A modern lifestyle brand redefining motherhood

The psychology of clutter: Why we hold onto ‘stuff’—and what that may be teaching our kids

It’s been a long day. And whether we have just walked in the door from work, or we have just braved a poorly timed late afternoon grocery store run with three tots in tow, the feeling is all too familiar and the same each time we get home.


Instead of walking in the door and exhaling into relief, the calm we hope for is met with even more stress as our eyes set upon a garage stuffed with mega-store mega-items, current and stale sports equipment, and boxes full of I-have-no-idea-but-I’ll-get-to-it-later.

We feel our stomach tighten as we walk through the door and our eyes are met with piles of laundry, magazines we don’t have time to read, a constant rotation of dishes on the table, on the counter, in the sink, in the dishwasher, and toys—so many toys—on the floor.

It’s all. too. much. And we wonder, "Is it just me?”

Just as working in an environment that is crowded, messy, too loud and full of artificial light has been proven to affect mood and health, so too does living in a space that is stuffed with things that bring us neither joy nor use.

With a modicum of knowledge of why we clutter and what it does to our psyches, plus a little self-awareness, we can learn to set the limits that can liberate us from the tyranny of the “too much” that prevents us from having the home we desire and the freedom to be our best mama.

We are not alone

Being overwhelmed by and in one’s own home is not as singular a situation as one might think. According to a study by UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) the amount of stress we experience at home is directly proportional to the amount of stuff we and our family have accumulated.

In the study, a team of professional archaeologists, anthropologists and other social scientists conducted a systematic study of home life in 32 middle-class, dual-income families with 2-3 kids of ages 7-12 in Los Angeles.

The scientists examined the amount of their stuff and found that women who feel their homes are cluttered tend to:

  • Be less happy with their marriages
  • Have unhealthy patterns of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Have difficulty managing every day tasks
  • Feel ineffectual
  • Have a harder time transitioning from work to home
  • Get increasingly depressed throughout the day
  • Having greater fatigue in the evenings.

The study also found that those unfinished home projects fall into the category of clutter and generate the same kind of stress that clutter does. Housework and home repairs compete for the attention of time and resource-strapped parents, turning home into more a place of increased demands than a haven from stressors.

Wives were found to be more affected by these stressors than husbands. Other research has shown that wives assume more of the responsibility for maintaining a home than husbands do, which may be more closely linked to how they see the home environment, and so they are particularly stressed out by the presence of clutter.

What about the kids?

If creating for ourselves a more restful home environment is not a big enough reason to declutter, perhaps the knowledge that our habits can be passed along to our kids will be.

"Our ability to organize begins at a young age through the modeling and messages we receive from our parents," says professional organizer, Regina Leeds. "Being raised in a home where we weren't taught the skills to maintain order, we inadvertently may fall into the habits of disorder and unfortunately pass along these non-serving habits to our children, rendering them incapable of organization until they take it upon themselves to learn the essential organizational skills, to eliminate, categorize, and organize."

Our stuff adds up

In our materialistic society, we are exposed to ads all day long that tell us what need to have to be healthy, handsome, happy, and successful. This can make it easy to accumulate all sorts of stuff we don’t really need and difficult to get rid of it due to the associated emotional baggage.

For many reasons, we can find ourselves emotionally paralyzed when it comes to deciding what to keep or get rid of, and that stuff winds up controlling us rather than benefiting our lives.

We can have sentimental attachments to things, or we may believe our things have hidden monetary value, but the main reason we hang on to things is fear. However misguided, we can fear the loss of security, status, comfort, and love when we throw things out.

Additionally, our possessions embody our memories, our hopes and our dreams, representing who we believe we are now, and who we believe the better version of ourselves will be in the future. So it comes as no surprise that it can be difficult to let go. "Tidying lets you stare in the face all of your core beliefs and what you’re living your life based on,” says Sue Rasmussen, a Minneapolis life coach and decluttering professional.

