One morning before school, I walked into my children’s playroom as a mother and walked out as The Incredible Hulk.
Toys were everywhere. Scattered on the floor. Piled in the corners. Bins were overturned. Baskets were empty. Shelves were cleared. It was like the hottest college party in town, minus the one thing that would have made the situation more tolerable…booze.
There my girls were, standing in the middle of the room, looking at each other, looking at the ground, unable to think, unable to even play. They were overwhelmed, disinterested, and had no idea where to begin. One would randomly sift through a pile of McDonald’s toys, “searching” for something without knowing what she was actually looking for.
And then there was me.
I lost it. My mind. My cool. My patience. My shit. My everything.
I couldn’t fathom how they could take a room full of toys nice, thoughtful, somewhat expensive toys, a room that has bins and boxes and shelves and drawers, all perfectly labeled with a photo of what should be inside, and turn it on its head. Beyond recognition as a playroom, now transformed into a war zone.
I knew then, as I was pointing at each heap of pure chaos, instructing them to clean it up and put it away…threatening them with trash bags and telling them the toys were all going to disappear if they didn’t get things back in order…screaming in a way that I no longer recognized as human…
I knew then that this had to stop. Let me off the ride, Sir. I am done.
I went to my bedroom feeling guilty and ashamed. I violated one of my foundational rules as a mother — do not get upset with my children before school. I always think about the parents who said goodbye to their babies and sent them off to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Did they yell at them that morning about toys that weren’t picked up? Did they roll their eyes because a cereal bowl was left out? Did they shout, “Hurry up! We are late because you won’t get your shoes on!”? And were those the last interactions they had with their kids before they never saw them again?
Morbid, I know. Sad. Terrible. But I try my hardest not to let my girls leave for school on stressful terms because you never know what the day may bring.
As I sat there on my bed, seething with anger and freckled with anxiety, I knew that something needed to change.
It’s funny that something as benign as a messy playroom would serve as a metaphor for my experience in motherhood, but I spent a lot of time connecting the dots that day, and this is what I came up with.
First and foremost, the playroom is the epitome of chaos. There’s too much noise. Too much excess. Too much distraction.
There’s a lot of that in motherhood, too. Chaos. Noise. Excess. Distraction.
The playroom is full of systems that simply aren’t working. There are organizational tools and containers and labels and shelves and bins and boxes but they aren’t working anymore. I tricked myself into thinking that simply adding more totes and baskets will solve the problem, and it didn’t.
In motherhood, we try lots of things like charts and incentives and rules with the greatest of intentions, but sometimes they don’t work, either.
The playroom is packed with what we think our children need and want…what will make them happy…what will fill their hearts with joy and their minds with creativity… but somehow, they still want more, they are bored, and they are grumpy.
As mothers, we continue to give to our children, sign them up for every sport and activity, bless them with the best of the best… but it never seems to be enough, does it?
That day, I was introduced to a blogger named Allie Casazza, and her story and her mission hit me hard. To paraphrase her message… she believes that motherhood shouldn’t be something we just survive…counting down the minutes until bedtime…something that we just try to “get through.” Motherhood should be enjoyable and fun, because it is! But a lot of times, the stress brought on by extra clutter and material possessions can bring on so much anxiety, discontent, and overwhelm that we can’t possibly enjoy raising our children. We are too busy cleaning, organizing, spinning our wheels, and yelling at our kids to help!
And much like a playroom, a room that we just accept as being messy, chaotic, and an eyesore, many times we just accept that motherhood will be exhausting, stressful, and difficult. It’s just the way it is, right?
No. Not for me. Not anymore.
So that day, I made a plan. I was going to rid my house (and my mind) of all the extra things that we simply do not need, and I wasn’t going to feel bad about it. I spent 8 hours on that first day sitting paralyzed by inaction and overthinking what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.
Finally, that night, I poured a glass of wine and got started. Here is what I did first, and how it was a catalyst for decluttering the rest of my house, and eventually that infamous playroom.
THE EMPTY HAMPER METHOD
I had laundry baskets full of clothes, both dirty and clean, and I dumped them out on my floor and used them to complete “The Empty Hamper Method.”
