Overcoming Inertia: When Your Parents Have a Hoarding Problem

Fighting the family legacy


I know what inertia looks like. Inertia is the slow accumulation of too much muchness; of the “no-no room” expanding out into the hall; the dining room table consumed by craft supplies, old newspapers, and forgotten school projects. It’s dusty, it’s sickening, it’s exhausting, and it’s overwhelming.

Inertia defines my relationship with my parents; it’s the problem that took over their lives, defined my childhood, and threatens my impending marriage.

My parents have a hoarding problem. And as the stuff stacks higher, grows outward, I am pushed farther away.

I want to say it’s just my mother’s problem. After all, she’s the instigator, the one who brings things in and puts off until some imaginary “later” cleaning up. But my father is right there, too; either he isn’t bothered by it much or, after more than thirty years of marriage, has given up. Either way, both live with it.

My parents are good people. I want to make sure that gets included, lest you think of them as some kind of impossible freaks. If anything, they give too much of themselves; they’re always trying to help others somehow and forget to help themselves.

And it’s not that they are lazy, either. It may be the opposite. One of the defining characteristics of hoarding is a tendency toward perfectionism. The clutter is a manifestation of being overwhelmed by your expectations; if it’s only good enough if it looks like it’s out of a magazine, what’s even the point of trying?

Indeed, as the rest of the house literally went to shit, I was never allowed to let my room get even a little dirty—no teenaged piles of clothes on my floor, no teen movie stars wallpapering my walls. As a result, my room was both a respite and hollow; it didn’t feel personal to me at all, but at least I wasn’t smothered by the clutter in the rest of the house.

The spare bedroom was known as the “no-no room” for as long as I can remember. I wonder, sometimes, what I might find in there; it’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve seen inside. The garage was next to go, stacked so high with the paraphernalia of life that my father’s worktable was subsumed. From there, it spread, an ichor that crawled over the house. We didn’t open the coat closet for at least a decade; ate most of our dinners in front of the TV not because my family thought that best but because the dining room table was lost to us; gave up trying to sit on the couch, so covered in outgrown clothes.

We’ve told no one about the state of our house, though I imagine our long-time family friends wonder why they are never invited in, why out-of-town relatives can’t stay in the spare room. It’s not something we talk about, even among ourselves—though my brother and I used to whisper to each other that we hoped the house would burn down someday, as long as our pets got out safely.

My relationship with my family is hard to explain. Outwardly, we look pretty much like the ideal nuclear family: two hard-working, loving parents; two kids, smart and successful in their own ways. I see my family every week. People assume we have a perfect relationship.

In truth, it’s icy. There’s too much we just don’t talk about, can’t talk about. My mother’s perfectionism extended to me, too; even as a straight-A student, I felt her disapproval. She’s still mad at me for quitting ballet… when I was six. Nothing I do ever feels like enough.

As a result, I don’t have much of a real relationship with my mother—my mother, who has been “adopted” as a mentor figure by dozens of other people, who listens to their problems and pushes them quietly toward success. My mother, who couldn’t remember the name of my college boyfriend, even after we’d been dating for three years, who threatened to stop paying for that college education because I refused to continue taking a foreign language because I already had met all the requirements.

Sometimes I read other posts by APWers, or see pins on Pinterest, or even sometimes on The Kn*t, and I want to cry. Write a sweet heartfelt note to your mom? Thank her for all she’s done to help you learn what a good relationship looks like? Tell stories about those times she dried your tears when you cried during a bad breakup?

…What would I have to say?

Wedding planning has made my parents’ hoarding a bigger problem. Besides the lack of heartfelt emotionality, I can’t send gifts to their house for safekeeping; they’d be buried. My fiancé isn’t welcome in their home. Forget relatives or letting them host a shower or rehearsal dinner.

I thought, for awhile, that they had realized how much the state of the house was hampering our relationships, the wedding. I thought it was the wedding, in conjunction with the burst pipe under the living room, that motivated them to clear out the living room, dining room, and hall to have new flooring put in. I thought the new wide-open spaces were a sign that they were changing.

But then I went over, and saw it for myself. True, those spaces are cleaner than I have ever seen them. The rooms seem huge now! But all that crap? It’s moved outside, lying on big tarps in the yard. My mom is supposed to be “working on” picking through it to find what she wants to keep versus toss out.

