Spotless would be great, but decluttered is good enough
May 23, 2016
Hi, my name’s Jenny and I’m a compulsive tidier-upper.
My bathrooms might have an easily distinguishable level of grime about them, but rare is the afternoon you’d walk into our home and see toys on the floor and laundry scattered across the family room floor. At least for more than an hour or two.
It’s not that it doesn’t get dirty. It’s filthy under the kitchen table, and the walls are slick with the evidence that we have 4 kids aged 5 and under, none of which are particularly domesticated as of yet. But I’ll be a goat in Joanna Gaines’ shed if my house is going to be untidy.
I think I was a minimalist before Marie Kondo was a glimmer in the NYT Bestseller List’s eye. While she grew up collecting organization magazines, I watched my mom get her A-game on with a garbage bag and full throated promises of one-way tickets to Goodwill.
(And she always delivered.)
Now that I’m grown with babies of my own, like any good country song would have it, I take their same bags of crap and worn out onesies and tchotchke toys to my own local thrift store, feeling a surge of pride as I empty another tailgate full of clutter in the name of “charitable giving” and a handy 20% coupon for my next visit. Dave affectionately refers to the thrifting life cycle as “renting from Saver’s.”
Over the past year, as the kids have morphed into more distinctive personalities and not so much an amorphous mass of basic biological needs (<– not a commentary on their inherent worth or fundamental human dignity, just an observation that small children are colossally inept at pretty much everything…so somebody please explain to me the difference between a fetus and a 1 year old, and why they aren’t equally eligible for handy dismissal for inconvenience. Geography isn’t a terribly compelling argument in my mind. But that seems to be the leading explanation. End tangent.) we’ve seen a growing affinity for keeping Lego creations intact for more than one afternoon, hoarding treasures in surprising places, and attempting to colonize bacterium in the downstairs bathroom in new and scientifically adventurous ways.
In other words, there is crap strewn about that I did not strew, and people mind if I move it.
I think they call this leveling up. So I now have more compassion for friends and readers who’ve said “but I can’t just take their stuff away” to the Kondo-esque advice of ridding the joy sucking detritus from one’s abode. Okay, okay, I get it now.
That being said, as these children grow and develop extensive leaf and rock collections and stuff apple cores and sucker sticks under their pillows, I’m seeing a greater necessity to cultivate the essentials, and let the “would sure be nice-es” fall by the wayside.
For me, as a mom with introverted type A tendencies who works from home and has nobody in school full time yet, that means an almost militant commitment to keeping our common areas open and airy…well, not exactly airy (looks pointedly towards diaper can) … but absent of piles and stacks.
1. We’ve had a lot of success with training our otherwise basically feral children to put things away where they belong. Because they’re angels. Because I’m an amazing parent. Because they don’t have very much stuff to begin with, and everything has a home.
We have a single toy basket on our main floor, and a single book basket in the family room. They’re free to trash the family room with both to their heart’s content, and then clean the entire thing in a 2 minute fire drill. The key to this system succeeding is that they actually can clean it up, totally on their own, in 2 minutes.
I learned the hard way that having too many toys and a larger than average family could easily equal a crapped out living space. Because 10 toys out on the floor is messy, but 10 toys per kid out on the floor is like the library in the rich suburb north of us after Tuesday’s 10 o’clock preschool story hour. Looks like FAO Schwarz after a terrorism drill.
So they don’t have a ton of toys, and we rotate them out in a kind of toy library system. The trains and tracks live high up on a shelf and come down whenever they want to play with them, but they don’t live in easy reach. The hot wheels have a specific drawer they sleep in at night, and return there they do with every setting sun. The Legos live on top of the fridge, and I have a catch all spot in the kitchen I dump stragglers into throughout the day so I can rehome them at night. I figure it takes about as much energy to see and resent a Lego on the floor in the bathroom as it does to scoop it up and sequester it.
(They do not keep toys in their bedrooms. Just the stuffed animal lovies and the odd book or race car. But only the animals live there.)
2. The bigger headache has traditionally been books, which seem to be just too overwhelming to reshelve. I don’t really blame them: when I walk into the toy room and see 104 children’s tomes scattered open across the floor, I feel incapable of rectifying the situation myself.
This past winter I stopped shelving them, period, and just started keeping the daily selection upstairs in a basket in the family room and the rest dumped in no particular order into those ubiquitous canvas storage bins which fit neatly on the bookshelf. Suddenly they are able to clean them up, because dumping stuff in bins, as every mother knows, is the absolute easiest way to clean.
I’ve also committed to bringing them to the library every week or so, which has alleviated the guilt of donating unwanted/worn out/twaddly books. Yes, I know, I know … smart, well-adjusted future Nobel laureates all have one thing in common, and it’s an extensive home library. But, as a confirmed dweller of suburbia with 3 excellent children’s libraries within a 2 mile radius of our house, I’ve let myself off the hook. Why not let them hang onto the bulk of our books, and I’ll build up a little collection of true favorites and classics at home?
3. Their wardrobes are continually and scrupulously edited. Is something ill-fitting? Worth saving for a younger sibling? Best donated to our local Gabriel House or a cousin? I have a constant outgoing bag in our front hall closet for donations. I pull something out almost every time I’m doing laundry, and it helps keep their wardrobes manageable for me, the sole launderess. When they are running their own loads of whites and colors one day (soon, I hope!) they can have a dozen t-shirts a piece. But for now, they have like 5.
The other big factor is shoe containment. We’ve perfected a system of 2 pairs up, 2 pairs down for the big boys. They keep their mass shoes and school shoes downstairs in their closet (1 pair of each per kid) and their play shoes and sandals upstairs in the front closet on an IKEA shoe rack. In the winter, the sandals get swapped out for boots. They know where to put their shoes when they come in, and when they forget (which is 90% of the time), there’s relatively low drama when I point to the closet and remind them. The babies’ shoes live in their rooms, and they also own 3-4 pairs apiece. I do not save shoes unless I love them and they’re in great shape, because they’re so cheap at garage sales and thrift stores, and because my kids wear them hard, and generally they’re not in inheritable shape, baby shoes notwithstanding. Also, my kids are barefoot a lot, much to grandma’s dismay.
Finally, I’ve had to relax and admit to myself that nothing bad is going to happen if things look trashed at 1:30 in the afternoon. It is trashed, because 5 people are sharing space and trying to build a life together here during the daylight hours. I’ve tried to relax and look past (waaaaaaaay past, in the case of the bathrooms) the normal wear and tear of daily living.
And knowing that I can pick up the house (with a little help from my little friends) in 20 minutes after dinner, I don’t sweat the messes, the piles, and the puddles that accumulate throughout the day.
We’re in this together, me and these kids, and we’re getting better and better at putting the pieces back together before bedtime, even if the sink is piled real, real high.