Stressing over my house full of ‘stuff’ gave me so much anxiety

I can be a stickler when it comes to ‘stuff’. My husband regularly finds me filling garbage bags with forgotten toys and oft-ignored clothes to be donated, and I’m the first one to recommend tossing something left out on the counter too long.

The fact is—my family’s ‘stuff’ gives me anxiety.

While I dream of gliding through a neat-as-a-pin kitchen, nary a toy or migrant sock to be found on the floor, my real life seems to consist of a near constant stream of scooping up dress-up clothes and dog toys and biting my nails every time a new toddler-sized armful of stuffed animals makes its way onto the ottoman.

Without even getting up from my computer, I can tell you that I have 12 bins of baby clothes in the basement that my daughter has outgrown taking up two full-sized wire racks against one wall.

The fact that I could have another baby who is a boy, meaning I saved all those clothes for years for nothing, actually makes my eye twitch if I think about it too hard.

The day-to-day mess of motherhood usually starts small—a discarded pair of pajamas thrown over the back of a chair. A handful of Magna Tiles scattered across the living room rug. A rogue horse figurine peeking out from under the kitchen table.

Within a day (or sometimes hours), though, the ‘stuff’ has taken over. It seems as though no surface has escaped my family’s “decorating,” with unopened mail and dirty cups littering the countertops while a half-filled coloring book and a pack of uncapped Color Wonder markers mingle on the floor near the couch (which has recently been shaken down of its normally neat throw pillows).

While the rational part of my brain knows this family clutter is par for the mama course, the fact remains: I’m seriously stressed in my own home.

I love organization. I could spend hours in the Target storage section. I thrill at decluttering, and I have a box of color-coded labels in my home at all times. (It’s labeled: “Labels.” No lie.) I harbor a secret dream of one day being a true minimalist.

But somehow this whole “real life” thing seems to keep getting in the way.

Sometimes it feels like the only part of motherhood that I don’t enjoy is the amount of stuff it has foisted upon me. The toys and crafts and strollers and blankets and equipment. And I say this as someone who makes a conscious effort not to buy anything I don’t truly need. Because, truthfully, the ‘stuff’ saps my joy.

The irony is that, as a semi-professional organizer for friends and family, I am regularly preaching the effects clutter and ‘stuff’ has on the brain. Our brains crave areas of calm and “white space” to relax—constant stimulation is a recipe for constant stress. My clients often tell me they didn’t even realize how much anxiety their stuff was bringing into their lives until it was suddenly gone.

The truth is, I know my life will probably never be perfectly organized. And the amount of pure joy and satisfaction my family brings to my life will always outweigh the happiness a freshly tidied room brings, anyway. So I’m trying to relax.

I have found some peace. The minimalist mama movement is a breath of (uncluttered) air to me because it has allowed me to let go of any guilt I have about limiting my daughter’s toys.

I truly believe that having less to clean up frees me to be a better mother because it gives me more time to dedicate to my family—and also because it let me be a happier, less anxious person (and therefore a much better mom and wife).

By paring down toys, gear, clothes and even decorative items in my home, I’ve created a system that, even at its most cluttered, takes about 10 minutes to restore to order.

For my daughter, we’ve whittled things down to one visible (pretty!) basket of stuffed animals in her room and a shelf hidden in her closet with toys we take out on a rotation to keep them feeling new. The living room only has small blocks, drawing items and books we can keep in simple baskets on the book shelves (that also make it easier for her to clean up her own toys). Plus a beautiful dollhouse from her grandparents that matches the room’s aesthetic.

For my husband, I create simple organizational systems that fit his patterns—including hooks and baskets near the front door so he can crash land neatly after work. To avoid driving him completely insane with my type A tendencies, I’ve resigned half of the basement as his “man cave,” where he can be as messy as he likes because I rarely go down there. (Okay, I organize it every three months, but that seems pretty fair to me!)

For myself, well...I try to take a breath. While I fully buy into the benefits of living simply and doing what I can to keep the ‘stuff’ at bay, I also recognize that spending every waking second stressing about keeping things clean is not going to help my anxiety. I’ve learned to revel in the moments of disorder, not just because they typically result in a happier family, but also because learning to find that joy results in a happier me, too.

I’d love to say that, as time goes by, I’ve learned to let go of the mess. To not make a mountain out of a molehill of dirty laundry. But, for me, pretending not to care about the mess means just sitting in a house of hodgepodge horrors while my mind leaps from one mess to the next, wishing I could just clean it up.

Honestly, I’d rather just live my truth (Hi, I’m Justine, and I’m a chronic organizer) and find systems that work for me and my family.

The ‘stuff’ might always make me feel a little anxious, but the peace that comes when it’s all in its place? That’s pretty neat.

Justine Lorelle LoMonaco is a wife, mama, and Motherly’s Brand Editor. She blogs at Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One, or you can follow her on Instagram here.

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