She’s been “working on it” for two months now. It’s rained at least five times.

It makes me terrified for my marriage. I’m afraid that I’ll become my parents. After all, no one starts as a hoarder; usually there’s some emotionally challenging event that “flips the switch.” With my mom, it was my grandmothers’ death.

What if I’m just waiting for the ball to drop, for me to go crazy and crush my love under a mountain of debris?

I fret over moving in with my soon-to-be husband (yes, we held out. I couldn’t bear my parents’ judgment). What if we are both messy in our own ways, and together we are out of control? Nevermind that my home is nigh-Spartan. What if I decide to have kids, and what if I fall into the same parenting patterns that I grew up with? What if I never get to be close with my kids? What if I’m fundamentally broken in some way? What if? What if?!

Some days, it makes me want to hug my fiancé so terribly tightly and run away to somewhere where no one knows us, maybe live as gypsies on the road. Maybe I can outrun this legacy.

But I don’t do that. Instead, I clear away the pile of yesterday’s mail, invite my family over for Thanksgiving dinner around my small clean table, offer surface conversation, and am grateful I’m an adult and can define my own space. That I can build my own baby family, and that, together, he and I can fight the inertia and build something beautiful instead.

Photo by Gabriel Harber

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  • Anon

    My mother is a hoarder too. When my siblings and I complained about the state of our house growing up, she would deflect it and blame us for being bad, lazy kids who didn’t help clean up. I will probably always resent that, but now that I am an adult and I’m in control of my own life, I don’t care how she chooses to live anymore. Hoarding is a real mental disorder, not just a slow accumulation of stuff due to inertia. Being angry at a sick person just doesn’t get you anywhere so I choose not to.

  • Jillian

    “Maybe I can outrun this legacy. But I don’t do that…am grateful I’m an adult and can define my own space. That I can build my own baby family, and that, together, he and I can fight the inertia and build something
    beautiful instead.”

    THANK YOU. Yes to all of this. My husband and I fight our families’ legacies each day and while it sucks so much, it also means we are stronger and our baby family so worth is.

  • KEA1

    This struck a bunch of chords. Lots of good wishes to you and your husband as you navigate these waters!

  • YPI

    This is so, so well written. I found myself in so many of these sentences: “Sometimes I read other posts by APWers, or see pins on Pinterest, or even sometimes on The Kn*t, and I want to cry. Write a sweet heartfelt note to your mom? Thank her for all she’s done to help you learn what a good relationship looks like? Tell stories about those times she dried your tears when you cried during a bad breakup?…What would I have to say?”

    THIS. My relationship with my own mother is fraught for different reasons, and this sentence resonated with me so much. When I read about weddings, about including family, about special bonding moments between mother and daughter, I just feel… empty. Not even sad, because I’ve mourned our relationship already. We talk, we are friendly in the way acquaintances are, but we are not close, and she is not nurturing. So what do you do when you can’t even imagine what it is like to have a blog worthy mother-daughter moment? And moreover, feel terrified you might do the same to your own future kids?

    Thank you for sharing, Anonymous. You are a beautiful writer, and wishing you best of luck during such a challenging time.

    • nikki kovach

      Totally agree! Beautifully written and a message that so many of us can relate to. I go through these feelings myself almost constantly. My mother passed away when I was 17, and now that I’m engaged, I feel these things more than ever. From the article, and the responses here, it sounds like we’re all trying as hard as we can to move past the legacy and form our. Best wishes to everyone trying!

    • disqus_qoGLUotPWO

      This post, in conjunction with the ‘Almost
      Perfect’ post, last week have really made me think more about mother-daughter
      relationships. The sadness of not having
      a solid one really resonates with me. Even though my mother doesn’t have
      anything as outwardly damaging as alcoholism or anything others can see of her
      emotional issues such as hoarding, the mother-daughter bonding moments just
      aren’t there (wedding planning or not). I’m not sure how you ever fully ‘mourn’ the loss of a
      mother-daughter relationship. The guilt of even trying to put the emotionally
      healthy distance that I need between myself and my mother is overwhelming.
      What’s the point of all this? That there are a lot of us that want
      to cry at the beautiful family posts on websites and in magazines. You’re
      not alone.

