#17: Forget the 11 p.m. inspection.

If you walked into my kitchen right now, here is what you’d see:

  • A pot on the stove, full of veggie scraps waiting to be discarded
  • A pizza pan, also on the stove, waiting to be washed from last night’s dinner
  • Ten million baby bottle pieces, strewn across a drying mat
  • A dishwasher, half-full of clean dishes still waiting to be put away
  • A mixing bowl full of shredded chicken, cooling and waiting to go in the freezer
  • Expired coupons clipped to the fridge with a magnet
  • Alphabet magnets sticking out (just slightly) from under all the appliances
  • Discarded Cheerios waiting to be swept up
  • Laundry waiting to be carried to the basement: dish towels, bibs, and discarded baby socks
  • A Trader Joe’s bag holding Coke cans, waiting to be returned to the grocery store
  • And a sink overflowing with dirty dishes (waiting to be put in the dishwasher, once it’s been emptied)

I’m sitting at Starbucks right now for my Wednesday night writing session, but I’m mostly thinking about the mess in the kitchen.

I used to insist that the kitchen be clean before going to bed. I’d like to tell you this was because I like waking up to a clean kitchen; while I do, that wasn’t my motivation. I wanted the kitchen to be clean because otherwise, I felt like a failure. I’d lay in bed obsessing over the messy kitchen, the toys strewn across the living room, the laundry waiting to be put away, the toilet in desperate need of a scrub. I believed that the messy house downstairs was a sign I didn’t accomplish enough that day.

For the first few years of our marriage, here’s what would happen every night. (But full disclosure: this still happens far more often than I wish it did!) Around 10:00, Evan and I would finish watching our episode of Friends or Friday Night Lights. I would moan and groan about the dishes, and drag myself off the couch. Evan would ask, “Why don’t we take care of that tomorrow?” I’d moan and groan a little more, and he’d reluctantly join me. And I’d spend time when I could be sleeping or chatting with my husband frantically running around my house, trying to make it meet an arbitrary, self-imposed, and overwhelming standard.

For the majority of our married life so far, I have acted as though at 11 p.m., Martha Stewart herself was going to knock on my front door, ready to inspect my home. This 11 p.m. inspection is completely imaginary, and yet I let it dictate my mood, my attention, and my priorities almost every evening.

I hated the tape of “not good enough,” that was playing in my head. I imagine you hear that tape many nights, as well. But here is what I eventually learned, and what I want to tell you: You can stop the tape.

I tried to stop the tape by just believing the message it played and hustling to keep up. I believed the lie that my value as a homemaker could be found only in completing a Martha Stewart-esque task list every day. This is the approach I took for far too long, and the approach I still have to talk and pray my way out of most days.

Here’s a better way: Stop the tape by forgetting about the 11 p.m. inspection entirely. Stop believing the lie that someone is watching, waiting for the moment when your lack of productivity or your choice to rest will prove that you are not a good enough mom, wife, coworker, student, Christian, human being.

When I head off to clean the kitchen these days, I have a conversation with myself. Why am cleaning the kitchen right now? If the answer is, “because the mess is driving me crazy,” or “I’ll feel more at peace when I come down to a clean kitchen in the morning,” then fine. But if the answer is, “Because I should,” or “Because I think Evan will like me better if the kitchen is clean,” or “I haven’t done enough today,” then I stop. I turn myself right back around, and I leave the dishes for tomorrow when my heart is in a better place.

Of course, there are times when things need to get done. Leo will need a clean bottle at some point, and goodness knows I’ll want to be ready to make a cup of coffee in the morning. But unless I feel fairly assured that a task is good for our family and my heart in that moment, I’m willing to say no and let it wait until later.

Friends, there is no 11 p.m. inspection. Not of your kitchen, your calendar, your laundry baskets, or your email inbox. There is no 8 a.m. inspection of your morning quiet time and no Sunday evening inspection of your weekend fun. You can choose rest, you can choose self-care, you can choose relationships.

All month long, I’m sharing 31 ways to fight perfectionism, as part of the Write 31 Days challenge. We’re past the halfway point now! You can find all my posts in this series here (or by clicking the “31 Days” button at the top of this page). Tomorrow, I’ll share the surprising lessons I uncovered when I took a personality test. 

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