KJ Dell'Antonia

Issue 131, July/August 2005

Boys playing in flour
It's a perfect summer afternoon, and our backyard is filled with naked, dirty toddlers. Some, more reserved (including my own), have chosen to cover their clothes rather than their bodies with flour, paint, mud, and egg salad. All seem delighted-from naked Duncan, who's just dumped a bowl of flour onto his penis, to shy Ian, fully clothed right up to his hat and watching in wonder. The adults relax in lawn chairs. A nursing mom gathers a small crowd anxious to touch. Sam aims the hose at the feet of another mother, who squeals, then he redirects the stream of water into the wading pool. No one says "No more" to the child who's put three inches of frosting onto a single cookie, or "No splashing" to the one stomping through the puddles in his shoes. In fact, no one says "no" much at all. In a world of no's, the Messy Party is a place to say "yes."

How did we get here? In the kitchen on a rainy day, then-two-year-old Sam finds the flour sifter, a tempting bucket with a handle to turn. It makes a scritch-scritch noise as the flour is pushed through the sieve. My mother has one just like it that I loved as a child. "I want some flour, Mommy! Flour and a bowl!" Part of me is eyeing the clean floor, and part of me wants some space to empty the dishwasher-but I provide a bowl, a cup of flour, and a scoop. He's happy, and if I focus on his face instead of the faint white dust settling over everything, I'm happy too. I'm tempted to give him the whole canister of flour, but I can't face the cleanup-and suddenly, the Messy Party is born.

-ey-what if we invited your friends over, and we put all the flour on the ground, and you all played in it?"


"Should we make invitations?"

The flour is forgotten. Sam, whose limited vocabulary includes every word related to party, is ready to start now.

Sam inaugurates the messiness by covering himself with marker while decorating the invitations. We are quite clear: Clothing is optional, and bring extra for the ride home: You will get Messy! Because most of the guests will be toddlers, I come up with four simple messy areas: Paint, Flour, Water, and Frosting. Sam and I bake the sturdiest possible sugar cookies to frost and cut them extra-thick. I plan the food-egg salad, cucumber-butter, and turkey-cheese sandwiches cut into quarters to make both tiny sandwiches for toddler hands and "elegant" tea sandwiches for the adults. A few brownies and some pitchers of lemonade and water and we're ready to go.

When the kids arrive, they see a big tarp piled with 10 pounds of flour, bowls, scoops, and sifters. Big sheets of paper cover the patio, and kid-safe paint, rollers, brushes, and stamps are everywhere. A low table offers stacks of cookies and tubes of frosting, and a wading pool and hose beckon in what's soon to be a big mud puddle of lawn. The adults see scattered chairs and a chance to chat, and we're off.

I've pictured the kids rolling around, discovering paste and body-painting with frosting, while we grown-ups hang out and take the occasional picture, leaving behind a mess I can pretty much wait for the rain to clear up. Of course, it's not simple. Every kid wants to drive the single foot-powered toy car everywhere. The hose eventually has to go, because Sam insists on making rain on Hailey's head and she doesn't like it-and because, even with the best intentions, he turns out to have remarkably poor aim. After the party, I dump the flour out into the yard, and one of the dogs eats most of it and is sick all over the house for three straight days-not exactly the mess I had in mind. Even after I wash the flour residue away with the hose, she returns woefully to the spot to lick sadly at the now gray grass, having learned absolutely nothing. But it's worth it.

Unlike the dog, I have learned something. Kids need a place in time and space where the usual rules can be suspended, where flour and paint can fly and sprinkles can spill and a mud-covered shirt is cause for nothing but celebration. Their parents need to be able to relax together and compare notes without punctuating every sentence with "Don't." With a big house filled with mostly bargain furniture, we could pull both off-as long as I could relax my ideas about what a party "ought" to be and just let it happen.

That first Messy Party leads to more messiness: A Messy Valentine's Day Party, where children, cookies, and delighted dogs end up covered in red frosting and sprinkles. Messy Nature Walks, on which someone (if not everyone) ends up covered in mud. A Messy Morning, featuring pancakes, colored syrups in squeeze bottles, and you-spray-it whipped cream. (I try to make the indoor messes edible, so the dogs can handle the cleaning.)

As the Messy Parties evolve, we also embark on the Messy House series-the "Come on over, we've just made chili" parties and the "Let's order takeout" get-togethers. The cloth napkins stay in the drawer. It turns out neither our friends nor Sam's care whether there are fresh flowers on the table, or even whether the table's been cleaned lately. Suddenly, we go from being a group of moms who share play dates to a community of families who share everything from baby gear to basketball games. I stop micromanaging, collecting plates and glasses people haven't finished with yet, and become someone who can spend an entire party pregnant and beached on the couch, letting my guests bring me iced tea. Life in a new community, far from our friends and family, gets a lot less lonely once we're surrounded by new friends who know exactly where to find both the wine glasses and the sippy cups.

Sam learns, too. As he spends more and more time with his new clan, he and all the kids become more adept at brokering their differences, from who gets to ride the tractor in the yard to who gets which spoon with lunch. They begin to mother one another. Joey trots after Sam, calling, -ere's your sippy, Sam. Do you need a drink?" After Hailey takes a tumble, Sam tells her, "It's OK, Hailey, your mama will kiss it." They hold hands as they walk down the sidewalk and hug wildly when they meet. And they share their creativity. Sam is leery of putting his hand onto a stamp pad until he watches Hailey merrily try one with her feet. Soon he's stamping his elbow all over the page. "I can't do it!" quickly becomes "I did it!" after Braxton demonstrates how to squeeze the tube of frosting with both hands. Sam and Joey both want to paint, and I rush to put paper on the other side of the easel and redirect Sam, only to find them standing happily together, painting over each other's last brushstroke and watching the colors blend. They don't even realize they're sharing or cooperating-as far as they're concerned, they're just painting together. It's a great moment for two boys who've been known to come to blows over the possession of a single orange block-even as its identical twin sits, rejected, not two feet away. It's an even greater moment for their parents. The kids have a space in which to create. We have a space in which to breathe.

Of course, we're not the only ones hosting. Sam spends plenty of time wrecking his friends' houses while we look on, too. Now that we've all joined forces, it's become rare for a week to pass without some kind of gathering. But we remain the only family we know who thinks 10 kids and 20 tubes of frosting is a good idea rather than a recipe for disaster, and that's fine with me. We'll keep coming up with new Messy Party ideas until our last kid goes to the prom and we can finally order that beautiful wood dining table my husband dreams of. Meanwhile, I hope Sam (and number two, and any others who might follow) will remember the mob of kids he raced through the house with rather than the scarred, stained rug he raced over, and the feel of flour between his toes instead of the sick dog.

Our house is the house where messy freedom rings.

KJ Dell'Antonia lives in New Hampshire with her husband, son Sam (3), daughter Lily (1), and two large dogs. She is currently working with Susan Straub on Reading Babies: A Guide to Choosing, Reading, and Loving Books with Your Baby and Toddler, out next winter from Sourcebooks. See www.raisingdevils.com for more of her writing