I went through my house and pulled everything off of a horizontal surface and put it inside the laundry basket. I cleared night stands, end tables, dressers, tables, and counters. All of the lip balm, hand sanitizer, ponytail holders, paperwork, lotion bottles, candles, pictures, pens, candy wrappers, water bottles.. all of it. I filled three laundry baskets with all of the items we had been keeping on our surfaces.
I then sat on my rug, sipped my wine, and sorted everything into piles according to where it needed to go (pile for the girls’ room, pile for my office, pile for the trash, etc). And then I put it all away.
I am telling you, I slept so well that night. I woke up in such a calm state because I wasn’t staring at a cluttered dresser.
Did you know that clutter is actually psychologically bad for us? According to psychologytoday.com, clutter…
- Overstimulates our system (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.
- Draws our attention away from what our focus should be on.
- Makes it more difficult to relax, both physically and mentally.
- Constantly reminds our brains that we still have a huge to-do list.
- Causes anxiety because the idea of sorting piles is overwhelming
- Creates feelings of guilt and embarrassment, particularly when someone drops by unexpectedly.
- Frustrates us by making it hard to find anything we need- keys, bills, checkbook, etc.
After completing the empty hamper task, I was extremely motivated to keep going. I spent the next day working in one of our bathroom closets. It had become such a catchall for anything and everything, and my behind-the-door shoe organizer was no longer serving its purpose. After a few hours, I ended up with a closet full of only what we actually need and use.
Gaining momentum, the next day I felt ready to attack the playroom. My initial plan was to do it while my kids were at school, but Allie really encourages you to make the kids a part of the process. I was fearful of meltdowns and having to pry toys from their little hands, but that was not the case at all. They were actually really excited to rid themselves of some excess and create a space that they actually enjoyed playing in. If clutter does all of those things to our minds listed above, don’t you think it is the same for children?
We worked with one “category” of toys at a time. First, we began with the dress up clothes. I had them go in and bring them all out into the living room. We laid them all out, looked at everything, and each child was allowed to save 3 dress up costumes (with applicable accessories like shoes or a wig that belongs to the outfit). I was shocked at the items they wanted to keep. They would not have been my preferences (goodbye, expensive Disney princess costume!), but they chose what they really loved and agreed to wear, and I guess I had to accept that. We packed up the remaining costumes into trash bags and agreed to let some other little girls play with their pretty dresses.
We continued this with their stuffed animals (each kept 10 special stuffed animals), Barbies, baby dolls, doll accessories, etc. It took us the entire day, but we took breaks every now and then, and I rewarded them by going and seeing a movie because they did so well. We ended up with about a dozen trash bags full of toys that we are going to find new homes for. I plan to pass them along to our local Foster Closet, an organization created to provide toys and clothes to foster families in our area.
I did the remainder of the clean up after they went to bed, and they were absolutely ecstatic when they woke up the next morning. They actually preferred to play in their playroom instead of watch TV. My oldest took a running leap and did a twirl and said, “Now I can DANCE in here!”
Has it stayed clean this entire week? No, but it is so much easier to clean up now. There is so much less to put away, and this puts their hearts and my mind at ease. I haven’t had to bark orders at them all week, and they have truly enjoyed spending time in this room. They are no longer overwhelmed by all the choices and by the task of picking up after themselves, and I am no longer turning green with my muscles bulging out of my shirt in a fit of rage. It’s a win-win.
I am aware that not everyone feels the same way about ridding their house of excess, especially toys. Afterall, toys are expensive, and many times they are given to children as gifts from family and friends, and it feels wasteful and disrespectful to donate those items. There is also a lot of sentimental attachment to toys, especially stuffed animals and dolls. I get it, believe me! I went through all of those thoughts as well, but it came down to these principles that kept me going.
THE WASTE COMES FROM BUYING THE OBJECT IN THE FIRST PLACE, NOT FROM RIDDING YOURSELF OF THAT OBJECT AFTER IT NO LONGER HAS A PURPOSE.