      • YPI

        Yes, exactly. Sometimes I feel like what right to I have to feel so upset, when my mom is, by all accounts, functioning and outwardly “normal”. She has her issues, and faces them in her way… So I often consider myself lucky (which I *am*).

        I’m sure you can’t ever fully mourn the loss- but I’ve learned to keep my expectations low, and that helps. It also helps for me that I am geographically far away, so visits feel more meaningful, even if superficial. It always helps knowing I (we) are not alone- and that we can build a family of choice that will cry with us and support us the way our given family isn’t always capable of.

    • Moe

      “a blog worthy mother-daughter moment” —ugh!! I never had one, and the few mother-daughter moments I did have with her at my shower and wedding make me cringe. Even though I had mourned not having the mom I wanted there was still that tiny spark of hope that just maybe I could have a little heart-warming exchange.

      So now I must move on and deal with that same terror about passing on the same experince to my children if I should have them. Here’s to bravely facing the unwritten future that most certainly can be different and better.

      • YPI

        I’d like to think that self awareness about not becoming the things we fear most helps. And yes, I’ll cheers to bravery anytime!

    • Therese

      I’m coming to this way late, but this is really resonating with me, so I want to chime in anyway.

      “In truth, it’s icy. There’s too much we just don’t talk about, can’t talk about.”
      Yes. Exactly. I can’t talk with my parents about anything other than how my grad program is going (but the standard answer is just that “it’s keeping me really busy”) and how my fiance is doing. Everything else, everything that is more complex or personal or difficult, just gets tuned out, and I’m only now reaching a point where I accept that and am trying to give up my expectations that they might act differently. YPI is dead-on with the word “mourning”. That my parents have failed me and will continue to do so is a bitter pill to swallow and I am mourning the relationship we won’t have. Sometimes I’m definitely afraid of doing this all to my own kids one day, but I’m in therapy to work through these issues and to work on the patterns that I learned in my family of origin. I hope I’ll do things better when I reach that point.

      Thanks for your story and your honesty.

  • Class of 1980

    We know a guy who is a hoarder. I don’t think he’s the worst example, but he definitely has a huge problem.

    I figured out a long time ago what’s driving his hoarding. He has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. If he drives by a house and see a vacuum cleaner put out in the trash, he feels an obligation to collect it and try to fix it. He can’t bear to see waste and constantly picks up more items to fix. He also frequents thrift stores and picks up items. Sometimes he gets some great stuff for a fraction of it’s worth, and no doubt the thrill of the chase is exhilarating to him.

    His house is filled with objects he’s going to fix, with the goal of using them, giving them away, or selling them. It’s full of canned goods he found at prices he couldn’t say “no” to. It’s full of stacks and stacks of newspapers he can’t bear to throw out until he’s read everything of interest. You get the idea.

    His problem ended his marriage years ago.

    This guy has a genius IQ. He actually does fix a lot of things and find a home for them. But there is no way he can keep pace with fixing all the things he brings home. He can never read all those newspapers or eat all those canned goods. He’s been saying for years that he has to get his house in order, but because he has specific outcomes in his mind for every item he brings home, and not enough time to do it all, he can’t (in his mind) responsibily get rid of any of it.

    When he visits us, he looks for things to fix around our house. Sometimes, he moves one of my decorative objects to a place that’s more pleasing to him. He is constantly fixing or improving things in other people’s houses. On his last two visits, he trimmed every shrub in our yard!

    He does for others what he can’t do for himself. He finds his house situation so stressful, that he visits friends for the weekend and helps them to perfect their houses while neglecting his own … thereby losing more time when he could have helped himself instead.

  • Katelyn

    What a heartbreaking but important piece. I think everyone worries about adopting their parents’ worst traits. For myself and my fiance’s families, mental illness is definitely a concern on both sides, but in a way that’s been empowering for us. I know that I constantly need to be on my guard for myself, my siblings, and my future children, and I am as open as possible about my ongoing but successful treatment for bipolar disorder.

    But being on guard doesn’t shut out the “what ifs” that are constantly going through my mind, either. What if my fiance’s father dies, leaving his mother (who is essentially a shut-in) behind? What if my little sister’s night terrors which have emerged at the age of 20 are a precursor for serious mental illness? How will I be able to reach out to my future children if they are as withdrawn as I was as a teen, deep in the throes of despair? Will I be consumed by alcoholism like my aunt, who died as a result of that horrible disease?

