One evening, four months postpartum, I was folding laundry. Everywhere my eyes landed, I saw work I ought to do. Nothing was satisfactory. I felt like I was busy all day, going no where. I indulged that story, replaying it over and over with each towel I folded, a towel I’d probably be washing again tomorrow anyway. I sighed and commented to my husband, “I am so behind. I am doing a terrible job. Everything is a disaster.”
He looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean? You’re doing fine! Everything seems mostly like normal to me.” Instead of taking this as the encouragement it was intended to me, I twisted it in my mind to a new bad story: The house had always been a disaster and I was fooling myself that I’d ever made any progress. The house was always this bad, and my husband was used to it. He didn’t expect me to do any better than this.
A family life you enjoy
Some days later, I was texting with a friend who lived out of state. I told her how discouraged I felt about the housework that never went away. I commented, “I don’t have baby blues or anything, but…” I don’t even remember now what followed my “but,” because the next thing she said was, “How do you know you don’t have baby blues?”
I didn’t think I was the kind who would, that’s how. Of course, there was the fact that my baby never slept more than two hours together. Baby blues, sleep deprivation, whatever you wanted to call it, maybe my mental and emotional state wasn’t actually rational after all.
A few weeks later I was conversing with an internet friend about the same struggles. She said that I should focus on “building a livable life” – a life I enjoyed living. Now, she did not at all mean I should only do what I loved, but rather that it is possible to love my real life. A livable life is one where I stop focusing on reaching a final destination in this life, give up selfish indulgence that keeps me stuck, and brush away the cobwebs of false expectations.
At that point for me, a livable life meant getting outside for exercise, starting with the daily basics instead of deep-clean projects, and prioritizing sleep so I could be an attentive mother. Each season – sometimes literally rather than metaphorically – requires adjustment and reevaluation of the steps necessary for a livable family life.
The problem isn’t too much stuff
When we think of simple living, we tend to conjure up pictures of bright white kitchens, uncluttered living rooms, and slow days. To achieve simplicity, we think we have to remove or replace everything until our life and home look worthy to go viral on Instagram. That’s not real-world simple living.
Living simply means you have a focus and direction, that all aspects of your life cohere around a single-minded focus. All you do moves your primary mission forward. Simplicity means you do not have compartmentalized portions of your life. It means your energies are not scattershot across a wide field, aiming at no particular target.
Simplicity and minimalism are not synonyms, though they are often used that way. To be minimalist, you do without as much as possible. Your goal is to see how far you can cut back. To simplify, however, is to make your life an integrated whole, where there’s nothing that interferes with the integrity of the whole. To simplify is to ensure that the different elements of our schedule, of our work, of our interactions, all harmonize and build one another up.
Simplified organization is organization that addresses the true disorder, not only the surface-level disorder of our counters or closets or cupboards, but the disorder in our minds and our hearts. Until there is inner order, outer order will be ineffectual, if it’s even possible. It is only when we cut through the superficial answers and the impressive-looking solutions that we can understand what we want when we say we want to be organized.
Our attitude is key to simplicity & enjoyment
When we clean and contain our clutter in hopes that it will change our character, we’re bound not only to be disappointed, but we’re also bound to return to our messy ways. That clutter will return. The disorder will continue. Its true source is not our circumstances, but ourselves.
In my boom and bust pattern, I would go all-out and clean the whole house top to bottom in a mad frenzy. I would bask in the glow of completion, then collapse. I repeated the process when the chaos was too terrible to put up with anymore. This is not integrity. This is not simple living.
But the solution was not to clear all the stuff out of my house so I wouldn’t have to clean anything anymore, tempting as that often was. The real solution was to change my attitude, to see the significance of the work, to apply myself with faithfulness to my duties.
When we simplify organization, we cut to the heart first and realize that stuff-management is a way we extend a blessing to others (and ourselves). It is not a thing that bestows blessing itself; it is not pixie dust that makes everything better. It is rather a tool, a way of life that is consistent with our character: once our attitude, our character, our mindset has been ordered in accordance with truth.
First, think of homemaking as a vocation.
The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin “vocare,” which means “to call.” Often, vocation is used as a synonym for one’s career, but within Christian thought over the centuries, it also carries connotations of duties that God has given.
The key to the concept of vocation, or calling, is that it comes from outside of you. You don’t call yourself. You are not accountable to yourself. God calls you. You are accountable to God.
