I’ve always wanted to be one of those women who kept her household in order. One of the ones who casually say, “Oh, I run a tight ship,” like household management is a character virtue and they were born with it. And while opinions on this vary, I do tend to fall into the camp that believes that cleanliness is next to Godliness. It’s just that I’ve spent most of my life a little far from that particular God.
I grew up in a house that was anything but carefully organized. I used to pine over the IKEA catalog, and its neat, bright white interiors, but my real home life didn’t look much like that. I mean, credit where credit is due. We had the basics: my dad always had family dinner on the table, my sister and I learned how to make dinner and balance a checkbook, and we were academic superstars. But our house was in a constant state of disarray and disrepair, and I had no idea what systems people might have in place to keep a household running smoothly.
Dreams of The Burrow
As I moved into my thirties, I knew what I wanted, even if I had no idea how to achieve it. I wanted to be like my great aunt, who raised four children in a just-enough-nonsense home. Now in her eighties she runs a bed and breakfast, midwifes the births of all the lambs on her sheep farm, and makes sure everything is ship-shape before settling in with her nightly sherry (even if the kitchen is always an epic disaster). I wanted to be Molly Weasley in The Burrow, orchestrating controlled chaos with a firm hand. I wanted to be the woman who casually commented that they ran a tight ship… and meant it.
But while I managed to plow onward with my professional life, the goal of Mistress of Ceremonies in my own home always seemed completely out of reach. But then one day, rather recently, in the middle of my thirty-seventh year, I realized it wasn’t.
Trying To Get Through The Days
The past few years of my life have been overwhelming… and not in the same joyful way of my late twenties and early thirties, where I was getting married, going full time on my business, and writing my first book. During my mid-thirties, things were overwhelming in a very different way. I had two difficult pregnancies less than two years apart, two small children, and two painful deaths in the family, and I wrote my second book right in the middle of that. Then, in fairly short order, we bought a house, invested in offices for APW, I grew our team at work, and we proceeded to have the most difficult year I’ve ever had in business.
Two kids just over two years apart would have been enough, but when you back a year of personal tragedy up to a year of political and business tragedy, you get a struggle. For the past few years, I’ve had the feeling of almost never getting a moment to myself. For years now, I’ve been up before dawn with small children, rushed around to get everyone fed and out the door, been first in the office for work, managed a team all day, rushed out of the office for daycare and school pickup, headed home for dinner, and playtime, and bed, and cleanup… and then if I’m lucky, had one hour carved out of my day to relax. Then I’d head to the weekend, with its constant cycle of chores, and naps, and toddler birthday parties. And until very recently, I haven’t been able to do something as simple as washing my face without at least one child at arm’s length, because babies don’t keep themselves alive.
Obviously, I signed up for all this. I had two kids back to back with the idea that it was more work up front, and less work later (when they could play with each other)… plus I couldn’t imagine getting to finally sleep at night, and then having that taken away again. I’m a “rip the Band-Aid off” kind of person, at work and at home. And while I didn’t choose to grow my business at some supercharged VC-funded speed, I didn’t take any of the wise advice I was given about slowing down when I had small children.
Beyond that, I’ve had help in the form of good childcare, loving backup caregivers, and sometimes even house cleaners. But even with all that help, there have been so many times when getting through the day has felt like gasping for air. And I got used to my life this way. If you asked my friends (and I have), many of them would tell you that they didn’t even notice, because I got good at covering it up. I tried to make things look simple, even when they were anything but.
And as much I wanted things to feel easier, I lost sight of the idea that at some point they actually might be.
And then my oldest turned five, my youngest neared three, and I got through the worst year I’d ever had at work. I spent my holiday break organizing my closets. I told our cleaning service (AKA, my life line) that we didn’t need them to come quite as often. And I suddenly realized that I was pretty close to feeling like I ran a tight ship.
Owning My (Organized) Truth
Some people don’t care about home organization. Some women want total freedom from the drudgery of running a household. Plenty of people want to not sink a good part of their life force into having (or bearing) children. I salute those people. But if I’m truly honest, I’m also not a member of that tribe.
I read Martha Stewart magazine for the obsessive (frankly somewhat compulsive) organizing tips. I delight in having a closet full of china and vintage glassware for (my currently very occasional) entertaining. New laundry shelves endlessly excite me. I want to have a vegetable garden, and an organized kitchen, and a stash of table linens, and make crafts with my kids for each holiday. I want to get up early… not because my kids drag me out of bed… but so I have time to be productive around the house.
And you know, I’m not that person… yet. But little by little, I’m making progress. I’m getting closer to living in the organized home that I dreamed of as a kid, as I read those IKEA catalogs that felt so far away from my world.
How I Managed Mischief
And I figured out the secret (and why those mom’s with six kids always seem to have the most organized homes). The secret is doing way too much… and then doing slightly less. I’ve been trying to run a household with one (or both?) arms tied behind my back. And now that I have wiggled one arm free, I’m able to accomplish twice as much as I used to be able to do, and my household management skills are Olympic level, compared to what they were when it was just the two of us.
