A family member and I used to exchange seductive pictures of newly cleaned and organized surfaces, cabinets, bookshelves, and children’s play areas. His photos of clear and clutter-free counters tagged #kitchenporn reduced anxiety and increased joy for both of us. He would drool over the pictures I sent of open floor space and folded blankets neatly stacked on the back of the couch. We sighed collectively and even in the best of times knew the order wouldn’t last long.
We are now on day 7,349 of being at home with kids and all of their shit. There are so many messes and so much clutter. I spend my time walking around angry and muttering that we have too much stuff in the house while wondering if early settlers were always pissed at their kids for leaving their wooden dolls and whittled toys all over the fucking cabin.
I can’t remember the last time I was able to take a photo of a truly satisfying and organized space. Instead I send photos of rooms that look like the inside explosions of my brain and long for my pre-pandemic living/work space. In the Before Times I would kick the kids out of the house for school or camp, take 20 minutes to clean up the clutter from the morning rush, then settle into my work for the day. I couldn’t focus until I did. Now there is no settling or focus, only the stabby feelings of COVID-clutter. If you are also ready to light a match or rent a dumpster and backhoe to “clean” the house, you are not alone — and have solidarity in science.
A messy house, office, or work space chemically alters our brains and makes us more anxious, overwhelmed, and distracted. Some people can work in absolute chaos. I am not one of them. Background noise is fine; visual stimulation that draws my attention away from what I am trying to focus on is what exhausts me. I am a planner and a to-do list checker. I need order. Psychotherapist and professional organizer Cindy Glovinsky says, “Order feels good, in part, because it’s easier for our brains to deal with and not have to work so hard.”
My brain is working so hard. The pandemic has created a sense of grasping or scrambling for solid footing and my need for order and certainty has manifested in increased panic and anxiety. Clutter triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol and when we have prolonged elevated levels of cortisol, we experience increased heart rates, blood pressure, blood sugar, and fats in the blood. Perpetual clutter keeps us in a state of fight-or-flight which is shitty for our mental and physical health. This is why our brains shut down or cope by avoiding it all through sleeping, eating, or binge-watching shows for hours at a time.
Heart problems and diabetes aside, let’s get back to visual stimuli. According to a very heteronormative study done by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), 32 middle-class families with two working parents and 2-3 kids ages 7-12, the women reported higher levels of stress based on her family’s accumulation of stuff than the men in the home. It’s not that men don’t see the mess — it’s that they don’t think it applies to them. This is from ingrained gender stereotypes that it’s a woman’s job to keep the house clean. Studies have found that men don’t think it’s their responsibility to maintain a tidy house. This is bullshit, of course, and we need to keep moving the broom forward and into more cisgender men’s hands.
No matter what your gender, if clutter makes you anxious, it’s taking away from your ability to physically and mentally relax. I can’t sit down to work with a sink full of dishes, a desk full of paper piles, or a table stacked with toys or art work. Ignoring the mess creates guilt or a sense of “should.” I can’t get into any kind of flow state for work when all I can think about are the nagging to-dos around the house and how much worse the mess will get if not taken care of immediately. So, instead of taking the time I need to be productive and creative and allowing my brain to brainstorm, I get caught in loops of being overwhelmed, anxious, and distracted. I become hyper focused on anything but my work assignments.
And it’s not just the piles or litter of toys on the floor that increase our cortisol levels; we can feel the negative impact of digital clutter too. Zoom meetings, emails, online learning, and notifications on our phones also compete for space and attention in our brains. There is only so much our systems can take, and many of us are overextended.
In a nutshell, we have the stress of the pandemic on top of the stress of trying to work on top of the stress of not being able to focus on work because we are so fucking stressed by all of the clutter all over the goddamn house.
Ideally, we should develop habits to declutter our spaces regularly so that the mess doesn’t become overwhelming. However, there is only so much we can do right now. Our homes are now also offices, schools, and play spaces. We and our stuff are on top of each other all of the damn time. My family member and I mourn the fact that we don’t live with other humans who value clutter-free spaces as much as we do. We are also jealous of, and baffled by, their ability to be so unbothered by the messes they make.
Because this pandemic seems to be lasting as long as a tricky case of herpes, I am going to do my best to not feel guilty about the messes I walk thorough to get to my tidy bedroom where I sit on my made bed to work for a few hours at a time. I will also continue to sigh (scream) loudly into the void and shamelessly scroll through photos of #kitchenporn on Instagram.