I have to be honest. Nobody would walk into my house and guess that I'd even considered decluttering. Ever. At all. But I have actually spent more than a year making sure that one item leaves the house every day, and on some days, it might be three bin bags full of excess belongings. Does it still look like a hoarder lives here? I'm not sure. Maybe slightly less. Maybe not - especially if you never saw the 'before' shots.
We moved into our current home when The Cat and The Dog were almost two. They are now nine. Somehow, during those years, the mess just built up. I did try to keep on top of it, but we seemed to lurch from one emergency to another, and when you are exhausted and very, very low, a pile on a shelf seems entirely insignificant. In fact, it's a victory, because that stuff's not on the floor. My kids were also more than usually attached to the idea of the house remaining unchanged, and The Cat, with his Sensory Processing issues, loved the sensory toddler toys more than anything the toy companies might deem age-appropriate. And so new stuff piled on top of old, and, like most UK parents, we just kept throwing money at Ikea to help us store it all.
By the end of 2017, I was ready to climb out from under the rubble, but didn't have any confidence whatsoever in any decluttering plans - apart from burning the house down and starting again, and my husband didn't seem keen on that. (Also, The Cat is terrified of even a candle flame, so a house fire might not have been ideal.) Luckily, a friend volunteered - insistently enough that I couldn't dodge it! - to come and help me get started. And she came again and again, and others came again and again, and I got stuck in.
A note here on Marie Kondo. A well-meaning acquaintance suggested The KonMari Method to me when I was bemoaning the state of the house. You've probably seen the photo banner on my Facebook page. That was my playroom. I think I was a little more in trouble than looking to 'Spark Joy'. At a time when very little in my life other than a lie-in seemed likely to warm my heart, I found the whole concept ridiculous. Apart from anything else, wouldn't it be wasteful to throw away perfectly good possessions (or family members, or cleaning equipment) just because they didn't 'spark joy'? When I heard a bit more about fancy folding and looked her up on YouTube, I saw how tiny she was and figured her advice just wasn't for me, as her whole summer, winter and between-seasons wardrobes would fold up smaller than a pair of my giant Bridget Jones knickers, and she could clearly have no idea what it was like to try to ram a drawer closed in my bedroom. I bet there weren't bits of bicycle in her dining room, either, or half-built Lego models and important handwritten sequences of numbers around the house that MUST NEVER BE MOVED, let alone tiny scraps of whatever felt soft and nice to The Cat on a particular day. (Please don't say 'baskets' at this point. I get it now, but back then I would have decked you, or at the very least rolled my eyes and given you an Angela Merkel glare.)
Anyway, a few things happened in the course of the year that changed the way I thought about my 'tidying efforts'.
One was simple and prosaic: I needed money. When the boys were tiny, I had, like lots of shell-shocked Mums, ended up with a great whomping overdraft. (Online shopping, you are a cruel temptress.) I'd suddenly had enough. When I looked, I suddenly realised that the house was full of things we no longer used or needed. A lot of it had sentimental value, though, and I wasn't sure I could part with it. If I did part with it, I wanted every single item to go to a home where it would be loved as much as I or my children had loved it. But increasingly, I opened up to the idea of selling the items we didn't need, and hoping that anyone willing to pay for them was at least as likely to love them as the 'pretend-pleased' recipients of my hand-me-downs - who were probably wishing I'd stop shifting my clutter problem on to them!
Secondly, a close and trusted friend recommended a book called Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better than Your Mess, by Rachel Hoffman. This turned out to be the least judgy book ever, and it started on the assumption of total environmental buried-ness, fatigue, helplessness, shame and despair. Zero suggestions about the most efficient folding methods for camisoles or socks. There could not have been a better book for me at the time and I do plan to write an entire blog post about it one day. It's basically the most reassuring hug ever: 'Yes, things have got pretty awful, but that doesn't make you a bad person (in fact you may be an overwhelmed perfectionist) and why don't you let me help you to get started?' I believe the first suggested challenge was either one minute or five minutes. I needed this book, and it changed everything.
