Confessions of a Messy Person

Recently, my husband approached me with a recurring request – please be neater. My reaction was similar to our 3-year old’s tantrums with my ranting ending in something like, “you don’t know what it’s like to be me.” He may have anticipated this reaction, given it’s a nerve he’s touched before, and his blank stare told me he wasn’t going to participate into my attempt at distraction. “Whatever – I am just asking you to be neater” was his rational response that I couldn’t really react to, except to say, “ok, but please show me how.” He was more than happy to show me. Let me introduce myself. My name is Carmen and I am messy. Messy is not something that I am supposed to be. Us messy ones have a very bad name out there…and as a mom, I’m really not supposed to be this way. How will I ever raise good little citizens if I can not pass on traits like making beds, putting away toys and shoes (which I do try to teach, by the way) or tidying rooms? Thank goodness my husband is religiously neat (and as a German, it may just be genetic) so that our children have hope. As part of my confession, however, I feel compelled to say a few things.

I realize that us messy folks don’t get to say much in this antibacterial culture that we live in – by definition, misfits in our anxiously neat and clean society. I am not going to say that I am too busy to be neat, even though I am a mother of a 3 year old and a 10 month old and now I’ve gotten this hair-brained idea that I need to be a writer, which means I work full time plus. I will admit I have tried to use this excuse, but I do recognize that everyone is busy, including my religiously/genetically neat husband, so I give up this point.

So, then, a word in my defense. I am not dirty, I am messy. Though, certainly by my friends and family bordering on OCD tendencies, some might contend that I am dirty too, even my husband concedes this point – I am just messy. And what I really want to explain to the world is that mess follows me. I’ve talked this over with other messy people and it’s an agreed-upon phenomenon. I am not asking the American Medical Association to make up a name for my affliction so that I can pronounce my victimization to it. I am just saying that I feel I, perhaps, lack a neatness gene. Ok – maybe I am kind of saying it’s not entirely my fault. But here’s how it is. I love things to be neat. I’m sorry to other messy people who try to demand that being messy is just another way to be. I actually think that almost all messy people would have to admit, even if they haven’t admitted to themselves yet, that neat is good. Feng shui tells us this, and most of us know this from experience: Clutter and mess suck our energy. Also, knowing where something IS, vs. looking for everything for 10 minuets is a real breath of fresh air. But it just doesn’t work like this for me. Here’s how it goes: I clean up my kitchen. I organize, put things away, scrub, set things up how I think they would look best. It gets to a point where I’m tapped. This is clean. It’s tidy. It’s done. Then my mother-in-law comes through (remember, she’s German), and thinking that I have not yet cleaned, up, runs through her procedure, and let me tell you, minutes later, I’m dazzled. It appears more spotless, more organized. It looks like a kitchen in a magazine. But why was I not able to do this? Please, someone tell me.

One of my problems there are miscellaneous objects left over on the counter that I’m not quite sure what to do with. Pictures of my niece and nephew that my sister gave me, a batman ring of my son’s, some old batteries that I’m trying to find out the best way to dispose – things that don’t really have a home. While I know it’s my job to find them one, there are reasons that they kind of “work” here. The pictures, my son likes to look at. His batman ring, if put in the toy-chest would fall to the bottom never to be seen again. The old batteries? If I don’t leave them out, I will forget that I have them, and forget to look up the proper way to dispose of them, and then when I run across them again I will not know if they are new batteries or old batteries. So, even if it takes me 2 months to get this errand taken care of, at least I won’t permanently forget. It’s an interactive to-do list, if you will. And, yes, it’s messy.

I’m not sure how I ended up this way. My mother is a collector of, well, from what I can tell, everything, so clutter is an issue in her house, but she’s one of those OCD people I was talking about in terms of germs and cleanliness. One look at her desk, however, will have you pointing your finger as to where I get this from. But even she points her finger back at me and laughs at my ability to see past misplaced items and a slightly dusty shelf that I am ‘getting to’. Mind you, this is a woman who had to run a bulldozer through my room every 6 months so that there was a path to walk through as I was growing up, so I allow her the finger pointing and the laughing. The irony, or not, considering how the world must balance itself, is that my sister is a professional organizer. Seriously. She gets paid to go into people’s homes and reduce clutter, clean up, and teach them how to do it for themselves. It’s a running household threat from my neat husband to hire my sister to organize our house. I applaud and admire her abilities, but I don’t feel I am that far gone to need professional help….yet. My sister mostly deals with chronics – people with buying or collecting obsessions, who have mental issues with giving things up. People who have rooms full of items – such that they can’t walk into these rooms. People who make me look anally neat. Also, professional organizers are advocates of labels and other such atrocities. No matter how many kids I have, or how chaotic my life becomes, I will not label where things belong. If someone can’t figure out that the bin where most of the stuffed animals reside is where the stuffed animals go, or the shelf with the art supplies is where the crayons go, then we’ve got bigger issues than messiness. My desk ‘in-box’, looks like an in-box (in a very fashionable, raspberry pink and aqua blue kind of way) – I don’t need it to say ‘in-box’. I feel labeling is truly giving up any form of style – it’s pure function over form, and it’s like scraping nails on a chalkboard for me when I see it. Function vs. form is one area that my husband and I have agreed is one of our primary value differences –the only area in which we are flipped in this attitude is in the area of bras – he sees no need for a nude colored t-shirt bra, no matter its extremely high functionality. But I digress. All to say, perhaps it’s my philosophical beliefs that lead me to a messy home? No. I have anti-label friends who still have immaculate homes….and I recognize my own grasping for reason.

