|No, this isn't my car. On some occasions, it could have been, however.|
Years ago at one of my first "real" jobs I went out to lunch with a co-worker who was in her thirties and had young children. She'd offered to drive, and after opening the door I wondered where I was supposed to sit. On the seat was the largest gathering of Goldfish cracker crumbs I'd ever seen. There were crumbled up fast food bags and an assortment of sippy cups. Her office is neat enough, I thought in amazement. How does something like this happen? Gingerly I climbed in, hoping I wouldn't see something alive scurry under the garbage.
Now I understand. That point was more than driven home at the beginning of the school year when the principal of Ethan's school (who does not have children) opened the door to our van to help Ethan out. There was this split second of visible recoil as she caught sight of our back seat. Ouch.
What had "happened," as I had wondered long ago, was kids. Some of us are neat freaks. I am not. However, I have some basic standards of cleanliness. Somehow in the car, those limits get pushed.
I started to analyze, because it's what I do. I was reminded of an autistic man in the Autism in Love documentary (highly recommended!), a scientist who liked to create equations to explain things. The way to determine if a woman was right for him, he explained, related to an equation he'd formulated where looks and personality were about equal, but weighted twice more than either of those was how she treated him.
I'm guessing there are a lot of equations or theorems that explain every day life. Take traffic jams. There has to be an explanation for why whenever you're running late, you hit one, or come up behind a "slow poke." It's obvious -- when you're late, you drive faster (some of us, ahem, drive maniacally). Inevitably you're going to catch up to either someone slow or a line of traffic, and then lament the unfairness of the Universe, when really, we brought it upon ourselves.
As for cars and kids, I think this state of car uncleanliness can be explained by two "laws." Once you have kids:
1. What gets brought into the car grows exponentially larger.
2. The ability to remove what was brought into the car grows exponentially smaller.
Let's talk about what ends up in the car when you have kids vs. when you do not. My first car (in college) wasn't spotless, but mainly contained some stray school papers and maybe a Dunkin' Donuts cup.
Right now, in our van, we have candy wrappers from candy Anna sneaked into her "lair" in the way back. A notebook where she may or may not have been doodling hearts with a boy she likes name inside them. The church bulletin leftover from Sunday that she was drawing on. Lip gloss. In the middle row is Ethan's and Chloe's zone. Ethan has a Simon electronic game he keeps bringing in the car to play on his way to school, as well as a number of books he grabs and reads at various times. There's leftover Goldfish for our last "we have to leave right away and there wasn't time to eat at home" excursion. Several rocks he found somewhere that he's saving for something. A pair of nunchucks from a Ninja birthday party he attended three years ago. (No lie -- he brought them to the car at some point; I don't know why). And then there's Chloe's stuff: the sippy cup she had to take to the car and then dropped on the floor where it rolled to No Man's Land under the seats, the umbrella she insisted on carrying even though the rain had stopped last week, the craft from playgroup that later fluttered to the floor, the toy she had clutched her hand the last time we left the house, donut crumbs from the donut she was still eating when we had to leave a party to get somewhere else quickly, and a large assortment of other "emergency" books and toys we have stored in case we are stuck somewhere boring for an inordinate amount of time.
And among the items in the front are there are some napkins that could be used for all variety of unfortunate incidents and a diaper bag we barely use anymore but am too nervous NOT to bring along.
I know what you're thinking. The answer is simple. Just make sure to do a quick sweep of the car before you go inside every day and clean up all this junk before it gets out of hand. This brings me to point #2, or why the ability to remove what was brought into the car decreases, significantly. Case in point:
We pull into the driveway at home. I tell my kids (or at least the two older ones) to pick up their junk. Then I gather my own. In the 30 seconds it took me to walk to our outside garbage can, Anna and Ethan are gone. Usually they've picked up about 25% of their actual mess. I could take the time to gather the rest out, or go chasing after them to come back, but Chloe is yelling to get out of her seat. And I'm trying to pick up some of her mess. Usually I'm crawling under the seats to prevent the dreaded "sippy cup filled with milk that's been in the car for three days" (the horror!). I only have so many hands to carry her "treasures." If I let her out of her seat she decides it would be a fun game to explore "what it's like for a two-year-old to drive" and will rush to the front seat to start pushing various buttons.
Okay, so I could put them all inside, then clean out the car. Only someone's got to eat, someone's got to go somewhere soon, someone is fighting with someone else over who gets to do Minecraft. Chloe will stand at the door calling for me to come back. I could order them out there to clean, but will have to stand over them like hawks, barking out orders, because kids just don't see messes.
How about getting out and actually vacuuming the car, doing this thing right and feeding quarters into a machine at a gas station? First, these things have to be done alone. Chloe would be petrified by that screaming monstrous tube sucking things out of the car. Never mind a good portion of the mess happens to reside under her car seat (shudder!). So I need to find the time to go out and do this by myself. Only -- aside from the people who love to clean and really feel so much peace when they're cleaning, how many other moms do this in their spare time? If I don't have the kids with me, I'm more likely to run to Target and pick up all of the items I always forget, in blessed silence. Or maybe get together with a friend for dinner. Do I want to crawl sweatily around my car at 7pm, whipping the vacuum hose frantically around, trying to coax out every last crumb before my time runs out?
And then there's the fact that you can do all of that and three days later it may look like you never vacuumed.
So yes, you could say a part of this comes down to just not having enough gumption. There should be an equation about effort and resistance. The more effort something takes, the more resistant moms are to doing it. Why? Because we're tired. The importance of a car being neat and clean is directly related to the amount of energy a mom possesses...which usually is not much.
And so, I have joined the ranks of one of "those" people. And every once in a while, I do get a flash of what my car really looks like. A while back while working on a freelance project I gave a co-worker who doesn't have kids a ride in my car. I saw the way she climbed cautiously in, hoping she was safe, and I knew. I let the embarrassment wash over me for a moment. Then I took stock and cheered that no, there was nothing alive and nothing moldy. That's where I draw the line. There will be a time down the road for a clean(er) car. These days, if I ever get the time, I'm not going to vacuum. I'm going to read a book.
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