Managing Motherhood, Meticulousness, & the Mess

I can’t stand clutter. I would rate meticulousness as both a blessing and a curse. I have a very particular way of doing certain tasks and yet the standards are set (unfairly) high. It will come as no surprise that self-critical follows next on the list of descriptors.

My roommates in college regularly moved my personal belongings just to see if I would notice. If something was out of place, I subconsciously moved it back to its rightful location. I never threw dirty laundry on the floor. I always kept my clean clothes folded and in the appropriate drawers.

As a singleton, keeping an organized and clutter-free environment enabled me to focus my energy on the things that required the most attention; college exams and editorial deadlines for my job at the daily newspaper. In some way, my own personal space felt sacred and I looked forward to the peace I felt in the clutter-free zone. 

Thus, I had always been meticulous and until motherhood, it suited me just fine. Unfortunately, motherhood and meticulousness don’t mix well. Controlling your own surroundings is one thing, but throw in another human being, under age five, and you might as well throw in your tidiness towel. Some mothers seem to thrive on chaos. I am not one of them. Chaos gives me a headache. I prefer structure, tidiness, uniformity.

My tolerance for chaos is extremely low. I hate dirty dishes in the sink or on top of the kitchen counter. I loathe piles of laundry; if it’s been sitting in the hamper for more than four days, I must be ill with the flu. My breathing actually becomes labored when I walk into a room with stacks of magazines and books scattered throughout, unstructured and begging for order.

After leaving my parents’ home for college and until I moved in with my husband, I lived in a total of 12 different apartments. With each move, I could say with confidence that I had unpacked all the boxes within 24 hours of settling in. I thrive on organization. Boxes of stuff that need to be unpacked make me hyperventilate.

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says the secret to adulthood is that “outer order contributes to inner calm.” I take this a bit too far, perhaps. As a result, adjusting to motherhood as a meticulous maven proved difficult for me. In the beginning, I didn’t even realize how unrealistic my standards were – for myself or for my daughter. But today, I look back on my evening pickup routine as both futile and laughable.

The fact is, I am actually allergic to clutter. 

The upside is that we live in an organized and clean home, and who doesn’t want that? Luckily, my husband shares my clutter-free philosophy. During our travels, we agreed early on that trinkets have no place in our lives. No snow globes, no little copper spoons, and absolutely no mugs or shot glasses. You won’t find those cute little ornate thimbles from Solvang on our armoire.

Just before our daughter was born, I decorated her room simply. Other than infant clothing and necessities, we bought a nightlight and hung up tasteful vintage posters of childhood fairytales.  She was gifted a piggy bank and a newborn porcelain shoe, and those were the only items sitting on her brand new dresser. Clutter free baby room, check.

But that didn’t last long. By the time she reached age three, the toys had flooded beyond the borders of her playroom and into the hall and guest room closet. Toddlers are notorious hoarders. The Legos, blocks, dolls, and stuffed animals invaded the upstairs of our home and refused to stay in their preassigned bins and shelves.

“Let’s put your stuffed animals in the white bin, sweetie,” I would say. “That way, we’ll know where to find them tomorrow!” “No, mommy. I like them all over!” (Insert maniacal child laughter.) Nothing worked. Despite my own clutter-free sensibility, my daughter seems unfazed by a floor covered in scraps and shards of construction paper and half-completed art projects.  Most days, the playroom looks like it has been hit by a typhoon. “I don’t mind it,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me.”

As much as every bone in my body aches to clean up the clutter and place everything back into organized compartments, I do the following: Breathe deeply. Avert my eyes and take three steps backward. I don’t want to hold her to unreasonable standards, but she is expected to follow the Sunday night rule: all belongings must be off the floor for the Monday morning.

Fingers crossed that we’ll be rid of the toy clutter by middle school. Until then, I’m learning to let go and allow her the space she needs to figure out her own degree of clutter tolerance.

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