The mess pictured in this cabinet didn’t just happen. It was a gradual process that took a few years to perfect. At this point it’s just the right amount of messy to make the average person cringe.
This is my reaction to this mess on most days. I’ve reached the point where it can’t really be avoided for much longer. Stuff is sticking out past the opening and I’m having a hard time closing the doors. The moment of truth has arrived.
This may come as a complete shock but I’m actually a fairly organized person. The fact that there is a space like this in my home points to a problem. I’m a big believer in getting to the bottom of why I put things off, especially certain cleaning and organizing projects. I know if I dig deep enough I’ll find the real reason. (Yes, the real reason which is different from the excuses like “I don’t have time” or “I’ll get to it eventually.”)
In case it’s not obvious, the crazy mess above is my kids’ art supplies cabinet. It houses the usual stuff– crayons, markers, colored pencils, paper, etc. In addition to all this, it’s the place where a lot of the finished art projects live. They’re in an overflowing brown basket on the right.
That basket is the source of all my problems with this space. Cleaning out this cabinet means I need to go through it. That’s going to be tough because for the past ten years I’ve avoided getting rid of about 90% of my kids’ artwork. Yep! That’s right, I keep most of my kids’ artwork. It may sound completely crazy to do this and to admit it publicly but there it is.
My kids’ artwork is what some people call sentimental clutter. But the truth is I don’t see these drawings as random crayon marks on crinkled pieces of paper. To me they are messy representations of my kids’ personalities and creativity. These creations have an emotional value that’s hard to put into words. It doesn’t help that my kids got my husband’s artistic skills and are actually halfway decent at drawing.
The thought of parting with my kids’ art makes me downright emotional. I can’t do it; it’s just too painful. I’m stuck and I’ve convinced myself, in classic procrastinator fashion, that if I avoid it I’ll be able to put it off until it’s no longer an issue. Unfortunately, this strategy isn’t really working. Plus, my kids are still young enough to create at least a few more years worth of artwork that needs to go into this space. It’s just a matter of time before this cabinet becomes totally unusable. I need to take care of this problem stat.
When my organizing muscles are weak I go to Youtube and watch some organizing videos for motivation. If you’ve watched any of these videos you’ll notice that the minimalist trend has taken over in the organizing community. Minimalism seems to be the answer to every clutter problem in your home.
In my case, the minimalist organizing guru would probably advise taking a picture of my kids’ stuff so that I can still keep it in some form and then get rid of the original. It makes sense; you can keep a copy of the things you love but they take up much less space. I’m a fairly logical person so I was confused when I found this idea totally horrifying.
My brain: That’s a totally logical and reasonable compromise.
My heart: I’ll give up my kids’ artwork when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
What the experts say
I did a little research mainly just to make myself feel better about this situation. I was really curious about the psychology behind why I’m hoarding my kids’ art. It turns out our relationship to stuff can get pretty complicated. Here are some gems I uncovered.
- This TED Ed animation explains how we perceive our things to be special because to us they have a “unique essence” that can’t be replicated. This is why in one study when children were given the choice between a favorite toy or an exact copy most chose the original. (A picture of the my kids’ artwork ≠ my kids’ artwork.)
- In the article The psychology of stuff and things by Christian Jarrett I learned how possessions become important because they come to represent our sense of self as well as our memories, relationships and experiences. (Artwork = memories, relationship with my kids, and experiences as a parent.)
- Helga Ditmar explains in Are you what you have? how women tend to value things that symbolize their interpersonal relationships. We value things more when they belonged to loved ones. (Artwork = relationship with my kids.)
Here’s the one that really blew me away:
- The Jarrett article talks about another study where moms were interviewed after they got rid of their kids’ stuff. Some kept most of it (Keepers) while others had an easier time getting rid of it (Discarders). But here’s the kicker: both sets of moms felt guilt about their decisions. The Keepers felt guilt because they felt societal pressure to be more organized and the Discarders felt guilt because they weren’t living up to the expectations that mothers should preserve their kids’ stuff. In other words, if you’re a mom there’s no right answer.
You gotta do what you gotta do
So where does that leave me in all of this? I’m a Keeper. I’m keeping my kids artwork, neatly organized of course, because that’s what feels right. Now obviously I can’t keep it all, but if I come up with a good enough system I feel like I can satisfy my need to hold on without turning into a hoarder.
At least now I feel better knowing that my attachment to my kids’ artwork isn’t irrational. There are legitimate explanations for why we hold on to things. If as a mom I’m going to feel guilt regardless of what I do, I’m fine with keeping my sentimental clutter.
My advice to anyone trying to avoid organizing sentimental clutter is to tackle it at your own pace but also, if you can, identify why you’re avoiding it. This may help you figure out if the items represent some deeper emotional attachment to a loved one or memory. In which case you’ll be able to deal with those emotions and hopefully move forward either by keeping or discarding. But at least you’ll understand why you made your choice.
And here’s another bit of advice: Ignore the misguided albeit well-intentioned minimalist gurus who tell you to just get rid of it all. This approach disregards the strong attachment we have to our sentimental stuff. Psychologists have spent countless hours studying our relationship to things which should prove that our stuff isn’t just stuff.
The pressure to simplify might lead you to get rid of things you really want to keep just because it’s trendy to have less. I love the idea of minimalism and I practice it myself in some parts of my life but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
For now I’ll settle for being an organized Keeper.