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.
But the camper came home with us, and for several days I guarded its pieces like the Hope Diamond, barking like a prison warden that it wasn't to leave the playroom. Until I realized that since I'd eventually have to cook dinner, I'd also have to allow him to play unsupervised with these things, and therefore accept that these objects would likely break and become lost amid the other lost and broken things.
Offering my usual and perfunctory warning that "you will be sad if you lose this," I watched in some wonder as Coby took the Cookie Monster part of his camper set directly up to his bedroom, where it joined its other Cookie Monster comrades on his bed. He then used the camper piece to ferry his Elmo doll to the Applebee's he'd made out of building blocks. And while, yes, the thing was no longer a "set" in the way we might conventionally use that term, its various pieces were all somehow deployed into service where they belonged.
There's a lovely Zen parable (seized upon by no less a mystical figure than basketball coaching legend Phil Jackson) about a meditation master, Achaan Chaa. When his students came to him and asked how he could be happy in a world of such impermanence, the master held up a glass and said, "For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and my elbow brushes it and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, 'Of course.' When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious."
That plastic Cookie Monster probably belonged in Coby's bedroom even before it came out of the factory. That puzzle piece is lost before you tear off the shrink-wrap, and the action figurine is down the toilet or lost under the ficus even before you've paid for it. Maybe the very best thing for compulsively ordered mamas like myself would be to once in a while take the whole darn camper and hurl it against the living room wall, recognizing that it's already broken and that every moment your child interacts with it, making sense of it in his own, albeit incomprehensible, way is precious.
The harder lesson here, the one I can barely manage to think about as my boys rustle about in their diapers, might be this: It's probably not a coincidence that I came to this compulsive orderliness just as they came into this world. At the end of each day, it's likely that the thing I am trying to sort, catalog, match, organize, and preserve for all eternity is not so much their stuff as their lives. The thing that's already broken, in fact, is their childhood. Not broken, per se, but changing, dispersing, repurposing itself in unexpected ways. Like the small plastic stuff, they are already moving on to where they are meant to be.
I am not ready for that; not ready for the possibility that this scattering of small colorful plastic objects is a harbinger of the scattering of their selves. It's a scattering that's necessary, that's already happened, and that makes this time with them doubly precious. That Achaan Chaa was a wise man. I bet his Cookie Monster camper had only three wheels on it from the get-go. And I bet he loved it that way.
Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor and legal correspondent at Slate.