I looked into my toddler's dresser and sighed at the haphazard array of unfolded pink and purple shirts and pants stuffed in her drawers. I’d given up on folding her clothes weeks prior — she was going through a phase in which she would throw the contents of the drawers onto the floor during temper tantrums. And because toddlers do not fold clothing, I was just grateful that they were returned to the proper place the following mornings. I thanked Montessori and the categorization exercises at her preschool.
I tossed her clothing onto the floor. It was a quiet act. No screaming. And I folded the tiny, tiny pants and shirts and blouses into thirds and fourths, and then I stood them up in her dresser drawers until finally a neat patchwork of pink and purple and gray formed.
Yes, I was Kondo’ing my toddler’s clothes.
I had no idea if she would fling them back out again, but the organization pleased me. I mean, really pleased me, like the "sent tingles down my spine and made me giggle" kind of pleasing me. And when I opened her drawers, I felt an inner peace that had been noticeably absent for months.
Daphne came back from her weekend with her father later that day and opened her dresser drawers. I wondered what her reaction might be. Would she throw a fit because I’d rearranged her space? Would she want to re-do it herself? Would she start dismantling order for the fun of it? Would she not care at all?
But instead, she oohed and aahed over her drawer contents. “Mommy! Pretty!”
It seemed that if things are in place and beautiful, even a chaotic-neutral toddler will not want to disturb order.
“Let’s organize your toys,” I told her, inspired — and floored by her response.
But getting Daphne to actually do the Kondo method herself was not happening. Toddlers want to keep everything; my daughter doesn't even like it when I clip her nails. She wants to "have them" (i.e., keep them), and she wanted to keep her toys the way she found them.
I picked out her most outgrown toys, the ones I knew did not trigger any interest or delight — a rattle, a teething ring, and a clutching toy. I thought maybe I could have her blessing to throw the items away. I thought maybe she and I could make the decision, together.
“Daphne HAVE it!” she screamed. “HAVE it!” She grabbed at every object, even if she flung it away half a second later, only to retrieve it again.
I wanted to throw a tantrum on the floor with her. Good-bye, teether, I’d thought. Thank you, teether, for bringing us comfort when needed. Thank you, teether, for a job well done. Bye-bye, teether. I was gritting my teeth.
But instead, I drew in a deep breath and redirected Daphne. “Let’s go have a snack?”
“Yah! Snack! Daphne want crackers!”
I would have to do it myself, just as I’d folded all her clothes. Kondo’ing a toddler involves stealth.
Marie Kondo is a woman who has, since girlhood, been obsessed with order. I suspect that she is the kind of person you meet in the freshman dorms whose room is neat and spare, almost void of possessions. She is never rude, and quite possibly always busy. If you are her messy roommate, she will likely tidy up your side of the room — and if you are inclined, she will teach you how to go about keeping your side decluttered. But only if you want to know.
Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, was written as a stopgap measure because her organization consulting business was overwhelmed. It has been flying off the bookshelves since its October release in the U.S. and has sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Kondo doesn’t even take new clients anymore, and is instead training others in her methodology. Her name has become verbs: To Kondo or KonMari something is to declutter, simplify, spark joy, and fold in a particular way.
Her book’s success is an indicator of all the things we hide in our closets — and how much we do want to let them go. Over the last few months, I’ve seen more and more Instagram pictures of closets and dressers filled with KonMari’d clothing. And bags of clutter destined for the dumpster.
Much of organizational methodology feels very directed and unemotional. Like getting rid of anything in your closet that you haven’t worn in 12 months. But part of how we get so cluttered is because of emotional attachment to objects — the memories we associate with each, and the guilt that ensues if we dispose of them. And these unemotional directives don’t address that reality.
But Kondo is not that way. She isn’t nagging and she acknowledges the ways in which we clutch onto clutter. She is self-assured, and while she is very clear and nonnegotiable in her principles, there is something in her diction and voice that is charming. She is like Julie Andrews’ rendition of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
But before I encountered Marie Kondo, I had let the house get cluttered. Very cluttered. I had postpartum depression, or I was too tired, or it was too much work, or maybe I would rather write, or maybe I was rebelling against my former life with a tidy husband. Reusable grocery bags stacked up in the breakfast nook. Baby books piled up everywhere in every room. Toys were strewn around like a giant had taken a sieve and dusted the house with primary-colored blocks and tiny teacups and dolls and stuffed animals.
Finally, I decided I’d had it with the chaos.
Kondo observes, “When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too.”
I wondered at the veracity of such an expansive statement. Really.
