I wasn't a neat freak when I married, but I'd be the first to tell you that somewhere between having two kids under age 3 and the consequent explosion of Cheerios, teeny white socks, puzzle pieces, sippy-cup valves, and Plastic Things That Play Mozart, I have lost my mind and changed my ways. My husband would be the first to tell you that "foreplay" around here now means emptying the kitchen drain of the Arthur-shaped pasta and wiping down the counters.
The worst manifestation of my new obsession with neatness and order is this: I am frantic about toys with multiple parts. I am frantic about receiving them, frantic about letting my boys open them, and frantic about collecting and sorting all of their scattered pieces at the end of the day.
There was a time when I believed that life with children would be simpler, that we could limit the amount of stuff we would accumulate to a handful of cunning and educational wooden toys. Yet somehow, and almost as if he brought them forth with him from my uterus, Coby arrived with dozens of pieces of colorful plastic: the stacking rings ("a classic"); the teething toys ("a must-have"); the yellow bus on the pull cord with the small lions and bears; the nesting boxes; the musical bees; the blocks. The more blocks.
And there was a time when, each night, after Coby was tucked up into his crib, my husband and I would painstakingly pile rings upon rings, pair small wooden pegs with large wooden boxes, match like with like. Presumably we did all this only so that if by chance we were robbed in the night, the burglar would be able to play with complete sets of educational toys.
I didn't really understand how truly pathological my attempts to keep multipart toys intact had become until I ran into a friend at the park. Like me, she was watching her toddler and her newborn. Like me, she looked exhausted and delighted. And like me, she was exhorting her 3-year-old not to lose any of the pieces of the toy he had insisted on dragging to the playground. "I know I sound nuts," she confessed. "But some bigger kids got hold of it yesterday and lost parts, and then he was devastated." I confessed then, full of both shame and relief, to evenings spent maniacally hunting down the last, lost foam pieces that had strayed from the book to which they belonged; confessed to going half out of my mind at the missing puzzle piece that instantly renders the whole puzzle junk.
Recently, Coby selected his first big-boy toy -- a plastic camper, with plastic Sesame Street characters that can sleep near a tiny plastic campfire, surrounded by little plastic water pumps and life rafts. "Are you sure you want that?" I asked, steering him hopefully toward large and self-contained items -- kites and soccer balls -- that wouldn't scatter to small spaces under exceedingly heavy furniture in random rooms the moment he carried them across my threshold.