    I don’t necessarily have answers, but I do have hugs and encouragement to take each day as it comes and the reassurance that you are far from alone.

  • ” What if I’m fundamentally broken in some way?”

    You aren’t, I promise. When the people who are supposed to love us unconditionally, don’t, it can create a feeling of unworthiness or brokenness. But they are the ones who are broken OP. You’re the one who sees the problems, who worries about repeating their mistakes – you’re not broken. You’re going to be just fine because you’re already on the look out for the mistakes you don’t want to make. Also counseling if you haven’t already considered it. Very helpful when you have Family of Origin issues.

    • Lauren

      Yes, to the counseling! I have a hoarder mother, and the perfectionism in my home is dead giveaway. For a long time, I wouldn’t invite people over unless it was spic and span to avoid the shame I felt in my family home.

      Now, I’m starting to let go of needing such a clean space and realizing that a little dust here and there doesn’t mean I’m doomed to become my mom. Counseling has helped tremendously. I would offer that I think most people have Family of Origin issues that can be sorted out via some counseling. They don’t have to be major issues to warrant discussion and outside perspective. Clearly, I’m a therapy-pusher, and proud of it. :) In all seriousness, OP, your fears are totally ‘normal’ and you may really benefit from talking to someone.

      • beth

        another vote for counseling– i had the exact same fear as the OP– that somehow, marriage would cause me to turn into my parents and my marriage would become their marriage– so i hightailed it to a therapist once we were engaged. so grateful!

  • Daniella

    Your honesty is so powerful, let that be the power that starts the inertia of your new life. Best of luck, sending you positive thoughts!

  • elemjay

    Both parents but particularly my mum were serious hoarders. She lives in an 11 room house and arguably only 1 of those rooms is (barely) under control. This kind of chronic hoarding is a bit more than “inertia” – some specialists see it as a form of OCD. It’s a hard thing to share with new family members and weddings seem to bring out the worst ( it’s probably the shame and embarrassment talking). Good luck on working things through with your parents.

    • Class of 1980

      I definitely think it’s a form of OCD.

  • elemjay

    Also you might want to look at the website “children of hoarders” – there’s some good stuff from people in similar situations

  • Kayjayoh

    My dad is not quite a hoarder, but he has walked the line for a long, long time. I inherited that tendency from him, and I fight it constantly. I try to police myself, to look through my boxes and piles and shelves and ask “am I using this? when have I used this? why am I keeping this?” Sentiment and art/craft supplies are my two biggest weaknesses. Right now the apartment that my fiance and I moved into in August is still filled with boxes of my stuff I am trying to sort and deal with. More are at my mother’s house. (Not to mention that some of my fiance’s belongings are still in storage.)

    I have declared a deadline to myself, that by next August (when we move again), everything we own needs to fit comfortably within the house. It’s kind of agonizing. Stacks of boxes everywhere so most of it isn’t usable to me as it is. But when I look at specific things, “Oh! But not that! I have to keep that!” (And then I bring home another thing…)

    • Lisa

      This. My mother used to describe my dad’s behavior as being “a pack-rat,” and I know my grandmother (like many Depression-era children) was a serious hoarder, which eventually caused a fire that burnt my mother’s childhood home to the ground.

      I have a very difficult time getting rid of anything in my life to which I can attach a memory. I have stacks of programs from concerts and shows I’ve attended, and I hold on to clothes from high school because I remember wearing a specific shirt or pair of pants when I had my first kiss, when I won my first major role in a play, etc., etc.

      I know this isn’t healthy and that I need to do something, but it is incredibly emotionally painful for me to let any of those things go. I’ve moved in with my fiance, and he is so frustrated that we had to buy under-the-bed storage containers because I couldn’t bring myself to give enough things away and clear out the space in my wardrobe for some of his things. I know it sounds selfish and ridiculous, but it’s so hard.

      • KC

        As someone who has happy memories triggered by objects/visuals (and who still has *six* “need to sort” boxes from our last move in addition to the Officially Condoned Nostalgia Boxes [of things that have been sorted and approved for preservation/posterity], so I’m also in the too-much-stuff boat), one suggestion I can make is to take photos of things or scan them (not whole books, but occasional things like one-sided programs or whatever), then get rid of them. I still laugh at the memory of [whatever] when I see the photo of the thing-associated-with-it; I’ve found I don’t actually need to have the thing itself to keep the memory.

