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

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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.

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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.

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Student loan debt is a major problem for many mamas and their families―but it doesn't have to be. Refinancing companies like Laurel Road help families every year by offering better rates, making payments more manageable or helping them shorten their loan term.

If you're ready to start taking control of your student loan debt, here are five steps that could help you conquer your student loan debt and get a loan that works for you.

1. Understand your refinancing options.

Like motherhood, managing student loan debt is a journey made much easier by experience. If your eyes start to cross when you hear variable and fixed rates or annual percentage rate, start your process with a little education. Laurel Road offers a user-friendly resource hub with student loan refinancing guides and articles that can help explain your options and get you started on a more informed foot.

2. Potentially improve your credit score.

Your credit score is important because it provides an objective measure of your credit risk to lenders. It also has an impact on many aspects of your finances, so it's a good idea to understand and track your score regularly. To try and improve your score, pay your bills on time—your payment history is one of the most important factors in determining your credit score. Having a long history of on-time payments is best, while missing a payment may hurt your score. Another action to improve your credit score would be to keep the amount you owe low—keeping your balances low on credit cards and other types of revolving debt, such as a home equity lines of credit, may help boost your score. Remember, good credit scores don't just happen overnight, but taking positive financial steps now can lead to more positive outcomes in the future.

3. Get a better understanding of your current loan benefits.

Different loan types have different benefits and you want to make sure you don't lose any valuable benefits by refinancing your current loan. Before you're ready to apply for a better option, you need to know what you have. Determine your loan terms (how long you have to pay off your loan and how much you're required to pay each month) and find out your current interest rate.

When you took out your original loan, especially if it was a federal loan, everyone who applies is given the same rate regardless of their personal credit. When you look to refinance, companies like Laurel Road look at your credit score and other attributes to give you a personalized pricing option―one that's often more competitive than your original terms. However, it is important to know that federal loans offer several benefits and protections, including income based repayment and forgiveness options, that you may lose when refinancing with private lenders (learn more at https://studentloans.gov). Try Laurel Road's Student Loan Calculator to get a bigger picture perspective of what it will take to pay off your loan and the options available to you.

4. Pick the terms that fit your lifestyle.

Your long-term financial goals will determine what refinancing terms are right for you. For example, a 3- or 5-year loan means faster payoff times, but it will mean a higher monthly payment―which might not be possible if you're planning to purchase a home or looking to move your toddler to a more expensive school. A loan with a longer term will have lower payments, but more interest over the duration of the loan.

Want to see what your options are? Check your rates on Laurel Road. They'll perform a "soft credit pull" using some basic information (meaning initially checking your rates won't affect your credit score ) so you can make an informed decision. If you do proceed with the application Laurel Road will ask for your consent on a hard credit pull.

5. Don't miss out on discounts.

With a little research, many people can find opportunities for lower rates or discounts when refinancing their loans. For example, if your credit isn't the best, look into the possibility of adding a cosigner who may help boost your rate. There are also many associations and employers who offer student loan benefits. Laurel Road partners with a number of groups and employers who offer discounts on rates―so check with your professional associations or HR to see if any options are available to you. Finally, talk to your financial institution, especially if you're planning to take out another major loan like a mortgage. In some cases, having another product with an institution can get you a preferred customer rate.

This article is sponsored by Laurel Road. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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It's Father's Day and dads around the world are getting some love from their loved ones, and we are loving all the adorable posts on Instagram today.

Celebrity dads are getting (and dishing out) a lot of love today, and these 10 Instagram posts, in particular, are melting our hearts.


James Van Der Beek 

James Van Der Beek will always be Dawson to many millennial mamas, but to his five kids he's just "Daddy." His wife Kimberly posted the cutest pic of James with their kiddos, Olivia, Emilia, Annabel Leah, Joshua and baby Gwendolyn.

James posted the same photo to his own account, with a caption that may make you cry.

