Recently Read: Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker

On my last visit to the library, I picked up a slim volume with a very hopeful, though possibly oxymoronic, title: Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker. Since the fall, I've been spending some serious time trying to organize our home and I figured this quick read would help me in this endeavor.

It did and it didn't. Let me explain.

Becker's message is simple: forget about organizing your stuff. Instead: GET RID OF MOST OF IT.  He's got a blog and a number of books out that expand on this minimalist message and so I've spent some time perusing it all. But the title of this particular book contained the mystery I really want solved: how to manage a clutter-free life with children. I certainly think I could be an official minimalist - if I didn't live with two small humans whose entire existence appears to be dedicated to the stuffing of every closet and the littering of every horizontal surface.

(For the sake of this post, we're leaving my husband out of this. But he does live here, too. AHEM.)

I am sentimental about a few possessions so I appreciated Becker's advice to chose carefully what items to save, to remove as much as possible around them and then show them off.  I often feel like having too much stuff robs me of my enjoyment of what special items I do have.

After finishing this book, I found myself looking at our home in a new way. Every room gets my hard appraisal: what in this space is truly necessary? What do I think is beautiful? If something is neither necessary or beautiful, I try my best to get rid of it.

So I've been slowly divesting our rooms of stuff.

But now comes the harder part: keeping stuff out of our home. I don't enjoy shopping and have a ruthless ability to get rid of things before they even enter the house. But how in the world do I convince the rest of my family of the need to stem the tide of crap that flows into our house on a daily basis?

Becker points to our influencing power as a parent and partner; that is, if we show our families how much better life is with less, they will follow our example.

Yeah. That's not happening too much around here.

Both my girls are collectors. They want to keep bags of rocks from any hike, every valentine from their school party and each and every toy they've ever touched. It is a battle to get them to let go of things and so instead of relying on inspiring them, I am once again covertly disgorging their junk from every surface while they are at school or asleep.

Before reading this book, I thought the answer to my clutter struggles would be found in the aisles of the Container Store.  Surely with just the right closet organizer, all my clutter issues will be solved. I still think that organizing things well makes a difference and I am still forever in search of the perfect system for organizing pretty much every closet and cabinet. But I am grateful for the wake-up call: it's much easier to get our things organized - and keep them organized - if there are less of them.


The right thing

Dear (Drama Teacher),

I am writing to you with some confusion and chagrin and guilt.

So, for me, just a regular day as a mom.

A month or so ago, I vaguely remember seeing a notice come home about the third grade play and costumes and volunteers but then I needed a snack or I recycled the paper accidentally or it's still in a pile somewhere but the point is I didn't volunteer. I can sew, but not very well, not with confidence.

I'll be frank: I didn't volunteer to help sew the costumes due to equal parts laziness, embarrassment about my skill level and inertia.

Then, last Wednesday night, Z was up late, unable to sleep. She found out that morning that she would need to wear a Chinese silk dress for her school play, and that the options were various shades of pink and one blue one. This was causing her great anxiety because she was told the blue one was spoken for already and she hates pink. This thing about hating pink has been an ongoing identity issue for her, after deciding about a year ago that anything remotely girly is NOT for her, so this did not surprise me. We've been buying clothes in the "boy" department in our quest for things that don't have pink or glitter. Why does everything for girls have to be pink? she laments frequently.

I will wear a dress, but I can't feel okay, can't feel like myself, in pink, Mom, she plaintively explained that night, tears streaming down her face.

We talked through her options and settled on having her write you an email explaining her predicament. She's been learning to type at school and so spent a half an hour typing out a four sentence email, her hands always returning to home position with earnest precision.

You responded nicely, understanding her position, but explained that the available costumes were what the volunteers were able to find and/or make. The blue one was in fact spoken for by the girl whose mom who had volunteered to help with costumes (GUILT GUILT) so Z would have to either find her own costume or use one of the available pink ones.

And she had to have a suitable costume by Monday.

So Z and I talked about our options. We were sure we could find a simple Chinese style dress locally. Surely someone we knew had a suitable dress?! I went on Facebook and asked my local mom's group if anyone had one they could lend us. No one did but several people suggested that we try a shop that carries dresses from China in the local mall. I assiduously avoid malls, despite my New Jersey heritage, but when the next day turned out to be a travel-able snow day, I agreed to take the girls to the mall to look for one.

(This is where the snowball gathers speed. And size.)

The mall store didn't have the kind of dress she needed and we drowned our sorrows in Ben and Jerry's and Cinnabon. (I remember now what I like about the mall!) By now I felt invested in making a non-pink dress happen for Z. Why? Maybe I felt guilty for leading her on with these possible solutions, getting her hopes up only to dash them repeatedly. Maybe it's because I too detest the tyranny of pink. Maybe it's because she was handling the continued disappointment so well, sweetly appreciating my every attempt to help her. Or maybe I was feeling like what I was about to offer is the kind of thing I'm supposed to do as a stay-at-home mom.

Whatever the reason, I offered to make her a dress.

We stopped at the fabric store, bought some fabric and came home to research Chinese dress tutorials.

