Netflix; Kelsey Lee Photography

Does Cleaning Spark Dread? This Professional Organizer Had Some Advice

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I could not sit still watching this show. As Tidying Up With Marie Kondo moved through its redemption narrative, I felt like things were crawling around in my cabinets, in my toy bins, under my couches. My normal anxiety about the amount of stuff in my house went into overdrive..it was not healthy for me. The way that four weeks are crammed into 40 minutes felt daunting. Their mess, just cleared away in a way that I am not capable of doing. As I started talking to other friends about the show I realized I was not alone. While some loved her methods or felt compelled to give them a try, many of us felt simply overwhelmed and inadequate. Not only could we not keep our house in a general state of order, now we had an even higher and even less attainable standard to hold ourselves to. How could we reconcile our admiration for a closet of tidy rolled t-shirts — each capable of sparking joy! — with the dread we have for cleaning?

“I think sparking joy is a great way to frame things, but some of us can’t just go out and purchase the new items we need right now that would spark joy,” says Heather Anderson, owner of Elbow Room Nudge, a Minneapolis-based organization company. “We need clothes to wear to the work and to the gym, and we might just need to use what we have.”

Anderson says that while Marie Kondo clearly enjoys the process of organizing, and even involves her kids in that work, it is OK to just not like folding and cleaning. It is OK to pass January by without dumping everything you own in a giant pile.She talked me off the ledge.

Professional organizer Heather Anderson has a junk drawer. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Lee Photography.

This was so freeing. My bins of baby clothes don’t all spark joy. But I need to save them anyways, because I can’t just go out and purchase our newest baby all the boutique dresses and Hannah Anderson jammies that would spark total joy for me. I need to save the uninspired gray Carter’s onesies. Tossing everything that doesn’t spark joy comes with a bit of economic privilege, I think.

This was something I had accomplished, and it wasn’t in a dramatic bin-dumping hours-long marathon.

I ask Anderson if she folds and stores things as meticulously as Kondo — as a fellow twin mother, I was curious her take on the chaos that is children. Anderson offers me more relief by noting that she is not naturally organized, and hates the process. If her kids fold something and it is passable, she is happy. “I will take the help over perfection any day.”

She encouraged me to start small — maybe I don’t need to dump my whole closet on the bed, but can go through just my short-sleeved shirts today. Maybe I tackle a drawer during nap and have it all put back away before they get up. There was no shame in this — something was better than nothing.

After talking with Anderson I decided to tackle one thing. Just one. I sat down on the floor in front of our dining room buffet and pulled out every puzzle and art supply. I assembled all the puzzles, and as soon as I realized a piece was missing, I threw the whole thing away. We went from 20 haphazard puzzles to 10 nice puzzles with all their pieces, and my kids have been playing with them nonstop because they are accessible and functional. I sorted our art stuff into little bins that I had and filled a silverware caddy with the most-used items. My anxiety eased a bit. This was something I had accomplished, and it wasn’t in a dramatic bin-dumping hours-long marathon.

As mothers, we are constantly having things thrown onto our plate. School calendars, lunches, laundry, the emotional weight of managing the household. I feel regularly that I am drowning, and I know that I am not alone in this. The weight of stuff in my house piles up on top of the emotional load and can feel crushing. It’s not that I want to keep 500 mismatched socks in a basket to match eventually. I don’t want to just throw out 500 socks… but when I finally get all the kids in bed, the dishes done, and my writing done for the evening, I also don’t want to match socks. In fact, one of the acts of love my mother performs is to sometimes take all our socks home and match them for us. She also cleans our microwave when she babysits. I don’t think I’ve cleaned it in five years, and its sparklyness after she babysits totally sparks some joy for me.

Left: the stuff of life; Right: a small victory over entropy. Photos courtesy of Meg St-Esprit.

Do I think KonMari is a terrible process? Not at all. If it’s working for some people, that is fabulous. I found helpful tidbits along the way — Kondo’s discussion about photos was really valuable to me, as organizing and chronicling my family’s photos is something I think about often. I will keep 17 nearly identical images of an event, because I feel sad to lose the unique facial expression of one of my kids in each one. She helped me to realize it’s OK to not save them all.

But overall, I found her process too exacting, too rigid, and too time-involved for the average family. I found it left too many already-struggling moms with feelings of increased inadequacy. Kondo set the bar too high. The psychological pressure of this latest culture fad is simply not healthy when it is being pushed as the newest only way to be.

The last question I asked Anderson, the question that plagues me daily as I try to streamline our crap, was, “Do you have a junk drawer?”

She does.

The little things waiting for their spot, the “When-I-get-to-it pile.” It is OK. Every house has some miscellaneous and often-used items. Every house has stuff that gets dumped, and it is OK to sort it later. I gave myself permission for that.

With three episodes remaining, I’ve decided to take some self-care and tidy up my Netflix watch list. I won’t be finishing them. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.