        Second suggestion is to pace yourself – decide to sort 10 items or 20 items (or sort for half an hour, or whatever you find is your “limit” on any given day; different people have different amounts of energy available) and do that once a week on a specific day. Make sure this is high enough that something gets done, but low enough that you can in fact do it every time. (see: finding ways to *not* avoid the whole task because it’s just too much and you can’t do it all at once. If you’ve got a lot of emotional stuff, you really probably can’t do it all in one marathon without biting someone’s head off. It takes a lot of energy to make tons of sequential decisions, especially if they’re emotionally loaded. Not an excuse for not doing it, but a reason for pacing yourself as with exercise or weight loss or anything else that you can’t just wave a wand at and fix.)

        Third suggestion: if you don’t have something specific and happy associated with something, get rid of it. It sounds like you are in no danger of getting rid of eeeeeverything, so get rid of as much as you can, especially things that do not bring you joy. Make all your stuff pay rent; if it’s not adding to your life, boot it on out. If you don’t have a good memory associated with it, and if you’re not using it (or not going to be using it sooner than someone who picks it up at the thrift store would use it), out it goes.

        Fourth suggestion is that you can have a three-box system for a first-level sort: stuff that definitely is heading on out of here, stuff that definitely gets saved (i.e. last birthday card Grandma ever sent, with her characteristic pen-and-ink floral illustrations, but a little wobbly), and the not-sure-yet box. As you do more sorting, it sometimes becomes easier to see what you have and what you don’t really want/need to have, or don’t need to have *all* of, anyway. (Christmas cards or birthday cards with just signatures in them? meh. theatre programs from shows I was in that have the hilarious bios of all my well-beloved friends in the show? yep, keeping *one* copy of each of those.) (this is similar to what I do when I sort clothes, since I’m hard to fit; I save all the things I’m *definitely* saving, toss the things that I’m *definitely* tossing, then look to see what “fill-in” wardrobe items need to be preserved from the middle ground.)

        Fifth suggestion is that sometimes having a friend team up with you can help (not as much on the “paper goods” but on clothing or other stuff), as they can help you trim things down a little more aggressively than you would alone. Obviously, it would have to be the right sort of person and someone who fits well with you and is non-judgy but who can raise an eyebrow if you’re keeping worn-out socks. But this is not necessary at all.

        You can beat this! Really! :-)

        • Kayjayoh

          All excellent ideas.

          • KC

            Thank you! :-)

            (They’re field tested and have worked pretty well for me… when I’ve done them. Ahem. *Doing* something and making progress faster than things accumulate is key here. Personally, one thing I’m working on is not feeling guilty for getting rid of things that don’t pay enough “rent”, even if they were very well-meant gifts or are not recyclable. Yes, so-and-so would potentially feel badly that you’ve given away the sweater they knit that didn’t fit you. But they’d feel worse knowing that it was part of a weight of clutter that was psychologically trying to crush you. So, giving it away: probably the best option. :-) )

      • Kayjayoh

        “I have a very difficult time getting rid of anything in my life to which I can attach a memory. I have stacks of programs from concerts and shows I’ve attended, and I hold on to clothes from high school because I remember wearing a specific shirt or pair of pants when I had my first kiss, when I won my first major role in a play, etc., etc.”

        I’m slowly getting rid of this kind of thing. I try to keep in mind that most people didn’t keep the program from the track and field awards banquet past the end of the night, let alone 20 years later. I do know that for much of it, if it disappeared I’d never know. But since I have to be the one to get rid of it, I look through a box and get swept away in a wave of memories, and everything seems important. Slowly, slowly I am whittling down and reducing my haul.

        • lady brett

          “I try to keep in mind that most people didn’t keep the program from the track and field awards banquet past the end of the night, let alone 20 years later.”

          i used to be a serious collector of stuff like that – papers that indicated that an event had happened. i finally let most of it go, but it was *hard*. the biggest help for me was not getting rid of what i had, but stopping the accumulation. i throw movie tickets away on my way out of the theater, and i generally don’t pick up programs in the first place anymore. during or immediately after the event, the paper doesn’t really have anything to remind you of (you’re still there!), but once it comes home i start feeling obligated to it.

