Dear Home Ec 101,
To put it simply, we’ve got too much stuff.
I read the article I read about a mother with 3 children with a baby on the way felt her housework was not getting done as she would like. You said your life has changed, and yet you still do your regular cleaning. What is your regular cleaning routine? I once tried FlyLady.
My situation is there are three adults here. Our son works full-time. He helps in the evenings and on weekends but not consistently. I am a senior adult college student studying music, flute, and piano. I took a brief hiatus, but I’ll be starting back in August. My husband is disabled with the right side of his body limp. He requires lots of care and is unsteady on his feet as he sits in a wheelchair all day. He can help himself but isn’t mobile.
I care for him and the house in the daytime, and our son does the evening before bedtime. There are many chores I want to accomplish in the day, during the week, and before school starts in August.
Our home is full of stuff that needs to go. It is 25 years of whatever, and it’s neatly stored and organized. The house is telling me not to bring anything else home. There isn’t any place to put it.
1. Here is what is bothering me. I have a major Piano (beginner level) exam. I need to practice, but it has not fit into what has to be done in the day to keep the house running each day.
2. Window washing has not been done in two years, refrigerator, cleaning the back and on the floor, blowing out the compressor vent for dust bunnies.
3. Reclaiming the living room for Christmas. My husband is currently sleeping in the living room, I would like him to move to the spare room, but it is full of too much stuff, files, clothing, books, etc.
4. When you come into the house from the outside, the house has an odor! From where? I don’t know. An unclean smell /where do I begin to locate the source. Is it in all of our stuff? I empty the trash from the kitchen every night. Bleach the garbage tote every week that the city takes to prevent maggots.
5. Learning to keep up with shopping, bill paying, dishes, (no dishwasher) laundry, bed making, DUSTING, meal planning, baking, washing floors, hubby’s doctor appointments, cooking, Oh yes, yard work, and other tasks to crop up. Learning to declutter the house, closets, lighten the load of unusable items.
Where do you begin?
I did complete the hallway linen closet last week with four drawers loaded. I rearranged, sorted, and got a lot of extra space. YEAH!
An agency comes here to help with the hubby for two hours, two days a week. What is the schedule she was talking about in your book? Would you be willing to help me as well??
Awaiting your generous reply,
Living in Michigan
Busy seasons happen throughout our lives. It’s not just when kids are little. Although for many people, this is the first time we encounter that complete sense of overwhelm.
How did I get into this?
And naturally, the next thought is how do I undo it?
Your situation is unique, and yet, it isn’t. You really aren’t alone. You are a caregiver, but also a college student. It’s good to see that you haven’t lost your identity in the care of your family. I’m not an expert, but it doesn’t take one to notice that depression often lurks down that path.
Your house took a long time to accumulate too much stuff, and it’s going to take time and energy to undo it. Too much stuff means you have to spend too much time caring for it. Ignore the sunk costs and work on getting rid of things.
The weekly cleaning schedule she is talking about can be found by clicking on the yellow sticky note at the top of this post. You can print it out and put it wherever you’ll follow it. (We’ll talk about it more in a bit)
To address your main concerns, let’s call it the…
Let’s Make Your Life More Livable Project:
1. First, something for you.
Move at least part of your piano practice to first thing in the morning. I’ve had to move my exercise to first thing in the morning, or it simply isn’t going to happen. If I don’t, there’s always a reason to put it off. If you’re practicing on an electronic piano, there is no reason you can’t use headphones so as not to disturb others.
Don’t turn on the tv or the computer until after you’ve gotten your practice done. Maybe use a post-it note reminder to break the habit of tuning out. Fifteen minutes is not going to ruin the rest of the day. You may need more than fifteen minutes of practice, but setting a small goal makes it more likely to happen. You can always exceed your goal.
2. From reading your email, window washing is not actually a realistic priority at the moment.
Let’s move that down the list and focus on your biggest complaint “too much stuff.”
Set up a savings jar, throw in your change and small bills when you can, as you work on decluttering the rest of the house. Add to this jar every time you can and when the house has been reclaimed from the twenty-five years of stuff accumulation, celebrate by hiring someone to wash the windows.
And then, let the light shine in. I believe the delight of having a professional clean your windows will give you a true sense of accomplishment.
3. Reclaiming the living room:
Put a bin or a bag near the front door and then every time you walk through the living room, pick up something that needs to be let go and put it in that bin or bag.
Get used to loading your trunk with items that need to be donated or taken to the swap shed at the landfill.
Every time you find yourself in a box store like Target or Walmart, make sure you have your discipline with you. Do not buy anything except the essentials. Find the recycling drop-off points in your community and use them. Books? Look for a Little Free Library near you. I swear you will feel my disappointment if any books come home with you.
2021 update: Use curbside pick up as often you can. The less time you spend IN a store, the less you can be tempted by deals.
4. That odor IS most likely part of having too much stuff. Cooking odors get trapped in floating, greasy dust particles that adhere to surfaces. Over the years, that odor is absorbed by everything in the home, the carpeting, the padding, the walls, anything upholstered.
Like the windows project, this is not a quick fix.
Open the windows as often as is possible. And as the house is cleared of too much stuff that’s in the way, steam clean the carpet and furniture, and dry clean/launder the curtains/drapes. Get rid of old pillows and make sure blankets/duvet covers get laundered, too.
Wipe down walls with a diluted degreaser. Please note that I’m not saying to do this all in one day. This is a long-term project that involves a checklist and diligence.
Also, do you have an older dog? Man, I loved our dog, Dave, but I do not miss his old dog smell. Some things are what they are.
Change the air filter frequently and clean the filter in the vent hood. – You may also find this post on Musty Odors in a Home useful.
5. Learning to keep up.
First, take a deep breath. Many of these things don’t matter as much as we might feel they do at the time. (I’m really good at saying these things, I’m not so great at feeling these things, so take this with a grain of salt.) We get a barrage of information all day long telling us we have to do all of the things or everything is going to fall apart, or the big bad scary thing will happen. (Or at least that’s how it feels in my head.)
It’s ok if you don’t always get all the things done. If you, your husband, and your son are fed, clean, and the bills are paid, the rest can wait until tomorrow.
Get some rest.
A hard question for you.
When the agency is at your home, do you let them care for your husband, or do you hover over them and not take the respite you need and deserve?
Use that time for yourself.
And then, you can institute that cleaning schedule I mentioned before.
The weekly chore schedule consists of one big chore and one little chore each day.
FlyLady has a great system, too. Be aware that the system comes with a fair amount of email unless things have changed in the last few years. This works for people who need a lot of reminders and hand-holding. It all depends on your preferences which one will work for you.
Set reminders on your phone and then. . . this is the hard part… get up and do the chore when the phone reminds you.
There is no quick and easy answer to fix twenty-five years of bad habits and too much stuff accumulation. It’s going to take time, energy, and cooperation. Getting rid of twenty-five years of clutter will be accomplished one day, one drawer, one corner at a time.
Get your adult son involved with recycling and donating. At the very least, he can find a drop point for recycling or donations that is on or near his route to work.
There’s no reason he can’t also make the Let’s Make Life More Livable Project a priority; if he’s living in the home, he’s part of the team. Maybe give Dividing the Chores Fairly a look.
You said your husband is physically disabled. Is he cognitively able? If so, can he contribute to tasks like sorting paperwork? The act of contributing may do some good.
I wish you the best of luck. Would you mind checking in to let us know how things are going as you work through this project?
Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.