By Lauren Apfel
“At the worst, a house unkept cannot be so distressing as a life unlived.” —Rose Macaulay
When my twins started school last August, my last two children, I looked at my house and saw it, really saw it, for the first time in years. It was disgusting. The once white walls were smeared grey with grimy handprints, and chipped from rough encounters with unforgiving furniture. The carpet was worn thin in places and soiled in others, saturated with god-knows-what substances of childhood. Piss, puke, chocolate. The main living area was, at most hours of the day, strewn with toys and bits and pieces of defunct games. There wasn’t an adult item in sight, a single book or picture that represented who I was other than the mother of four.
The issue was more one of disrepair than filth. We had a cleaning service, things were tidied and made sanitary on a regular basis, that wasn’t what I was seeing. I was seeing something deeper. The reality of what I had let go of in order to get through a period of time—a period of time that wasn’t simply the six weeks of postpartum they warn you about, or the 12 months of breastfeeding. No, this was a cumulative effect, years and years of giving myself over to the chaos of being a mom of multiple young kids. To compromising, to recognizing my limitations and my priorities, of which a pristine house was never one.
Something always gives—no matter how much, in a culture that glorifies the rise and rise of the superwoman, we are force-fed the myth of “having it all.” I’ve always known this to be true and lived accordingly, with little shame or guilt. Which explains precisely how my home came to look as it did. I had the kids, four of them in five and half years, and then I started writing and then I started my own website and between the demands of parenthood and the call of work (and whatever small pleasures I took for myself), the house was duly ignored. What I marvel at in retrospect is not the fact that I did this—it makes perfect sense as a survival tactic. But rather the psychological mechanism that allowed me to turn such a blind eye for so long.
They say it gets better. All the moms, the ones who are on the other side of babyhood and pre-schoolhood, the ones whose kids can be taken to restaurants where they require neither wipes nor chicken fingers nor an iPhone to survive the outing. And it’s true. The tiny, helpless creatures evolve into quasi self-sufficient beings who not only won’t drown in the bath if they are left alone for five minutes, but who can actually even wash themselves.
They say you get better too. Your body slowly becomes your own again. The stretch marks and scars fade to silvery reminders of bulging bellies and acid reflux so bad you had to sleep sitting up. The back that was wrenched daily from the weight of lugging a car seat around, of plucking a mammoth three-year-old from his bed, hasn’t lifted a child that way in years. And it’s true. The body heals.
But what nobody told me while my house was falling apart is that I would start to see clearly again, how this particular fog would lift. Not the fog of sleep deprivation, or of swirling, whirling hormones, but a thicker, more encompassing fog. The mist of having young children, and of having them one after the other after the other.
For many months during this time, my bedroom was dark. There are two lights attached to the ceiling and neither of them worked. It wasn’t a matter of replacing the bulbs. The fault ran deeper than that, with the wiring perhaps or the mechanical structure of the fixtures themselves. I had a single bedside lamp that illuminated the room, by whose glow I both dressed and read.
What made it worse is that there was no natural light coming through the windows either. I live in Glasgow, Scotland, where the sky is perennially matted grey and the ungenerous winter months dole out only small gifts of sunlight. There are blackout curtains in my bedroom room anyway—a throwback to when babies still slept there; a shield against the white nights of June and July and August, the latitude of the city making the summer just as impossible as the winter, but for the opposite reason.
It could have been five months that my lights were broken. It could have been ten. It could have been longer. More amazing to me now than that I did nothing to rectify the situation for so long is that I can’t even say how long, exactly, it lasted. In those days, time had a way of collapsing in on itself, its passage both palpable and unknowable at once. I’ve lost whole swathes of it.
People constantly reassure women in the early stages of motherhood that their children will age out of certain dependencies, that their bodies will, at some point, be re-claimed. They say this because the promises act as incentives, as silver linings. It gets better.
But maybe nobody tells us we will regain our vision, our clarity, because it is the blindness to whatever compromises we need to make—to our houses, our marriages, our friendships, our very senses of self—that will usher us, with sanity intact, through those stages in the first place. If we became too aware of what we weren’t seeing, of what we were neglecting, it would defeat the psychological purpose of not seeing it. Some things are best understood only in hindsight.
In the months after my twins started school, we began to renovate. It felt, all of a sudden, urgent to do so. The blinds were the first to be replaced, thin white things that came with the house when we moved in eight years earlier, a toddler and a baby in tow and little energy for immediate improvements. And then the carpet was ripped up, in long, gratifying sheets, a wood floor, a Danish oak, laid in its stead. But the most satisfying was the walls. All repainted. White again, with the trimmings in high gloss, which seems symbolic somehow—of a cleanse, of a new beginning. As does the fact that the non-functioning light fixtures in my room have finally been taken down. I can see again in there now, which is the biggest metaphor of all.
My house is in pretty good shape, though my relationship to it has changed. I am newly, and keenly, aware of its faults. I notice marks on the freshly-painted skirting boards, stains on the otherwise untainted carpet and I don’t feel able to ignore them anymore. Once you see something, you can’t un-see it, and with that comes a responsibility to act. I know it’s one more thing to pay attention to, yet another task on my list, but at the same time I welcome what it represents—an awakening that makes me wonder, now this phase of motherhood has passed, what else my eyes will be open to.
Author Update: Last night, the light fixture on the ceiling of my living room broke. Well, my kid broke it, after I told him to stop roughhousing with his brother. After I told him once, after I told him twice, after I told him a third time. I was livid. The defiance, the dismissiveness, but really, when I dig deep, what caused the reaction is: the house. A problem with my house that I can’t fix myself—the lights, the toilets, the radiators—that requires calling somebody, paying for something, just, you know, DEALING.
Since I’ve written this essay, almost three years ago, so much in my life has changed. I am a single mother now, a sole home-owner, and it is this scenario of disrepair, more than any other, that has come to make me feel that status inherently. That makes me feel it painfully. I suppose my ability to manage the house by myself, its bones not its skin (the upkeep is still pretty good), is becoming the new marker of how I am faring, of what I am neglecting. The door handle that broke in my bedroom last year? Still not fixed. The latch is covered over in slathers of tape so it doesn’t happen again, but the root problem? Avoided.
At least for the time being. Maybe that’s just the way of it, for a woman raising kids alone most days of the week, trying to grow a business, trying to earn enough money, trying to have a social life, trying to retain a semblance of wholeness and sanity. Maybe that’s just the way of it, until something changes again—until I most likely start neglecting something else.