Reader question: does being a Penelope affect the way you parent?

March 24, 2014

Here’s a question from a reader named Amy:

I’m struggling with my Penelope tendencies and my ability to effectively mother. I tend to want to pick up the Legos immediately upon them being emptied from the box. I’m not exactly carefree and laid-back, and I’m afraid that my (ahem) more controlling nature might be negatively impacting my son. Thoughts?

First of all, Amy, let me say “I HEAR YOU.” This is a huge issue. I get so many emails from Penelopes lamenting the exact same thing.

And I find, personally, that one of the hardest things about parenting is my natural inclination to have things neat, tidy and quiet all the time. Once you have kids, you realize, that ain’t gonna happen.

Given that I have 4 kids and have been a mom for 19 years now, I’ve had a lot of time to think this through. And, since 2 of my 4 kids are now actually adults, living away from home, I have a sense of how being parented by a Penelope has affected these children.

Here are my thoughts:

  • Do you have to be carefree and laid back to be a good mom? No.
  • Do you have to allow your children (and their stuff) to overrun your house in order to be a good mom? No.
  • Does having a messy, cluttered, disorganized home mean you’re a good mom? Absolutely not.

I actually hate sayings like this one which pissed me off so much I snapped a photo of it at Target and posted to the Penelope Facebook page.

Good Moms Have Messy Kitchens

I call bullshit on that. Why? Because my kitchen is not messy, nor do I have piles of laundry sitting around, and my kids are happy, too.

But, (and this is the big but) can you be rigid and hyper-controlling and be a happy mom with happy kids? I don’t think so. In fact, no.

We must, as in all things, but here especially, strive for a middle ground. It’s not all or nothing. That’s what I’ve learned.

In short, we have to be ok with the Legos being out while they’re being played with, but not out all over the place all the time.

One way I cope with this is to think of life as being divided into “seasons”. For example, right now, my youngest is 2. That means, he makes messes. He wants to touch everything all the time. He spills things, he throws things, he dumps things out and walks away.

But, I realize that life won’t be like this forever, that’s the first way I get through this season.

Secondly, I am taking the time to lay the groundwork with Jackson so that, later, he can help clean up the messes he makes. I want his “messy season” to be as short as possible. So, I’m teaching him that we take out just a few toys at a time. And when we’re done with those, we clean them up before we move to another. He’s not a fan of this. At. All. He’ll whine and cry and throw himself on the floor about half the time.

But he knows that, 100% of the time, he’s not moving on until he helps me clean up. And as we do, we sing together, we count things, we play. We spend quality time both playing and cleaning up. He’s getting my best attention, and that, to me, is what makes a good mom. Sure, if I were constantly vacuuming instead of interacting with my children, that’s going too far, way too far. But I am not going to feel bad that my children live in a tidy home. Or, that my expectation of them is that they will help keep our home tidy.

I want this for me, but I also want this for him. I don’t believe that creative, productive thinking can happen amidst chaos. I want him to know that order and routine can help him thrive. I also want to teach him that we do things we don’t feel like doing, like cleaning up after ourselves. I think that’ll make my future daughter-in-law happy.

So, Amy, I think it’s ok that you want to clean up the Legos. I don’t think that makes you nutty or compulsive or controlling. I don’t think you’re harming him if you want to put the Legos away when he’s done. I think that makes you a neat, ordered mom. At that point, you’re not refusing to let him play with Legos, you’re simply saying, after you do, we’ll clean up before we move on.

In short, I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods when we believe that good moms have messy houses. Some do. But, there isn’t just one way to be a “good mom”.

Messy kitchen or clean one, what matters is how we make our children feel. The time we take to invest in, teach and love them. That’s what makes us good moms.

And I’m not going to let some stupid pail at Target make me – or any of you- feel different.


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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen March 24, 2014 at 10:43 am

YES! Amen. I agree. Also, I believe I read somewhere that too much mess and chaos causes stress for kids and impedes their learning. So there! My kids (8 1/2 and 6) know that they have to clean up from their activity before moving on to another. I don’t think that is an unreasonable expectation. I occasionally allow them to leave out a bigger project that they can’t finish right away, but not because they are bored with it and want to do something else. Both of my kids’ teachers have commented that my kids are very artistic and creative, so obviously I am not stifling them too much. We are teaching important life skills here!

Meredith Meredith March 24, 2014 at 10:48 am

@Kristen: Totally agreed. And I’m so glad you brought up the issue of creativity. I think that’s another bill of goods that Penelopes are being sold: that being tidy or neat or Type A means you’re not creative.

Since when do you have to be flat out messy to be creative? You need to get messy sometimes, but not stay that way!!!!

(Can you tell this topic really gets me riled?)

Kate S March 24, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Whenever I feel I am letting my need for tidiness get in the way of fun or living life, I think of Kate Gosselin of the now long-defunct Jon & Kate Plus Eight. I was never a fan of that show. In fact, I never had seen an episode until their divorce was so highly publicized. Then I watched several random episodes on Netflix out of curiosity. The one thing that I noticed in every episode was Kate’s tendency to become frantic at the first sign of a mess. Didn’t matter if it was a birthday party at the park, a day at the beach, or breakfast at home, the woman was letting messes bother her so much she was destroying her own life. And it was not acting; it was not scripted-for-reality-TV nonsense; that was who she was.

