Play! Create! Imagine! (and then Clean. It. Up.)

I walk a very fine line between wanting my children to play and create and imagine...and wanting/NEEDING a tidy house to function at my best. I need order around me to feel relaxed and productive. If I wake up in the morning and I am greeted by a trail of hot wheels and dirty socks on my way to get coffee, I am more likely to stay unmotivated in pajamas all day while dramatically fantasizing about trash bags and single-bedroom apartments.

Ok, it’s obvious which side of this “fine” line appeals to me more. But I’m also ashamed and annoyed by this aspect of myself because I wish I could be energetic and motivated and cheery surrounded by toy trucks, dirty clothes, sticky sippy cups, hair bows, pipe cleaners, and tiny cut-up pieces of paper (seriously, what is the deal with these kids and the paper-cutting??). I know intellectually that children need to spread out and be messy, and combine legos with barbies and magnatiles in order to be their fullest! selves! I do smile at the “Sorry about the mess: We live here” and the “Excuse the mess: My children are making memories” wooden plaques for sale AT ME at every store. And I try. I do try to appreciate their beautiful minds as they turn my living room couch cushions and all my clean neatly-folded linens into forts filled with veggie-straw crumbs, stuffed animals, and dress-up clothes… But mostly I just panic because I also have to live here, and worse, try to RELAX and watch tv on that same couch later in the evening.

So how do I cope with this conundrum? Like I said, some days I just don’t—trash bag fantasies and all that… But! My neatness happens to come with a heavy dose of planning skills. I have developed systems for pretty much every aspect of our lives in order to aid us all in our quest to coexist harmoniously. On the days when I am completely on top of our systems, and because I have been consistent enough for long enough, my family generally falls in line and things do stay tidy(ish). So, assuming there are a few of you out there with the same struggle, here are some of my systems for keeping the messes and clutter at bay:

Zones: Every person in our family has a zone of our house. My husband and I share responsibility for our bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen/dining room food-related messes. My oldest daughter (11) has kid bathroom, laundry room, and dining room kid-related mess duty. My younger daughter (8) has living room, kitchen kid-related messes, and hallway duty. My son (4) has to put his cars and trucks away from all rooms. Zones are tidied at 5 p.m. before dinner, which is plenty of time unless they dawdle, in which case they are not allowed to sit down for dinner until it’s done. We also (try to) deep-clean zones on weekends as needed.

Bedrooms: My kids earn screen time by either one hour outside OR a tidy bedroom. They get to choose, but this pretty much keeps bedrooms decent. They enjoy “passing inspection,” when I sternly come into their rooms and check under the furniture and in the closet, acting disappointed when I find it spotless and am forced to allow them a tv show.

Laundry: Each child has a laundry basket and one day of the week on which I do only their laundry. When they get home from school on their day, they have to put all their clothes away and return the empty basket to their closet.

Purging: A few times a year, I go through every single thing they own with them, and we donate/throw away/sell items that they are ready to part with. My kids actually really enjoy this because we listen to music and have fun while we sort. (I also sneak things away when they aren’t looking that they never remember or notice, and if you’re nicer than I am, you could always keep these things hidden away for a few months just to be sure.)

Obviously, no system is perfect and no parent is ever motivated to follow even the most nearly-perfect system every single day. It does take an exhausting amount of upholding on my part; if I am sick or slack off for even one day in favor of another priority, the clutter immediately swells. But with some of these tools up my sleeve, I know it’s at least possible that tonight I will get to relax on my couch, in a tidy living room on newly fluffed cushions, and wrapped in a blanket bearing only the vaguest scent of veggie-straws.


11 Reviews
Erica Malone
Baton Rouge, LA
So, it’s not just me???

This spoke to me on such a deep level. I’ve always felt a bit ashamed and neurotic about my anxiety over “crafts and creativity” messes and I wish I could just relax. Seriously, though- what IS up with all the cutting of the paper??? Thank you for making me feel seen and understood. And thank you so much for the tips!

February 2020

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Krazy K
Tampa, FL
You speak to the masses!

You may be in Baton Rouge, but you nailed it for so many of us around the world! How do you balance creativity and individualism while not losing your mind in the mess? I think what I’m lacking is your organizational skills. I’m inspired to implement some of them and I hope for a neater, organized creative mess in 2020!

January 2020

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Krazy K
Tampa, FL
You speak to the masses!

You nailed it Ellen! We must be living the same lives for I too want the creativity but not the mess. I’m inspired by your organizational skills and will try to apply some of these to my own household. Thank you for writing exactly how so many of us feel!

January 2020

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