If you’re a mom, no matter whether you’re married or single, and no matter how involved your partner is, I guarantee that the lion’s share of keeping the home together and functioning falls on your shoulders. I often joke that in my next life, I’d like to come back as my husband . . . married to me. I’m telling you, that man has a good deal. This is no insult to my husband or to anyone else’s wonderful life partner—it’s just a fact of life that moms tend to do more. And in my years of experience working with families, I’ve seen it’s true whether the mother works outside the home or not. Taking care of our families is what we do as moms. It’s in our nature, and we couldn’t stop if we tried.
This doesn’t mean that it’s easy for us, however. And sometimes it seems to get harder every day. Our family’s schedules are more chaotic, we have more stuff and more responsibilities. We have lists that get longer, never shorter, and we feel perpetually exhausted and burdened by how much we have to do and how little (we think) we actually get done.
Meanwhile, there are so many expectations of us. We’re expected to nurture our children’s developing brains, volunteer at school, keep our families healthy, our homes impeccably organized and decorated, our partners romantically satisfied, and our bodies well exercised. Oh, and we’re also told to be sure to “take time for ourselves.”
Most mothers I know feel like life is one big game of Whac-A-Mole. Just when we’ve smacked down one problem or responsibility, another one pokes up its stubborn little head. And we keep on flailing and reacting, doing our best, but with no time to formulate a plan of attack.
This book is your plan.
• • •
When I had my twins (who are now thirteen years old), I scaled back from full-time management consulting to part-time. I was used to commuting to an office for twelve-hour workdays, wearing power suits and heels. So it was a big transition for me. I loved being a mom and enjoyed meeting other parents, but often enough I’d find myself getting a little antsy on playdates. I’d look around for something to do, and I’d end up organizing the toys and straightening the shelves.
You can quickly gain a reputation for yourself by doing that. So when a friend of mine heard of someone who needed help setting up a home office, she suggested that he hire me. And no, she didn’t ask me first. Bless her, though, that first referral quickly multiplied into more, and before long I had a business that I love.
The truth is that the seeds for my home organizing business were planted long before that. I was born to organize, but it wasn’t until I turned eight that my talents were recognized by others. That year marked a life-changing turning point for me. Twice in one twelve-month period I was publicly acknowledged for being a neat freak. And by acknowledged, I mean rewarded. It was heady, that praise. It was addictive. It was like the first smattering of applause for the wannabe star in the grammar school play. After that, it’s Hollywood or bust. For me, a career as a professional organizer became my destiny.
I grew up in South Florida, the land of sunshine, beaches, and chain stores. The biggest grocery chain was Publix, and they were always having some kind of contest or promotion. So when they advertised a coloring contest, I decided to enter. Each contestant was given an intricate design with a circus motif and lots of tiny details to fill in with color. I sat down, and I didn’t stop coloring that piece of paper until every single square centimeter was filled in.
I can still remember the phone ringing one afternoon and my mother saying to me, “Barbara, you have a phone call.” I could tell from her tone of voice that it was something important. I held the receiver tentatively, nervously, and an adult voice on the other end told me that I had won the Publix coloring contest. And the prize? A ticket for me and one adult to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—and to meet the world-famous lion tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams. Not only that, but I’d get to take an afternoon off from school because they weren’t about to give us free tickets to a weekend show.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that I won the contest. I had to be the only child who not only colored entirely within the lines but also made sure every single crayon stroke went in the same direction. If I made a mistake, I peeled off the wax with my fingernails or meticulously covered my error with white crayon. It was a masterwork of single-minded devotion to detail. How could I lose?
If winning weren’t enough positive reinforcement, imagine my preadolescent joy when the platinum-blond and shirtless Gunther Gebel-Williams pulled up in front of my front-row seat and invited me to take a ride around the center ring in his horse-pulled cart. The crowd, the lights, the cheers. More important: Gunther Gebel-Williams’s tight white bell-bottoms and perma-tan. This was potent stuff for an eight-year-old girl.
If my first reward for neatness was all about romance, my second was all about terror. My parents sent me to a summer camp that I adored beyond all reason. It was called Camp Universe, and it was perched next to the shimmering waters of Lake Miona in Wildwood, Florida. I look back on my time there and wonder a bit if my parents didn’t misread the pamphlet and ship me off to boot camp instead of summer camp. We were constantly being lined up to do something—in size order from shortest to tallest. And our cabin would lose points if our line weren’t perfectly straight.
Right before visiting day, the camp would conduct what was called the Moss Hunt. Remember, this was Florida, so moss grew everywhere. But rather than hire people to clean it up, the camp came up with the brilliant idea of making it an activity for the campers. I’m telling you: This wasn’t summer camp, it was a chain gang. We’d be out in the blazing heat and humidity, picking up piles of moss (Spanish was the most valuable find, because it was the rarest) and stacking it in heaps for removal. The camp staff would measure each cabin’s piles, and the cabin with the tallest piles got the most points. In addition to moss, there was an elaborate system of points for all the gum and candy wrappers, bottle tops, and beer bottle caps we could find. My cabin always won the competition, thanks to my zeal for the job.
I loved that camp to a bizarre and possibly pathological degree. I loved all the order. And I really loved laundry day. There was no better feeling for me than when all my clothes were clean at the same time. I loved to refold each item and put it in its proper space in my cubby. I loved making hospital corners on my bunk bed.
My moment of triumph occurred during Camp Color War. It made sense that a camp as army-like as this one would have a cabin neatness event. I remember my beating heart as every girl in my cabin stood at attention in front of our beds and cubbies, waiting to be inspected by scary Dan, the camp director with the shiny whistle around his neck and the clipboard that seemed permanently attached to his hand. He stopped in front of my bunk, flanked by the captains of the gold and the blue teams, and he scanned my bunk and my cubbies up and down, then down and up. He lingered, I perspired. Was something not arranged at a perfect right angle? I resisted the temptation to turn around and look, because I’d get points off for not standing at attention (of course).
