Clutter Is Unmade Decisions

a stack of VHS tapes
Image by John Pannell / CC BY

I don’t know if there’s one typical way to grow up, but I’m sometimes told by the people closest to me that I grew up in pretty unusual circumstances. I wrote about it at more length in earlier essays (for example, this one), but the short version is that in the 90s, I lived with a wide variety of people. Sometimes I stayed with relatives, but other times I crashed at friends’ houses, friends who were still living with their parents, since their teenaged home lives were more conventional than my own.

Each family I stayed with had its own values system. And in every structure I slept in, I was subjected to a different set of rules surrounding my behavior, conduct — and housekeeping.

I noticed something very quickly as I shuffled from place to place. People could be downright moral about housekeeping. In a way that struck me as perfectly odd.

Several adults who took me in believed that there was objectively a right and a wrong way to perform particular chores (for example, folding towels, doing the dishes, washing a floor, etc.) and would hammer that method into me with a lot of emotional force.

If any one of those adults had been my parent and that had been the only house I lived in, then I would have probably internalized that lesson on a deep level. Would have become similarly moralistic about those tasks myself. And conveyed that there was an objectively right and wrong way to perform them — had I not shortly gone off to a different house where someone else argued for another method with the same degree of fervor and an equally strong logical argument supporting their choice.

But I didn’t. And instead, I was bombarded with a succession of adults who were determined that their way of doing things was the only right way. And there was little, verging on nothing, that you could present that would convince them otherwise.

What a lesson.

In essence, being a stray kid turned me into a moral relativist. To grow into an adult that has a hard time with the concept of universal truth or One Way True Way-ism. An adult who says, “Well, what’s the context here? That’s what we need to come up with the proper solution.”

Even if at times I know better than to say it that way, especially when if I find myself unexpectedly surrounded by moral absolutists.

But, yeah, how I do things is often situational. In a way that can apparently be pretty striking.

A Cross-Country Move Is the Superbowl of Cleaning and Organizing

Recently I’ve been tasked with the Superbowl of Cleaning and Organizing: Packing for a cross country move. Preparing my house for sale. On a ridiculously short time frame dictated by the cruel mistress of the start date for a new dream job.

When I last moved cross country, it was eight years ago, when I moved from Maine to Ohio. At that point in my life, I was married to Seth, someone who proudly professed himself “the world’s laziest man.” He hadn’t worked for years. And housework simply wasn’t a thing he did.

Since I was at that point in my life happy to have anyone in my life who wanted to spend time with me and didn’t consider me a “small doses person,” I picked up the slack.

At the point that we moved cross-country, I’d been keeping things running for several years on my own. Working at a good steady job. I did all the housework. Now, I did a fairly half-ass job with the daily chores, to be sure. Basically just kept things at the level at which I felt no ill effects. Where I was able to navigate my house and make and eat meals and have people over without feeling ashamed of the condition of things.

And if I’m being honest, my minimum standard for this was maybe lower than some other people’s, owing to my nomadic adolescence. A few of the homes I stayed in were immaculate, looked like they’d been torn from magazines. But they were far from the majority. And some were downright filthy.

Most were somewhere in between. A few of my favorite families were clutterbugs. Not hoarders or anything. But they had neat stuff. And not all of it had a permanent home.

I grew up learning to cook meals on tiny counter spaces. How to do it quickly in a somewhat dirty kitchen with small children running in and out underfoot.

Get in, cook your meal in the dubious space, eat dinner, clean up after. Even if you had to get creative finding prep space.

Cleaning up beforehand was pointless. No reason to clean twice.

The Last Time I Moved Cross-Country, I Made All the Decisions

Anyway, I knew how to do the bare minimum to get the job done in the moment (even if it wasn’t pretty). And with Seth not lifting a finger and pushing myself because I was the only breadwinner, I cut a lot of damn corners.

When it came time to move, it was like it had always been. I had absolutely no help. And I actually had to fight Seth and keep him from doing things like convincing the moving company we needed to spend more money than we were. By telling them we’d need a special shuttle to get up to where we were staying at the time (not true, and a service with an upcharge).

Or when Seth insisted we needed to move a set of free weights to Ohio (when the cost per pound for moving was higher than their retail cost per pound; we could pick up new weights much more cheaply in our new location than it would cost to pay people to move them).

Little battles like that. Over and over. All while he didn’t lift a finger helping me clean, donate or dispose of items, or pack.

I fought hard though. And I got our move under the minimum weight (and therefore minimum moving cost) by about 10 pounds.

Fantastic.

Digging through the clutter wasn’t fun. It took ages. But I managed the project.

It was a process of making thousands of decisions. And for the most part, other than the occasional strange moment where he was spontaneously saying something to a contractor that might get us upsold or proposing something else completely unnecessary, Seth was so checked out of the responsibility of running our household (in a domestic or financial sense) that I made 99% of them on my own.

It’s a Huge Paradigm Shift Co-Managing a Household with a Responsible Partner

This move, eight years later, is a completely different prospect, in spite of being roughly the same distance (this time I’m moving from Ohio to Texas).