On the professional front, I do hire professional help on a regular basis. I have a house cleaner who comes every two weeks. She is another woman who can transform a cluttered, messy console table into a beautiful display of colorful, picture-perfect stacks of items that look like they are meant to be there, not that they are waiting around to be taken care of. I also subscribe to Real Simple – a magazine published by professionals on the subject – and I even read it. I also have a lawn-guy who makes my yard look really neat. On this one, let’s face it, there are simply other things I would like to do with my time…like writing enlightening articles, like this one.

In a world of relativity, I still argue that I’m not that messy, though I do feel it’s something that I may battle (and my husband may battle) for the rest of our lives. Perhaps there is hope,however, because since my 20’s, I have improved 100 fold. For my husband, however, whom I didn’t start dating until I was 32, I’ve improved only a tiny-eensy-weensy-bit. But he does admit improvement, which is already something.

For those of you who don’t empathize with my messy predicament, and wonder how I live with myself, here’s how. In my quest for ‘self-improvement’, I will also continue to live in this balance of accepting me for who I am, and who I am not. I will continue to take responsibility for myself and my household – and will continue to call in professional help where needed. Some day, I may even call on my sister. And in the mean time, I just hope there is perhaps a little more understanding between you neat-nicks and us…uh….’not so neat-nicks’, or dare I suggest, ‘neatness challenged’, and that you revel in the fact that, despite what we say, we would like to be a little bit more like you: A true confession.

2 responses to “Confessions of a Messy Person

  1. Tari

    One of the things I most liked about you when we first new each other was that you were unapologetically messy. You almost seemed like you didn’t notice. I distinctly remember you inviting me into your dorm room, and mindlessly shoving things aside so I could sit down. I was impressed with your self confidence to just be yourself. I live with a “messy,” and tend to lean more “neat-nicky.” So, I can relate in some ways to your husband (and thanks for the insight about my own husband). However, my house isn’t nearly as neat as I would like with two preschoolers running around. I defend this by saying that I’d rather have toys in misplaced places than be scolding my kids for playing in their own house. I want our house to be low-stress and clean, but more than anything I want the kids to grow up and think it was a nice place in which to live and play and that they always felt at home. Strive for balance, not to be neat.

  2. Jean Stricklen

    I have been thinking about the neat and messy issue. I believe that there is something to the idea of cultural background affecting our position on this. As a teenager, visiting the Netherlands and Germany we were all struck by how neat and clean everything was, including the insides of friends’ homes. By contrast, France and Italy, not to mention England were decidedly on the messy – even dirty, side. I also think that if you are raised in a home where everything has a place and items are returned after use, it can drive you bonkers to be in a messy environment. However, it is surely unrealistic to think that a home with two children will be neat. It isn’t physically possible to take care of children if you try to put things away all the time. If the children seem to be instinctively neat then it will be possible to get them to put their own stuff away eventually. But if they are not, as a colleague of mine discovered, life at home is miserable if you are constantly nagging. When their son was about 16, they gave up and everyone was happier. Then there’s the old argumeent: if you have an artistic, imaginative temperament and aren’t neat, there is no way that your creative juices can flow if you feel pressured to have everything in it’s place.
    On the other hand, living with someone who is different from yourself in this respect has to be resolved amicably Two things can work. One is to pick a time of day when the children are alseep and put away as much as you have the energy for – your stuff as well as theirs. The second is to agree that there will be certain rooms in the house which will be kept neat but that at least one room will belong to the messy person. ‘Belong’ in this sense doesn’t mean ownership, just that the other person can’t complain. I live with the world’s messiest person and we have resolved it the latter way. I used to think I was messy but as I have grown older I am much neater. For me, it’s partly a control isssue – I want to know where everything is. My husband, by contrast, can never find anything so I get to feel slightly superior on this issue.
    No doubt you will work things out.

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