Why Do I Have to Clean It Up?

Because the Cleaning Fairy isn’t coming

Dear Daughters,

As the owner of three dogs and the father of three children, I’ve cleaned up a lot of messes over the years. And what have I learned from all that mess redressing? Basically, two lessons.

Lesson #1: Once you reach adulthood–and certainly once you become a parent–cleaning up after others is forevermore part of your fate.

The sooner you accept this truth, the better.

Why? Because messes happen. Regularly. And for responsible adults, the alternatives to cleaning them up ourselves basically come down to either 1) blaming creatures who are incapable of taking full responsibility (e.g., dogs and children) for failing to take full responsibility, or 2) hoping someone else will do the dirty work of cleaning up for us.

Alternative 1) is obviously self-defeating. We can and should work to turn children into responsible adults, but until they get there, blaming them for the messes they make neither cleans the mess nor much educates the child. As for dogs (and other incompetent critters), blaming them for their lack of competence implies a lot about our own.

Alternative 2) is irresponsible, not to mention a little naïve: Hope may spring eternal, but it rarely does the dirty work.

Lesson #2: When redressing a mess, blotting is usually best.

Long experience also teaches that hurried attempts to remove a mess are as likely to make it worse as to make it better. And the latest high-tech cleaning tools are often little more than feel-good gimmicks.

Generally speaking, what it takes to fix a mess is first and foremost patience and persistence–plus repeated application of just the right amount of pressure. You have to dab and blot. Then blot and dab. And then blot a little more.

Most messes go away in stages. You clean them up bit by bit. You try one technique then another. And you obliterate them partly because you just keep blotting.

What This All Adds Up To

By putting these points together, we arrive at some guidance you can use well beyond the realm of household cleaning.

If and whenever you find yourself facing a mess in life …

  • Pointing fingers probably won’t help
  • Hope is important but won’t get the job done
  • Quick fixes may just make things worse, and
  • Your best bet will almost always involve persistent application of firm but gentle pressure (i.e., a version of “blotting”)

It may also take some time on your knees, some elbow grease, and a whole lot more humility than you’d prefer to stomach.

It probably won’t be fun, but you can comfort yourself with this fundamental fact: Cleaning up after others isn’t beneath any of us. On the contrary, it’s a sign of true adulthood and often a manifestation of love. It can even be a step toward the sublime.

I heartily recommend that you take that step, and regularly. You can start today–in your room, my office, or even the backyard.



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