And while I did so, I surveyed the scattered toys, the pile of reusable shopping bags, and the CDs (yes) stacked on the kitchen table. Every single surface space was stacked with detritus, or things that looked like detritus. I opened closets and drawers, and found receipts and brochures and holiday cards and love letters from my ex-husband and spare buttons and long-defunct electronics. Also, a few crumpled facial tissues.
I am not a neat freak. I suspect you know this by now. But this was ridiculous.
Kondo's book is part how-to manual, part self-help guide. “When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future,” she writes. My toddler has no attachment to the past or fear of the future; she is a toddler who lives in the present tense, who cannot throw anything away. Not just yet.
Kondo says you should try not to organize or dispose of others’ belongings in a household. But Kondo'ing with a toddler requires some deviation from the rules. I got rid of things my daughter had outgrown while she was at her father’s on a subsequent weekend. She did not miss Sophie the Giraffe.
It's not that my toddler isn’t opposed to organization. She often picks up trash and heads to the trash can to throw things away. Even though she's only 2 years old, I can tell she will grow up to be tidier than I am. Even after her tantrums, aware of her mess, she says, “Daphne help Mama? Daphne put away clothes?”
After I threw away her baby bottles and teethers and rattles, she looked at her tidied, decluttered space, and a calm took over. She sat down to play in the most pleasant of moods. Just as her space affected my psyche, it had affected hers.
Since childhood, I’ve let other people organize on my behalf — first my mother, and then my husband, who liked an ordered house. As a result, I never knew the whereabouts of particular things, leading me to create a mess in a fruitless search and then buy duplicate staplers or tape dispensers or bottles of salad dressing.
My mother always tidied up after me. To the point where I didn’t even give a second thought as to how the pants I’d taken thrown on the floor (or worse, just taken off, so that the little leg holes were still in place as I stepped out of my pants) got into the laundry basket, cleaned, folded, and placed back into my dresser — or how my jackets found their way back on the hanger. It was like magic. Like having elves.
For me, tidying has been about making amends with my past, and the fact that my space has always been supervised by others, and thus realizing my own space. And changing the present into a place of keeping joy. It is about owning my new space, and helping my daughter create hers. And looking forward to future space with my toddler.
I came into motherhood at the age of 39, the point at which many have midlife crises. When I read, in Kondo's book, “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life,” it really struck a nerve. In so many ways, living with a toddler has forced me to reinvent my life from old patterns to new. And create a new space, both literally and figuratively.
Kondo allows psychic space for the emotions involved in decluttering. I moved through each room in my house with a garbage bag, into which I placed things that did not “spark joy.” And I said good-bye and thank you to each. That she makes room for someone to say good-bye to each item, and to thank the item for having done its job, enabled me to say good-bye to the letters I wrote to my ex-husband, and enabled me to say good-bye to old holiday cards and even a snot sucker.
“Thank you, dear letter, for being written. And for being read. You did a great job. Good-bye now.” And then they were gone.
When I talked to a friend who just Kondo’d his space, he agreed. “It’s kooky — talking to your clothes in an anthropomorphic way is just nuts. But it worked for me. It wasn’t like reading a typical Getting Things Done book.” And it has eased an ongoing battle of tidying in his household: “Reading the book allowed me to do what my wife wanted from me on my own terms.”
And I think it is this allowance for psychic space that makes Marie Kondo so popular. Her approach is holistic and kind.
Her directive to touch your things before deciding whether or not they “spark joy” is a holistic approach that resonates with many, especially those who have a hard time letting go of objects. In the end, she helps people, even those who don’t like to tidy or throw things away, to make space in a world that is constantly pushing information at us. As another friend put it, “What I like most about her approach is that tidying is actually not the ultimate goal of the method — it is about freeing you up to really enjoy what you love in your house (and elsewhere).”
Tidying with a toddler does not have a perfect ending. Toddlers are chaos incarnate. They love to empty things out of buckets. They love to scatter toys. They cannot fold clothes. They claim “mine,” to every object in sight.
You cannot Kondo a toddler.
But you can KonMari yourself and your space. And model KonMari for your toddler, just as one would model “I’m sorry” for a toddler who must go through the motions before gaining understanding.
You do it for yourself.
For now, I fold her clothes in hopes of fostering this understanding, and for my own serenity. Her dresser drawers look fabulous. Also, I installed a childproof lock on the drawers. We put away her toys as a gesture for her future.
Hufflepuff. Honeybadger. Crisis Unicorn. Nuclear Sub. Miracle Berry. Writer. Mom. Night Cheese Eater. Books: TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU DON'T REMEMBER (Ecco 2017) GOLEM OF SEOUL (Ecco) twitter: @xtinehlee
Contact Christine Hyung-Oak Lee at email@example.com.
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