          • Kayjayoh

            I still save tickets, but I don’t hang onto programs or poster anymore. (Tickets take up very little space.) I also am careful about things like free event t-shirts or mugs. They really have to be AWESOME now before they come home with me.

      • Beth R

        I have several boxes of tickets and programs and letters, etc that I hope someday to put into a scrapbook. But I am starting to question how long I can wait for that someday to arrive before I just toss it all. I’m not quite there yet, but we’ll see. I’m thinking of at least going through and separating things into different sections by years so when I DO actually get to it, it will at least be organized…..

        One of my problems is that I feel like I am betraying my younger self by throwing things away that felt important enough to keep at the time. My mom made me go through boxes of my old stuff that they were storing in their garage and I had so much saved that I didn’t even know what it was from or why I had kept it. But I felt so guilty throwing it away. “What would 10 year old me think if she saw me throwing this away?” Then I realized, oh wait, I am 10 year old me, just 20 years older. And do I care right now? Time travel is not a thing, so 10 year old me is not going to get mad at me if I toss this collection of rubber erasers that I had in the 5th grade. I also find myself thinking about it other way, with some future child. Would my future child really care to see a collection of Thanksgiving turkeys I made throughout elementary school? I think not. Well, maybe one. :P

    • A few years ago I started my life over and one of the things I did was throw away everything but my clothes, books and kitchenware. This included (but was not limited to) all childhood photos of me, all high school memorabilia (including yearbooks, boxes full of notes between my high school best friend and I as well as a box for each serious high school boyfriend, my art portfolio with 4 years of my art work and photography [I spent half my day in art class all through high school so this was a significant amount of work], and all of my writing except that which I’d written in the 12 months prior to my clean out. I left home at 18 and as far as I’ve been told, I had everything that represented me in my possession. My family of origin had already thrown away all baby photos, etc. when cleaning out the house I grew up in. This means that except for random photos in possession of extended family, almost nothing of me from birth until age 33 exists.

      I grew up in a home that was part hoarders, part filth and vermin. I continued to live an extremely cluttered and overfull life, always worrying that I could “use something” and that I shouldn’t throw it away. I kept everything – fortunes from fortune cookies, movie ticket stubs, anything you can think of for memories sake, I had kept it. Until 4.5 years ago I threw it all away.

      It was honestly one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done. I’ve
      never regretted for a moment all those things I threw away. Not everyone needs a clean slate as drastic as I, but I assure you, you won’t miss that which you don’t use. Unless you actively look at your memorabilia on a regular basis, you won’t even know its gone. I’ll never hold on to stuff again for memories sake (except maybe photographs but I store those online). I learned how to cut the tether to the past through physical objects and I won’t ever tie myself back up there again.

      • Annie in LA

        Wow, that must have been a powerful experience throwing away all that stuff. As someone who also had to do that “go through the high school art portfolio & toss basically everything” dance, I’m so glad that all my art & photos are digital these days… <.< I can't imagine trying to make space for all those supplies, boards, canvases, giant newsprint pads, etc, haha.

  • MLA

    You can do this. My sister and I are cleaning out our dad’s hoard now and moving him into assisted living. A few weeks ago I went into his house for the first time in years and just stood in the living room and cried. It was overwhelming, sad, full of memories. My best advice: get therapy. Loads of it. I go five days a week. Doing what seems to be the opposite of your mom (ultra clean house) is not necessarily so different. Start building a family inside yourself with the help of your therapist, so you can build a family with your husband.

    • Lauren

      Exactly to this: “Doing what seems to be the opposite of your mom (ultra clean house) is not necessarily so different.” I tried the same, and only through therapy have I realized that I was replacing one disordered approach to ‘things’ with another. I’m even thinking about hiring a cleaning service, which would horrify my mother, to offload the responsibility of a ‘clean house’.

      • Anon

        Yes to the cleaning service!!! My mother is a hoarder, I responded by being the “opposite” which turned out badly. Just recently hired a cleaning service. It takes away the stress of being overwhelmed by perfectionism.

  • Kaveets

    Thank you for sharing your story. What a gift of solidarity you’ve offered yourself and others!