Others propose that discarding things we’ve purchased can be an admission of our failings, and holding on to them can also be toxic reminders of what we have not accomplished.

“You hold onto things based on hope,” says June Saruwatari, author of Behind the Clutter, a book that looks at not just the physical stuff that takes up room in our lives, but the mental clutter that keeps us from feeling productive and happy. "We hope to lose weight, hope to catch up on reading, hope to finish that abandoned project. But when we don’t, it’s hard not to feel like a failure about it…how many items do you need to hold onto before it starts controlling your life?”

Or, we may feel guilty for wasting money on things, so we hold onto them to justify our purchase. And especiallly, we are afraid of regret. We have all tossed something, only to wish we hadn’t later. But holding onto stuff by rationalizing we may need it one day is a recipe for just. too. much. stuff... Eventually everything piles up and cannot be ignored.

In a vicious cycle, the clutter that results from a reaction to feelings of emptiness, fear, guilt and anxiety can cause us to clutter more and can "compound into the reactive emotional pain” of more guilt and shame, fear, anxiety—and ultimately result in preoccupation and depression.

If clutter is the physical manifestation of emotions, then decluttering, believes Saruwatari, isn’t simply about getting our desk and closet in order, "It’s about relieving yourself of all the stuff you’re hanging onto from past careers, relationships, and unfinished business."

Our clutter tells a story

Just as our stuff can signify different emotional messages, it can also represent our identity. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the things we struggle to get rid of the most are likely tied to our self-worth, as evidenced by the findings that, "People struggle the most to part with possessions that lack monetary or functional value."

This is why we may mourn the loss of our possessions from a fire but not necessarily their monetary value. The study found that parting with possessions that make us feel worthy can cause us to experience real loss and real grief—even depression.

Some of us find self-worth in our physical appearance, while others find it in approval.

Usually, whatever we hold onto the most represents what defines our self-worth. For instance, if we place a lot of value on success, it can be hard to let go of the things that comprise tangible evidence of our achievements, like awards or college transcripts. Tossing these things might make us feel less successful.

Or, if we value our relationships above all, it may be more difficult to get rid of gifts from people. Tossing unwanted or unused gifts can make us feel like we are being disloyal to the giver. This can apply to birthday and greeting cards as well, which can represent to us that we are loved and appreciated, proving that we mean something to others.

Clutter is not just a representation of our emotions, memories, worth and identity, but it also can be distraction from tackling deeper issues—and a buffer from pain.

"In addition to what we keep,” clinical psychologist Noah Mankowski says, "where we put our clutter usually corresponds to different emotional events." According to Mankowski, clutter in the attic or the basement might indicate an inability to let go of the past.

Or a cluttered bathroom might reveal body image issues, since this is where we’re most likely to be standing in front of a mirror naked.

And clutter in the living room might suggest blockages in our social life, while a cluttered bedroom might relate to issues surrounding our sexual self, fears of intimacy or gender roles. “When you clutter things, … you can’t see the surroundings. Which actually allows you to not deal with it—it’s a way of coping.”

It’s not what we have, but what we do

Decluttering can be hard to begin when we are at the end of a long day or the end of an even longer week. So, approach it with an attitude of gratitude. Being grateful that we can give to others our unused belongings—especially those in good condition—not only benefits others, but can help us rewrite the story of who we are.

In a series of studies recently published in the Journal of Marketing, researchers tested ways to help people donate items that were meaningful to them. They discovered that people would experience less identity loss from donating a cherished item if they photographed it.

Echoed in another study by Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, associate professor of marketing Rebecca Reczek and her colleagues found that, "People are more willing to give up possessions if we offer them a way to keep the memory and the identity associated with that memory."

The results of the study demonstrate that, "It may be relatively easy to break old habits of clinging to possessions with sentimental value by photographing items to preserve the memories associated with them, making people more likely to donate those items by keeping the memories they represent intact."

