I’ve always been untidy. Nothing prepared me, however, for the mess having a child would make | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Our flat is a mess. I write this looking at a pile of laundry taller than I am, besides which are two semi-unpacked suitcases and a Fisher-Price Little Snoopy that is conspiring to break my neck. Next to me is a used Calpol syringe, an ear thermometer, three mugs, lots of loose pages from the novel I’m writing, and a multipack of Pom-Bear crisps. I have always been messy and, having grown up in a house with an autistic brother whose autism manifested itself in disorder, have a fairly high tolerance for chaos. But nothing prepared me for the mess having a child would create.

The problem is less acute with a baby. A baby comes with a lot of stuff, granted, and you are too sleep- deprived to think straight, let alone approach the housework, but a small child is at least somewhat contained. The mess a toddler creates is unholy in comparison. When my son doesn’t want something, he simply throws it over his shoulder, the way a pissed person might a kebab. A lot of the stuff he throws is sticky. In Nell Frizzell’s book Holding the Baby, she makes reference to something she calls “toddler cement”, a mix of porridge, snot, regurgitated milk, hair and something colourful, probably jam. A nightmare to clean, but still not as bad as some of the other substances you will encounter, and we haven’t even started potty training yet.

We’re told it’s developmentally important for children to explore different textures, especially when they are learning to eat, because it helps get them familiar with different foods and improves their fine motor skills. These activities always involve spaghetti, but it’s hard enough staying on top of existing housework without then having to clean up the spag bol you’ve laid out on the floor for the child to roll in for fun. My son hasn’t been very keen on putting his hands into gooey substances, and I was beating myself up about it. “Well, how would you feel if I plunged your hand into a bowl of cold baked beans?” my mother asked, when she visited.

And so off we went to Messy Hands, a nearby “messy play” class where all the activities are set out (and then cleaned up) for you, and each week is themed (we had red jelly with spiders in for Halloween). The babies are encouraged to stick their hands in, scoop and pour and explore – or, in the case of my son, enter the bubbly paddling pool fully clothed. “Kids are just naturally messy in everything that they do. So the idea of creating an activity that is supposed to be messy on top of the mess they already make is daunting,” says Maleah Eleder, an early years educator specialising in messy play. “But it’s one of those things where you have to get outside your comfort zone and reassess what the kids are going to enjoy the most and what’s going to benefit them.”

Mess isn’t just about eating. Eleder tells me it’s also about access to nature, with all its gooey substances and interesting smells, and she stresses that indoor activities shouldn’t replace outdoor – the two can work together. Some parents really don’t want their children to get dirty or muddy. “It’s not necessarily their fault, but it’s something that maybe they would have lost in their childhood. They don’t even realise the importance of it,” says Eleder. Some neurodivergent kids struggle with different textures and can benefit from messy play, too, especially as it is in a controlled environment where they can participate as little or as much as they want.

When it comes to cleanliness and parenting, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. On the one hand, you have the cleaning influencers who tout the mental health benefits of having a spotless house, but who are frequently accused of exposing their children to nasty chemicals or turning them into germophobes. The popularity of the “sad beige” aesthetic, where parents force children to live in homes devoid of mess or colour, has come in for much criticism. I have friends who grew up in houses with mothers who cleaned obsessively, so they could never put anything down without it being tidied away, and it didn’t make for a relaxed childhood environment.

On the other hand, you have the “slummy mummies” (and daddies), who are as guilty of glorifying a particular lifestyle as the “cleanfluencers”, and who arguably aren’t prioritising their family’s physical or mental health either. Mess can be immensely stressful, as can E coli or vermin.

Most people fall between these two extremes, and are probably beating themselves up a bit for not being more like the other. The balance of domestic labour still falls heavily on women, and though a clean house is less of a signifier of a good mother than it was, it is easy to feel as if you’re failing all the time. Perhaps for us the answer is hiring a cleaner (or a deep cleaning team of the sort that does crime scenes, and a skip), but for now, my husband and I have just vowed to do 10-20 minutes a night before bed, to ensure that the kitchen is at the very least presentable and the cat’s litter tray is empty. It may be the bare minimum, but at least our messy, boisterous boy is happy.

What’s working
I’m going to sound like a middle-class tosser, but classical music. My son had Mahler in the womb, BBC Radio 3 as an infant, and now a plethora of musical books, his current favourite being The Nutcracker. It’s genuinely lovely to see how much he enjoys listening, especially to piano music, and now I’m trying to get him to toddler classes and performances when I can. I’m no expert in it, so I’m learning something too.

What’s not
Unfortunately, I’ve stripped the screw on one of his favourite books, Marion Billet’s Listen to the Classical Music, while trying to put new batteries in. I looked into buying another, only to discover the new version has just five, rather than six, pieces of music. The question that keeps me up at night is: which one did they jettison? I’m not buying it to find out – I can’t face his disappointment – so need to somehow work out how to take the thing apart.


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