House, Human condition, Organization

Achieving anal retentiveness (AKA learning to adult)

My siblings might tell you that I’ve been anal retentive since birth, but they’re wrong. At least, they’re wrong in the sense that I’m writing about today. If they accused me of being dogmatic, puritanical, and slightly self-righteous (you know, anal retentiveness of mind), I’d have to give them that. But I have rarely (ever?) been accused of being anal retentive when it comes to life management, cleanliness, financial awareness, etc. All the stuff that lets you function as an adult. And that’s the kind of anal retentiveness I want to address today.

Let me begin with a truly pathetic illustration. Eight years ago, Todd and I were newlyweds, and I was about to start grad school. I had a vision of myself as being ‘beyond’ the small-minded pursuits of housekeeping (already endearing myself to you, aren’t I?).

I preferred to picture myself, you know, walking hand-in-hand with Nehru

So our laundry would routinely rot in the washer for three days, and there were stacks and stacks of books cluttering various surfaces (they made me look smart, so I left them lying around), and piles of dishes that sometimes waited quite some time before they saw a scrub brush. In other words, our home was ‘cheerfully’ disheveled.* One day, my new mother-in-law decided to drop something off at our house on the spur of the moment. I was so mortified by the state of my house that when the doorbell rang, I hid. I’m not kidding. I think I stuffed myself in a closet, and pretended that I wasn’t home. That’s how bad my housekeeping skills were.

I wish that that little incident had triggered a ‘eureka’ moment in my adult life, but in truth, it’s taken me multiple years + children to finally acknowledge that organization and cleanliness are vital life skills. I had labeled them anal-retentive because I’m not naturally gifted at them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. They do, *sob.* They do. Thus began my long and arduous journey to learn how to create order out of the chaos in my life. It was time to adult.

It’s been a humbling experience. I’m good at a lot of things, like looking spaced-out and arguing about philosophical issues and sitting. I’m really good at sitting.

My mother tells me that I sat early. I sat often. And I’m still sitting like a champ.

But I’m not good at this. I’m not good at being organized and structured and tidy. It’s like I’m eating a slab of humble pie every day. Just when I think I’ve actually made headway (I mopped!), I notice that there are cobwebs on my bathroom ceiling. They’ve probably been there for years, but I just noticed them.

Every organizational attempt I make is like another step up a rocky slope for a person with acrophobia. I take a deep breath, and buy a daytimer, and then breathe into my paper bag several times before I feel steady again. I take a another deep breath, and finally set up a budget. I hyperventilate and donate my useless stacks of grad school books to the the university bookstore (at this point, having them around the house makes me look dumb, because if I’d gotten rid of them years ago, I could have actually made some money off them). It’s grueling.

But the benefit of scaling tough peaks is that you get to occasionally stop and take in the view. And when I do, it’s beautiful. I see the marble-free rug in my living room (thank you, Electrolux).** I see a washing machine that’s mold-free because I actually transferred the clothes to the dryer. I see a meal plan that twists a knife in my impulsive palate a little bit, but that actually makes my life much easier. It’s worth it.

Learning to embrace structure means that I can lounge, pondering philosophical issues, without being interrupted by the niggling thought that my children have no clean pants.

But do I have clean pants? Do I even own pants?

It means that I have new respect for people whose brains work differently (more efficiently?) than mine.

Best of all, it means that if I ever have to hide from unexpected guests again, I know it will be in a clean closet.

*No, we don’t believe in ‘traditional’ roles, but Todd was working full time, while I was, um, not. So basic housekeeping was on me.

**please, no one tell my children that I vacuum up their marbles. They haven’t figured out the connection between the vacuum and their diminishing supply

7 thoughts on “Achieving anal retentiveness (AKA learning to adult)”

  1. That is the cutest baby!
    (Those asterisks: was there a double one in the text somewhere? I usually don’t even notice them until I reach the reveal at the end and then I have trouble finding the source.)


  2. I so enjoy reading your articles Ruth! They make me smile, even laugh and most importantly, they make me reflect on life and it’s complexities in a new light.


  3. Your father was reading this and chuckling. “What is it?” I asked him. He said, “Sitting! That’s me!” (Ha ha! You can now blame someone else for your tendencies…)


  4. Love your writing, Ruth. I naturally lean toward the less organized side, and have had to figure out how to get more efficient and together so I can actually move on the stuff I want done. But wow, it’s wild pulling that all together when it feels so counter-intuitive, and yet so rewarding when you actually begin to see progress instead of chaos. Thanks for sharing your life with us.


    1. Thanks, Tom 🙂 I think you hit the nail on the head when you say “move on the stuff I want done.” When I think of organizing/structuring as an end in itself, it feels unnatural and irritating, but when I see it as a way to make space for the stuff I care about, it’s a lot more palatable.

      Liked by 1 person

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