Living Well with More: Learning to Love (or at Least Accept) My Kids’ Stuff

Living with less stuff requires control, which is the first thing parents give up when we have children

My children and all of their stuff make my life necessarily complicated. Children bring with them more and more and more, of everything, from small plastic objects and reams of artwork to emotional intensity, germs, and joy. I have heard more than one grandparent say that they hesitate to wipe the sticky fingerprints off their windows or clean up the glitter- and glue-based art installations left behind by their grandchildren, because they love the reminders of their homes being filled by these loud, messy, unpredictable little people. I am trying to embrace that gratitude and acceptance now, when the loud, messy, unpredictable little people are permanent residents rather than temporary visitors.

Graham Hill’s op ed about living well with less in last Sunday’s New York Times started like this:

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

Good for you. Let me hazard a guess: You don’t have any kids, do you?

I regularly devour the New York Times real estate section, shelter magazines, and HGTV remodeling shows. I can just imagine Hill’s studio apartment, with its clean lines, multipurpose furniture that folds neatly out of the way, open shelving where his 10 bowls and sleek iPod dock take on the aesthetic of sculpture. As a homebody and introvert, I am drawn to the notion of sitting down to read or work in a visually quiet space, free of clutter. As someone who spent my formative 20s in a church that preached, in word and action, the art of simple living (I was one of the most impressively dressed church members merely because I was one of the only people who actually bought new clothes, ever), I am sympathetic to the environmental and psychological arguments for owning less stuff.

As a mother of three, however, I have had to learn to thrive in a visually noisy space, full of color and mess and lots and lots of stuff.

Living with less stuff requires control, which is the first thing parents give up when we have children. One of the many things over which we lose control is our home, which is now inhabited by human beings whose notions of what is pretty and what is necessary are radically different than ours.

It’s not that I don’t think children need to learn that more stuff doesn’t equal happiness. My kids are very familiar with both handed-down clothes and the word “no” in response to their many requests for new toys and clothes and iPod songs.

But in our culture, the battle for less stuff is an uphill one, and it is one I have largely stopped fighting. I have stopped standing in the doors of my children’s rooms, feeling guilty and disgusted by the piles of stuffed animals and trinkets. I have stopped winding myself up into a tizzy of cleaning and decluttering, in which I stomp around, muttering nastily about all the junk we own in a way that does not endear me to my family. Monday morning, I looked around at the clutter in the kids’ bedrooms and our living room and shrugged, having decided that I would focus my time this week on finishing up a few vital writing projects rather than cleaning and straightening. So far, it has been a good week anyway; we and the clutter are abiding together quite nicely.

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