He wrote: "For me, being a father means having that quiet little voice inside of you that says 'Be a better man,' get louder and more consistent... to the point where you can't really remember where that voice ends and where you begin. It means being tired beyond what is probably healthy, and patient beyond what you previously thought possible. And even though you know you're far from perfect... being a father also comes with an unshakable awareness that all your actions have consequences - context that reaches far beyond your own self-interest. It's scary to feel that interconnected with the rest of the world - especially with your heart now walking around outside your body - because it demands more personal responsibility... but it will make you a better man. Of at least that I'm sure. #HappyFathersDay to all the imperfect dads out there, trying their best and learning on the job.👊#fatherhood"

That post gives us more feels than any episode of Dawson's Creek ever did.


Today, our Istagram and Facebook feeds are filled with evidence that today's dads are doing more than any other generation of fathers. Congrats guys, you really deserve a Happy Father's Day!

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The bond between sisters is special, but Jill Noe and Whitney Bliesner have a unique bond that goes beyond just being siblings. As twins, Jill and Whitney shared a lot throughout their lives, and when Jill became Whitney's surrogate they even shared a pregnancy.

As first reported by Today, Whitney has a rare disease called NF2 (Neurofibromatosis type 2). Because of NF2 she lost the vision in her left eye and hearing in her right ear, along with partial hearing loss in her left ear. The condition makes pregnancy risky, and the disease is hereditary.

Whitney and her husband, Pete, wanted to start a family, but adoption and surrogacy fees seemed to be putting parenthood out of their reach. Until Jill stepped in as their surrogate.

"We have always had a strong connection, I do think this experience made our connection stronger, for sure," Whitney tells Motherly, adding that she's sure that when Jill eventuallu has kids of her own the sisters will likely bond over motherhood, too.

Through IVF, Jill carried donor eggs fertilized with Pete's sperm to make her twin sister's family, and on June 7 Jill delivered Whitney and Pete's son and daughter, little Rhett and Rhenley.

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"Going through this with Jill was so easy," Whitney tells Motherly. "We both had no idea what was going to happen or how we would deal with stuff during this journey. We had our ups and downs, but I think that's life, and in any situation you would experience that. But with my sister, there was a sense of everything was going to be ok, like always. We always get over our annoyance and disagreements with each other very fast with no hard feelings. It was just a great experience to have with my best friend, my twin sister."

Rhett and Rhenley are keeping Whitney super busy these days (with twins, someone is always hungry!) but she's making time to share her story because she wants other people who can't physically be pregnant to not give up on their dream of being a mom.

"It's not about blood or biologically carrying a kid that makes you a mom, it's the unconditional love, care, and security you give a child that makes you a mom," she explains.

Whitney continues: "Even though you aren't carrying or blood-related, you still have those feelings of babies being yours!"

Whitney calls Jill her best friend and Jill says the feeling is mutual, telling Today that she knows Whitney would have done the same for her if the roles where reversed.

"She's always wanted to be a mom and her disease has already taken so much from her. I wasn't going to allow (NF2) to take this opportunity from her, too," Jill said. "It just felt like the right thing to do. Our family is so strong and so supportive of one another, especially since Whit's diagnosis in 8th grade."

Thanks to Jill, Whitney is now living her dream, taking care of her two adorable babies.

Jill is an amazing sister, and Whitney is already an amazing mom.

[A version of this post was originally published June 14, 2019. It has been updated.]

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A dad's first Father's Day is always special, and Prince Harry is no exception. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex released a new photo of Baby Archie clutching his father's finger.

😍

It's been just over a month since little Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor came into the world and changed his father's. Shortly after the birth, Prince Harry described new fatherhood as "the most amazing experience I could ever possibly imagine."

This sweet Father's Day Instagram post is the first look at Archie the public has had since the royal family did their post-birth photoshoot in May.

While Archie's mom and dad recently attended the Queen's birthday celebration, Trooping the Colour, little Archie is still a bit too small for such a big party. His older cousin Prince Louis made his first Trooping appearance this year, so we can expect to see Archie at the Queen's birthday parade next year.

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Baby Archie and Prince Louis will likely be together soon for Archie's christening. Reports suggest the event will take place next month at Windsor Castle, the same venue where Archie's mom and dad got married, and where Prince Harry was baptized back in 1984.