    When you’re looking at those posts you mention, about special meaningful moments with parents, please don’t forget that we carefully choose what to include and exclude from our online world. I don’t question the authenticity and love in those posts. It’s just that when we start to compare our own relationships to them, it’s easy to forget they are snapshots of complex relationships that we know little about. I suspect we all have fears about family legacy to some extent or another, no matter how orderly our stuff is, no matter how close we are (or even seem to be) to our mothers or fathers.

    Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials, and on the life you and your husband will be building together… I hope you see the beauty and find empowerment in your everyday action… even acts as “small” as clearing the mail. I think it’s something to be pretty proud of!

  • Rachel Kirby

    What a beautifully written post. Thank you so much for sharing. And how you said how you are “grateful I’m an adult and can define my own space” – that is absolutely perfect and I second that! Definitely something to be thankful for that as adults we can now dictate the course of our lives and determine how our life truly plays out.

  • kmclevel

    My childhood experience was identical to this. My mother still tries to get us to come over for Christmas morning every year despite not having any room to sit, much less space to eat. I have used the dog hair/dust/allergy angle since college, yet she doesn’t seem to understand.

    Her perfectionism and other issues did not probe into my academic life. Considering I inherited some of those traits, I plowed through undergrad and grad school with scholarships. Her continued criticism of my adult life is ironically always related to something my domestic life– choice of domicile, housekeeping, decorating, etc. When she comes in my house and asks if I swept the floor this week, I have to bite my tongue so I don’t ask if she has swept this year. I has a fairly rough time dealing with my mother and her comments leading up to, and during the wedding. However, the rest of my family and friends did their best to overpower any negativity she brought with her.

    The hardest part for me is not over-correcting for this type of upbringing. My husband is very sentimental and I have gone overboard several times trying to get him to get rid of all the extra things, anything not vital. Those fights over boxes of stuff were more symbolic of my paranoia that our house was headed down the slippery slope. The discussion afterward where we dealt with the way we were raised was important. Compromise is important.

    Also, being messy in different ways can be beneficial sometimes. I’m a messy cook, my husband keeps a clean kitchen. My husband can’t see when the tub is dirty without his glasses, but I keep the bathroom clean for taking baths. That’s a good chunk of the cleaning!

    • Laura

      I hear you on the overcorrecting. For me my family’s problem is not hoarding, but food. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I will pass on to my children an attitude about food that is neither harshly critical nor overly permissive. It’s tough!

  • Moe

    “One of the defining characteristics of hoarding is a tendency toward perfectionism.”
    I feel as though I could have written this about my own mother. Years of her clutter overtook my family home. Our garage was stacked from floor to ceiling with furniture, boxes, clothes, etc. I always heard say repeatedly that her home would look so nice if it hadn’t been for me or my dad making messes everywhere. Ultimately we had to move her into assisted living and it took my family almost a week to have several thousand pounds of clutter taken away to the dump by the truckload.
    Thank you for sharing this, I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Like you, I’m now defining my own space with my husband and our baby family and part of me also feels as though I’m trying to outrun the legacy of clutter, perfectionism, and critical words.

