Clutter, Family Tension, and the Dream of Life with Less Stuff

Naughty or NiceSomething stinks in this house, but I promise the diaper pail has been emptied, the cat box cleaned, and the garbage cans brought to the curb. You know when you open a new shower curtain there’s that chemical reek that makes you wonder whether humanity has signed a collective suicide pact with a poison pen? I’m overcome by that stench right now and it’s wafting from the homes of every family engaged in "typical" 21st century family life.

That smell isn't just coming from the shower curtains… it’s in everything from the Tupperwares that hold leftovers we’ll never eat to the cheap imported toys our kids will never play with.

The biggest fights my husband and I have are over clutter and house cleaning. Sure, we’re really arguing about something immaterial and much more important, but it's the crap we keep tripping over that makes us fall into arguments and lose ourselves through fits of martyred isolation. ("I'm the only one who does everything around here!" "You don't see me, you only see what I failed to do!")

Anyway, we find ourselves without plans on the Saturday before Christmas, which already has me feeling uneasy (shouldn't we be out doing something festive to show our kids we care, never mind that we have two or three things planned for tomorrow?). I feel the anxiety wash over us and threaten to drown the day as I push an island of construction paper and markers to the center of the dining table so we can all sit down to eat together.

Cue the Mommy Rage

I want to escape this wretched, cluttered hell hole, but then I remember that this house (this vast, beautiful, underwater-mortgage house) is meant to be our center of peace and renewal where love and memories roost and thrive.

I'm angry that this sanctuary has been taken from us. I'm angry at us for being such slobs.

I'm at once the victim and the avenging angel. We're persecuted at our own hands and the hands of those who allegedly love us. We're being brought down by our STUFF. We will vanquish greed and we will see the floor again, dammit!

And so, we embark on a journey to the center of the stink - the nightmare that is "the toy area." Once upon a time, this spot behind the couch that used to hold bookshelves. That was before the Barbies and the Jedis arrived and all my author friends were exiled to lopsided stacks in the basement.

As a family, we plough through endless little pieces of plastic and synthetic fur covered animals. I swear the whole place reeks with the poisonous gas of petroleum byproducts. And then I watch my pure little baby gnawing on everything from fancy European teething toys to that glitzy, feathered Dollar Store tiara.

Now, Now. Be Nice.

Santa's watching and none of this is very nice.

Nice… that’s what we were trying to be as new parents who bought the alphabet blocks and accepted countless Fisher Price castaways. That’s what grandparents and aunties and friends visiting from out of town are trying to be when they give the girls another teddy bear.

And we’re being nice when we tramp down our anger and our desire to nail this proclamation to the front door and the top of the Facebook profiles: “Give thee not plastic crap and other ridiculous toys. Our children need not your charity nor your hand me downs. They need your attention and your love!”

(I have no idea why this proclamation must be worded in an awkward approximation of fairy tale English other than I’m hiding behind humor to make the message seem, well, nicer.)

But there’s another nasty, naughty shadow looming over our best tidying efforts… Because I need to prove to my daughters - and to the world - that we are very nice people, there’s actually more, brand new plastic crap hidden in the closet. On Christmas morning, for at least 15 minutes that stuff will seem like loved tied up with red and green bows. By New Year's Eve, favorites will emerge and the stuff that didn’t make the cut will be lost under the couch or covered in indiscriminate baby drool.

“Santa made me do it!” is starting to sound like a really lame excuse.

And so, still fueled by my anger and despair, I’m thinking way beyond the bag of matchbox cars in front of me.

Becoming an Activist in the Anti-Stuff Revolution

I know we’re not the only ones who feel this way. I’ve been spending time with home designers lately - one a dear friend and one a dear client. Their work isn’t about picking the right drapes. It’s about helping people create livable spaces that reflect the way they really want to live. We need professional help to feel at home in our houses because we’re so alienated by all this random detritus that seems an inevitable part of life.

And I’m looking deeper to the origins of this shadow - the designers can help me organize all this junk, but it’s up to me to control what actually makes it through the door.

I’m dreaming of a movement where we all have the courage to say “thanks, but no thanks.” No more party favors, no more souvenirs from the airport, no more collectible sets of your favorite Disney friends. No more stuff.

If someone want’s a gift, give a ballet class or pay for a day of summer camp. It was painful to realize we boxed worthless stuff that originally cost hundreds of dollars but that we’ll struggle to pay for July’s Wild Earth camp when registration opens in a few months.

I can’t imagine I need a new project in 2015, but I would love to put Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting into action in this way by convincing other families that we can stop wrapping gifts and instead offer support - and experiences - that count.

Ideas, inspiration, and commiseration welcome!

Note: This post was inspired by a prompt offered as part of  Jeffrey Davis's December, 2014 project called #Quest2015  in which twelve visionaries offered twelve questions to inspire you to live your best twelve months. I was responding to Eric Klein of who asked:  "How will you face your shadow bag and stop the stink, so you can bring forth what is best within you in 2015? What can you claim right now?"