Confessions of a Messy Mom

by Jennifer Li Shotz
Originally Published: 
A pile of toys in various shapes, sizes, and colors in a messy room
©flickr/sally crossthwaite

While other parents on the elementary school tour inquired about the educational philosophy and qualifications of the teachers, I admired the bins.

Sure, I cared about whether they did circle time before or after free play and how this choice would affect my kids’ college chances. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the neatly stacked rows of semi-translucent plastic tubs filled with colorful things, each box labeled with a P-Touch sticker: Art Supplies, Blocks, Numbers. This place was sunny and shiny, coherent. This is it, I thought. This was the right school for my son and daughter.

Or maybe it was the right school for me. See, I am a disorganized person. My desk is a skyline of piles and heaps. As I type this, I cast my gaze upon loose Post-it notes, old photographs, a lollipop, nail clippers, four receipts, one sad and lonely earring, an outdated insurance card, bead bracelets hand-crafted by preschool artisans, headphones, hand lotion, paper napkins (and one cloth napkin), four microcassette tapes that never got transcribed, back before digital recording…a 2013 calendar, a sign handwritten by my son that reads “I POOPED,” and three 8″ stacks of paper. These stacks comprise chapters from, notes on and research for various writing projects, as well as letters to open, a friend’s manuscript to read and some mail to forward to my old neighbor. A rack to my left is stuffed with eight sheets of those return address stickers that come with fundraising appeals, 14 doctor’s bills to submit to my insurance company, a brochure for a Chinese New Year celebration (long past), a gift certificate I received for my birthday last fall and an envelope with the address of a soldier stationed in Iraq, which I picked up at the grocery store register years ago. I was supposed to write to thank him for his service, but I lost track of the envelope for a few weeks, then never got around to it. His tour ended in November. November 2009.

Behind me, on the floor, is a plastic bin filled with paper I “need to file.” Most of it is destined for the trash, but to throw it away, I’d first have to look at it. I once found an article I’d saved about decluttering and organizing—in the middle of a pile of papers. My closet isn’t much better. I’ve got pants flopped on sweaters and shoes blocking access to…you guessed it…the shoe racks. Our pantry is in a similar state of affairs, and finding something in it requires an adventurous spirit and the nose of a P.I. In the living room, unread magazines spill out of their basket onto the floor. We eat at one end of the dinner table, because the rest of it is layered with the week’s mail, sunglasses and other daily detritus. I often joke to my husband that I’m one personal tragedy away from being featured on a reality show.

The disheveled nature of my home and workspace is more than just an eyesore or embarrassment (upon entering for the first time, one new neighbor let out an irrepressible, “Oh!”). The real problem is that the mess isn’t just external, it’s internal, too. Because there’s always something I should be doing—filing, sorting, straightening—I’m distracted, never fully caught up. When evidence of what’s nagging at you lies all around, it’s difficult to focus. My eyes never rest on clear, open space, which prevents me from having clear, open thoughts. As a result, I’m not nearly as productive as I could be; I stare at envelopes to be opened or mailed and, instead of simply dealing with them, I look away. It’s overwhelming. I don’t know where to start, so I don’t start at all.

Somehow I muddle along, and we have clean clothes and dinner on the (edge of the) table every night. The clothes might live in the laundry basket until they’re worn again, but they’re washed. I’m gainfully employed and meet deadlines, but it’s a last-minute dash. When we go to friends’ houses, I’m always left wondering what skills they have that I lack. Their homes look like museums to me—lovely, uncluttered aeries where bold decisions and peaceful living occur.

My poor husband—who, when we met, entered every receipt into his money management software before throwing it away—is a broken man, half the neatnik he once was. When we first moved in together, he spent an entire Sunday shredding a shopping bag’s worth of my three-year-old utility bills and bank statements. But hope does not always spring eternal, and he works long hours and does not choose to spend his free time chasing after me with a recycling bin. So instead, he’s designed a workaround: He preserves a circle of tidiness around his side of the desk, keeps a small set of files for himself—which includes our household bills—and keeps us out of arrears.

I define myself as a pre-hoarder, a state I came by honestly. Both of my parents are keepers, pilers and stack-movers. My father likes to save newspaper articles, but instead of storing them online or even just clipping them, he keeps the entire paper. My brother once yelled at me for tossing something into a trash bag at his house, because it wasn’t a trash bag at all: It was a bag of receipts. As a people, we are great starters and terrible finishers. When I was a tween, we began a home improvement project, repainting our apartment. We got less than halfway through before just petering out. For years afterward, our hallway was distinguished by its peculiar decoration of two different whites, one dirty and graying, the other fresh and pristine, blending together with messy brushstrokes.

If I wanted to be a little Freudian about it, it’s not hard to diagnose the problem. At the time of the ill-fated paint job, my parents were wrapping up a particularly nasty divorce, and the state of our home reflected the state of our lives: We were half-living, in constant crisis, unable to find a beginning, middle and end to our story, our task, our family as it had been and as it was then.

That’s a hard habit to shake, and it has trailed me all the way into my 40s and my own household. Many a morning, my husband and kids watch me race around the house at T minus 30 seconds, my wet hair flapping behind me and my purse slipping off my shoulder as I scream, “Where are my freaking socks?!”

