Cups like those in kitchen of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

Put Your Dishes in the Dishwasher

I have a sign in my kitchen with our three house rules. They are rules that I borrowed from my aunt Nancy (aka “Nana”), ones that all of the grandkids know they must follow when they are at her house:

  1. Put your dishes in the dishwasher
  2. No crying unless there’s blood
  3. If you want something, get it yourself

I mean, these are pretty solid rules. Clean up your own stuff. Don’t whine about things that aren’t a big deal. Try and solve your own problems. Sure, maybe there could be one about behaving compassionately, but I guess Nana assumed good intent towards others. Or maybe there could be one about helping out around the house or sharing with other family members. But again, the rules can’t cover everything, and I think Nana also assumed that the grandkids would behave with a generosity of spirit towards their cousins in other areas that weren’t specifically outlined.

So these rules have stuck. Everyone knows them, so if I’m at Nana’s and someone finds an errant dish on the counter, there is a bit of an uproar. “Who didn’t put their dish in the dishwasher?” comes the question, usually yelled above all the noise. When the offender is found, there is appropriate admonishment.

Everyone needs to put their dishes in the dishwasher.

I always loved Nana’s rules, even before I became a single parent. When we were at her house, it made it possible to have dozens of people living under one roof. It (mostly) kept the peace between the kids and it minimized adult involvement in their daily dramas. Nana has always been pretty no-nonsense, and her rules followed that mentality.

Once I became a single parent, I liked her rules even more. In fact, I needed real rules for the first time ever because I didn’t have Shawn with me to enforce the unwritten rules we’d once used. But it wasn’t until my dad left and the lockdown began that I realized how much I needed Nana’s rules in my house. Sure, I’d been single parenting for almost two and a half years, but I’d been doing it with help from others: my dad during the school year, my extended family during the summer, and my friends on a daily basis when I needed them. Even when I was fully “alone” for weeks at a time in the summer, I was never truly alone. I could always step outside my door and share a hug and a beer with a friend.

Starting in March, I couldn’t do that anymore. Yes, my rad boyfriend was here for some of the time. But a lot of the time, I was parenting completely on my own, without any of the supports I’d once had.

I realized very early on that I needed some rules. So I wrote a sign that read “this house is like Nana’s house” at the top, with the three rules below it and I taped it to the fridge.

My kids, of course, violate these rules all the time. I probably point to the sign on the fridge every single day. “Dishes IN the dishwasher, not beside it!” I yell at the end of every meal. No one is doing a stellar job with these rules, really.

But the rules still exist, and they provide some sort of framework for my parenting.

Sure, I’d probably modify these rules if anyone asked me to outline my parenting philosophy. “Put your dishes in the dishwasher” might be followed by, “and help out your family because that’s what families do.” “If you want something, get it yourself,” would have the addition of, “but if you need help from a grown-up, say please and thank you.” And “no crying unless there’s blood,” would also include, “or hurt feelings or deeply felt injustice or just a day when you needed to get it all out.”

It’s funny, because sometimes I violate one of the rules too. Almost always, it’s the rule about crying. But one of the things I’ve realized is that my kids can tell the difference between someone who is crying just to make a scene (which Tommy is a master at) and someone who is crying because there’s no other way to express a feeling.

Basically, my kids get that the rules are merely a framework.

It’s a bit odd, I suppose, that I have someone else’s rules posted in my house. But I think that’s a part of my life as a widow. Faced with the uncomfortable reality of being a single parent, I looked outwards for guidance. No longer could I look to Shawn to help me figure out how to parent, and so I grasped at everything else that I could.

Sometimes, this failed, and I realized that I’d been too hard (or too easy) on my kids.

But other times it worked. I was forced to rethink parenting in a lot of ways, and it made me try out new ideas. Some of them stuck.

It’s not flawless. I found three used ice-cream dishes in the basement this morning, and I almost lost my mind.

Still, Nana’s rules still remain on my fridge. They’re aspirational, in a way.

But they also convey a message to my kids, I hope. One that says this: mama is trying her best, even if the result is quite imperfect.