By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
Fifteen years ago I worked for Child Protective Services in Kansas City. I’ll never forget one particular investigation I went on as a neophyte social worker. The report alleged that the parents had an “unsafe home.”
I drove out with the senior social worker. It was summertime in Kansas and the sun was blazing hot. We knocked on the door. The mother who opened the door spoke in the accent of a person with a developmental disability.
“He-woo?” she said, her greeting a question, her brow furrowed as to how to assimilate these two strangers at her door.
We came inside the home, a converted garage. The smell of body odor hung in the air thick as incense. A mattress and pillows blackened with human grease lay on the floor. We asked to see the refrigerator. The sole item was a can of liquid infant formula. It had a dead fly floating on the crust of it. The woman explained that she diluted the formula, even though the can read in bold letters “DO NOT DILUTE.” But the most horrifying detail of my memory was this: a steady rain of live cockroaches climbed across the floor, up the walls and fell from the ceiling, one landing on my head and another on my shoulder.
The baby was removed from her mother’s care.
Eight years later I started collecting vacuum cleaners. We went from owning the standard suburbanite fare of one vacuum and a Shop-Vac. to owning a full series of cordless vacuums, a hand-held cordless vacuum, and a spot-steamer, on top of our original two. And then there were the mops: a regular mop was joined by a high-performance German mop with a swivel head and microfiber cloth as well as a disposable Swifter mop.
Why? Because we had children.
In each case I told myself we needed these tools. I needed the Shark sweeper for daily carpet and floor maintenance. I needed the hand held cordless to vacuum cheerios and cracker crumbs from the car. I needed the steamer to cope with wet messes. I needed the mops to keep the kitchen floor clean.
But this wasn’t just about cleaning up after the children. I believe my passionate need for clean floors came from the earlier trauma of the Cockroach Home, and my unconscious decision:
Dirty Floors + Baby=Danger.
If I were not willing to look beyond the surface of my behavior, mildly insane behavior I could readily justify with self-righteous indignation–“I’m trying to create a sanitary environment for Our Children!”–I would never understand why I had this clean floor compulsion.
And if I didn’t understand why I had the compulsion I would not be where I am now: typing happily in a kitchen whose floor has not seen a mop in two weeks. Hey, I’ve been busy.
Awareness opens up space around behaviors, and space creates room for choice.
Often in therapy I ask individuals or couples about childhood experiences that are thematically connected to their adult conflicts. It can be a hard question for people to answer, especially when they want to stick to the here-and-now.
But think of it like this: in every profession we study the past. To be a good architect you need to know about the classical proportions worked out by ancient Greeks, about medieval and renaissance and mid century modernism as well as contemporary architecture.
To be a good architect of your own life you need a current as well as a historical understanding.