Earlier this year—like 2 million people before me—I read Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. About a dozen pages in, I realized that it’s not a book written for people with children. There is neither the time in my life nor the space in my house to do things entirely her way.
I will not be pulling the contents of my wardrobe out to heap onto the floor and sort through in one go. I will not be rolling up my T-shirts and arranging them neatly in the drawer like sushi in a bento box. And I am very, very unlikely to get rid of my spare button collection, because you just never know when you might need one.
But there is an element of the KonMari approach that does work for me. The only message from the book that is still with me, six months later:
“Does this object spark joy?” she asks. “If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.”
Shortly after I’d read the book, but before I’d started to put it into practice, my 6-year-old son, Tom, came to me. We were in the middle of a two-week-long school vacation.
“I’ve got too many toys,” he said. “I’d like to look through them and choose some to get rid of.”
So we did. We sat in the middle of his playroom together and looked through all his toys—one plastic storage box at a time. He made one pile for donating to the kindergarten class at his school, and another pile to go to the thrift store.
The next day we did the same thing with his books, and the day after that we tackled his art and craft supplies. On the final day of the holidays, we did DVDs, clothes and cuddly toys, which for some reason fell into a category of their own. He only got rid of one stuffed animal, which had been a gift on a recent flight we’d taken, but as we already had several large boxes to give away, I said nothing.
Watching my son make his choices about what to keep and what to donate made me realize that Marie Kondo’s point about joy is something we know and practice instinctively as children. It is only as adults, when we start to project other emotions onto our belongings, that the clutter starts to build.
Tom kept hold of the things he cared about, even if there were times when I couldn’t understand why. He kept a wonky little stick figure made out of pipe cleaners, some laminated autumn leaves and a seemingly unremarkable pebble from the beach.
“Why are you keeping those?” I asked, with a raised eyebrow.
“Because I love them!” he said, indignantly.
It also worked the other way. He was able to discard things far more easily than I had imagined. We found a small toy car that had once been a favorite but had recently lost a wheel, and I’d been unable to do my usual fix with superglue. I assumed that his attachment to that little car and its associated memories would transcend the broken wheel, but as it went flying past my head into the trash can, I realized that wasn’t the case.
“Wasn’t that from Grandpa?” I asked the next day, as he put a book in the giveaway pile.
“Yes,” he said, “but there are other gifts from Grandpa that I like better. That one wasn’t very interesting.”
How refreshing to watch someone so unencumbered by guilt. Tom understood instinctively what I had to read a book to realize—that getting rid of an unwanted gift doesn’t meant that you love the gift-giver less. If anything, holding onto only your very favorite gifts makes you appreciate and think about the person more.
Since Tom’s big clear-out a few months ago, I’ve noticed that he has become much more selective about what he chooses to keep. If he breaks or tears something, he gets rid of it right away with no regrets. I’ve found so many things in the recycling bin—a gold crown that he had only worn for two minutes, a beautifully crafted paper airplane, a magazine that he has only read once—and I’ve wanted to tell him what a waste that seems to me.
But I’ve resisted. He understands that the moment of life and love and joy for those objects has gone. Why would I burden him with a sense of obligation to hold onto them?
Instead, I’m trying to learn from him.
I am going through all my belongings—not in the structured way that Marie Kondo insists upon, but in a way that works for me—and I am starting to understand that letting go is what will allow me to live more fully in this moment.
Clothes have been easy to get rid of. I will not be going down a size or two. I will never take the time to patch that hole or stitch that sleeve. I know that scarf was a beautiful gift, and I appreciate the thought so much, but someone else will love it and wear it more than me.
My wedding dress has gone. The baby clothes have gone. But I will not forget what marriage or motherhood means; my memories are far less attached to those objects in boxes than I thought they were.
Old digital items have been easy: the best photos have been printed and the funniest text messages imprinted in my mind.
Even books—which have always been the hardest thing for me to let go of—have been getting easier. I hold a picture in my mind of Tom and his gift from Grandpa, and I, too, feel free of guilt. Gone are the should-reads and the have-read-once-but-won’t-again-reads. My bedside table now holds a stack of just six or seven novels that I’ve moved around with me for years and never taken the time to open. I can’t wait to work my way through them.
Marie Kondo is absolutely right. The simple act of tidying up can be a life-changing, magical one. It can make you feel lighter and happier, and give you a much deeper sense of what your priorities and passions are.
But I didn’t need a book to show me that.
I just needed my son.