Then scary Dan said, “Whose cubby is this?”
“Mine, sir,” I squeaked.
He nodded. “Extra points for the blue team.”
I have to tell you: even the obvious appeal of Gunther Gebel-Williams’s well-oiled chest was no match for the relief of a cabin full of eight-year-old girls standing at attention.
• • •
We’re often given two seemingly conflicting pieces of advice. One group of people tells us to follow our heart. The other tells us to be practical. Luckily for me, the two don’t conflict. There are few things that give me greater joy than practicality. And I like to think that I communicate my joy to the clients who hire me to help organize their homes.
If I had to come up with the biggest roadblock between most women (especially moms) and their desire for organization, it’s that a whole industry is conspiring to make it all seem so complicated and unattainable. We’re surrounded by images of what the perfect home looks like—and usually, it’s a catalog picture in which the hangers are all spaced three inches apart and the clothing inside is all white or tan. I don’t know about you, but my closet doesn’t look like that. No one’s clothes are only two colors, and no one has only ten articles of clothing.
Because there’s such a wide gulf between fantasy and reality when it comes to home organization, a lot of the moms I’ve met over the years throw in the towel. Their email inboxes are filled to capacity, and their closets, attics, basements, garages, and storage areas are stuffed to the gills with all the items that they a) don’t know how to get rid of or b) don’t know how to organize in such a way that those things are accessible and therefore usable. These moms get understandably panicked every time they miss a birthday, are assessed a credit card late fee, or look for an outfit to wear to work. Or maybe they think they’re doing fine until that second, or third, or fourth baby comes along and everything suddenly becomes unmanageable.
There is a happy middle ground between fantasy and chaos, and that’s where most of us want to live. My goal with my clients isn’t to make them perfect or even to make them more like me. Even my husband thinks I’m crazy, and he’s a really neat guy. I’m so crazy that back when I was working in an office, my coworkers thought it would be hilarious to move my stapler one inch to the left and then wait to see if I’d notice. P.S., I noticed. It doesn’t bother me, though. I’m content with my predilection for order. But I don’t require everyone to twitch like I do when the office supplies are rearranged.
The world is full of all kinds of wonderful people, and chances are, your family members range from the neatest to the most organizationally challenged. That’s okay. The key is that your home works for you and everyone in it. I guarantee that a messy, disorganized home works for no one. Those people who gesture to their piles and say, “Oh, but I know where everything is”? Don’t believe them.
I’ll tell you what often happens, and I bet this describes you at one stage or another: There’s one area of your home that is disorganized or, more likely, there are multiple. The disorder is starting to drive you nuts, and although you’ve complained to the rest of the family about it, their response is to shrug or to turn up the volume on their iPods. So you go out and buy a bunch of storage containers, and you hope that the containers themselves will organize you.
You spend a lot of money, and you bring home all the containers, and maybe you even put a lot of stuff in them, which seems like progress because at least now you can’t see all the stuff that is making you feel disorganized. In truth, you haven’t made any progress at all, because you haven’t come up with a simple system that works for you, and therefore you haven’t given yourself or the rest of your family the guidelines needed to help maintain the system.
Disorder reigns again, you vow never to buy another container, and you decide that you aren’t an organized person. Such resignation doesn’t help you in the long run, because the ongoing messiness of your life creates a constant low- (and sometimes high-) level feeling of anxiety in your household. You know you don’t want to live like this, and you suspect that your family doesn’t, either.
This is where I come in. I’m based in New York City, where even my wealthiest clients have space issues. I’ve been in multimillion-dollar homes with atrocious-looking closets. Everyone has messes, whether the mess is in the back of a walk-in closet or in the corner of the living room. Some of us have the luxury of a little more space, and some of us have barely enough to turn around in. We all need to work with the space we have. And when economic times are tough, it becomes even more urgent for us to find ways to be content with what we currently have—whether that’s the square footage under our feet or the clothing hanging in our closets.
My clients (almost all of them moms) call me in when they’ve tried to organize things themselves but they’ve given up because they don’t know where to begin. I visit all of my clients personally. I sit down with them at their computers and go through their emails, and I press the delete button—over and over and over again. I tell them what to keep, what to toss, what to file. I get down on the floor in their playrooms and up on a stepladder in their closets, and I don’t hesitate to grab the Clorox wipes and clean the shelves of accumulated layers of dust. It’s not glamorous work—even in the most glamorous homes—but it’s tremendously satisfying. In a few short hours, I can transform a front hall closet in a way that enables every member of the household to get out of the home on time in the morning—and if that isn’t an improvement to quality of life, I don’t know what is.
As a married mother of twins, not to mention someone who has been in the farthest recesses of countless homes, I know all the trouble areas. Better yet, I have the solutions. My advice applies no matter what your household circumstances—whether you live in an apartment or a house, in the city, country, or suburbs, and whether you have one child or multiple. The lessons here also work no matter whom you live with—whether you’re blessed with a neat freak like me or a spouse who barks at you if you even think about recycling that six-month-old issue of the New Yorker.
Whatever organizational nightmare makes you crazy on a daily basis, the antidote can be found here—from dealing with your home office filing (ugh) to that box of photos you keep meaning to stick in an album, to figuring out what to do with the things you don’t want and don’t need but can’t seem to get rid of (sound familiar?). No stone goes unturned, from your front door to the deepest recesses of your computer and your storage areas.
Most important, this book shows how every member of your family can breathe easier, live happier, hang up their own coats, find the Advil, use the milk before it spoils, and maybe even open a closet without grimacing or covering their eyes. Doesn’t that sound nice?