in order, I can better defeat whatever turmoil life has thrown at me (or I’ve thrown at myself, which happens from time to time).
The joke, however, is that a meticulously cleaned house does nothing for my anxiety. It, in fact, usually makes it worse because it irritates my wife and starts some back-and-forth unkindness. No matter how much effort I put into sweeping under the dining table, the stress will be waiting for me when I’m done. No matter how many toddler outfits I fold, the cleaning procrastination provides little relief. I am then left facing moving forward without structure, without organization, and without order. Oftentimes, the practice only delays resolution, as time spent cleaning is time not spent solving. I’ll do my best, but as my wife can attest, my best typically falters in anxious moments. At least she’ll have a clean house, no?