We can't wait to see more photos of sweet baby Archie on his big day!

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Do you feel guilty when you don't want to play with your kid? I do.

Do you give in and play with them anyway, all the while checking your phone and wondering exactly how long you have to pretend to be a dinosaur? Or do you say "no" to play time and endure the inevitable whining, coupled with mom-guilt that ensues?

Neither of these options is particularly tempting.

So what's a mom, with a fully developed intellect and adult interests and subsequent lack of interest in playing with toys for 10 to 12 hours a day, to do?

Here are six phrases to try next time your kid wants to play and you need a break.

1. "I will be cleaning the kitchen. You're welcome to join me."

This is my personal favorite and one I use daily. The next time you need to get something done and your child is clinging to you, offer an invitation instead of a dismissal.

Try asking your child to join you instead of saying, "go play." The beauty of this phrase is that it gives your child a choice—they can either be with you and help with what you are doing, or they can go play independently.

Often my toddler will join me for a while and then drift off to play on his own.

2. "I'm not available to play dinosaurs right now. Would you like to read with me?"

While sometimes we simply need to get something done, other times we just honestly do not want to play whatever our child is asking us to. And that is okay.

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There are only so many hours in the day that you can reasonably be expected to play dinosaurs or princesses. If you are available to spend time with your child, but find yourself cringing at the idea of one more game of superheroes, offer an alternate activity.

It's important for children to get the chance to choose the activity sometimes, but it doesn't have to be all of the time. Offer one or two activities that you would genuinely enjoy doing with your child and give them the choice of whether to join you.

3. "I'm going to read for 20 minutes and then I will be able to play Legos with you."

Let your child see your interests too. You don't have to cram your own life and hobbies into nap time and after bed. It's okay, and even valuable, to let them see that you are a whole person with your interests.

Tell them that you want to read or garden or workout for 20 minutes. Invite them to sit nearby, or to play on their own. It helps to start with a very manageable amount of time, like 15 or 20 minutes, and stretch it as your child's ability to play on their own grows.

Your child may sit and whine for the entire 20 minutes. While this can be annoying, it is best not to respond in anger. Try to acknowledge their feelings, but don't give in to their demands. You might say, "I see that you're having a hard time waiting for my attention. Reading is important to me. I'm going to read for 15 more minutes, and then I would love to play with you."

If you do this consistently, your child will get used to the idea that you have needs and interests too.

4. "I don't want to play right now, but I would love to sit and watch you."

Be honest with your child. It's okay if you want to be with them, but don't feel like actively playing. This can be an excellent way to observe how your child plays when left to their own devices. It is also a way for them to share their favorite games with you, without you feeling forced to play something you don't enjoy. Children can tell when we're not having fun, even if we try to fake it.

5. "I would love to play for a few minutes. Then I will need to fold the laundry."

Sometimes children need help getting started. It often works well to play with them for 10 or 15 minutes and then back away to do something else nearby. This allows your child to play independently while also saving your sanity.

6. "Sure, I'll play! You choose the game today, and I'll choose tomorrow."

While we naturally do not share all of our young children's interests, it is important for children to get to choose what we do together some of the time. Create a system where your child chooses sometimes, and you choose other times. Once your child is confident that they will get to decide what you play together sometimes, they will likely let go of the need to always demand that you play certain games.

Bottom line:

The beauty of learning to say "no" to your child's requests to play is that you will enjoy the time you do spend playing together. No one has fun when they feel like they're being forced to do something, even if it's by a 4-year-old.

And the thing is, they can tell. Children know when we want to be there and when we're just phoning it in—we're not fooling anyone.

When I force myself to play, I imagine my toddler feels sort of how I feel when I drag my husband to the farmers market. Yes, we're doing what I wanted to do, but I can tell he's not into it and that kind of takes all the fun out of the experience.

Once you feel the freedom to decide whether or not you want to play, you can choose the times when you do feel like being silly, playing pretend or merely dropping everything to build the tallest tower ever in the whole full world.

And your child? They will know the difference. Their little heart will be so full of playing with you when you want to be there. That's what will stick with them, not all of the times you said no.

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