Sitting here today, I don't think this was the right thing to do. The first right thing would have been to volunteer to help out with everyone's costumes in the beginning, when I could have advocated subtly for plenty of dresses in a variety of colors which would have avoided this conflict all together. The second right thing would have been to gently guide Z to acceptance of a less than perfect situation. After all, this could have been a valuable life lesson: some times you suck it up and do things you don't like.

The less than right thing, the thing that I did, was to make her a blue Chinese dress. I'm bailing her out, I realize. I'm possibly creating expectations that I can't or won't want to meet in the future.

But it's done. She's bringing her dress in to school. I hope you understand.

(I hope this less than right thing will not be a big mistake.)


this Clueless But Hopeful Mama


Tuesday morning, 6:37 am

I wake up at 6:37 am, three minutes before the alarm on my iPhone will make it's tinny call. My dreams, of zombies and running and dark, slick streets, startle me, soften and mercifully disappear. I reach over to the bedside table, turn off my alarm and get out of bed, all in one slow roll.

Tiptoeing over cold wood floors, I open Z's door. She is lying under her many blankets, the ones that have to be arranged just so every night. The bright orange one that seemed huge when she was given it as a baby, goes on the bottom, barely big enough now to stretch the length of her body. Next comes the fleece blanket her aunt made her, then the new one, with her school's logo. On top of these goes her duvet, with a cover we bought when she was a toddler, hoping it's multi-color design would suit whoever she would become. On the very top lies the orange and white weighted blanket I made for her birthday last year, heavy and noisy and comforting.

She stirs slightly and squeaks her morning greeting as I peel back the layers and climb in beside her. I cannot remember how long it's been since she was the one waking me up, appearing at my bedside at 6:30 with requests for cereal or toast or milk, right now please. This morning cuddle is how we start each school morning these days, a ritual I began when it hit me that barking an increasingly insistent series of "get up!"s from the doorway was not working. 

She snuggles into me and I sniff her hair, no longer the sweet baby scalp smell I remember, oilier now with traces of the tea tree shampoo we use to ward off lice. She tells me my breath stinks and I remind her that hers does too but from then on I make an extra effort not to breathe directly into her face.

I let myself drop into her bed, into her embrace. She is as quiet and still as she ever gets, meaning she's still squirmy and elbows me without meaning to and talks too loudly in my ear. We whisper I love yous and plans for the day and I try to divine the numbers on her clock without actually lifting my head to look at them.  As I lazily rub her scalp, she closes her eyes and leans into me like a dog with an itch.

At some point I have to rise. I know this. She knows this. We try to pretend otherwise until the numbers on the clock must certainly be close to 7. It's time, I say and rise out of the bed.

I pull her pants on first as she squirms and squeaks despair about the cold air hitting her skin. I tug on her shirt and socks and kiss the top of her head as I prepare to leave the room. It's time to separate. It's time for her to move.

I'm coddling her, I sometimes fear. At 8, she is fully capable of getting herself up, dressing herself, and coming downstairs. I desperately want her to be independent and capable. Anything I do that undermines that goal feels like a mistake.

Except for this. For right now, this way of waking up, the connection and embrace, is what she needs. What we need. And so tomorrow I will wake up at 6:37 and do it again.


Recently Read - "How Children Succeed" by Paul Tough

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough - Z suggested this book to me when she saw it in the parent section of her school's book fair flier. "This looks like a book you would like Mom. Let's get it for you!" I guess she thought this title would make a welcome addition to the stack of books on my bedside table that include "How to Parent Your Inexplicably Difficult Child in 982,345,234 Easy Steps" and "Parenting! Just What You Thought It Would Be, Only Way, Way Harder!"

I put it on my library list as a gesture to her. We have a thing, Z and I, where we suggest books to each other and since I want her to at least give my suggestions a try, I figured I ought to do the same.

I was surprised at how interested I was in this book. I guess it dovetails with my previous undergraduate psychology studies and my current interest in making sure my children don't wind up assholes or homeless or homeless assholes. Plus it's well written and I'll read pretty much anything when an author makes it pleasurable to bask in their words and turn the pages.

Tough's main assertions - that IQ is not the be-all and end-all predictor of adult success, that character traits such as perseverance, self control and resiliency may be more important to a child's success - are not new to most of us. But Tough examines the latest research from psychology, neurology, economics and sociology which tries to answer the question of why some children succeed and not others. Poverty has long been understood as a correlate to poor academic outcomes, but why? What specifically causes children to go off the rails?

He gently dismisses the current popular belief that a lack of early academic stimulation for poor kids is the main culprit. Programs that encourage at-risk parents to talk to their babies more have been held up as a simple solution to the success gap but they are not as successful as hoped. Instead, he points to neurological research that shows significant early stress is the main culprit, that early stress actually rewires the developing brain to be less resilient, and less able to manage stress, later in life. He also highlights research on the effects of a lack of healthy attachments to caregivers, which he says is a challenging parenting style to change, often embedded in cultural assumptions of the role of children and passed down from generation to generation. He studies programs that been instituted to help children and parents overcome these issues including, early parenting education to help parents not only speak and read to their infants more but also to consistently engage with them in loving, attachment-forming ways. The larger question of how to reduce the stress in the homes of these families so as to reduce the negative impact on the vulnerable brains of young children is a harder, slipperier fish to fry.