The next twist was both interesting and deeply challenging. I listened to somebody (a rather wonderful woman called Melanie Moore - she's on Facebook) speaking about goals. Her theory was that we could set goals for our future, but that we were more likely to achieve our goals if we thought about the feelings we might attach to those goals - so goal-setting was not a typical tick-list of new car, house, holiday, etc. It was a new idea for someone whose greatest goal for some years had been to live in a house without anyone's discarded underpants visible from the front door (sorry Mr Postman, so many times over), so I did some deep thinking about the feelings that might be tied up in my clutter.
The photo at the top of the blog is one of my favourite possessions - a beautiful hand-crafted ceramic pot from the South of France. Before I had kids, I used to have a real weak spot for what I called 'things of beauty'. Generally that meant neutral- or natural-coloured ceramics with interesting lines. It would be fair to say I was a Londoner with too much time and money and my head up my own posterior. But the reason I liked them was that in times of stress - and yes, there were lots of them, and losses, and a death - a few small things I could hold in my hands, turn over and appreciate, would make me feel calm. They brought me a more peaceful feeling than any amount of wine or gin. I'm sure the current 'mindfulness' movement would have something to say about all that. And even I would admit that this particular object had the potential to 'spark joy'. Anyway, this pot emerged from a CD rack (of course!) and I turned it over and over in my hands and popped it into a clear space on a shelf, and just like that it became my tiny corner of calm in the chaos of our front room. And I realised that if there was a feeling I would like to set as a goal, it was this sense of calm and simplicity. I eventually translated that to the word 'lightness', in terms of unburdening from all the physical, financial and emotional crud in my life, and the slightly 'floaty' feeling of simplicity.
And then as I began to work in the playroom, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone, I realised just how heavy and complicated my feelings about that space had become over the years. When we first moved in, life was pretty challenging with twin toddlers and another child just finishing nursery and then starting school, and lots of unexpected behaviours, intense interests, unusual skills and a number of difficulties that turned out to be related to the boys' as-yet-undiagnosed Autism and ADHD. At the same time, they were golden years. Golden because we had a routine that worked for all of us. We would all go out in the morning, then I'd bring home The Cat and The Dog and we would sit in the playroom together and play until it was time to collect The Big Boy again. I didn't attempt anything else in this time, other than keeping them fed and safe, and they lapped up the attention. I enjoyed them by relaxing about minor things like the state of the house. The toys still in that room years later were the toys that brought laughter and learning. And yes, fights, because they were twins, and boys, and one had no impulse control and both wanted to be in charge of 'rules', but we had a framework and I sat there navigating the difficulties with them. At the same age, I'd done the same with The Big Boy, then an only child, but with many of the same much-loved toys.
And at some point I realised that I had kept it all frozen in time - frozen except for the new stuff piling up on top of it all - because deep down I kept thinking that somehow we could get that golden time back if I could just get through whichever diagnostic process was next, or financial hurdle, or issue at school. And I was ashamed and guilty that I somehow never had that time for them any more, as we would rush from school to activities to dinner and bed and back again, and me always in a worse mood than I meant to be and racing against the clock. I wanted that simpler life, that 'lighter' time and couldn't let it go. (Ironically, or perhaps not, the increasing 'heaviness' in my life went along with weight gain too - but that's another post.)
And somehow, at some point, I realised that 'light' time was actually weighing me down: the physical piles of pre-school toys and puzzles, but also the guilt and sense of loss that went with them. And it was just too damned heavy. And I needed to shift it if the future were ever to feel 'light' again.
And so I began. I learned to accept and ask for help and will always feel emotional when I think of how many people stepped in to lend a hand clearing, sorting, selling or dumping. With each box of old treasures that left the house, I said a further farewell to the pre-school years, and the early years of school, and the times where the struggles began, and the times where I didn't like myself very much/at all and didn't feel I could be the right Mum for these amazing, unpredictable kids of mine. And at Christmas time last year, the playroom became a board games, Lego and gaming room and a library, suitable for boys their age, with just a very few old favourite things on a shelf.
So you may walk into my house and notice that it's still a tip. Objectively, it really is. But the emotional decluttering that went on last year has been the greatest act of Mum-Care I could ever have lavished on myself. So much of the emotional burden has lifted that I now feel ready for the more obvious steps: exercising and eating well, tidying, cleaning and organising, writing, working and hanging out with the boys - should they ever stop making fart noises and decide that I am of interest. And yes, I have KonMaried the uniform drawer.
None of this stuff is easy. In fact, it's bloody difficult. But I'm getting there.