One of the great surprises of 2018 was the return of Mary Poppins (played by Emily Blunt) to the lives of Michael and Jane Banks, who had grown up and produced, via Michael (Ben Whishaw), the next generation of kids in need of help. “Once again, Mary Poppins glides in to save the day and, more specifically, to take care of some gently neglected if unquestionably loved Banks children,” wrote Manohla Dargis of Mary Poppins Returns, the less-winning sequel to that original domestic fantasy. Somewhere between the 1964 original and now, things took a turn.
In the interim, film and TV offerings offered a peek into the secret anxieties and desires of parents and children: 1990 gave us A Mom For Christmas; Super Nanny ran from 2004-2012, also the era of Wife Swap. Each was a fascinating look at “what if Mom was someone different?” And almost never an exploration of “what if Dad was different/better/had super powers?” Most recently, the second wave of KonMari hysteria swept the nation following the premiere of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo on Netflix, giving us a different kind of domestic superhero. Tidying Up wasn't a plea for a replacement mom, or for mom to be the next Elastigirl, necessarily, but for mom to feel less stressed, less overwhelmed, and less overworked.
When my friend was moving across the country she gave me a bunch of toys that weren’t worth taking along to her new home. Her kids had outgrown them and wouldn’t miss them. Who says no to free stuff? Especially toys. So a theater puppet stand, a doll house, and a pretend-play mini grocery check-out moved into my daughter’s playroom, spilling over into the living room now too. Even though my daughter had gotten used to playing by herself as an only child (until she was 4) and getting creative with her doll buddies, I thought these toys would come in handy.
I grew up in the era of under-parenting, when parents would simply tell you to “play in the backyard” and “go to your friend’s house.” (Backyards were usually a large field of grass and dirt, no swing sets, play houses or mini roller coasters to keep us busy.) But in 2019, despite Toys 'R' Us going bankrupt, our kids have more toys than ever.
There now exists a toy for every imaginable activity or future profession you could think of (just ask Melissa & Doug). Parenting in today’s hyper-stimulating world means we always think our kids need to be “on,” and by on we mean having fun! totally engaged! playing with the next big thing! And in living under that mantra, we collect stuff that helps us achieve that lifestyle.
It's not just our kids who collect more things, as moms we're trying to do more, be better, take ourselves further than we ever have before. Women do an average of 60 percent more unpaid work than men, which includes cooking, childcare, and housework, according to an Office of National Statistics analysis. That means on top of your day job (most families today consist of two working parents), managing your children's schedules, and soaring prices whenever kids are involved, moms are pretty stretched thin to get the job(s) done. Since gender imbalances at home is still a thing, women look for quick fixes to help them get through the day. And those quick fixes usually come in the form of some random object that we think we need to help us achieve our goals in the home — egg peelers, white-noise machines, a pallet of mason jars, Shittens, whatever we think will help.
Taking a look back at 1964, in the original Mary Poppins, little Michael and Jane Banks had maybe two toys each to play with.
There’s a reason Marie Kondo is the savior of this moment: the current contagion of stuff is not quite the same as the clutter our parents kept. Your grandmother’s China, your dad’s baseball cards, all things taking up space that have sentimental value, as they should. I, for one, know my crap has no emotional relevance in my life — kids these days seem to require so much stuff.
Taking a look back at 1964, in the original Mary Poppins, little Michael and Jane Banks had maybe two toys each to play with. Today, the ease of getting what you need when you want it by the likes of Amazon Prime means you literally have everything you could ever want at your fingertips. It makes a thought or idea about an item become an impulse buy, which will be at your doorstep quicker than you’re able to change your mind. Who hasn’t ripped open a package from Amazon and wondered, “Why did I need this again?”
“There was a time when people really bought what they needed. The ease of access to items via online shopping is definitely the biggest culprit in my client’s battle against clutter,” says Natalie Schrier, founder of NYC-based organization company Cut The Clutter.
I’ve heard moms in line at Target whispering to their friends how tired they are because they stayed up past bedtime to catch another episode of Tidying Up.
