Jenny Uebbing

Letting It Go

Marie Kondo’s new show on Netflix is oddly soothing, reminiscent of the way a cooking show can make you slow down and sink into the couch, watching someone deftly julienne vegetables as the tension melts from your shoulds. Your own veggies might be wasting away in the depths of your produce drawer, ironically enough, but that detracts little from the enjoyment.

I watched the first two episodes of this series with a new fondness for Kondo. I read her record-smashing book when it first came out years ago,and immediately applied most of her tidying principles to my own life, harried though it was with three young children. I never did get on board with folding/standing up my clothing in drawers or thanking my material possessions for their service, but so much of what she preaches is deeply calming, balm for the frenzied materialistic society we inhabit.

(Update: her folding method is wonderful! Our master bedroom dresser drawers look like well styled merchandise shelves at Banana Republic. You know, minus the expensive cashmere.)

It’s not that stuff is bad, or that a house filled with stuff is wrong; it’s that stuff can never make us happy, and in fact has the power to majorly detract from happiness.

Let me backup a little.

When I first started having babies, it became immediately clear that having babies meant acquiring lots and lots of new things. First, my wardrobe needed an entire overhaul. New jeans with a big, stretchy ace bandage-like waistband to hoist over my growing belly. A $69 dollar tank top with built in ergonomic back support (I know. But I still stand by that purchase.) Soon there was an infant car seat to consider. Why not spring for the travel system? We did.

The kick start for my own foray into minimalism came once we began adding kids to our family faster than we were adding bedrooms. A bigger than average family combined with a smaller than average (per capita) income + a whole bunch of moves (including one overseas) taught me in short order that less truly was more when it came to baby gear, and pretty much everything else we owned.

Two cars for a family with two kids? For a while we got by just fine with only one. While living abroad with no car and baby number three on the way, we discovered that a pack n play worked about as well as a permanent crib, and that a twin mattress on the floor was a pretty good toddler bed (plus, awfully Montessori).

As our family stretched and grew, so did our imaginations. For Easter that year we lived in Rome, we hosted an epic expat “festa di pasqua” in our small 2 bedroom apartment: 13 grown ups, 5 kids under 4, and a massive “table” cobbled together from all the horizontal surfaces in our apartment pushed into the center of our living room/guest bedroom/family room/office and covered with flat bed sheets.
I discovered that day that hospitality was less about beautiful centerpieces and matching china and more about generosity.

Generosity and a willingness to ask someone to bring more forks.

We live in the suburbs of Denver now with 5 kids and a cat, and we still don’t have enough forks. I run a load of dishes most mornings, and another at night after dinner. We have 12 Corelle dinner plates (and half that many bowls, because even unbreakable table service can be broken, turns out.) We have to stay on top of the dishes in our house, because if the sink is piled up that means there’s actually nothing clean to eat off of.

It isn’t normal to have kitchen drawers crammed full of flatware for twenty when your house isn’t home to twenty people. It has been immensely freeing, mentally sure, but physically for sure, to realize that what passes for normal in America today is anything but.

We don’t need separate bedrooms. It would be nice, but there are definite advantages to sharing. Cleanliness is not one of them, but excellent negotiation skills are. I hope.

We don’t need piles of toys. One box in the family room, a few toys in each bedroom, and a garage full of bikes and scooters. A trampoline out back. Our kids are rich beyond the wildest imagination of most of the world’s children, historically and in present day. Books are given a slightly wider berth than toys, but still limited to only what we actually read and love. The library - funded by our tax dollars - exists for a reason.

We don’t save clothes to pass down to younger siblings unless they’re in great shape. I don’t hang on to baby gear either, releasing it almost as soon as the current babe is finished with it into the economy of maternity that I firmly believe exists just about anywhere that you have a critical mass of humanity. Turns out that nobody wants bumbo seats and high chairs sitting in their basements or garages for two or three or ten years.

A neighbor kid just knocked on the door while I was writing the above paragraph - cross my heart - and handed me two of his outgrown name brand ski coats that perfectly fit our 6 and 8-year-old boys. My guys’ current jackets, both inferior brands and a little past their prime, are getting washed and tossed into the outgoing thrift store bin as I type. The maternity economy - it’s a real thing.

Whatever you’re hanging onto, and for whatever reason, take a few moments to sit and contemplate why it’s sitting in those rubbermaid bins in your basement, or in your bedroom closets.

Will you really use it again in the near future?

Will you absolutely fit back into that size in a reasonable amount of time?

Will the stuff you’re hanging onto still be in good condition and pleasant to use when it does come time to break it out?

Asking myself these questions usually helps me to break through any indecision I might be feeling and go ahead and release the stuff we aren’t really using. It’s also a helpful exercise in uncovering some faulty beliefs I might be harborning: I’ll be a skinnier/better person “someday” when I fit into these jeans again; I made a mistake in purchasing this so I have to punish myself by keeping it so it wasn’t “wasted” money; my mother or mother in law bought this for our first baby, so it would be disrespectful to her to donate it; and on and on.

Will I actually be happier when - and if - I get skinnier at some far off point in the future? Does it really teach me a valuable lesson - or actually save us money - for me to clutter up my closet with purchases I regret and never wear? Will my mom come knocking on my door asking about that baby sweater from 2010?

Probably not. And admitting the unlikeliness is actually so freeing!

Happy decluttering. And may increasing peace in your physical surroundings lend itself to peace in your heart.

Jenny Uebbing is the author of the popular blog Mama Needs Coffee covering topics of sex, life, marriage, culture, and the Catholic Church. She is a revert to Catholicism with a deep love for the Faith and a desire to grow in knowledge and understanding of what we believe, and why.