Cleaning up after my kids after they have a sleepover is like cleaning up after Mardi Gras. There’s so much evidence of a riotous good time but you’re just glad it’s over so you can get back to normal, non-sleepover life, or, in the case of Mardi Gras, nurse your hangover; the metaphor only goes so far.

Part of the reason our sleepovers have been Mardi Gras messy lately is due to the uptick in manufacture of slime in our household. Just a year ago, none of us would have considered spending hours mixing household cleaners with glue and food coloring to produce tactile pleasure, nor would any of us have imagined cleaning the bowls used in all that mixing. Now, respectively on the two, the kids and I have cycled through that routine quite a few times.

Why don’t I just make my kids clean up their own mess? Oh, I do. But they are C+ cleaners at best and I am an A+ noticer of a crumb on the carpet, or any other stray piece of slobbery, which l am aware others may refer to as a “lived in” look. I am also aware others may have “names” for me, like “obsessive-compulsive,” and it’s just about the nicest compliment anyone has ever given me.

When I was growing up, my parents’ top priority wasn’t a clean room or fresh air, but fire safety. This is why I had a 15-foot fire ladder in my second-floor bedroom.

How did I get like this?

Let’s just say I didn’t realize all of my opportunities for cleanliness until later in life, and perhaps I’m making up for lost time. I never lived in a regularly-clean room until my first college apartment, and was pleasantly surprised at how nice that felt. It was like the effort of cleaning paid for itself with a feeling of comfortable living, and pride in your surroundings. Positive endorphins flooded my brain whenever I walked into my clean, pretty room-sanctuary.

Now, in my desire to keep that euphoria going—which we know, as with all addictions, becomes ever more difficult to attain—I own a house with endless cleaning opportunities and go through a can of Pledge at the same frequency as a gallon of milk.

It is more important to me that floors are cleared and beds are made than say, whether my kids got fresh air outside any given morning. This is quite the opposite of my childhood. When I was growing up, my parents’ top priority wasn’t a clean room or fresh air, but fire safety. This is why I had a 15-foot fire ladder in my second-floor bedroom, and knew how to dangle it out the window and wave for a fireman to rescue me better than I knew how to fold sheets on my bed.

Once, in the pursuit of fire safety, we had a college gal come into our home and give a half hour fire safety presentation that included lighting a pan on fire to show where the fire stopped with the special fire-resistant spray she recommended we use to cover the rose-vined wallpaper of our kitchen that was looking, in her estimation, “quite dry, old, and fire risky.” My parents declined the fire-resistant spray either because it cost a hundred dollars in the days before we knew the possibilities of cell phone bills, or because they didn’t want any of us to let our guard down in some false illusion of fire safety, or perhaps also because they were opposed to kitchen selling under the guise of a fire safety presentation.

Which also brings up the point that their whole fire-fearing approach was undermined by the presentation as well. I mean, someone of college age had spent over a half hour in our house, hanging out with us, sure perhaps to sell us something, but nevertheless she was the coolest guest we’d had in at least five years, not only because she was hip but she was hip with fire blazing in her hand! She had set a fire in our kitchen! And put it out, just like that. Until then, we never knew all the possibilities of fire; all we’d ever imagined was the whole house burning down with us dangling out the window.

And to top it off she gave us a whole sheet of fluorescent-orange 9-1-1 stickers.

Why does my son have a Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer in his desk drawer? Does this have to do with the Trader Joe’s cookie butter that he is obsessed with or simple laziness?

With this abundance of orange 9-1-1 stickers around the house (as if we didn’t already have those on every phone), my parents let us put some up on our closet door. For them, it was surely further fire protection, but for us it was room decor, and matched with the general look we had going: white walls, balled-up bed blankets, clothes and toys covering the floor, and now, fluorescent emergency stickers all over the door.

For those of you who also grew up with fire presentations in your kitchen, I know you just noticed a major fire hazard in our room description. For everyone else, let me share: it is a major fire hazard to have your floor covered in flammable fabrics, or anything really, because how will you be able to crawl low to your door to feel for heat and decide if it’s safe continue crawling into the hallway to exit that way or whether it’s better for your 7-year-old self to crawl back into the closet to get the ladder to drop out the window instead?

Energy exhausted in fire-worry, the solution for my parents was not for us to clean our room, but simply to make a fire path every night. This involved swinging our legs over the side of the bed, figuring out about where they’d land in the sea of crap on the floor, and then shoving aside clothes, toys, homework, crayons, and so on until a path had been cleared to the door.

Hopefully it is now crystal-Windex-cleaned-clear why I like to keep my house in order today. But I’m also aware this is a bit of its own form of psychosis, that maybe all I’m doing is overcompensating for the fire paths of my youth, so I try not to force too much on my kids, lest they overcompensate for me and start the whole cycle all over again. I allow them to do their C+ cleaning that includes leaving little strings of slime across the supposedly-washed bowl or not tucking their comforter under the mattress of their supposedly-made bed. They go get their fresh air after they have “cleaned up” and then I clean up their clean-up.

This is very satisfying, and interesting for me, Detective Margot. Like, for example, why does my son have a Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer in his desk drawer? Does this have to do with the Trader Joe’s cookie butter that he is obsessed with or simple laziness? I also have a window into the Snapchat pictures my daughter posted with her friends when I find all her old Halloween costumes strewn across her floor and makeup ground into the carpet.

This clean-up approach was particularly necessary after a recent sleepover where I allowed both my oldest children to have a friend over. Sienna, my 13-year-old, started in on slime production with her friend right after dinner, and Mikey and his friend had stated they were going to watch a movie, so I took my 2-year-old upstairs to put her to sleep. While trying to outlast her in the dark room with the sound machine gurgling a brook, I heard some questionable murmurs from below. It was clear Mikey and his friend were no longer tuned in to the movie, for example. It would seem there was a possibility of sibling bickering igniting. But I chose to tell myself they were just having some fun together, which probably included some sibling razzing, and wasn’t that wonderful. Naya’s eyes were starting to flutter into sleep. I heard intermittent laughter and progressively louder banter, some of it nearing riotous levels, and relaxed my urge to holler at the kids for laughing because wasn’t that great, wasn’t that what sleepovers were all about.

And then they were outright screaming downstairs, and, damnit! I shot out of the bed with Naya, the fact that I’d probably have to entirely re-do bedtime and lose thirty minutes of life to her sound machine again now fueling my fury as I swung open the door and bellowed, “Enough!”

At the same time, I took in the sleepover scene sprawled out in front of me from my second floor vantage point. Sienna’s friend was on her knees frantically scrubbing our kitchen floor, while Mikey and his friend were running circles and shouting battle cries after each other, until Mikey’s friend realized I was there, and smartly slid under the dining room table to hide. Feeling the cold air of an open front door, I turned to see Sienna dumping something outside in the front lawn, and then, I, Detective Margot, fully concluded something had gone awry.

But, clearly, it had reached its pinnacle about 45 seconds before I opened the door.

“Clean this up!” I bellowed again, not really sure what “this” had been. But as I surveyed Sienna with the empty bowl in her hand, who had probably just committed shrubicide, and Mikey who had joined his buddy cowering under the table, and Sienna’s friend who was scrubbing instead of making eye contact, I figured they all knew very well what “this” had been and how to C+ clean it up.

You better believe I have learned something about putting fires out.

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