A Nielson report found that people are spending six to seven hours a day on social media, so, with our noses buried into our phones for a third of our day, the burning desire to acquire more is literally always in your face via sneaky advertisements from your mommy bloggers and home-decor mavens. You think you’re scanning through Instagram viewing their perfectly put-together lives and wondering how you can be like them too, but these influencers are using product placements in their day-to-day lives. You’re not just seeing an item, like Pottery Barn Kids Valentine's Day utensils and serving dishes (so cute, I know), you’re seeing how it’s used and how much “joy” it’s bringing to the family you envy so much. You want it now too. See how they did that?
Marie Kondo’s KonMari method is peaking because she’s hitting a nerve. I’ve heard moms in line at Target whispering to their friends how tired they are because they stayed up past bedtime to catch another episode of Tidying Up, all to realize just how untidy their lives have become.
“We even have so much more access to advertisements than we did just five or 10 years ago,” Schrier says. You had to have the TV on to see commercials, flip through a magazine to see an ad or subscribe to catalogs in the mail to see what’s new. “Today we can definitely correlate the amount of stuff we’re accumulating to the rise of social media.”
It really is the golden era of marketing and advertising. If those Fyre Festival documentaries about the #fakenews music festival that never was have made you realize anything it's that if advertisers can access the most vulnerable (new moms being at the top of the list), they can sell anything. We have to believe there’s a correlation between the popularity of Marie Kondo today and something like the Fyre fraud to understand how we got here.
Popular mommy blogger, Maya Vorderstrasse, who has 133,000 followers on Instagram, knows all too well the mental exhaustion of having too much stuff.
“Initially when my Instagram page started taking off, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, so I didn’t know how to say no to brands when they wanted to send me something. I ended up with an absurd amount of unsolicited products that I did not like, need or want — and AN ABSURD AMOUNT OF CLUTTER. Not enough storage to keep it all and I was constantly stressed out because all I did was promote stuff I was sent, but I knew I didn’t necessarily like all of it,” Vorderstrasse says.
“A little over a year ago I made a conscious decision to 100 percent not accept any sort of free products because not only did I not need anything, but I felt forced to post about it because they sent it to me. It wasn’t fair to my faithful and loving followers who trusted my opinion. I only work with brands [now] that I either already use and love, or that I test first and find it’s a good product that can really help other moms out there.”
Vorderstrasse credits Marie Kondo’s best-sellingbook, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the documentary Minimalism with helping her realize she didn’t need to hold on to so many extra things. “We used to drown in baby products, toys and clothes. We used to hold on to old broken items just because, and that clutter was causing so much stress, fights and stealing our time as a family. All we did was clean and ‘organize’ — which was really just shuffling items from one room to the next. Now, we only purchase items we absolutely either love or need. That decision has led to a clutter free house, little to no debt, and so much more quality time together as a family,” Vorderstrasse says.
We’re packed to the max and need our very own fairy godmother to swoop in inside a Container Store bin to helps us simplify our lives.
“I’d estimate about 75 percent of my clients are families with children, or families expecting their first child,” Schrier, the professional organizer says. “First-time parents need help clearing out adult items to make room for all the stuff that comes along with a baby before the bundle of joy arrives. And baby gear and baby toys are large, bulky and awkwardly shaped, and people’s space isn’t necessarily ready to accommodate items like that,” she explains. For parents of pre-K and kindergarten-aged kids, the influx of their kids’ artwork seems to be a trigger for seeking help, she adds.
Parents who can’t get professionals to hold their hands while they climb out of their clutter are going gaga over Marie Kondo. Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Mary Poppins reboot is happening now, or maybe we’re packed to the max and need our very own fairy godmother to swoop in inside a Container Store bin to helps us simplify our lives. But Marie Kondo taking off at the very start of a new year says a lot about the fantasy of parenthood to me.
“It’s no doubt moms are stressed! I’ve noticed the biggest uptick over the past month than in the six years I’ve been organizing spaces,” says Tova Weinstock, founder of Tidy Tova in New York City. “The whole field of Professional Organizing is more on people’s radars. When I started, even I didn't know that it was a ‘thing,’” she says, referring to the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals that was created in 1983.