  • Laura

    I feel for you so, so much. I had a roommate who was a hoarder and like you, I kept my room PRISTINE while living there, far more pristine than it has ever been anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I did it as a way to keep my sanity. By the end it got so bad that I would start to have a panic attack every time I even walked into the apartment. So I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like for you!
    Overcoming a damaging family legacy is really difficult, but with patience and communication it is possible! For me, although I have a good relationship with my parents, there is a history of obesity issues in my family. I need state first that I believe fully in body acceptance and I am totally against fat discrimination. But my brother and I started becoming obese in our teens, and it was a serious problem. My parents just did nothing. They didn’t take us to the doctor or to a nutritionist, they didn’t stop providing the overabundance of food that was causing the problem, and they didn’t let us go outside so that we could play and exercise. When I once told my parents that I wanted to go on a diet they laughed and said that I wouldn’t be able to hack it. So I didn’t even try. I felt like the weight issue was something I wasn’t allowed to discuss. I was bullied constantly, endlessly at school for being overweight but I never said a word about it to my parents because I just kept getting the vibe that my obesity was so shameful that it could never be discussed. I finally managed to lose the weight on my own. My brother never has. Because of that, even though he is a kind and funny guy he has never matured emotionally.
    After our wedding my husband started to put on weight and I was really panicked about how to address it. At first I thought that I shouldn’t say anything because it was his body, his business and I would always love him no matter what. But I also felt totally helpless and unable to say anything because in my family, we don’t talk about weight, ever, even when there is a legitimate need to talk about it.
    Finally I had to consciously think through how I could break free of my family’s dysfunctional way of dealing with this issue. I sat down with my husband and told him that I would always love him and would always find him attractive, and that I didn’t want to tell him how to live his life, but I was getting concerned that he was gaining weight.
    I was so afraid that he would be angry or hurt or feel rejected, but to my surprise he just looked at me and said, “You’re right. I will be more careful about what I eat.” And he has been, and the weight is coming off. I’m actually kind of stunned by how easy the whole thing turned out to be.
    It might help to sit down with your fiancé and make a concrete plan about how to cope with this. You could perhaps establish a “cleanliness spectrum,” ie, leaving a newspaper on the coffee table for a day is okay, but leaving two newspapers over two days is not. That way, if you ever do start to slide into clutter territory (which seems unlikely0, you have a standard to remind you of where you should be.
    My other piece of advice would be not to react so strongly against your parents’ problems that you end up swinging too far in the opposite direction. I really feel that the reason that obesity was a taboo subject in my house growing up was because my grandmother hounded my mother CONSTANTLY about her weight. So my mom simply decided never to say anything to us about it, but that was ultimately not helpful either. It might be healing to find a point somewhere between the two extremes – it doesn’t have to be in the middle, but a place comfortable for you. For example, would you be okay with leaving the breakfast dishes unwashed until supper if you have a hectic morning? That sort of thing.
    Best of luck!

  • karyn_arden

    This is uncanny timing. Unf*ckYourHabitat just posted an excellent reblog of a post from somebody describing life as a hoarder, that gave me a new appreciation for the struggle that people who hoard go through internally. It can be found here: http://unfuckyourhabitat.tumblr.com/post/68103003986/this-isnt-a-tv-show-life-as-a-hoarder.

    • Laura

      The most beautiful comment was posted on that blog, I have to share it: “We invest our energy into everything we own and when we own too much, our belongings constantly sap our energy. Here is something I learned a few years ago: When you want to let go of a thing, talk to it; thank it for what it has meant in your life and explain that you want your energy back. Tell it that you are releasing it so that it can go on to fulfill its destiny and that you hope it has a wonderful existence. Then take back your energy and send the item on its way with joy – for both of you”

  • Alexis

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is beautifully written and clearly speaks to a lot of people, as evidenced by all the comments others have already made. You are not broken.

    I, too, worry that I’ll develop my mom’s hoarding tendencies and how this will affect my relationship with my future husband, potential kids, friends and more. Growing up I used to joke that my mom and step-dad must have had some secret pact to cover every horizontal surface in our house with mail, and it’s only gotten worse with time (and an antiquing business in the mix). My fiance’s parents also demonstrate some of the same tendencies, though definitely not to the same extent.

    The last time my fiance and I moved, I cried over how much stuff I thought we had and was reassured when our moving help assured us we had less than most couples they saw. So I do what I can – keep my horizontal surfaces clean, cull things I haven’t used for a while, etc. Maybe it is hardwired into me in some way, and maybe someday some event will trigger it, but I can only live in the present, where I am grateful that I’m an adult and have choice over my living environment.

  • Laura

    So many good things in this post, I don’t know where to start. And I thought I was alone in some of these feelings. Thanks, APW <3

  • Lizah

    Late response, but I could have written this essay. My little sister also used to fantasize about the house burning down so we could start over with a clean slate. :/

    It was very powerful…thank you for sharing!

  • Whitney Kerr

    You’re incredibly brave, and no doubt strong. All you can do is live in the light of the knowledge of how it could be, and do what you can to steer your life in the direction you want. Good luck to you. Thank you for sharing this.

  • aly

    wow i relate to 85 % of this and i have never understood it in this way. right down to my mom holding grudges from childhood, and being forced to maintain a room at a level no one else would. my family is also re-doing most of the house pre-wedding but most of the clutter just moves from room to room. i am already habitually a clutter person but i’m trying to break it. i fear right now that those habits alone will be the deal-breaker for my impending marriage, what if i can never break them because i haven’t yet? depression isn’t helping but i hope i can become free from it. i hope you are not triggered and that your awareness can help guide you to the life you have already worked so hard to create!