What’s driving Henry and me to madly clean the apartment?  At first I thought it was because I invited a few friends over.  I was reciprocating their invitations and noticed how much cleaner and less cluttered their apartments were.  I ran to Bed Bath & Beyond for extra shelves so my cosmetics could relocate after 22 years on my bathroom floor.  I threw out a cracked pink plastic garbage can and two chipped cups, and I replaced them all in shiny, silver-gray to coordinate with the chrome shelves.  And that should have been enough, but no.

      What if one of my guests happened to peak into my daughter’s room on the way to the bathroom?  A debris field of various shopping bags, abandoned clothing and boots, plus last semester’s notebooks, binders and books would be on display.   I found myself with a garbage bag, Windex and Bounty, spritzing, wiping, organizing, disposing, folding….  Why are YOU doing this AGAIN?  I asked myself.  I could hear Sarah’s angry voice inside my head, insisting:  “I’m not a baby.  I know how to clean my room. I’m much neater than Max.”

      And she would be right about that.  Most of the time her room was more presentable than Max’s, but not this time.  This time the room had been left at the end of spring break with Sarah in a big hurry to get back to school.  Her suitcase had filled up long before last season’s stuff had been sorted and stowed away.   Surprisingly, Max’s room—usually a landfill site—had been cleaned up by his father (mostly) and by himself (reluctantly).   Mom, aka The Nag, had decided to let Henry duke it out with Max instead of with me.  The result was that the bed was made, carpet cleared and vacuumed, and books were in a neat pile on the desk.  It was good enough for The Nag and far better than usual.  On the off chance that two out of three guests needed to follow the call of nature at the same time, both my kids’ bathrooms and bedrooms were clean and orderly (if you didn’t look too closely).   But Henry wasn’t satisfied.   A mountain of clothing—enough to fill three laundry bags and a shopping bag—was “hiding” on the far side of Max’s room, behind the headboard of his bed, where my son’s hamper was a modern-day Mt. Etna spewing dirty laundry and wet towels.

     Henry tried to persuade me to help rebuild Max’s Pompeii, but I refused.  
     “What’s the point,” I argued, “he’ll just wreck it the minute he comes home after graduation.”

      “No, he won’t.   I’ll make him sign a contract with progressive penalties if he doesn’t clean up.”

       This was music to my ears.  After years of fighting with Max, Henry was finally going to act as my attorney.  “He won’t believe you.  He’s used to our cleaning up his messes.  And so, for that matter, is Sarah.”

     We’d arrived at the crux of the matter:  our kids were coming homing.  Max was graduating without a job, and Sarah would live at home during her fifth year of college to save money.   After four years of living mostly independent lives, we’re all going to be thrown together again.  Nobody is happy about this arrangement.  I’m sure Max and Sarah would prefer to live independently, making all kinds of messes in their lives without having to hear about it from Mom and Dad.

      As for me, I’m terrified.  I’ve been enjoying the four year evolution from a full-time mother of special-needs kids to a writer who is free to come and go without worrying about other people’s schedules or cleaning up catastrophes large and small.  My only unwanted responsibility has been walking and feeding Sparky, Max’s dog, and now Max will be taking that over.    But trading Sparky’s needs for Max’s?  That’s a bum deal for everyone because Max pushes Sparky out of the room when he’s sleeping, and guess who ends up walking and feeding him?

      Various therapists over the years have told us we have “enabled” our kids to avoid responsibility and consequences by doing too much for them.  Guilty as charged.  Fortunately, living independently at college forced them to grow up and take care of themselves to some degree.  Okay, so they rarely (if ever) changed their sheets.   Still, they managed to get to class, do their work and advocate for themselves with teachers and administrators when necessary.

      Now what happens?  I regard my husband sorting through dirty clothing, examining a stained Giants’ sweatshirt and tossing shoes in Max’s closet.  I agreed to bring in a garbage bag, some paper towels and Windex.  I figure if Henry spends a Sunday afternoon in a frenzy of cleaning Max’s room, he’ll have a vested interest in seeing that Max maintains it.  It’s not “enabling,” I tell myself.  It’s setting the bar at a higher level for (chronologically) grown up kids and then insisting they take over.  I want to be optimistic.  So let’s just call it prophylactic cleaning.


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