I think I just needed a break – to keep from snapping.
Weekday mornings in my house had deteriorated into the “nagging and yelling” hour, starring me as the frustrated and cursing mom. I would urge my slow-moving 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to wake up, get up, wash up, use lotion, get dressed, use deodorant, eat breakfast, brush teeth and look out the window for the school bus.
That process would eventually evolve into me yelling about responsibility, mostly at my son who has been wrongly convinced by puberty that his opinion always matters.
We’d taught these little people how to be responsible, but the morning routine proved that somehow I still ended up doing too much around the house. They would take care of business when I told them to, but I thought I shouldn’t have to tell them to do routine stuff. Right?
I just got plain tired of it.
So while perusing the uplifting posts of my Facebook friends one day, I decided that I deserved better cooperation. I hatched a plan to teach these spoiled slobs to use the home training that we tried so hard to impart. On a whim, I told my Facebook friends that I was officially on a Mom Strike.
I did not cook, clean or shop, nor did I tell anyone else in the house to do it.
It was a work stoppage against the faction in my household who I reverently referred to in my Facebook posts as “The Son” and “The Daughter.” “The Husband” was more an arbitrator who didn’t want to be splattered by my imminent explosion.
I wanted to know how bad they’d let the house get before they would notice. What was their dirt threshold? Was I properly estimating my worth to the household management? Or could they get along fine without my help? If so, that was good. Right? Would anyone miss my fried catfish?
My Mom Strike lasted 10 days. In that time, fruit flies took over the kitchen and the stank of a cat’s behind wafted through the house thanks to a full litter box in the basement. The breakfast bar went from good to “UGH” on Day 1. The kitchen and bathrooms got downright gross.
On Day 2 of the shutdown, I mean Mom Strike, I posted a photo on Facebook of the breakfast counter: It was cluttered with a dirty white sock, a hairbrush, a pencil sharpener, and takeout dinner plates half full of scraps next to The Son’s density science project – a plastic bottle full of several different food liquids. I feared they would attract roaches.
But sooner than I’d thought, The Daughter got grossed out.
On Day 3, she said, “Ma! Can you kill fruit flies with bleach spray?! And are these maggots?!”
She had awakened to find flies on a pot and dirty dish towel. There were no maggots, just instant noodles on the towel. She tried to clean the mess but ran out of time before the school bus arrived. The Son skipped breakfast rather than cook it. I peered into the nasty sink and hoped someone would buy some bug spray soon.
On Day 6, I asked my Facebook friends for support. The kids’ bathroom was full of drippy towels and the counter speckled with dried toothpaste spittle. I was keeping myself busy with do-it-yourself projects such as repainting my master bath to avoid the mess that was accumulating in the common areas. And I was still teetering on the edge of bonkers.
By Day 7, armed with some tips from my Facebook friends, I put a formal plan into motion to get my demands met. First, I took The Daughter to Home Depot and bought the prettiest purple and yellow paint to redecorate her room. She hugged me, “Oh, thank you, thank you, Mommy! When are we painting?” I responded, “As soon as you create a track record of taking care of your responsibilities.” I bit my lip. It would’ve been cruel to laugh. Her cute little face broke and fell on the floor. Then she gave me that, “What you talking ’bout Willis?!” face à la Gary Coleman. … I had her full attention.
And what did I do to The Son? The one who basically told me, “Shame on you for going on strike against us.” I traded in his broken cellphone for an iPhone5c.
I told both kids that they would get their rewards after one week of doing all chores properly. They would lose them whenever they failed to do their chores. And I instituted a new rule: If it’s on the floor, you must not want it. It must be trash. So it’s gone.
I warned that a backpack on the floor would be trashed and the guilty party would have to find another bag for school or use a plastic garbage bag.
By Day 9, I was relaxing in a clean house without lifting a finger or raising my voice. The strike ended on Day 11 with a written contract.
MAKING IT WORK
I am no softy. We have had a daily chore chart for a couple of years and failure to do the work results in loss of weekend TV/video games (no TV or video games are allowed in our house from Monday until Friday after school), loss of cellphone or added chores. So what happened? Why did I need to go on strike?
During the strike, I learned three important lessons:
1. Consistency is key: My kids have had sporadic schedules for years because of travel sports and activities, so I had been inconsistent with enforcing completion of chores. Now I update the chore chart daily.
2. Harsh consequences work: Nobody wants to lose their stuff to the “trash rule” or to Repo Mom.
3. Real rewards work: I do not give allowance because I allow them to live in my house. However, I have always told my children that hard work is rewarded. Until my Mom Strike, my rewards were pretty lame. I upped my game based on each kids’ likes. And more importantly, privileges provide leverage to keep the kids motivated. Again, they must fear Repo Mom.
During my Mom Strike, the kids and I had a few emotional moments when we talked about how we feel when other people fail to pitch in. And I felt bad when I trashed my daughter’s pink fuzzy slippers with the googly eyeballs because they were on the floor and not on the shoe rack. But now I live in a cleaner, happier home. My Mom Strike was fun and effective.
The family cat who went unbrushed for 11 days would beg to differ.
Chastity Pratt Dawsey is an education reporter for the Detroit Free Press. The oldest of eight siblings raised in Detroit, the wife and mother of two is searching for the wise balance between old-school and new-age parenting.