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Like Butter, Baby

I’m not a slob.

Well, not really.

Okay, okay, already -- I might have some junkyard tendencies. Yes, my walk-in closet is so flooded with abandoned shoes, too-tight jeans, and nostalgic Busta Rhymes t-shirts that you can’t walk two inches into it without tripping on something. And I’m sure that a fire inspector would shut my bedroom down if he got a gander of the taller-than-my-7-year-old pile of dog-eared books, half-filled photo albums, and thumbed-through magazines.

But the common areas at the Millner/Chiles abode? The kitchen, sitting areas, dining room, and kids’ quarters? You could lick butter off the floor.

Especially if guests are coming. And most definitely if the housecleaner is on her way to dust, mop, and scrub our humble abode.

The latter always gets the 7-year-old all worked up. “I don’t get it,” Lila said a few days ago when I told her she needed to straighten up her room before The Ladies arrived. “Why do we have to clean up our rooms if the housecleaner is coming to clean our rooms?”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know -- she’s got a point.

But here’s the thing: I live with Mari, Lila, and Mazi -- a.k.a. Axl Rose, Slash, and Motley Crue. Can’t not one of them rip a wicked guitar lick, but honest to goodness, those kids can trash a room better than any rock star I know -- no adult elixirs or groupies required. Five minutes alone, and Axl, Slash, and Motley can make this whole house look like the morning after in The Hangover.

And Lord knows when company darkens the doorstep to find this house looking a total wreck, they’re not all, “Oh, your house is a mess -- your kids should be ashamed of themselves,” or, “My goodness, how could Nick let the kids trash the house like that?” They’re saying, “Damn, Denene sure keeps a nasty house.”

The condemnation, after all, is always saved for one person and one person only: The Mom -- especially those of us who spend the majority of our time at home.

You know the deal: No matter how hard we work, no matter how busy we are taking care of the kids, no matter how many different directions we’re being pulled to help everyone else with their madness, the bottom line is that society still expects us to do the lions share of the chores and is quick to blame the mom of the house if there’s a mess --no matter who made it. Sucks, but it’s true.

For sure, I picked up on all of this from my own mom. Oh believe me when I tell you: Bettye was obsessed with keeping up the house for other people’s sake. Seemed like the minute she got the three-month schedule for Bible study classes, she’d circle her date on the calendar and then put me, my brother, and my Dad on notice that for the entire week leading up to her turn to host the Saturday Good Word fest, we would all be getting real cozy with the mop and bucket. The woman was generally neat, but if company was coming through, her house was impeccable. The deaconesses were watching. She had a rep to protect.

Be clear: Bettye was a working mother -- toiled in a windowless factory room at Estee Lauder for 10 hours a day, starting at the cosmetics company as a lipstick flamer (she actually flicked dull tubes of pigment under Bunsen burners to give them their shine) and ending her 25-plus-year career working her way up to quality control, where she gave the nod to bags, umbrellas, and the like. She’d be dog tired, dragging in from work, barely in the door before she had dinner on the stove, and then on the plate, and then in a pan of hot, soapy water, and then herself in a bathtub of hot, soapy water, and then to bed, ready at 5 a.m. to do it all over again. Surely, somebody would have forgiven her if there were a little dust on the étagère. She never yielded to the excuse, though.

She just handled it.

And no matter how irrational it seems in this day and age to continue with that screwed up tradition, I just handle it, too. See, I’ve got a really ridiculous case of “mommy guilt,” rooted in the fact that five years ago, I walked away from a good job with benefits to do what black women for many generations before mine simply didn’t have the luxury of doing -- stay at home, raise my kids, and work when the assignments come (and I feel like being bothered). This is called choice. And on more days than not, I nod my head and give thanks that my parents (my father, too, was and still is an incredibly hard working man), my husband (a fantastic provider), and my years as a New York journalist and editor afforded me the ability and the opportunity to make one -- a choice, that is.

Still, I can’t help some days but to think that I broke the rules, somehow. That I hit the Pick 4 -- didn’t earn this great fortune the legit way, with blood, sweat and tears (though my DNA can be found in newsrooms and magazine offices scattered all over New York). Sometimes, I feel like I need to slip off and clock-in at the nearest factory -- to prove not only to those watching me, but to myself, too, that I know how to do the honest, hard, back-breaking stuff.

So my self-reproach manifests itself in my perfectly starched pillowcases, and my sizzling pans of made-from-scratch smothered chicken, and floors clean enough for you to lick butter off of them -- even when the housecleaner is on her way to get the house clean.

I want to say this is just my own hang-up. But I’m surrounded by people who don’t hesitate to play right into the mommy guilt. I’m constantly pulled in this direction and that -- asked, no, expected, to just say yes. To classroom projects. And neighborhood functions. And friend obligations. My Dad, perfectly loving, sweet man that he is, has suggested on more than one occasion that I have plenty of time on my hands to do (insert your random errand/appointment/just-do-it-dammit project here). “You ain’t doing nothin’ no way,” he’s said matter-of-factly. Out loud. Of course, this is by no means true. Each request, though, confirms every sneaking suspicion lurking in the back of my mind -- that though I toil away on the computer literally all damn day, nobody really thinks I, a writer, am working. Indeed, a writer works in silence and solitude and anonymity. I don’t get dirty and greasy or take orders from people I don’t like, but I do sweat and think and sweat and think some more. All the time. Non-stop. Even when nobody thinks I am.

For sure, I ain't one of those bon-bon eating housewives.

But on some days, I have a hard time convincing even myself, especially when Axl, Slash, and Motley leave their mark.

The next time that day comes around, maybe I’ll tackle that closet. But for now, I’m shoving the mop, broom, and Swiffer in my rock stars’ hands. Because The Ladies are coming.

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