The One Thing I Learned NOT to Do from My Mom

published Jan 28, 2022
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

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I’ve inherited my fair share of lifestyle hacks from my mother. Estate sales? We always unearth long-buried treasure for a song. Recipe testing? There is no carb-laden foodstuff we won’t try … the butterier, the better. But when it comes to interior decorating, there’s one thing I’ve learned to never, ever do from her.

You see … shhh (*whispers*) … my mom is a hoarder. Not enough of one to be televised, thank god. Or to make you call Shopaholics Anonymous in a fit of neighborly worry. But if you ever crossed the threshold of her apartment in drizzly Seattle, Washington, the “h” word would instantly hang in the air of your mind, as unmissable as a neon sign. 

My mom has always been a shopper. She scoops up far more sweaters and beauty products than she could ever afford on her salary. But something about her downsizing from a 2,000 square foot home into her post-retirement apartment sent her off. Books stud every centimeter of her overstuffed shelves and then spill to the floors in untidy piles nearby, 99% of them languishing unread. Clothes and hangers tumble haphazardly out of the closets, littering the surrounding floors. If you offered my mother a million dollars to close her main closet door right this second, she couldn’t do it, even with a bulldozer. 

She’s not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 2.6% of the population has hoarding disorder — and rates are higher for those ages 60 and above, as well as folks that suffer from depression and anxiety. Decluttering has long been touted as beneficial for mental health reasons, not to mention organization. (See: the intergalactic success of Japanese organization consultant extraordinaire Marie Kondo, whose books have sold more than four million copies in the U.S. alone). 

The goal is never becoming a full-on minimalist, but simply “improvement,” achieved in small steps.

Still, when we bring the topic up with our mother or try to help her clean out, she shrugs it off with a joke. Getting hoarders to change their ways isn’t easy; experts often recommend enlisting the help of a mental health professional. The goal is never becoming a full-on minimalist, but simply “improvement,” achieved in small steps, and not, as we have occasionally discussed, by getting rid of the junk ourselves. Often, the root of the issue isn’t stuff at all, but something deeper gnawing at the heart of the person who needs help. If you help increase their well-being and approach the topic with positivity, you may have more success than if shame is your motivator.  

The interesting thing about our mom’s issue is that it wasn’t always this way. My brother and I grew up in a beautiful, relatively orderly home. But now that our mom is retired, she’s the epitome of that old parental expression “Do as I say, not as I do.” So when I look around my own 1,400 square foot home in suburban Nebraska, I fret a bit. Especially when the junk drawer gets too junk-y, or the garage becomes stacked with not-yet-broken down Amazon boxes ahead of recycling day. Am I turning into her? If I did, would I even notice? 

As if to fend off the very thought, I make regular trips to the Goodwill drop-off bins. I want our home to be as stress-free as possible, and disarray does impact that. It can negatively impact everything from your anxiety levels to your sleep patterns. So I tell myself I will purge my closets and drawers on rotation, committing to go through at least one every week … lest the clutter get the best of me. I often hold an offending item in my hands and ask not if it brings me joy, but if I would buy it again — right here, right now, in its current state. If it’s torn, or stained, or just plain not used often enough (what *are* those jumbled charger cords even for?), out it goes. And of course, I pray to the God of Stuff that I stay me … with just the average amount of baggage.  

Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the easily embarrassed.