When I came downstairs on Sunday morning my living room couch looked normal, tidy, and ready for inaction. But when I returned a few minutes later, carrying my morning beverage and the Sunday papers, I found that half the couch cushions were missing, and those that remained had been transformed into a fortress behind the piano. Although this type of thing has been happening in my house for over 20 years, I still can’t get used to it. I am always surprised when I go away from what I’m doing for a few moments to get a cup of tea, or answer the phone, and return to find that my chair has disappeared, or that a cardboard box the size of a refrigerator is suddenly blocking my entrance to the room. My life is never regular, calm, organized, or predictable. I live with children.
When you first have children everything they do is adorable. Our oldest son, Ari, used to take all the cans out of the cupboard and stack them up like blocks, and we thought it was brilliant. “Oh, look, he’s going to be a builder!” we enthused. “He’s so creative! He’s building a bridge with the boxes of spaghetti. I’ve never seen a kid do that before!” But it wasn’t long before the novelty wore off, and the reality of children set in. “Ari, don’t open the box of spaghetti! Ari, don’t tip the box of spaghetti like that! Ari, didn’t I tell you yesterday not to ever do that again! Why are you laughing? Dumping spaghetti all over the floor is not funny! Now who’s going to clean that up? Where are you going? Come back here! Come back here!”
Recently, Dana Carney, a psychologist at Harvard, found significant differences in the physical environments of people who identified themselves as conservatives, compared to those who considered themselves liberals. The offices and bedrooms of conservatives tended to be neat and orderly, and contain cleaning supplies, calendars, postage stamps, and framed sports posters. Liberals’ boldly colored rooms, on the other hand, were cluttered with art supplies, and strewn with books, jazz CDs, and travel documents. She hypothesized that conservatives tend to be neat, and liberals tend to be slobs.
But I have an alternative explanation for Dr. Carney’s findings. Many of the conservatives she studied must have had children. Their offices and bedrooms were their only sanctuaries from the chaos of child-rearing. Their inner-longing for a well-ordered universe drove them to somewhat obsessive behaviors in the few spaces they had absolute control over. If you think the world is a dangerous, unpredictable place, you may have a tendency to seek out more traditional groups, and controllable spaces. But once you have children you soon realize that nothing is any longer predictable or controllable. You have only your office cubicle and spray bottle of Mr. Clean to cling to. You make your bed with military corners, organize your closet by color, from black to gray, but when you step through the bedroom door into the outside world, the children are waiting.
They’re drooling, crying, splattering paint, insinuating themselves into every telephone conversation with loud requests for snacks, toys, and police intervention from the wrath of siblings. You try to teach them to clean up after themselves, but even if they have any aptitude for it, it takes them years before they are able to make nearly as much clean as they are able to make mess. From all appearances, for most of the time they live with you, your children, unfathomably, act just like … liberals! Liberals; scattering toys and books, smearing your perfectly white walls and towel sets with their grubby little hands. Liberals; coloring pictures, listening to the latest incomprehensible music, and dancing on the furniture! Liberals; shrieking and chasing the dog through your neatly planted flower beds!
So how do we explain why liberals’ bedrooms and offices are so messy? When would we ever have a chance to clean our rooms? We have children! Only our children are not the perfectly mannered little children that conservatives have. No, our children have been raised by open minded, tolerant, accepting parents and become… completely wild. Their science experiments have already set fire to the basement (twice). Their love for color has them finger-painting not just the walls, but, inexplicably, the ceilings as well. We’ve encouraged them to make friends with many different races, creeds, and kinds of people, and they have, and now they all live at our house.
Even the children of conservatives think we’re cool, because they can get away with things at our house that they’d never think of doing at theirs. They’re playing football in our living room, eating all our food, and surfing our unfiltered high-speed internet. The children, who we’ve encouraged to be generous to others, are generously lending out our sporting equipment, our books, and our music, which they seem to like almost as much as their own, although not enough to ever return any of it to the protective cases and categorized racks where it was originally found.
My third and youngest child is now 10, so I can imagine that someday, possibly while I am still alive to enjoy it, my couch will have all of its cushions in place each and every time I wish to lay upon it. The book of poetry I am looking for will be on the bookshelf, not on the floor in the basement, where it is being used to level the pinball machine. The pastries I bought last night to eat for breakfast will be right on the counter where I left them, not a vanquished trail of crumbs leading to the TV set, where my teenage daughter and her friends spent the night watching videos and scattering empty wrappers, plates, and cups.
Oh my God, has having children turned me into a conservative? Hell no! What I really want to do is make a huge mess and have someone else clean it up. I can’t wait ’til my kids’ generation get places of their own. I’ve got a lot of friends, and we like to travel.