“Women are generally in charge of running the house and their kids’ lives. They're in charge of what stays and what goes, what systems get put into place, and managing the people who contribute to maintaining systems and the flow of the household,” she says. “Women see pretty pictures of clean houses and tidy playrooms and want the same look. They come to me with this fantasy of an all-white household and all the belongings being out of sight. But that’s not the reality. Motherhood is messy, and we can’t avoid the chaos that raising kids wrecks havoc on our households,” adds Weinstock.
What can we do? I ask her.
“We need to stop acquiring without thinking about it. This upsets me at the core. I do what I do because I believe in conscious purchases — taking the time to think about whether or not you need it, putting in effort to acquire it, and then respecting and appreciating the things that end up coming into our lives. If we're constantly just clicking and buying, that leads to excess and frankly, a gross relationship with material goods.”
Plain and simple: Children are messy.
“There will be multiple years when the house is cluttered with lots of stuff because ultimately, kids come with a lot of stuff. But women have the power to put systems into place that help simplify the mess of it,” Weinstock says.
She suggests the "one in, one out" rule, in which you can only bring in a new toy if you get rid of (donate, sell, give to a friend) another one first. Most importantly get your kids in on it too. Every season when your kids grow, besides going through clothing that no longer fits, let go of items in the playroom that they’ve outgrown too. Weinstock even recommends keeping a bin in sight for “dumping” — whether you’re in the playroom or the bedroom. This may seem like mental clutter, but it’s good to be reminded that you can get rid of stuff you don’t use or like anymore at any time, not just once a year.
I’ve practiced these strategies with my daughter and she had a blast putting aside toys for her friends little siblings (thanks for all the dolls, Grandma, but we really only need two). A few months have gone by and when she realizes she doesn’t have a need for something anymore she brings it to me and proudly says, “Let’s find this a new home mommy.” So it’s working.
"The bottom line as far as I'm concerned," says Weinstock, "is to be in control of your belongings and a strict safeguard of your space.”
“It’s ironic,” says Schrier, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology. “What got a lot of us into this mess — no pun intended — with being able to click and buy instantaneously can easily be the solution, too! Because we can pretty much get whatever we need with the click of a button and a minute amount of patience (four to 48 hours), there’s no reason to stockpile over-the-top quantities of items in our homes (like paper towels, toilet paper, diapers, wipes), which means there can be more space to store other things we need and use,” she says.
While the experts (along with the Marie Kondos and Mary Poppins of the world) show us that there are real strategies we can use to clear the clutter and simplify our homes, a lot of what the experts know when they enter a space is that the reason for the mess goes deeper than materialistic things.
“Moms are trying to keep up with images they see on social media and inundated with the next-best-thing that will solve whatever their latest problem is with their kids,” says Meryl Bash, founder of The Neat Nest in New Rochelle, New York. “It just takes a little stepping back to ask yourself what is the problem you’re trying to solve and how a material item will solve it for you. Getting organized has so many more layers than labeling or color-coordinating your belongings. You need to try to separate yourself from stuff to be able to live more freely."
For me, this made me question whether I really needed those matching family bathing suits for our upcoming trip to Florida. Sure, I’d get a great Instagram post out of it, but what are those 30-something ‘likes’ actually doing for me? It’s a fleeting second that my preschool-aged daughter will think it’s cute that we’re all dressed alike, but before I can check that I actually got a good pic, she’ll be in the pool and it’ll be forgotten about.
It’s good to know you don’t need to experience hoarder levels of dysfunction to benefit from a little organization. So as I’m cleaning out closets for the last time, ever, I’m going to remember that the extra stuff we’ve accumulated throughout our marriage and the early days of parenthood doesn’t do me any good.
All this Marie Kondo’ing is really giving moms the chance to go back to simpler times. A time when our kids weren’t so bogged down with stuff that everyone else is telling us they need, and letting them get outdoors and just play. A time when we didn’t check our phones obsessively and social media wasn’t used as a way to show off all that we possess and do.
Marie Kondo may have ushered in this fantasy of a perfectly tidy household filled with only our favorite spiritual belongings, but the messy, dysfunctional life has some beauty to it, too, as Julie Andrews' character showed us all those years ago.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article identified Meryl Bash incorrectly; it has been updated.