Digging Out, Part 1

There was an old sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things that he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn't because of the state he was in.
     -- A. A. Milne

I often feel like the old sailor in this poem, being surrounded by lists and piles of things to do, wanting to tackle it all, but sometimes sitting down and doing nothing because it all feels so overwhelming. Usually this comes after a particularly stressful or busy time of life, when either things have gotten out of control because of too little time or because of too little emotional margin. I know for a fact that I am not alone in these feelings of despair and helplessness because of the state the house has become. The chaos in the house is often compounded by the corresponding state of family affairs which often seem to mirror the environment one is living in. It can be frustrating and upsetting to find oneself in this position.

Since I have had the experience of digging out from under chaos and putting the house and family back to rights, I thought I would share some of my tactics in case anyone else is currently finding themselves in the same position. Don't worry, there's no extremes, a la Marie Kondo here, just practical advice to get you from being the old sailor to feeling as though you might have a chance to get a handle on things.

I will do it in steps, but you will need to decide how long to take to do each step. But here is the key, once you have completed the step, it becomes part of your daily routine. Maintenance always takes far less time than having to dig out once again. Remember how not fun it was the time before if you need a little incentive to do the maintenance tasks.

Step 1: Get a garbage bag and go around your house and just throw away all the garbage you've been walking by, stepping over, ignoring, or inwardly swearing at the for the past couple of weeks. It's OK, I live with gerbil children, too. I know that sometimes actually picking up the scrap of paper is more than you can handle sometimes. But now you're going to go blitz through the house and throw it all away. Don't worry about doing anything else, just pick-up the scraps of paper and other garbage that happens and move on. (I, personally, include small Legos in this category. I have a standing rule that is well known around the house that if I have to pick-up a random Lego, I will throw it away. If you choose to do this, it is probably a good idea to give some advance warning.)

Step 2: Throw in a load of laundry. Don't worry about gathering it all, just throw in what's immediately available and get it going. Don't worry about all the laundry you have that needs to be folded or sorted or whatever, but the key here is to keep the laundry train in motion. You'd much rather have children digging through clean clothes for a pair of underwear rather than the dirty ones, right? Keep doing a load a day, to get the piles of dirty laundry gone. (If you have a large family, up that to two loads a day.) Let the folding pile up. Really. You just want it clean.

Step 3: Clean your kitchen. (At this step, I suggest planning a very easy dinner for afterward, or treating yourself with some take-out. It will give you more time to do the cleaning and won't cause an immediate mess after all your work.) If you are anything like me, the kitchen is a great indicator of the state of my emotional well-being. A clean kitchen usually means I'm functioning pretty well, a vaguely mess one means life has become a little hectic, and disaster usually means I've used up all of my emotional margin and people should be happy if any sort of food appeared that day, and please don't ask for anything else, because I should probably go to bed.

I promise you, if you can get a handle on your kitchen, it will make you feel so much better. Put the food away. Get those dishes done. Yes, even the ones that have been sitting in the corner of the counter that you have been pretending are not there. Do them all. Once you've done the dishes, work on your counters. Put away anything that doesn't belong there. Throw away stuff that no one know what to do with. The less stuff you have living on the counters, the easier it is going to be to keep it clean and organized. Wipe the counters down. Move onto the stove. Clean it. Sweep the floor. Take out the garbage.

There. Doesn't that feel good? It now looks as though it is somewhere you would like to be rather than somewhere to be avoided at all costs. Now you've done the hard work, and depending on how bad it was, it was a good several hours of labor. Your goal for these next steps is to do the kitchen after each meal and before you tackle the other areas. It won't take that long, I promise. Don't believe me? Get a timer and find out exactly how long it takes you to deal with a kitchen that was clean prior to the meal and only has one meal's worth of mess in it. Unless it was a multi-course dinner on china and crystal, it just doesn't take that long.

Step 4: Spend some time with your children. This may sound a little crazy, but hear me out. If any of you are like me, when I am just barely functioning, for whatever reason, one of the first things to go (along with the kitchen) is how I am relating to my children. Being the fun, communicative mom just goes by the wayside. As a result, the children become as stressed as their mother, and we all fall off the cliff of being generally unpleasant and grouchy together. What fun. Not.

I've heard so many times, that when a home gets into disarray that the parent is also having issues with pleasantness and cooperativeness with the children as well. "They don't pick-up anything!" is a common refrain. No, of course they haven't, because wanting to help and pitch-in is a relational task. When the mom is not relating well with the children, there is little connection. This usually means that the children are doing the best that they can as well, because mom is feeling a little distant and that's scary. Fear in children can often come out sideways in anger or sadness or just general unpleasantness. You'll notice that I have not suggested that you ask your children to help in those first steps. There's not much point yet. Before you can ask that, you first need to rebuild your relationship. You all have to spend some time getting on the same team first. Then, once you have done some relationship repairs, as long as everyone is pitching in together, the odds of cooperativeness happening significantly increase. Your children are not your servants, but sometimes it's easy to act as though they are.

So, go do something together. Get outside. Play a game. Read some books. Do whatever you know will fill the need for security and love in your children. Remind them that yes, indeed, you can be a fun mom, and not one that is just grouching about messes all the time. If anything shows us how damaging too much stuff can be, this should be it. Are you spending more of your day kvetching about putting stuff away and cleaning and 'why do we live in this mess?!' than you do having positive conversations and interactions with your children? If you answered yes, then take it as a wake-up call that your stuff is hurting your family. I cannot tell you what or how much you need to get rid of, but I humbly suggest that you do. Our stuff should be a tool for our families, so that we can spend more time together. If you are spending more time thinking about your stuff (putting it away, cleaning it, etc.) then something has gone wrong. No thing is worth spending more time with than a family member.

This is a good stopping point for now. Keep the garbage thrown away. Keep the kitchen clean, Keep the laundry going through the machines, and spend time with your children. Those are the first steps. On Saturday, I'll come back and have the next group. It might not hurt to take a timer and begin noticing a few things. How much time are you currently thinking about cleaning up, actually cleaning up, and telling people to clean up. How long exactly does it take to put something that was already pretty organized back to rights? How long do you spend interacting with your children and spouse in a day? (And that would be really interacting, not while glancing between the child and the computer or anything else that involves a screen. It only counts if you are making eye contact.)

And finally, don't feel bad if this is you. It has certainly been me at various points. Entropy is something we are all constantly fighting against. The trick is to stop the slide and know how to dig out and put things to rights again.

(To continue reading the series, head to Part 2; Part 3)


Carla said…
Needed this to give me a kick in the pants today. Thank you! Looking forward (Maybe?? My house is pretty bad right now!) to part 2.
Kristin Mueller said…
I love this post. I may just print it out so that I'm reminded of it regularly. (as long as I can find a place for it that doesn't add to the chaos of the stuff...) Thank you for the help!

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