In related experiments, other researchers confirmed that it wasn't just the memories associated with possessions that were keeping people from donating, "it was the identities linked to those memories.

For example, older parents may still feel connected to their identities as new mothers and fathers so not want to part with their infant’s clothes, the memories of their child’s infancy being connected to the clothing that helps to define who they are. “It is this reluctance to give up a piece of our identity that is driving our reluctance to donate," Reczek said.

So taking pictures can help us part with all those boxes of old baby clothes we no longer need, not to mention all the preschool artwork that comes home and stacks up. Even better, this strategy can also be implemented to help our kids pass along toys and books they have outgrown.

Our stuff in control

More than 75% of families use their garages solely to store the overflow of possessions (Arnold & Lang, 2007). Understanding the gateways of accumulation and the thinking behind them can help us recognize useless stuff when we see it, making it so much easier to get rid of it before it becomes clutter and a problem.

  • Set boundaries. Storing other people’s things can be a signal that we need to be more assertive about our space and set appropriate boundaries to not allow other people to clutter up our home with their stuff. This includes holding on to family heirlooms. Keeping dear Aunt Lillian’s china set might be sentimental, but it just becomes clutter if it is not going to be used and we don’t really want it.
  • Let go of the past. It’s okay to be nostalgic, but hanging onto dusty dried corsages from our high school proms or our too-small jeans from pre-baby days can be unhelpful reminders of the past and can prevent us from taking responsibility for creating a better tomorrow and moving forward in our life.
  • Trust in the future. Shelves of unopened or unused items can signal “just in case” thinking and a lack of trust in the future. They can also signal an aspiration to do or be something we’re not. Donating these items can free up space in our homes, hearts and heads and help us move on.
  • Tame the unfinished. 
Incomplete projects and half-finished remodels can suggest an unsustainable perfectionism, provoking a sense of failure. Prioritizing completion or scheduling removal of the abandoned helps us respect and accept who we are here and now, which can be empowering.

Home, sweet, neat home

The more we declutter, the better we get at it and the more aware we become of choosing what to keep, dump and seek in our lives. A little empty space helps makes room for a new way of living that enables stronger relationships and a stronger us through better physical and mental health.

Think of it this way: Getting rid of clutter is the ultimate form of self-care.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

Subscribe to get inspiration and super helpful ideas to rock your #momlife. Motherhood looks amazing on you.

Already a subscriber? Log in here.

With two babies in tow, getting out the door often becomes doubly challenging. From the extra things to carry to the extra space needed in your backseat, it can be easy to feel daunted at the prospect of a day out. But before you resign yourself to life indoors, try incorporating these five genius products from Nuna to get you and the littles out the door. (Because Vitamin D is important, mama!)

1. A brilliant double stroller

You've got more to carry—and this stroller gets it. The DEMI™ grow stroller from Nuna easily converts from a single ride to a double stroller thanks to a few easy-to-install accessories. And with 23 potential configurations, you're ready to hit the road no matter what life throws at you.

DEMI™ grow stroller
$799.95, Nuna

BUY

2. A light car seat

Lugging a heavy car seat is the last thing a mama of two needs to have on her hands. Instead, pick up the PIPA™ lite, a safe, svelte design that weighs in at just 5.3 pounds (not counting the canopy or insert)—that's less than the average newborn! When you need to transition from car to stroller, this little beauty works seamlessly with Nuna's DEMI™ grow.

PIPA™ lite car seat
$349.95, Nuna

BUY

3. A super safe car seat base

The thing new moms of multiples really need to get out the door? A little peace of mind. The PIPA™ base features a steel stability leg for maximum security that helps to minimize forward rotation during impact by up to 90% (compared to non-stability leg systems) and 5-second installation for busy mamas.

