This post came to me earlier today, as I was loading the dishwasher with about a two-day pileup of dishes, which I did after gathering up a few days’ worth of mail from the kitchen counter, so I could then catch up on my bookkeeping (which I’m behind on after a trip two weeks ago and a major conference yesterday). In the midst of all this bustling, I realized that many of my clients wouldn’t know that this is all normal.
Growing up in a chronically disorganized or hoarded home can prevent a person from learning how to set up routines for household management: cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, bill-paying, etc. But, interestingly, so can growing up in a “perfect” home. Whether you see a lack of maintenance patterns or a rigid regimen of constant perfection, either way you don’t learn how to roll with the ebb and flow of normal household usage. If you happen to be naturally organized, you’ll figure it out on your own, even without useful modeling from the grown-ups, but if organization and neatness don’t come naturally to you, it’s no wonder if you feel like you just don’t get it.
Here are a couple of examples.
“A.” grew up in a heavily cluttered home. She reports that she did not recognize anything drastically wrong with her childhood home, but now she realizes, as she struggles with chronic disorganization, that she is at a loss to keep her kitchen counters clear or to stay on top of the daily mail. No one ever showed her how.
In contrast, “B.” grew up with extremely strict rules about housekeeping. She was required to vacuum and dust daily, to wash dishes immediately, and to iron every piece of laundry (even linens and undergarments). As an adult, she celebrated her first home with joyful mess-making and reveled in the opportunity to be imperfect. However, when she did decide to pick up the house, she didn’t know how to make it just good enough: All she knew was perfection and how much time and effort it took to achieve it. With no threat of corporal punishment, she never got around to it.
Both A. and B. spent many years unable to invite guests into their homes. They became so overwhelmed by the backlog of clutter, dust, spills, bathroom mildew, etc., that they were largely immobilized and couldn’t figure out how to address it. Both had no idea that a “normal” home gets dirty (sometimes very dirty), or that the mail or laundry or recycling sometimes pile up for weeks. Both thought that the situation must be irrecoverable–that “normal” people would never let it get that far out of hand. They were so consumed with guilt and confusion that they couldn’t simply start anywhere and work methodically to fix the problem.
Somewhere along the way, both A. and B. had learned that the inability to “keep house” is a character flaw, and it’s an ongoing journey for them to unlearn this inaccurate belief. But often it’s this belief that keeps people from simply digging in and cleaning up. People who understand the natural clutter/declutter and get dirty/clean up cycles of a home don’t feel like there’s something wrong with them for “letting it get this way”–they recognize that life intruded for a while, time got away from them, and now they need to catch up with it again. Nothing personal, nothing characterological. Life happens.
Certainly both A. and B. need help learning techniques for establishing balanced, maintainable household routines and systems, and they’ll need to practice for quite a while to get the systems to take root. This doesn’t come naturally to either of them, and life would have been far easier if they’d seen it done when they were children, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn it now. First, though, they have to let go of believing they’re bad people for not knowing it already.