Last week, Marie Kondo said that she is “no longer quite as tidy” now that she has three children. The queen of tidy, whose books and television show have instructed we mere mortals in the art of tidying since 2014, has apparently joined the rest of us in mom mode, where overflowing to-do lists mean overflowing drawers, as non-urgent chores get pushed off again and again in deference to the never-ending stream of things that cannot wait: the kid with a fever, the kid throwing a tantrum, the baby with a dirty diaper, the impending work deadline.
But, while many of my fellow moms feel vindicated in light of this shocking admission that even the neatness guru is not so neat with three kids around, I don’t share their triumph. Instead, I feel defeated.
After all, if Kondo can’t maintain order as a mom of three, what hope is there for me? Not, mind you, that I am so tidy. But, thanks in part to Kondo, I do fight the never-ending battle against clutter, and I fight it valiantly. Some days, I even feel like I’m winning.
But with the recent admission from Kondo, I wonder: are all my filing systems and hidden forever toys and rotating into bins the artwork that doesn’t get thrown out a waste? Is my determination to be cheerfully rude to my own parents (who would never read Kondo’s book but probably also wouldn’t throw it out because, well, they don’t throw anything out) in their capacity as my kids’ grandparents (“no, just books or tickets, please”) pointless? These are the methods commonly employed by thousands of inadequate but aspirational Kondo devotees. Is it all futile?
Like Kondo, I have three kids. But unlike Kondo, I never gave tidiness a thought before becoming a mother, mostly because I never gave anything domestic a thought before becoming a mother.
When my husband and I got married, we were in our mid-twenties. He was a full-time law student working a clinical position in addition to his course load. I was teaching writing as an adjunct professor at two universities, applying to every full-time teaching job I could find, and going to graduate school at night. In those first couple years, my husband started working at one of those big law firms with the fat salary and the inhumane hours—to pay off his loans and gain the experience he would need to command a decent job somewhere more humane once we had kids. I continued to grade 100 papers a week while a full-time student. We seldom ate dinner before 9:30pm, and we often didn’t eat together at all, because my husband caught the 11:45pm train home, and then worked from our kitchen table until near dawn.
We cleaned our two-bedroom apartment on weekends, when we weren’t either working or seeing friends—so, mostly when we were sick. We did laundry when we ran out of clean underwear. I made something for dinner on Mondays and we ate whatever it was for the rest of the week, until the time came to use our budgeted eat-out money on Friday and Saturday, and then to eat my mom’s expertly crafted Sunday meals.
Then, we welcomed our first baby. When we arrived home from out of state with our unexpectedly premature, yet blessedly healthy, six-pound baby boy, the crib was not yet assembled. The breast pump was still in its box. Unfolded laundry was piled high. And a mound of items from my recent baby shower loomed, as yet unpacked and useless until that was remedied.
Like many babies on the smaller side, our son did not sleep in his bassinet at first. Like each of the brothers that have come after him, he would not latch to nurse. Now, nearly eight years later, I say, “like many babies” and “like his brothers.” Then, there was no context or perspective. There was only the awareness that, in that moment of bringing our new baby into the apartment where we had lived like kids until we had one, we had become a household.
And that our physical space, in its cluttered state, was unprepared for a household. For a family.
My husband had parental leave to take care of the baby. A few days after we arrived home, I began teaching in a summer program and taking comprehensive exams for my doctoral program, both of which we had expected to conclude before our son arrived. Each day, I arrived home on the train to find dirty bottles, more laundry, and a sink full of dishes. Our tiny son, remember, refused to be put down.
In the evenings, I would try—just as much in vain as my husband had tried the same in the morning—to put the baby down for long enough to attend to these basic chores and to pump a fast-diminishing supply of breast milk. Meanwhile, my husband worked on the still-unfinished crib; on preparing for the new job he had accepted by phone from the hospital on the day our son was born; and on the other, bigger domestic tasks for which we’d naively thought we’d have plenty of time before the baby arrived, but which had gotten pushed back by days and weeks because we’d first had to establish basic domestic order and unpack from the baby shower.
Now, we did not have time for anything; we did not have time to enjoy our new baby together. And all because our space had been so untidy, so unprepared. This, I resolved during that long newborn summer, would never happen again.
From now on, household management would be no different than the professional and academic tasks that I had always executed without issue. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be good enough.
The next year, we moved into the house where we now live with our three boys. There are still mounds of clean clothes, but the laundry gets done every day. There are still things out of place, but everything has a place.
Just as it seems Kondo’s three children have taught her that she cannot be both fully present and as tidy as she once was, mine have taught me that I cannot be both fully present and as untidy as I once was.
Extreme tidiness takes time that Kondo no longer has, yes; but, as I learned when my first son was born and resolved never to experience again, untidiness has a temporal cost, too. And when it comes to time, that unrenewable resource, I try to be thrifty.
And so, I remain grateful to Marie Kondo. Part of what facilitates the profoundly imperfect but nonetheless reasonable order in my home is that, the month before we moved in December 2015, I read her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014).
Kondo helped me initiate two practices that I keep up to this day.
The first is that, every so often, when it’s been a good week of sleep up until that point and no one is sick, I stay up very late, folding clothes or cleaning into the wee hours when I once did or graded school work. Especially if there’s something coming up from which I don’t want to be distracted by household work left undone (of which there is always a lot in my house—again, just like all my fellow moms feeling vindicated by Kondo’s recent admission, I’m not that tidy most of the time).
And the second is that, in a corner of my old house’s large attic, up in one of the eaves, I stash things—gifts, hand me downs, unpacked boxes—that we don’t need. With only half the stuff, good enough order takes only half the time. I am not particularly sentimental about material items, and I prefer to give away things that other people could use. But I’m also not brave enough to give away or discard everything that we wouldn’t miss if I did. Maybe in part because a primary caregiver of mine as a small child was an Italian American grandmother who saved stubs of pencils if a late loved one had touched them—like, not one stub of a particularly beloved pencil, but many stubs of ordinary pencils that had once been grasped by a now-deceased person’s fingers. So, I probably imbibed a lot of preemptive nostalgia about material things before I knew my ABCs. Kondo or not, that kind of emotional conditioning is hard to fully shake off.
Still, my imperfect and compromised Kondo-inspired tidying practices are not my way of holding on to who I was before I had a household. They are my way of enabling myself to be present and focused—as a wife, as a mother, and as a person—for those that live in my household now.
That, for me, is what sparks joy. Which was always Kondo’s point, after all.