PIPA™ base
(included with purchase of PIPA™ series car seat or) Nuna, $159.95

BUY

4. A diaper bag you want to carry

It's hard to find an accessory that's as stylish as it is functional. But the Nuna diaper bag pulls out all the stops with a sleek design that perfectly conceals a deceptively roomy interior (that safely stores everything from extra diapers to your laptop!). And with three ways to wear it, even Dad will want to take this one to the park.

Diaper bag
$179.95, Nuna

BUY

5. A crib that travels

Getting a new baby on a nap schedule—while still getting out of the house—is hard. But with the SENA™ aire mini, you can have a crib ready no matter where your day takes you. It folds down and pops up easily for sleepovers at grandma's or unexpected naps at your friend's house, and the 360-degree ventilation ensures a comfortable sleep.

SENA aire mini
$199.95, Nuna

BUY


With 5 essentials that are as flexible as you need to be, the only thing we're left asking is, where are you going to go, mama?

This article was sponsored by Nuna. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.


You might also like:

As a military spouse, Cydney Cooper is used to doing things alone. But when she delivered her twin daughters early after complications due to Influenza A, she was missing her husband Skylar more than ever.

Recovering from the flu and an emergency C-section, and trying to parent the couple's two older boys and be with her new infant daughters in the NICU, Cydney was exhausted and scared and just wanted her husband who was deployed in Kuwait with the Army and wasn't expected home for weeks.

Alone in the NICU 12 days after giving birth, Cydney was texting an update on the twins to her husband when he walked through the door to shoulder some of the massive burden this mama was carrying.

"I was typing up their summary as best I could and trying to remember every detail to tell him when I looked up and saw him standing there. Shock, relief, and the feeling that everything was just alright hit me at once. I just finally let go," she explains in a statement to Motherly.

The moment was captured on video thanks to a family member who was in on Skylar's surprise and the reunion has now gone viral, having been viewed millions of times. It's an incredible moment for the couple who hadn't seen each other since Skylar had a three-day pass in seven months earlier.

Cydney had been caring for the couple's two boys and progressing in her pregnancy when, just over a week before the viral video was taken, she tested positive for Influenza A and went into preterm labor. "My husband was gone, my babies were early, I had the flu, and I was terrified," she tells Motherly.

"Over the next 48 hours they were able to stop my labor and I was discharged from the hospital. It only lasted two days and I went right back up and was in full on labor that was too far to stop."

Cydney needed an emergency C-section due to the babies' positioning, and her medical team could not allow anyone who had previously been around her into the operating room because anyone close to Cydney had been exposed to the flu.

"So I went in alone. The nurses and doctors were wonderful and held my hand through the entire thing but at the same time, I felt very very alone and scared. [Skylar] had been present for our first two and he was my rock and I didn't have him when I wanted him the most. But I did it! He was messaging me the second they wheeled me to recovery. Little did I know he was already working on being on his way."

When he found out his baby girls were coming early Skylar did everything he could to get home, and seeing him walk into the NICU is a moment Cydney will hold in her heart and her memory forever. "I had been having to hop back and forth from our sons to our daughters and felt guilty constantly because I couldn't be with all of them especially with their dad gone. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life and I won't be forgetting it."

It's so hard for a military spouse to do everything alone after a baby comes, and the military does recognize this. Just last month the Army doubled the amount of leave qualifying secondary caregivers (most often dads) can take after a birth or adoption, from 10 days to 21 so that moms like Cydney don't have to do it all alone.

You might also like:

Yesterday at Target I stood in line behind a Mom with two screaming kids. One clung to her leg while the other, a brand new baby, wailed from her arms.

I am not used to being the one who is not the parent of the screaming child.

This was uncharted territory.

I identified with her painfully and I wanted desperately to affirm her. I wasn't sure what to do except smile and look as nonjudgmental as possible. I tried to think of what I could say, like, should I shout above the screaming, “YOU'RE AMAZING!!" Or should I go in for a fist bump, “You got this!!"?

Before I could process what my awesome, pro-mom, non-judgey response was going to be the mom turned to me with desperate eyes, “I'm sorry, um, can you hold her?" She held out her crying infant towards me.

