Messy AGAIN? Cleaning & Organizing Is A Process, Not A Goal

clean, housework
Since I write here quite a bit about cleaning, I coauthored a book helping moms get organized, and have a whole chapter in my book about cleaning and organizing, you might think that my house is perfectly neat and spotlessly clean at all times.

But just ask anyone who’s actually been in my house–that is so not the case. My home is functionally organized, and clean enough to my standards…most of the time. But it gets messy. Systems that used to function beautifully suddenly get screwy. Drawers that were once perfectly organized get messy. We travel, the kids change their bedrooms around, we buy new things and get rid of old things, the seasons change, the kids grow…and our home goes through growing pains. In fact, once in a while, the whole thing completely falls apart.

But over the years, I’ve learned to be OK with the knowledge that I’m never more than a day or two away from complete disorder. It doesn’t mean I’m hopelessly disorganized or a bad housekeeper; it doesn’t mean my efforts at keeping things clean and tidy are wasted. It simply means life happens in my house, and life with kids is messy.

When talking and writing about cleaning and organizing as a mom, I keep coming back to one key principle: Getting cleaned up and organized as a mom isn’t a goal; it’s a process. More than that, it’s a practice.

As a mom with kids at home, you will never be able to brush your hands together, and say “That’s it! I’m completely organized and the house is neat and clean! Now I can just relax and enjoy for the rest of my life!” You’ll have to work on it. You’ll have to keep working at it. And you can either look at it as a curse, an injustice, or a personal failing…or just the way things are.

The best-created systems won’t…can’t…stay that way when multiple people use them. And yet, a neat home is more pleasant to live in and helps everyone in my family feel more peaceful and functional. Thus, since I can’t wield control over every single corner of my home every single moment of every single day–and can’t afford a full-time housekeeper–my only real option is to keep working at it, in small pieces, day after day.

In a post I wrote a few months ago about the “secrets” of keeping a clean house, I advised moms to “embrace the endlessness”:

You know that funny quote about how trying to clean while children are still growing is like trying to shovel when it’s still snowing? Ha, ha! So true! So we should just recognize how futile it is and stop trying, right? Um, no. Swimming against the tide is frustrating and tiring and you might not make much visible progress, but it’s better than being swept out to sea. Look at it this way: every day you brush your teeth, and then you eat and they get dirty, so you brush them again–you probably don’t sit and think about how unfair it is that they went and got grungy again, do you?

Perception is reality. You can either feel frustrated and overwhelmed by the knowledge that life with kids is messy, or you can look at that fact as freeing: if there’s no such thing as “perfectly organized” or “perfectly clean” as a goal, then you haven’t failed when your once-totally-tidy pantry seems to cave in on itself (like mine gradually did after my pantry makeover last fall) or your laundry situation gets a little out of control. Having beat back the dragon once or twice or a dozen times, you know you can do it again and again and again, and you might even be able to enjoy yourself in the process.

In life, nothing is ever really “finished,” is it? In an office job you make the sale or send the email or answer the phone, and then…move on to another pitch or message or call. At the gym you do a set of reps, take a break, then move on to another set. Even to stay alive, you breathe and then, sheesh, hardly two seconds later you have to take another one. Life is just kind of monotonous that way. Housework and motherhood are no different and no worse; but they have a funny way of feeling more monotonous because we aren’t in control.

Embrace the endlessness. It’s life, no better and no worse. Put in some effort every day to stay on top of things, but don’t kick yourself when you fall behind. You will. And don’t waste your energy complaining about it, either. There’s no point. No effort is wasted: the more you do a task, the better you get at it; the more foundation you put down, the less you’ll have to do next time. But there will be a next time and a next time and a next time. Accept it. Heck, look for a way to like it. Maybe it’s the sense of satisfaction you’ll get when the closet is clean. Maybe it’s the sensation of the warm water on your hands.

Roll up your sleeves and dig in, instead of fumbling around for soup cans in the dark because it’s too depressing to turn the lights on. My pantry? I whipped it back into shape in about 20 minutes yesterday (instead of the 4 hours the job originally took me), partly because I’d already laid the groundwork and partly because I didn’t let it get too bad this time around. And now I can breathe in there again. It won’t stay that way forever–it probably won’t even stay that way for a week without some maintenance–but it’s worth it anyway. And I have to admit–with music blaring, it was actually kind of fun.

Now if you’ll excuse me? There’s a laundry pile calling my name.

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