Dear Rabbi and Susan Lapin,
I am wondering if ancient Jewish wisdom applies to de-cluttering a house. I’m a mom of three with a fourth on the way, and I have never erred on the side of neatness (to put it lightly.) But I also dream of a mostly orderly house where all the spaces function so that we can have the family life we want.
I’ve concluded that personal character flaws in myself are part of the problem, but the harder I work on it, the more kids I have, and the more I am surrounded by chaos and laundry. I also think the values I learned growing up were depression-era, frugality-focused, never-waste-anything values, whereas our reality is middle-class America where things flow into our house on a daily basis, but not back out.
Plus I have a highly creative, productive little five-year-old artist for whom all her works are precious, and even with judiciously displaying art for a week or so and then either stowing it in her art box or discreetly filing it in the circular file folder, the art piles up. I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I think she has the heart of the problem by the tail, but not everything she recommends seems congruent with a growing family, or for multiple opinions within that family over what items “bring us joy.”
In the meantime, if I let up for three hours, the house starts to fall into chaos. (The other two children are twin girls, nearly two years old.) I can’t help but feel that if we had fewer things, and if everything had a place (preferably a place that could be secured against marauding toddlers) our home would be much more livable.
So to sum up: 1) Do you have a Bible-based philosophy, or advice, for the management of physical items that come into our homes and for finding a balance of livability and order? 2) How do you handle children and their desires to never throw anything away, being respectful of their feelings and also training them to help their family now and manage their own homes later? 3) How about spouses (ah-hem) who maybe still feel anxiety about throwing things away that “we might use someday”? What do we do with the never-waste-anything mentality that can be laudable, but also paralyzing?
Thank you for your time and thoughts!
Your question resonated with me (Susan) partially because of what you see in the accompanying picture.
I am in the process of culling through games discarding those that get little attention. We have no little ones left at home, but we do still have a house full of toys, games and books thanks to the blessing of grandchildren. Until a few years ago we had a house large enough to store piles of things, so most of the games you see stayed on the shelves and are now in second-generation use. In other words, we feel your pain.
A full and comprehensive answer to your three questions could be the basis for a book or seminar rather than the ‘Ask the Rabbi’ format, so forgive us for focusing only on the first two questions. (Also, we’re still working on #3 ourselves, ah-hem.)
Here are the three key words that encompass the Biblical attitude which you are seeking.
The kindness is to yourself. You sound like a caring, busy mother of three young children. We never had twins, but from watching friends we’d have to say that two two-year-olds can present quite a challenge. With another blessing on the way, you don’t have full energy to tackle mess. So, pat yourself on the back every single day that you treat your husband and children with warmth and affection. You have to become accustomed, in your own heart, to see this challenge as more important than being neat and tidy. And, if you also manage to provide your family with nourishing food and clean clothes and even sometimes not such nourishing food and not-so-clean clothes, you’re doing really well and you should recognize that.
If the mess in your house is making you unhappy, is it because of how you think it looks to others or is it not meeting your own needs? Maybe a short-term solution like a high-school girl coming in and tidying up with your children before their bedtime or a laundry service would be a good idea until you are past the next newborn stage. In other words, have realistic standards and forgive yourself when you don’t meet them. But remember that a happy messy home is far preferable to a cold clean house.
Employ gratitude along with kindness. We’re sure you already are grateful for a spouse, three children, your pregnancy and the economic ability to buy toys and art supplies. The problem of “too much stuff” is a wonderful problem to have. There are practical ways to manage the stuff and we suggest looking at a few of the many Mommy blogs out there for some great ideas. For example, with two-year-olds you might want to rotate their possessions. Not only will this keep fewer things around at any time to make a mess, but after a hiatus, things will seem like new and they will be played with more. (We couldn’t help including that one piece of practical advice. It was a great help to us to have several ‘toy-boxes’ of which only one was out and available at a time.)
You phrased your questions beautifully. You obviously recognize that how you and your husband run your home will be the basis for the lessons your children learn. Here is where balance comes in. You and your husband should discuss how you want your children to think about tidiness and possessions. Respect for people comes into this as well whether it be for a child’s feelings about her artwork or a parent’s feeling of discomfort around mess.
It isn’t surprising that you come from different places; that is one of the valuable gifts of marriage. It is true that our society is awash in materialism and we don’t value items the way people used to when each item was laboriously acquired with sweat and effort. It is also true that each generation has its own challenges and it would be a misuse of energy, for example, to spend time turning worn clothing and sheets into braided rugs (unless that’s a craft project you particularly enjoy).
If you drew a line and put hoarding at one end and squandering at the other, a Bible view would tend towards the middle. Neither extreme is desirable. Figuring out exactly where you want to end up is a long term project; aim for what is doable now while slowly implementing what you see for the future.
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin