How Decluttering Made Me A Better Mom

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Carlos Ciudad Photography / Getty Images

Years before Marie Kondo and her decluttering fad hit the scene, I was a young mother living in a very small space with my husband and young son. By small, I mean small. Our one-bedroom apartment was a little under 600 square feet. There were three small closets, including the coat closet and linen closet. There wasn’t even enough room in our bedroom to fit an extra chest of drawers, so my son’s clothing was stuffed into a few baskets on top of my bureau.

At that point, moving was not an option, and living small and frugally meant I got to stay home with my son when he was young, which was something I wanted and valued. However, by the time my son was a toddling little tyke, had more toys than I could count, and was into everything, my home pretty much looked like it had been hit by a hurricane 24/7.

Toddlers are notorious slobs, but living in a small space meant that even a tiny pile of toys strewn on the floor made the place look like a total wreck. And who was I kidding? The rest of my house was a disaster as well. My little box of a kitchen was a mess, the cabinets and drawers filled to the brim with who knows that. My bookcases were overflowing too – and not just with books. I think we just ended up sticking whatever didn’t fit somewhere else onto any inch of available shelf space we could find.

I tried my best to be at peace with the state of our space. After all, I would tell myself, families live in smaller spaces like this throughout the world, and the reason my space feels so cluttered is because we are blessed with so much damn stuff.

The problem was, the clutter was getting on my nerves. Literally. Sometimes I would look at the state of my living room and feel a tightness in my chest, my heart racing. The mess was literally giving me anxiety.

When things were especially cluttered, I found myself snapping at my family more often, and even limiting playtime with my son because I could not bear to take out another toy or open another can of play-dough knowing that I’d just be adding to the never-ending pile of junk that made up my home.

After debating whether I should set the house on fire and leave it at that, I decided to do a big, giant-ass decluttering. I had done that from time to time before kids, but I knew this was going to be different because I hadn’t done any decluttering since my son was born. I simply hadn’t had the time – or the headspace – to tackle something that felt so ridiculously insurmountable.

So one Saturday, I kicked my family out of the house for the afternoon, put on some music (loud AF, which was a rare treat), took out some trash bags, and got to work. I started with the toy situation, poring through each and every toy that my son owned. Again, there was no Marie Kondo back then to guide me through it all, so I wasn’t really thinking about what “sparked joy,” and I certainly wasn’t thanking the shit as I threw it away. But I found my way groove anyway.

I made three piles: keep, donate, and trash. It took three hours to go through it all (how does such a young child own so much shit?), and by the time I was done, I had gotten rid of about half of my son’s toys. Oh my goodness, it was amazeballs. When my son and my husband came home, they thought the house looked great. My son had no idea that half of his stuff was gone, and he ended up finding toys he hadn’t even remembered he had – and playing with them like they were brand new.

That week, I found that I was calmer, happier, less likely to snap at everyone. After my success with the toys, I was itching to do the rest of the house. I found that I was pretty much addicted to decluttering, and there was nothing stopping me from making decluttering a priority now.

It took a few more weekends, but after a month of regular decluttering, I was done. And let me tell you, it was one of the best highs in the world. Our house felt brand new. I’m serious: I felt as though I’d moved to a whole new space – and that we’d acquired several hundred new square feet in the process, which was huge given the confines of our space.

And yes, my anxiety was in a much better place after that purge. There’s actually proof out there that clutter makes us more stressed, and even does fun things like raises our cortisol levels. So decluttering can be a kind of therapy for those of us who get stressed when things are in disarray.

We lived in that tiny space for seven whole years – and even added another kid to the mix a year and a half before we finally moved. I honestly think that decluttering the space regularly (I ended up doing it every six months) was the only thing that made it possible for us to stay as long as we did, and for me to stay sane in the process.

Even since moving to our new home (not huge either, but much bigger than that tiny apartment), I’ve continued to be an avid declutterer. I pretty much stick to a bi-annual schedule of going through almost every item in my house and getting rid of what isn’t needed. Decluttering is not the magic cure-all for all my angst, but I know that if I haven’t done it in a while, I find myself getting crabbier and more easily irritated by everyone – and everything – around me.

And the added bonus is that whenever I do a big purge, I get to kick everyone out of the house, blast my tunes, and throw out everyone’s shit to my heart’s content.

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