“Kids are messy.” I remember my mother telling me that, long ago when I was pregnant with my first daughter, and I didn’t believe her. How could it be true? Looking around what would become our new baby’s room, anyone could see it was perfect, with the pink flowered curtains and all the toys displayed in an orderly yet inviting fashion, just waiting, like we were, to receive her. 

Three children and many years later, I know my mother was right. And I know she’s smiling as she reads this, the words “I told you so” hovering like a cartoon bubble above her head, although she’s too nice to ever say them out loud. Kids are messy.

Every mother of young children knows this, how tidying up becomes an endless cycle, buckets of crayons and boxes of LEGOs and baskets of stuffed animals dumped and filled up and dumped again. The messes take many forms, like the time someone left a red crayon in a pocket and all the whites in the laundry turned pink, a development my daughters loved, my son and husband not so much, and the LEGO building project that occupied my son’s bedroom floor for the better part of three years.

Now that my kids are older, instead of toys, it’s clothes and shoes and books and computers and cords that are strewn about the house, simply a more up-to-date version of the clutter of years ago. The LEGOs and blocks have given way to sunglasses and purses and iPhones and earrings, but when I look around the house I feel that same feeling of weariness surveying the mess they’ve made. It still bothers me when my son drops his clothes where he was standing, a puddle of shorts and t-shirt and dirty socks, and I try really hard not to nag my daughter to pick up her shoes and put them away just this once. 

But now that my kids are nearly grown, I’ve realized the underlying truth of my mother’s statement. It’s not only that kids make a mess, maybe even more important is that they make life messy. Emotions become more complicated as you encounter a sense of empathy greater than you imagined possible; each slight they suffer stings you, each triumph brings a vicarious joy. You want what is best for them, but sometimes the best is not the easiest, and that can be messy. 

When you have children, you surrender a sense of order. Even though you are the parent, you realize that you are not truly in control. This discovery of what has probably already been the case hits hard, especially when tied to that little person you’ve grown to love. And as they grow, it only gets messier. Everyone knows the pain of middle school, being in the cafeteria with no one to eat lunch with, that stuck locker, the tears of embarrassment and frustration. But to suffer through that with your child, that is really messy. And even though you desperately want to, it’s a mess you can’t clean up.

I think this lesson has hit me harder lately as my oldest daughter just started her first job, my second daughter is heading off to college, and my son, a sophomore in high school, will be ready to start driving soon. Each of them is heading out on a new adventure, one that will include triumphs and despair, exciting new discoveries as well as frustration and disappointments. And I can’t do anything to clean it up for them. The road is messy, and it is better that way. 

So I look around the house, and I make a conscious effort to appreciate the mess. The shoes can stay in the middle of the floor, the clothes will eventually be washed, but for now, they are here with me, for this brief time, sharing together in the messiness of life. 

Catherine Gentry

Catherine Gentry graduated cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in English, and after practicing law at Vinson & Elkins LLP in Houston for several years, “retired” to raise her children (a high school sophomore, a college freshman, and a recent college graduate). Currently she is working as a writing instructor and aspiring novelist, and her work has been featured in online publications including the “Voices” section of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Grown & Flown, and Literary Mama, as well as The Houston Chronicle.