And that’s because I’m not the only decision maker in this house. The only person who takes on responsibility. Who feels an obligation to support the household. Justin and I are more or less equals in that regard. (Arguably, he has an upper hand on me that way.)

Sometimes this is an absolutely wonderful thing.

Truthfully, co-managing a household was terrifying the first year or two. I had no idea how to respond to it. Having such a responsible domestic partner was a huge paradigm shift that made me nervous. Part of me worried that I was being tricked somehow. That my partner was only being helpful in order to exact a huge unpayable emotional bill later on, once I’d been trapped somehow by the situation.

But once I adjusted, it was a lovely change, to find that if we worked together on projects that we could actually make progress, build something better for us both to enjoy. It was a huge departure from what I’d experienced with Seth, which often felt like I was trying to climb a mountain with a large dead weight strapped to me.

Back then I made a little progress, but it was slow and exhausting. And there were often times where I’d get so exhausted from carrying Seth that I’d lose my footing and slip back down a bit, demoralizing me.

I’ve Tried Really Hard to Get Better at Housework

This is not to say that life with a responsible partner hasn’t been without challenges. When Justin and I do fight, it’s about chores. Pretty much always it’s because I haven’t done something “right.”

A moral relativist in most other ways, Justin has strict notions about how housework should be done (passed down to him by a mother who was similarly inclined and keeps a spotless house). And his standard of “minimum acceptable” is much higher than mine.

While I do work and have never lounged about the way my ex-husband does, Justin works in tech and has consistently out-earned me. In spite of my interminable hustle, mental health and writing are notoriously low-paying fields.

So while not the only breadwinner, there have been moments when statistically speaking he basically might as well be.

This creates a situation where I feel like I need to excel at housework. Be helpful with chores. In order to compensate for my lower financial contribution to the household.

I definitely try. Boy, do I try.

It’s been eight years of going to the YouTube School of Housekeeping (watching videos on how to clean X or Y), reading articles, printing out chore sheets, trying different regimens, and getting (appropriately) lectured on what I’ve done wrong, all the while fighting my brain’s tendency to regress back to the mean. To drift back to the place where I comfortably existed for so many years. The level that my cleaning auto-pilot is.

Now, I’m clearly a better housekeeper than I was when we moved in together. It’s like night and day.

This is consistently one of the nicest, cleanest houses I’ve stayed in.

But am I up to his standard? No. I’m not.

And it kills me. I hate it.

My Accuracy Rate for Educated Guesses Still Isn’t 100%

I’m constantly weighing the risk of taking initiative but maybe doing something “wrong” against waiting until I can talk with him and discuss the way that he’d like it done. Sometimes I forge ahead and it goes well. Other times it backfires as I irritate him and create more work because he needs to undo what I did and redo it the way he wanted it.

Sometimes I wait to ask him about something, and the opportunity doesn’t come soon enough. And he’ll get upset because to him it looks like I’m dragging my feet. He’ll ask me why getting me to do X, Y, and Z is “like pulling teeth” for me. And I’ll have the hardest time explaining that I was in fact trying to do the right thing, that I just wanted his input. Because to him it’ll sound like excuses. Something I’m post hoc-ing to get out of hot water and nothing I actually intended .

Other times waiting goes well. It’ll be the right move.

And none of this is clearly labeled, y’know? Every time, I’m making educated guesses. And it’s humbling that eight years into this that my accuracy rate isn’t 100%.

Clutter Is Unmade Decisions

It is in this environment that I’m currently undertaking the Superbowl of Cleaning and Organizing, my second cross country move.

I am not doing everything on my own, but there’s someone else in the picture who is equally responsible but very busy and with their own set of exacting standards (that I can’t always figure out on my own).

It’s a marriage (both figurative and literal) of two extremely independent, responsible, hard-working, sensitive people who came from very different places and have very different needs.

In other words, it’s the perfect breeding ground for analysis paralysis. One in which I’ve felt like  organizing is like defusing a bomb. High stakes, delicate, time-sensitive.

I’m happy to report that I’m making excellent progress. Mostly what I’ve done is blitz through the parts that are easy to tackle unilaterally. Decisions that don’t really affect my partner or are easy to check in with him about.

The no brainers.

Sure, I have to make thousands of decisions again. That’s what clutter is, you know. Clutter is unmade decisions.

But, really, there’s only a small handful of those decisions that are really difficult. The vast majority of them don’t matter and only trick us into thinking they do.

With a Certain Mindset, It’s Easy to Agonize Over No Brainers

It’s not just cleaning either. I think there are a lot of things in life like that.

As I’m cleaning, and my mind has time to wander, I can think back on lots of times with Justin where we were talking and I felt like I was defusing a bomb, but it was probably wasn’t anything like that in reality.

Most of the decisions I’ve agonized over the past eight years were probably no brainers. Or would have worked out pretty well either way.

It’s much more likely that only a crucial few mattered. And that I was more than capable of working through them with him.

Anyway, I’m making headway. The attic is just about empty now, which isn’t bad for a week of shuttling back and forth to the donation center and the dump.

The next week should be even more dramatic as far as progress.

I’m looking forward to it.

*

My new book is out!

Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).

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