For me, as a relatively affluent parent in an affluent area, I found this book interesting from a larger policy perspective but also a personal, parental perspective. While Tough rightly mostly focuses on what parents, teachers and society should be doing to help poor students with deeply stressed parents in crumbling schools who are most in danger of failing, he still gives plenty for the rest of us to think about in our own parenting. Parents should focus on the strength of their attachment to their children and how that relationship is the basis of their children's development. Children in every socioeconomic group need to be taught that their test scores are only small part of their success, that their brains get stronger the more they try and fail and try again. The message that struggling through adversity makes you stronger is one all parents and children should embrace.

For those of us in a cushy suburb, this means we parents need to keep our homes safe and low-stress but still allow our children to fall on their faces - literally and figuratively - as they learn and grow.


Five Things I No Longer Do (an incomplete list)

1. Have a daily quiet time. 

There are very few parenting decisions of which I am proud. I suck at getting my girls to eat a balanced diet. I fret constantly about the damage my moods have done/will do to them. My nightmares are populated by slow-mo replays of the various accidents and spills my kids had as toddlers that could have been prevented if I were omniscient. But BOY HOWDY I am proud of how we've instituted quiet time.

Our daily hour of quiet time was born out of desperation. Z stopped napping as soon as her sister was born and as a sensitive introvert, I need some discrete alone time to count on every day. We decided that as soon as E went down for an afternoon nap, Z would stay in her room for an hour (though we began with a more manageable half hour) while I ran around trying to get all my chores done in relative peace and quiet.

This initial plan did not work, as Z quickly decided that if I didn't need a quiet time, well then neither did she. You see, she had equally important work to do. Scrabble tiles, rubber bands and uncapped pens are not going to get themselves in mom's shoes, now are they? So I reasoned with her, explaining that we ALL need to rest. I will lie down and read. You can sit on your bed and play quietly. We ALL stay in our rooms. WE ALL WIN.

It took a couple of weeks to get it to work smoothly and without tears and by then I had no interest in doing chores during quiet time. When E stopped napping, she quickly transitioned to a quiet time too. We've kept this quiet time every single day with remarkably few exceptions for FIVE YEARS.

That's right, five years of daily quiet time for me. I loved it. I came to crave it. The girls seemed to too. Z especially has benefited from having a quiet time to reset.

But since September when E started full day kindergarten, there has been no quiet time during the week for anyone, any more. RIP quiet time. I guess it's better to have loved and lost.

2. (This is related to #1) READ.

I really miss reading. Without a daily quiet time, I only read for a few minutes before bed and so I take weeks to finish a single book. I miss the delicious pull of falling deeply into a book. I don't feel like I can justify reading for pleasure during the day and so I don't. I'm trying to go to bed a little earlier at night so I can read for a bit longer.

3. Wonder what stay-at-home mothers with all school-aged children "do all day."

The answer: pretty much what they did before their kids were in school all day except without a sidekick (or two). I do most of the housework and have been chipping away at house projects that have languished since we moved here 5 years ago. I volunteer at both girls' schools and at my church. I try to get all my personal needs met (exercising, appointments, social time) so that we can maximize family time on evenings and weekends.

Also: a shit ton of driving kids around. And around. And around. Granted, this year we enrolled our oldest in a private school a half hour away from home so there is more driving than normal but STILL. So many carpools. I'm expecting the multitude of Cheddar Bunnies on the floor of my car to start reproducing any day now.

4. Walk down the baby aisle at the grocery store.

I wound up walking down the baby aisle by mistake the other day and it felt strangely foreign. It doesn't seem like that long ago that I roamed these aisles like a dazed junkie in my favorite alley looking for my next perfect fix. Maybe this will be the bottle that will stop all spit-ups forever!

But that aisle no longer belongs to me. I don't miss it, really. But I'm surprised at just how unfamiliar it seemed.

5. Blog.

I haven't written on this blog in over 6 months. What happened? I don't really know, though it's likely a combination of several factors.

My kids are older. They deserve some online privacy. I have many thoughts and feelings about their struggles, and my struggles parenting them, but I don't know how to share them without it being invasive and unfair. Maybe I'll find a way. Or maybe I just won't write about them anymore.

I'm happier. Writing is often a strong drive for me when I am sad, lonely and looking for clarity. I can always use more clarity but my new-found contentment means I rarely need to type away my frustrations.

I'm strangely busier than ever before. I feel like I should have more free time with both kids in school but instead I'm constantly on the go and rarely at home. I used to spend all day every day at home with one or both of my kids and so would blog in fits and starts whenever they would play quietly for a few minutes. This is not the case any more. I miss it. I miss being a stay-at-home mom who actually STAYS AT HOME.

This may be the last post on this blog. Or maybe it will be the beginning of writing a bit more. Only time will tell.

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