As a vocation, the work of homemaking is a responsibility, a duty, which means it determines what ends up on our calendar, what ends up on the to-do list, and what ends up taking our attention and energy each day. To call homemaking a vocation is to remember that we do not determine our own mission or our own destiny. Both open-handed trust on the one hand and purposeful direction on the other are harmonized in the concept of vocation.
Second, write a vocation statement for homemaking.
A vocation statement will help you maintain mental and emotional clarity in the ups and downs of normal life. Make your statements positive and sure, not wishful or idealistic.
To write a vocation statement, begin by choosing three adjectives that describe faithfulness in your family over a lifetime. Then compose a complete sentence that puts those adjectives together in a sentence with yourself as the subject. Mine is “I am a cheerful, diligent, hospitable homemaker.” Simple. Clear. Powerful.
Your vocation statement reminds you of the direction you’re moving. It will become more and more true as you review it and live it out. Therefore, write it in present tense even if you don’t think what you wrote is true right now. That discomfort in the discrepancy will help move you toward growth.
Organization is not about having everything go your way. It’s about knowing what to do next and being confident you’re making the right choice in the moment. Keep your vocation statement in a prominent place so that you read it at least weekly, but daily is better, especially while you get familiar with it, so it can help shape your choices.
It’s easy to fixate on who we wish we were or who we want to become. Such thoughts usually lead us to despair as we never live up to our standard. Our vocation statement, however, is not an end goal we hope to achieve and check off. It’s a compass, directing our movement forward.
Third, declutter gradually.
When we want to get organized, we tend to want to go all in and get it done. However, the reality is that decluttering will never be done. With an active household full of growing children, we will always have stuff coming in and needing to go out.
Instead of calling everything in the house mere “stuff” or worse, clutter, call it supplies. Managing the supplies our home and family requires for its current needs and projects is our job as vocational homemakers. Decluttering is not a project we’re behind on or an achievement to unlock. It’s just ongoing management.
Sure, we have clutter, and we should deal with it. Decluttering is one vital part of managing stuff. But what is clutter? Sometimes we use “clutter” as a generic insult for stuff we don’t want to deal with. However, clutter refers to things that are not where they belong. When we’re looking in a closet, in a cupboard, in a drawer, in a whole room, and we say, “It’s cluttered,” what we mean is that it’s full of stuff that does not belong there.
Decluttering means going through the space and removing what does not belong. Organizing the space then is putting the things away well, strategically, smartly, in the place they do belong. The real problem that trips us up in the chaos of our home is not that we own stuff or use stuff or even have stuff out. The difficulty is that so much of the stuff has no home – so it’s not just that it’s out, but rather that it has no place to go other than some other spot a little less in the way. Let’s address the real issue, then, and give our stuff proper homes.
Homes don’t have to be labeled, containered, or look impressive. A home is simply a deliberately chosen space the thing occupies for now. When it’s in that space, it is “put away.” When it is not in that space, it is clutter. Decluttering, tidying, and organizing is always a dance between stuff and space. If there’s no space, the stuff has to go. If there’s stuff, it will occupy space, so it must be given intentional space to occupy. If you aren’t going to give it a place to belong, you need to get rid of it. There’s no other option.
Simple living isn’t effortless living
The point of organizing is to be prepared. Organization is not about controlling what happens, because we can’t. Rather, being organized is about being prepared for what life tosses our way.
No matter how organized we are, we ultimately do not control outcomes. God controls the future and nothing we do can wrest that control from His hands. We can’t earn our desired outcome by trying hard enough or figuring out the right formula.
Rather, organizing is a way of stewarding our gifts and our situations, presenting our resources as effective offerings of service to God. He then may do what He sees fit with them, and we can trust that it will work out to the good.
The truth is, we don’t know what will happen today, much less what will happen in a year, five years, or a lifetime. We don’t even know how long our lifetime will be. What we do know is that we are where God has placed us, that God has given us duties to perform here and now, and that He is using those to further equip us for duties that He will send in the future.
Doing what’s in front of you is not the same thing as aimless wandering though. It is easy to drift, just doing the next thing that presents itself, always working at the urgent, immediate level and never looking up and seeing where your efforts are taking you. Instead, you need to see where you are, what your duties are, and what direction you are headed.