It’s not that I don’t want to purge and purge and purge some more. It’s that when I start to do it—when I take a baby blanket that never warmed either of my children’s bodies and hold it out over the To Be Donated box—my chest tightens, my head spins, and I feel a little…desperate. A little sad and confused, and I want to grab on to the kitchen counter and hold on for dear life. It’s an actual, real, physical, emotional and mental response that is, I imagine, what the very beginnings of a panic attack feel like. Rest assured, this state of affairs fills me with self-loathing. It also requires that new friends pass a certain unspoken test before being invited into our house: Do they get it, or will they judge? (I find it often helps to see their houses first. Then you know what you’re up against.)

It could be worse. I could be a drug addict or the mastermind of a vicious Ponzi scheme. But it’s bad enough that I have sought help on two occasions.

The first professional organizer I hired—we’ll call her Sue—charged me nearly $200 just to come and take a look. The fee was non-refundable, although it could be applied to the cost of her services. We were not in a position to be throwing money around, but we had just had our first child, and I was so desperate to set a better example that I was willing to forgo a lot of other things for help. Sue came, told me all about her previous marriage and affair, scribbled a few names on a few file folders in illegible chicken scratch, suggested a few filing techniques, and watched me throw away some papers. Then she charged me the equivalent of four car payments and left. After a few days, I felt like I was faltering. Like a newly minted AA member, I reached out to her—my sponsor—with a desperate plea for advice, support, and insight into my need to hang on to so much stuff. She told me not to overthink it and to use the filing system she had suggested. Then she asked me to write a testimonial for her website. I declined.

The second organizer I hired a few years later—we’ll call her Tammy—was promising. She was young and energetic, with a sharp sense of humor. I had two children by then, and we were preparing to sell our apartment. We needed help, STAT. Things with Tammy started off well, but then, each time I tossed an old electric bill or unused crepe pan, she’d say, “There. You’re still alive, right?” I’d nod. She’d go on, “Your children didn’t die, right?”

After a few hours of this, my defenses were up. Somehow, associating the tossing of an old manicure kit with the words “children” and “die” just wasn’t cutting it for me. We muddled through the time I had already paid for—and to her credit, Tammy was extremely helpful with staging our apartment—and I quickly reverted to my old ways.

The problem is, no one can help me with my mess, because the mess isn’t about the mess. It’s about me. I was turning to these professionals for help, but it was like asking a botanist for a manicure. I was never going to get what I needed from them. What I needed was to diagnose my relationship to stuff and ask myself the hard questions: Why am I keeping those LPs from the ’80s? What part of my life feels so unfinished or unhealed that I need to keep a reminder of it on hand, even 30 years later? Is the dress I looked hot in my senior year of college going to help me feel young and vibrant again? Does throwing away the letters my late grandma wrote me mean I love her any less? Why can’t I rip up the credit card offers and requests for donations when they come in—why do I need to pretend I will read them, assess a charity’s worthiness and fiscal integrity, and decide whether or not to send them $25 someday? Why can’t I simply set myself free?

There’s the easy answer—the proverbial broken home; moving around a lot as a child; financial and other instability; not having a bedroom in either parent’s house after the age of 15, just a corner of the living room, so my things became my comfort; misplacing many of my treasured belongings along the way; etc., etc. All valid, all reasonable. But there’s something simpler at work too: Purging is no fun, not when you’re in it as deep as I am. I can always find something more pleasant and less emotionally challenging to do. Throwing away magazines from last month is easy; throwing away magazines from 2011 is harder than watching Scandal. Olivia Pope does not require soul searching and slob shaming.

So what are my choices? I don’t want my kids to grow up with this. I don’t want them to be like this. It’s kind of hard to authoritatively demand they not leave their clothes on the floor when my clothes…and shoes and purses and receipts and baby pictures and marked-up drafts and postal scale and unreturned purchases and gifts that never got given…are on the floor.

I want them to be able to throw away anything, anytime. I don’t want them to have to shove macaroni collages out of the way in order to play with the marble run, and I don’t want stuffed dogs mixed in with Legos (who knows what cross-species creature could emerge?). I want them to know where things go and to put them there. But mostly what I want for them is the lucid thinking, clarity of mind and ability to be present that go along with an organized environment.

There’s only one solution: It just needs doing. It requires a profound change in my constitution, but I’m trying. Every day I throw away one thing, and I push away thoughts of the past. This is not that, I tell myself. The dusty object in my hand does not buy me back some lost sliver of my youth, nor does it salve the fear and uncertainty of childhood upheaval or early loss. It doesn’t make those experiences any more or less real, any more or less meaningful, transformative or painful. It doesn’t protect or wash away the memories—the memories are there. Sometimes a catalog is just a catalog, and it needs to be discarded, just like the book an ex-boyfriend’s stepfather gave me for Christmas in 1995, with an inscription welcoming me into the family. That boyfriend broke my heart, but holding on to the book won’t change that. My heart is mended and full, and my life is this one, right now.

This article was originally published on