One episode that I watched was a Halloween special. The younger kids were around 2. They were going to “carve” pumpkins. They set up a folding table in the garage, covered the table and the floor with dropcloths, the kids were wearing bibs . . . . I am honestly surprised they didn’t hang tarps to protect the walls, too. Like kids do, they all dug into those pumpkins and made a huge mess, but they were having a blast. But almost immediately, you could see Kate bristling and itching to start cleaning up. She called the fun off very quickly so she could start cleaning up. She even said to the cameras that she doesn’t “know why” she is “this way.” She quite literally gets in the way of her own enjoyment.

Anyway, all that is to say, whenever I am tempted to get in the way of my own life, I think of Kate Gosselin and remind myself I DO NOT want to be like her. It works tremendously well.

Meredith Meredith March 24, 2014 at 12:52 pm

@Kate: Ah, yes, Kate Gosselin, a person who I both understand and can’t stand bc she’s given Penelopes such a bad name. She has no sense of a middle ground, and yes, we all got to witness how her entrenched-ness really decimated her marriage.

Again, I often watched the show and really felt I knew what was going on in Kate’s mind, but wished she’d handle situations with her husband and kids differently. She’s a cautionary tale, to be sure.

Kerstin March 27, 2014 at 11:20 am

One of the reasons I follow the “Penelope Loves” blog is to be inspired to organizational greatness. I actually wish that messes bothered me a little more. I just want Amy and others like her to know that people like me respect her ability to keep things more clean and tidy and we want to be more like that, not just with kid toys, but with all things messy and disorganized!

jennifer April 15, 2014 at 8:34 am

I wish they’d put a CAN on that pail.

jennifer April 15, 2014 at 8:36 am

(As in “Good Moms can have messy kitchens…”)

Christina Brunk April 15, 2014 at 9:44 am

I am a newly-realized Penelope (that is, I finally admit that I am a Penelope). My kids are 7 and 4. We play and we pick up before we move on to something else. In the morning, the kids know what they need to do before we can leave and they know what they need to do when we get home. We never come home to a “mess” and we are never spending an entire weekend “catching up on laundry and cleaning kids rooms.” My husband and children now TRULY APPRECIATE the order that comes with having a Penelope for a mother. On a related note, I bought my daughter new socks and underwear for Christmas. That evening, after spending the whole day celebrating she said to me, “Can we organize my underwear drawer now?” I said, almost hysterically, “YES!”

Sharon April 16, 2014 at 9:22 am

I visited a preschool one time where my friend’s daughter was enrolled. They had a ‘clean up’ song. All the kids happily put stuff away when they were singing this particular song, it was just what you did. I thought that was brilliant.

Leslie April 16, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Yes! I’m not a mom yet, but I always get irritated when I say something about needing to clean my house and someone comes back with a comment about how life’s too short, and won’t you appreciate it when you’re older if you used that time making memories instead of cleaning. The fact that I want to live in a clean house does NOT mean I spend ALL of my time cleaning and never have any fun. Having a clean and orderly house means I am less stressed out and better able to enjoy my free time. Everyone has a different threshold for cleanliness/neatness and we shouldn’t judge each other for it. I would never say someone who had some piles of laundry and a messy kitchen wasn’t a good mom (though I do think there’s a certain line where messiness becomes a health hazard), so why can’t they accept that you can have a clean kitchen and no piles of laundry and still be a good mom? When I was a kid, our house was very clean and neat. My mom had us help with chores (I enjoyed dusting, cleaning windows and mirrors, and folding socks, in particular) and there was still plenty of time for playing. Plus we learned valuable skills.

(I guess I’m a little riled too!)

Angela April 17, 2014 at 7:18 pm

As a Penelope with a crawling/teething baby, I could not be more grateful for my natural born tendencies to clear clutter and catch misplaced items others may not notice. Though it won’t keep the inevitable from happening at least every once in a while, my daughter is not picking things off the ground or surfaces she can reach that didn’t belong there in the first place.

Again, not saying I catch it every time but because it’s a natural part of my day, I know that when I leave a room, I’m leaving it in a state that’s safe for my little one. Loose change is in the change jar and keys are hung where they can be grabbed by those who need them; not by the baby looking for a teething toy. I’m so glad my home is a Penelope home.

Karen (Scotland) June 13, 2014 at 5:06 am

Completely agree. My mother (and father, when I think back) are definite Penelopes and my sister and I are the same. I don’t feel as if we missed out on anything as children and I know that my organised house gives us a lot more quality time as a family.
Only thing is, I sometimes feel overwhelmed at leaving the house to do something spontaneous with the kids (like my husband would like to do) but the reality is that just getting up and walking out the house would result in a day that I couldn’t enjoy. Better to have the water bottles filled, the right gear for the weather, the right vouchers, the contact details we need, the snacks and lunch etc ready. Boring, but true.
I am NOT a Penelope when it comes to cleaning. Hygienic kitchen, bathroom and hoovered floors, laundry under control and a decent food plan and I feel I am sufficiently ahead of the game. Cleaning skirtings, inside of windows, shower cubicles – I feel no urge at all to do these things. I am a neat freak but not a cleaner.
Looks like I’ve reached your newest post, Meredith. Hope there is more to come. Been lovely reading the posts I missed this last year.

Joana_JW June 18, 2014 at 4:33 am

I completely agree! I think when a mother focuses on feelings and teachings then she prepares her child both mental strong and emotionally stronger. This is the way it goes with parenting; you need to manage things. A dirty home can be cleaned but a messed up upbringing of child cannot be restored. Best moms are those who invest time and effort in the character generation of their child :)
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