What I’m about to share may shock you.
And I understand why: clutter has never been less popular. We’ve come to embrace the idea unless we spend a lot of time ridding our homes of all extra “stuff” so that our tables and shelves and counters and other spare spaces look as though they were styled by a monk-turned-interior-decorator, we’re failing as adults.
Yes, I love getting rid of clutter. I adore the sight of a bare table or counter adorned only with carefully-chosen items. I delight in clean spaces absent any stray papers, Pokemon cards, or candy wrappers.
I like knowing that my things are intentionally and purposefully arranged instead of just ending up somewhere by chance.
And I love nothing more than wandering the Martha Stewart area of Staples or the home-organizing section in Home Depot, imagining which cubbies or filing system might get me that much closer to a life of clutter-free perfection.
But I’ve also seen how this “a place for everything, and everything in its place” mentality can get in the way of accepting what family life actually looks like. I’ve finally begun to embrace an unpopular philosophy of my own: Clutter Is Life.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we all turn a blind eye to piles of crap mounting in every corner of the house. (My friend and One Year To An Organized Life With Baby coauthor, Regina Leeds, would have to fly to Michigan and smack me if that were the case.) I believe that we live more functional lives when we care for and control our things, and I know I’m a lot happier when I live in a reasonably neat and tidy house.
But human beings, especially small, immature human beings, naturally leave a wave of stuff in their wake. We do what we can to stay a step ahead, but when we fight reality and try to perfectly rid our homes of all those minor “not quite sure what to do with this” piles (or beat ourselves up over their existence), we get in the way of our own sanity and actually make it more difficult to keep up with important things that need to be systemically organized (like medical records, financial paperwork or legal documents, for example.)
Here’s an example, which I like to call My Perpetual Sock Pile.
Mind you, this sock pile is quite a lot smaller than it used to be. It used to take up an entire laundry basket. Any orphaned socks – or even just socks that couldn’t be immediately hooked up with a partner – went into the basket. For the whole family.
I’d move the basket around, tucking it behind the sofa when I wasn’t actively sorting or folding, and revisiting it often to cull those socks who were really and truly alone in the world.
However, there’s a problem with the orphan-sock-basket method: just as problems tend to expand the amount of space you allow them, an entire laundry basket devoted only to lonely socks will quickly turn to cotton chaos.
So one day I washed every stitch of clothing in the house, made as many complete pairs as could be found, and tossed the rest in the rag bag. Bye-bye, sock basket!
But did that solve my sock problem? Of course not. See, I have five kids. I do laundry daily to stay on top of it all rather than face a mountain on the weekends, but even so, the chances of two socks from the same day’s wearing ending up in the same load of laundry are not great.
Sometimes kids lose a sock in their sheets, not to be found until the bedding is washed a week later. Sometimes, inexplicably, one sock is stuffed into a shoe while the other makes its way to the bathroom. And sometimes, one sock in a pair gets a hole, but I’m loathe to get rid of its partner since there’s a good chance it’ll be needed to replace another holey or missing friend soon.
Hence, my Perpetual Sock Pile.
For a while I resisted allowing the sock pile to become an accepted part of my living room. If I had the perfect system, I figured, there would be no need for a sock pile. If I just kept up with the laundry better. Or had more storage. Or if I was more ruthless about keeping our sock supply streamlined.
But you know what? My house does not have to be clutter-free and company-ready at every moment. Sure, I could purchase a cubbie in which to place all the not-yet-dealt-with socks and then devote some precious storage space to their keeping, but why?
There’s the kind of living you do when you’re kicking back at home with your kids, and it’s different from the kind of living you do when you’re throwing a party. It’s not bad housekeeping; it’s sanity. And anyway, in this case putting the socks “away” would just make more work for me the next evening, when their partners turned up in the clean laundry.
Transient things like not-yet-matched socks and not-yet-signed permission slips are a sign that people live here. It’s not necessarily mess, it’s just stuff. And stuff is life.
So I’ve finally decided to just accept that, on days when I’m not expecting anyone to drop by, there will be a small stash of socks on the side table next to the chair where I fold laundry every night. I figure keeping it out in the open will make it easier to stay on top of it, and will force me to deal with the issue rather than hiding it away in a basket.
And when company does drop by? There’s a special drawer in the back of that round side table that I’ve always used to stash the M&Ms I didn’t want anyone else to find. But there’s plenty of room for that little sock pile…so now, I just stuff ‘em right in.
That means that if you ever come for a visit, you’ll know my dirty little secret: right there in my living room – under your very nose! – there are socks stuffed in a side-table drawer.
It might make some perfect homemakers wrinkle their noses, but to me it feels like a perfectly reasonable – and purposeful – solution.
If you ask nicely, I’ll show it to you. And if you promise not to judge, I’ll even share my M&Ms.
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