“YES!" I said eagerly. As I took her precious one in my arms, the little girl made eye contact and then wailed. I bounced her gently and put her pacifier back in her mouth, feeling such an intense solidarity with this mama.

“I have four," I offered, hoping to reassure her that she hadn't chosen a psychopath.

“Me too," she smiled.

“Target with kids is hard," I said, “how old is she?"

“Four weeks," she smiled with postpartum exhaustion in her eyes, “thank you so much," she took back her baby and I watched her walk away.

No…thank you. I thought.

I have been the woman in the checkout line more times than I can count.

I've stood sweating in this woman's exact position, barely commanding the tears to wait until I got to my car. I've felt my face grow red and hot as my toddler screamed and kicked, waking up my baby who was angry and ready to nurse. I've felt so alone and so out of control.

I've thought I SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO THIS. I AM DOING SOMETHING WRONG AND EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT IT IS EXCEPT FOR ME.

I've pretended to be calm and cool while inside I felt like I was suffocating. I've felt embarrassed and emotionally naked in front of an audience of spectators. In my mind people were waiting and expecting me to GET IT TOGETHER.

But as I rocked this baby I thought, in those moments, there were probably people just like me who were longing to lighten my load and whisper—hey, I get it, I've been here too—you're doing a great job.

This mama was brave.

She let her guard down and because of that, gave me a gift. She redeemed a thousand of my own frantic check-out moments by letting me be a part of hers. She let me join her village and reminded me that I'm not alone.

I am not the first one to walk this road and I will not be the last. There are grandmas, great grandmas and great great grandmas that have gone before me. There are mamas whose kids are older than mine and who are navigating junior high and high school. There are those who are right where I am and those who have brand new babies.

Whatever stage I find myself at, I will not find myself alone. This is a weathered road we travel.

I'm not the only parent whose kids have thrown tantrums in Target, I'm not the only one to have her kids tell a lie, I'm not the only Mom to lose her temper. I'm not the only one to have a son who struggles with reading, or the only one to have a child scream I HATE YOU. I am not the first and I will not be the last.

We really are a part of a village, a part of something much bigger than just ourselves and there are women all around us who simply get it.

Chance brought me one of my people, a sister I just hadn't met yet.

She is one of the ones in the ring with me, doing messy, but beautiful work. We are both knee deep in motherhood and for a moment our stories crossed and I am grateful.

To me she was beautiful and valiant, a mother holding everything together by a thread. I don't know how she felt. I don't know if she felt small, or if she felt tired. I don't know if she felt undone or defeated…but I hope she felt supported.

I hope that in that moment she did not feel alone.

I hope she felt like I was WITH her.

No judgement.

Just respect.

We are not the first moms and we will not be the last to have a “moment."

It is messy, it is hard, we will fail often…but we do none of it alone, and we are never, ever the “only one."

#Solidarity

Jessica writes at her blog Wonderoak. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

We all know that being a mother brings many joys, but a phenomenal sex life is not usually one of them. While parenting with a partner can be the most beautiful bonding experience, it can also be a breeding ground for resentment, romantic disconnect and unsatisfying sex.

But all is not lost to a life with little ones. As a mom of two, I attest to the fact that parenthood can actually improve your sex life; and as a relationship coach, I know I'm not alone in that. But here's the thing: you have to give it some attention. Great sex doesn't just happen on its own.

A truly satisfying sex life after kids requires education, communication, commitment and confidence. It asks that you shift your attitude from seeing sex as a chore to something pleasurable that you have the privilege of doing with the partner you love.

And I'm here to show you how.

Here are six elements to have a great sex life after kids.

1. Time

A great sex life requires time. I know what you're thinking: there's already too much on your to-do list. But you're just as important as everything else, and you need to make pleasure a priority. Maybe you put the kids to bed 30 minutes early or swap babysitting nights with your sister-in-law for a pre-planned date night. But you need to find the time to focus on yourself as a woman and as a lover.

