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The Adventures of Mr. Neat in Disaster Town

Mess doesn’t just bother me; it torments me. The homework piles scream for attention. The discarded laundry taunts and teases. The breakfast dishes just laugh. At times, it’s tough to hear myself think at home — which may explain why my office looks like it does.

I was straightening my cubicle when a coworker who I hardly know came over and said, “You’re funny. I see you always organizing your desk. You must have a chaotic house.”

This was our first conversation beyond “Good morning,” so I had no idea how to respond. All I could come up with was, “Um, I guess so.”

While I found my colleague’s approach blunt and presumptuous, I was also stunned by its accuracy. She has no way of knowing I have four young kids, three of whom have diagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). She has no clue that these kids can trash a room much faster than I can declutter it. Yet even a stranger could read my desperate need for organization — it is that obvious.

[“I’m Not His Maid!”]

I thought about her observation until the end of the day, when I got in my car to go home. Before starting the engine, I took a moment to scan the floor for stray gum wrappers or leaves. Then it occurred to me: maybe I’m preoccupied with cleanliness and order more than I thought.

“You’ve always been like this,” Laurie said when I got home and relayed the story to her. “You used to be a lot worse.” We are in the kitchen having this conversation, and while she’s cooking dinner and talking to me, I’m trying to focus. There are backpacks with homework spilled out everywhere. Shoes are scattered in every room. The kitchen table is covered with breakfast plates. The sink is filled with pots and pans.

“You aren’t listening to me because you’re distracted by the mess,” she says at last.

I chuckle. “I’m trying.”

[Free Resource: Sample Schedules for Reliable Family Routines]

“We have four kids,” she continues. “The house is never gonna stay clean for long unless we’re constantly harping on them to clean up. And I don’t want to be like that. They need to respect the house and their belongings, but we also need to let them be kids.”

I know she’s right, and I really am trying to take my need for order down a few notches. I remember when Laurie and I were first married. She would walk in the door and fling her flip flops in every direction, and they’d stay there until either she left again or I lost my mind. “It’s not that hard to put them in the closet,” I would say.

“I know,” she would reply. She learned to blow off my little hissy fits, and found ways to amuse herself by tormenting me. “They’ll get put away in a minute.”

She knew dang well I wouldn’t wait that long. I’d tell myself I was not going to lose THIS round of chicken, but after at most a minute I’d get up and put them away. Then I’d come back in the room and see her grinning at me. “See I told you they’d get put away.”

[How Chores Can Improve ADHD Behavior]

“Hardy har,” I’d say.

Don’t get me wrong: My wife is a fantastic wife, mom, and homemaker. But if spouses typically marry their opposites, then I definitely married the messy one. So, while the house might be cluttered with the evidence of four children, my car and my office are a fortress of solitude where every pen and paper sits exactly where it belongs and, when I’m having a bad day, I can find some order and calm in a package of Clorox wipes.