Today I'm going to show you a picture of my laundry room.
I know. And you know what's even worse? It looked like that last Sunday, when we had people over. (!)
Now, maybe your laundry room looks like this. Maybe you look at this pile of soccer jerseys and beach towels and stray gift bags and one lone sleeping bag still waiting to be put away and you don't blink an eye. If so, clearly you weren't raised by the Joyless Dutch, which is my mostly affectionate term for the particular brand of hard-working, God-fearing, tithing, teetotaling farm stock from which I descend.
Now, my mom, if she's reading this, has one million good qualities, some of which I've always appreciated and some of which I continue to recognize, one day at a time, as I move further through this parenting journey. I recently gave thanks, for example, that she and my dad never pressured my brother and me to do anything but our best. Lose a game? "Did you do your best? That's all you can do." Do poorly on a math test? "Well, you did your best, and that's what counts." They tempered this kind of calm reaction to mistakes or failure with an unwavering expectation that we would, indeed, put in the time and practice to achieve our best -- but it was always the effort, not the outcome, that was important. They also took us on interesting road trips, filled the house with books and games, welcomed our friends, drove us to a million activities, made time for our family, worked hard to provide all of our needs and many of our wants, and have done a top-notch job of supporting us as we've grown more independent and of respecting us as adults.
But my mom, if she's reading this, is quietly appalled about my laundry room. That's because, in my whole extended family, which is 100 percent Dutch, rule number one is Take Care of Your Stuff. I can't remember a single time I've set foot in the home of anyone in my extended family when their laundry room looked like this. Go to my uncle's house, and the garage floor is so clean you could eat off it. Go to my mom's and she's probably vacuuming when you walk in the door while my dad waxes the car in the driveway. My entire life, it's been drilled into me that you work first, play later. (And if the "play later" never comes? Well, that's life.)
That work ethic? That commitment to excellence, punctuality, responsible behavior, organization, and follow-through? Makes them awesome citizens, great neighbors, consistent parents, dedicated employees, and the kinds of loyal friends who show up. But it might also, just possibly, create tiny issues around perfection that can prevent people from living big, juicy, creative lives. It might create the kind of narrative in your head that says you can have people over for dinner only when the house is spotless. It might subtly imply that the state of your things says a lot about the state of your life. It might make you focus so much on cleaning the laundry room and washing the car that you forget to invite people into your life to spend time with you just as you are.
I struggled for this for a long, long time. We'll have people come stay when we get a new couch, I'd think, back when we lived in a tiny apartment in Ann Arbor full of hand-me-down furniture. We'll invite the new neighbors over after the holidays, when life isn't so crazy, I'd say. And there's always been, If we host that here, I'll have to spend the whole day before cleaning. And sometimes life really is too crazy and messy to add one more expectation to your to-do list. But it's just this sort of thinking that causes us to give up opportunities for joy and connection, that prevents us from being vulnerable enough to invite people into our lives -- and homes -- just as we are.
Brene Brown's research and writing have helped me to think differently about this, as has St. Anne (my term for Anne Lamott, who is still very much with us and still very much not-Catholic, but still as deserving as anyone, in my book, of sainthood), as has blogger Swistle, who writes with her unique brand of wry, self-deprecating insight about pretty much everything, including how she finally gathered the courage to host some new friends in her messy house. In her list of reasons why she went for it, she says this:
Yes! Relief! And then there's this, too: "I’d noticed that after I’d been to someone’s house, I felt like I knew that person more than I did after seeing her at other people’s houses."
And that's the crux of it. You don't technically have to invite people into your home in order to foster connection. You can meet at the park with your kids, join a running group, promise to meet at a yoga class, have drinks at a bar or conversations on the sidelines. But there is something a little magical about letting people into your space (in all its imperfection!) that deepens the relationship like nothing else quite can. I think it's why little kids so desperately want to have their little friends over to "see my room," and why there's something so special about family and friends gathered around a fire in the living room or sharing a meal at the table.
I did (sort of) clean up the laundry room on Monday. (My mom breathes a sigh of relief.) But it'll surely get that way again, much as I attempt to keep up with vacuuming the cat hair and folding the towels. The good news is, when people come over on Sunday, I can just close the door to the laundry room. The good news is, we're not letting our imperfect house stop us from spending time with the people we love.