And while it’s not super helpful to suggest that you have two kids two years apart and a few of the hardest years of your life to make your household management easier, here are a few of the things that I have learned. If nothing else, these tips may show you that you don’t want The Burrow as much as you thought you did, but hey, here we go.
- Know why you’re doing this. My goal for my household is to give my kids a happy stable home, and hopefully a slightly magical childhood. But equally important I want to give myself a beautiful and clutter-free home, because it drastically improves my sanity. So when chaos ensues, as it always does, I prioritize based on those goals.
- A place for everything, and throw half of what you own away. The reason I spent my holiday break organizing closets is that I know that if there is a shelf, or basket, or box for everything (and half of a closet doesn’t fall on my head when I open door), it’s easier to clean up, and keep the house clean. But beyond that, our life got decidedly better when I threw out more than half of the kids toys last year. For parents looking to do just that, I highly recommend the book Simplicity Parenting. (It’s not bad for adults either; simplicity everything FTW.) I go through our house pretty regularly and donate anything that we don’t need, because with kids, stuff piles up so fast.
- If You Leave The Room Take Something With You. The rule of households is that there is always something (fifty things, if you have small kids) in the living room that needs to go to the bedroom. There is always something in the bedroom that needs to go to the bathroom. So if you leave the room, grab something, and put it away.
- Don’t Sit Down Much (But End The Night Off Your Feet). God, I remember the many weekends gone by of sitting around, thinking about how much I had to do. Sometimes, I even get someone to watch my kids so I can recreate those moments. But most of the time these days I stay in constant motion. If I’m watching the kids play “the bed is a ship, the floor is molten lava,” I’m probably also gathering up dirty clothes. If I’m listening to details of a Pokemon game/baby doll care, I’m probably also clearing the dishes. But if the end of the night is upon me, you can bet that I’m on the couch, watching TV, doing cross-stitch, and maybe even having a tiny whisky. Yes, I could probably be sending one more email, but at some point you really do have to stop.
- Tidy on Before the week starts. Nobody has time to clean the house during the week. Thus it will always be so. This is why I’ve created Scullery Maid Sundays (it has a ring to it… almost like #SundayFunDay, amiright?). That’s when the beds get stripped, the laundry gets done, and all of the things get put back in their rightful place. Speaking of which: get a box. I go around the house with a box, piling everything that needs to go upstairs into it, and then everything that needs to come back down into it next. Each item does not get its own trip.
- Have A Routine. This works for both household business and pleasure. Things are more likely to happen if they have a set day of the week, whether those things are laundry, date night, bathroom cleaning, or movie night. Over time I’ve worked out a schedule for chores, but when I pair them with a schedule for fun (ballet on Saturday, soccer on Sunday, date nights… okay, we don’t have a day for this yet), things get more fun.
- Set Standards (Even Low Ones). The key about standards is that they are universally recognized. If clearing the table means taking every last thing off it (even the placemats) and wiping it, make that the household decree. If cleaning the kitchen at the end of the night means sweeping the floor, let it be known. That said, if you don’t care if dishes stay in the sink three days, to hell with it. Make that the law of the land.
- Plan on failing to plan. Meal planning legit saves you money, you guys. I know, because I’ve done it, and I often plan to do it. It also almost never happens, so we have a bunch of standby recipes that we pretty much always have food on hand to make. Dinner on the table is better than no dinner, right?
- Know what works. Over time, I’ve slowly figured out that my kids do best on days at home with a little art time, a little outside time, a nap, and a little TV time (for my sanity). I’ve set up our home to have all of these things easily available (cheap play structure in the yard, craft closet right by the dining room table). The more I organize my house around things that work, the better.
- Get help. One of my friends points out that men who work demanding, full-time jobs outside the home are expected to have help. Maybe it’s in the form of a stay-at-home partner, maybe it’s in the form of housekeepers and nannies. Society expects it, and men don’t spend a second feeling bad about it. So if you’re working a demanding job outside the home, you should get as much help as you can, pay living wages to good people, and not feel bad about it for a single second.
- Break all the rules, and embrace chaos. What we all love about The Burrow is its charming disarray. Molly Weasley runs the tightest of ships, but she also allows for mess and mischief everywhere. Running an organized household is one thing. Running a sterile and pristine one is something else all together. Rules are made to be broken, and it’s key to break all of them, regularly.
Molly Weasley Is Earned
After reading that, you may now, more than ever, decide that running a tightly organized household is something you can’t be bothered with. And honestly, if life hadn’t given me a hard shove, I’d probably be happily sitting on my couch ignoring the dishes. But that’s not how it went down. I struggled, and then I struggled some more, and then one day when things got a little easier, I realized damn, I wasn’t half bad at all this. After all, Molly Weasley never made it look easy; she just made it look worthwhile.
I can only assume that most people learn how to keep their household organized in some simpler way. Maybe they learn from their parents, or are just naturally inclined toward it. Sadly, that’s not me. I’ve never done anything the easy way a day in my life. But through sheer dogged determination and overwork, I’ve finally gotten there.
I run a tight ship.
Maybe one day, I’ll even start that vegetable garden. (But I might wait till both of my kids are in elementary school for that.)