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The Grunt Work of Motherhood


In my speechwriting days, whenever I was on deadline and stuck for inspiration, I’d turn on the radio and look through famous quotations. Given their way with words, the three men I always turned to first were Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I never had a favorite quotation, but in recent months, I’ve found myself frequently mulling this King comment:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

I do like to think that with divine–and husbandly–assistance, I’ve brought a child into this world as gorgeous as any creature Michelangelo ever painted. But otherwise, the parallels between mother and street sweeper aren’t always obvious.

Street sweepers’ work is most notable for what you don’t see. When a street sweeper takes pride in his or her craft, many of us forget to notice it, let alone remember to say thank you.

Mothers also take on basic tasks, including many dirty tasks. We do grunt work with pride and never expect a thank-you, because we are motivated by love.

Mother isn’t a day job. I’m on-call around the clock. I also don’t serve the public, but rather perform widely varied tasks for an audience of one. However, my role is critically important to my daughter, who depends on me. Many aspects of being a mother aren’t particularly glamorous, but they are vital to my Lila’s happiness and well-being, as well as the continued well-oiled functioning of our household. These tasks are largely permutations on one theme: cleaning.

I certainly didn’t go to college for this. And it is a stark change for someone who spent her 20’s famous among her family for sheltering fugitive dust bunnies.

So, in many ways, I have been engaged in job retraining. Lessons started with spit-up and messy diapers and progressed to tub splashing. The more solid food has entered the equation, the more creative the messes have become, with Lila using her peanut butter as both a source of nourishment and facial mask; she does have beautiful skin.

Our kitchen adopts new hues every time Lila encounters a new food. The beige floor turns orange, for example, whenever yam or carrot is on the menu. The inevitable face and hand washing follows every meal, eliciting predictable dissent. Depending on how much food stubbornly clings to Lila’s face and hair, there’s bath time. And depending on how much Lila squirms during the last diaper change–typically non-stop–there is the matter of removing Desitin streaks that decorate her feet, legs, and belly, like some sort of Where the Wild Things Are war paint.

After putting Lila to bed, I hand wash her bowl and however many spoons she used at dinner. I thoroughly clean her teething toys and the bottles I’ve used for pumping. I neaten Lila’s toys in her living room play area, readying them for her to rediscover, full of excitement, the next morning. I do all of this knowing that it won’t be long before I have to do everything again. It’s important to me to do it well because I love Lila, and I want her know that through both my words and my actions.

So, I take pride in keeping my baby–and my household–at least somewhat clean. These gestures may not be quite as singular as writing a historic speech, but they may become part of Lila’s childhood memories. She will always know that her mother was there to care for her, and that amidst the many things I do all day as a wife and mother, I put my effort into household tasks, including the unglamorous ones. Because being the best street sweeper means taking pride in everything I do.

And to all the other mothers out there doing the dirty work that keeps households humming, Happy early Mother’s Day.

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