It is hard thing to accept — the concept of “wasted money.” Sometimes we buy toys because we think the kids will really, really love them, but as it turns out, the toy wasn’t that big of a hit after all. Other times we buy toys because our children beg us to and we feel like we should give in, but then the toy just gets tossed in a pile. Sometimes we buy toys and our children love the crap out of them, to the point of outgrowing the toy or simply draining the toy of all its resources, and that is great! Regardless, the “waste” came from purchasing the toy to begin with, as Allie Casazza says. The money has already been spent. Getting rid of the toy, either by donating it to someone who can really find use, or trashing it if it truly has no purpose anymore, is not wasteful. Keeping something that will not get played with or taken care of because there is just.so.much.stuff is wasteful (in my opinion).
MANY CHILDREN ARE OVERWHELMED BY TOO MANY TOYS AND OFTEN FAIL TO UNDERSTAND VALUE.
We all want to see our children’s eyes light up on Christmas morning or on their birthdays. It is such a fun thing to witness when they jump for joy over opening that perfect toy that they have been wishing for. I get it, I really do. In fact, that “dream” of mine is what has gotten us into trouble — overbuying on special occasions just so I can get that perfect reaction. However, it never fails…by Christmas evening, my children are so overwhelmed by all of their new items that they don’t know how to deal. In fact, this past Christmas, I had a meltdown because I went into my girls’ bedroom, where I thought they were peacefully playing with and enjoying all of their new toys, and they were literally destroying them. I walked into every single new toy out of its packaging, items thrown under beds, dolls without clothes, tiny parts strewn about — and I had a panic attack! I spent Christmas evening lecturing my children, even throwing out the word “ungrateful” a time or two. It was an awful moment. But now that I have had time to reflect, I don’t think they did that because they were ungrateful. In fact, my children are extremely sweet, thoughtful, and generous little girls. I think they didn’t care for their new (expensive, hard to find, etc) toys because the amount of “stuff” they had made the toys seem dispensable. Disposable. Replaceable. Break that toy? Oh well. I have 4 more just like it. Lose that piece? Oh well. I have another set right here. And whose fault was that? Not theirs. They didn’t buy the stuff. We did. No, Santa did. But you get my point…
Three year old Shiloh insisted on getting a Snackin’ Luke Baby Alive doll for Christmas. I was so excited to find it for her. She was excited when she opened it, but honestly? I never really saw her play with it past the first day, and wouldn’t you know that Snackin’ Luke was one of the dolls she chose to donate in our playroom purge session. I asked her multiple times…are you sure? This is what you wanted for Christmas! Are you sure you don’t want to keep him? She was sure. She didn’t want him.
She didn’t know the value of the doll or what I paid for it. She didn’t know that I made a special trip out during a sale to snag it for her. She only knew that she preferred other dolls to him, and therefore he was no longer important to her.
I feel the same when I see my girls not properly caring for their $100+ American Girl dolls. It’s not to say that they can’t come to appreciate how much things cost and learn how to take care of these special items, but perhaps they were too young to be entrusted with such possessions — and again, that’s on me. Damn you, Santa.
This is not meant to paint the picture that no child can possibly function with lots of toys to choose from, or that no child can understand the value of special toys and enjoy them with great care. This is only to point out some issues in our own home. Maybe your family struggles, too.
CHILDREN CAN MAKE ANYTHING A TOY AND THRIVE IN OPEN-ENDED PLAY ENVIRONMENTS.
A child’s imagination is magical. She can play in a cardboard box for hours — turning it into a house, a boat, a car, anything! Some toys come off as engaging because they light up, play music, or do something super fancy, but often those toys, which are usually pretty expensive, are the ones not played with much because they don’t allow for children to really use their imagination. A light up, noisy, battery-operated fill-in-the-blank can really only be that….a light up, noisy, battery-operated fill-in-the-blank. But a box can be castle. A stick can be a magic wand. A blanket can be a cape. And all of those things can be something completely new the next time or for the next child.
A child’s imagination needs to be cultivated. You can’t just expect kids to know how to play if they have never been given opportunities to make up their own games or develop their own pretend worlds and characters. They need space and freedom to do this, and I feel like a streamlined playroom with the right amount of the right toys will get them there.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t listen when our children are really wanting something special. Maybe that would be a great opportunity to discuss saving money for something big. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t cave and get them that one thing that they have been begging for since their last birthday. But stuff for the sake of stuff? Things for the sake of things? Toys for the sake of toys? Presents for the sake of presents?
It’s time for a change in our house. What about in yours?