2. Sleep

You need sleep to feel like a human, and you need to feel like a human to rekindle your sex life. A 2015 study found that with just one more hour of sleep a night, women were 14% more likely to engage in a sexual activity the next day. So do whatever it takes to get more sleep; take two 20-minute naps or promise yourself one early bedtime a week and see the difference it can make.

3. Ask for help

Between picking up after the kids and laundry and dishes, household responsibilities can put a toll on your relationship. After all, they provide the perfect breeding ground for resentment; and, let's face it, resentment is the opposite of attraction. So ask for help. Yes, from your partner (research shows that sharing household responsibilities increases the frequency of sex a couple has), but also from the reinforcements. Call your mom or your best friend and ask for help, or even splurge on an agency to help you get things back in order.

4. Attitude

When you want a happy and healthy sex life, you need the right attitude—one that doesn't treat sex and intimacy like a chore, but enthusiastically embraces sex positivity. Although it sounds difficult, it's really just four principles.

First, make sex a PRIORITY, which may mean giving up an evening playing Candy Crush to have a romantic night with your man. Then you need to do some PLANNING and put sex on your calendar. Planning intimacy does not have to take the fun out of it, but instead builds the rhythm we need for spontaneous lovemaking to occur.

But you also need FLEXIBILITY to make a great sex life work, especially with parenthood. Is one of the kids sick? Push back your special night until tomorrow. Babysitter cancelled? It's okay to settle for Netflix and a quickie. Go with the flow a little more and you may be surprised what fun you can have. Finally, FOLLOW-THROUGH and commit to these principles. If you throw in the towel after the first roadblock, you're telling yourself and your man that your sex life isn't important enough to fight for, which only leads to more disappointment and resentment.

5. Sex toys

Sex toys aren't only for solo play, they can add fun and excitement when used with your partner. A toy, whether a vibrator or silk blindfold, brings newness to the bedroom, which can turn you on and inspire you to explore. Beyond their aphrodisiac effect, sex toys can give you the extra stimulation you need and ensure that you get your happy ending, too.

6. Sense of humor

Parenting can bring MAJOR frustration to your sex life, and when it goes unaddressed, it drives a wedge in your relationship. Don't let it. Approach parenting's chaos with a sense of humor. Share your oh-my-god experiences together and laugh about them. Embrace the crazy joy parenthood offers and use it as a connection point, something that ties you together, not tears you apart.

Mamas, I know you're exhausted. And I know sex is often the last thing on your mind. But I promise, if you put in a little bit of effort and dedication in your sex life, it pays back tenfold. You get better sex. Your relationship improves. And your partner transforms, once more, into your lover.

The mental load of motherhood is heavy, but it can be difficult to explain what it really feels like to others. It's that never-ending to-do list that has to get done, but only seems to get longer. It's the constant worry of having to get all of those things done, from routine check-ins to managing the emotional balance of the household.

Simply put, it's invisible work that has to be done by someone—and that usually falls on mama.

If you're having trouble explaining that load to others, whether it be friends or your partner, Karen Kleiman, a well-known international maternal mental-health expert, put it into words. And Molly McIntyre, an illustrator and comic artist drew beautiful images.




Illustrated by Molly McIntyre. Molly McIntyre is an illustrator and comic artist with a background in traditional printmaking and book arts techniques. Her illustrations have been featured in Bitch magazine, Everyday Feminism, ScaryMommy, Psychology Today, and more. She is currently working on a collection of comics about new motherhood, called Momzines. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and young son.

Comics from Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts, an accessible collection of comics and resources, releasing March 1st from Familius and available at bookstores everywhere.

You might also like:

Motherly provides information of a general nature and is designed for educational purposes only. This site does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.Your use of the site indicates your agreement to be bound by our  Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. Information on our advertising guidelines can be found here.