Last week, James finished a box of chocolate-covered salted caramels I’d slipped into his Christmas stocking. I fished the small cardboard box from the recycling basket we keep by the front door and, after pressing my forefinger into the remaining chocolate crumbs and letting them melt on my tongue, I slipped both sides of it into this top dresser drawer.
The drawer is a behind-the-scenes spot in our house that’s in regular need of decluttering. The box, I knew, would be the perfect foil for lip balms and pocket change and whatever else would otherwise have continued rattling around in there. The small addition makes a tiny but noticeable improvement in a spot that can get unruly, cozied right next to James’s socks.
This week, James made a French yogurt loaf, which meant needing to empty the loaf pan where we stash our tiniest kitchen supplies. I took the opportunity to reorganize the supplies and to finally find a proper place for tucking a roll of masking tape and a marker that we use daily to add the date to Silas’s school lunch. It’s a daycare requirement and daily practice shared by me and James. (Faye eats the lunch provided by public Pre-k, for anyone wondering if she’s being neglected by her parents.)
Yes, I’ve been watching Tidying up with Marie Kondo and yes, it’s January, and yes, I come by this kind of tidying honestly. The first chapter of my book is called Decluttering after all. The second, Organizing. I like to organize things. I crave clean and orderly spaces. For me, paring belongings down to the essentials and keeping them organized is the best way I know how to appreciate and enjoy and properly care for the things I own (to say nothing of the planet). But it’s also the best tool I have for making sure that the labor that goes into running our home is shared by everyone living in it.
One of the most common questions I get from readers is how I’ve gotten James to get on board with our so-called lifestyle. My initial impulse is to say that he’s not terribly dissimilar to me and that our lifestyle, such that it is, evolved naturally and together. That’s true. He’s relatively organized. His possessions, like mine, are relatively few. We started our home together pretty much from scratch after he bought a mattress and I showed up with a suitcase. Later, when we moved for school and work it didn’t take convincing or cajoling to get him to move into a small space or keep it tidy. I’ve been the one to write about it, but behind the scenes we’ve been in it together.
Still, some of that narrative erases the work we’ve embarked on in the past decade of cohabitation. The more interesting truth is that it’s taken a committed, concerted effort to make sure that we’re each taking on an equal share of our household load. It’s taken deliberately shaking certain habits and acknowledging learned or inherited gender roles and setting out to dismantle them. It’s meant developing systems and working out strategies together so that one of us doesn’t feel responsible for everything. We started out on footing that felt pretty equal, but the thing about equal footing is that it either is or it isn’t.
One of the biggest fights that James and I have ever had was about our linen closet. We were working on sorting and putting away laundry together when he asked me, for what felt like the millionth time, where something went in the linen closet. Or how it should be folded. I don’t actually remember the specifics, but I do remember boiling over.
On the night of the great linen closet reckoning, I was furious. Furious at the assumption that I should be the keeper of that knowledge. Furious that James absolved himself both of organizing the closet and remembering how it had been organized by me. Furious that even after countless nights of repeating this same ritual he still relied on me to tell him what to do while we were in the thick of it. The fight was ugly and long and ended in tears, from both of us, over pillowcases. But it also ended in finding a new way of organizing the closet, together. And today, we both know where everything goes.
In watching Marie Kondo’s Netflix series, I couldn’t help notice that in a roundabout sort of way, the show posits the idea that the work of maintaining a tidy home is something that needs to be shared by everyone living it. The very premise of the show is that couples and families embark on joint efforts at tidying. The KonMari method has folks do the hard work of organizing in one intensive go, paring down and reorganizing so that presumably in a perfect future there’s nothing left to do or struggle over.
Among the hetero couples featured on the show, plenty of tired gender stereotypes get trotted out. There’s the husband of one family who’s angered by the number of pillows his wife has on the bed and the husband of another family who repeats the phrase “happy wife, happy life” as though his tidying efforts are only to please an insistent partner. There’s the mother of a young family who chastises herself for not setting her family up for success via organization, as if that should be her responsibility alone. There’s the painful-to-watch dismissiveness of a white husband who can’t understand his Pakistani wife’s wish to keep scarves that connect her with her culture. Still, subtly, the show—and Marie Kondo herself—seems to say that it’s not fair, and also not sensical, for everyday household management to fall only to one person. In not-so-many-words, she asks the show’s participants, and the folks at home, to take a hard look at the labor involved in making a house a home and asks them to share in that work.
For me and James, that’s required a decade of hard, ongoing work. I won’t suggest that couples embrace daily scorekeeping of who’s done what (though it can be an illuminating exercise), but I do think reckoning with the labor required to run a household and how it’s shared is necessary work. Who is doing what? Who’s thinking about what needs to get done? Who’s ordering new shampoo? Or noticing that the sponge needs to get replaced or that the coat closet’s gotten messy? Who’s seeing that the slipcover is loose and sagging and tucking it back into place? Who’s wiping down the bathroom mirror? Who’s sweeping dust bunnies and changing the sheets and swapping out toothbrushes? Who’s finding a new place for the masking tape and marker and who’s remembering to put it back in that spot so that both parents know where to reach when packing school lunch?
And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? A tidy home feels like a personal breath of fresh air to me, but more importantly, I think it allows the space for shared responsibility. When James and I, and our children, all know where everything is kept, and how it’s stored, then we all become responsible for those things. There’s not one keeper of the knowledge or one nag.
In our family, keeping an organized home requires ongoing teamwork, even as folks with a natural propensity toward tidyness. I don’t personally need to dump my clothes on my bed to know what’s there or to pull books from the shelves. Our apartment is tidy nearly all of the time. But like finding a new spot to keep a roll of tape and a marker, there are constant tiny improvements that can be made, or need to be made, as family needs shift and change. I think the show helps demonstrate that it’s best when that’s done together.
Here’s to the life-changing magic of tidying up, but more importantly, to the life-changing magic of sharing responsibility for our homes with the people who live in them.