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Decluttering Tips for Overwhelmed Parents

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M. Riley is a mother of three children and has written for numerous parenting sites about the joys and struggles of modern-day parenthood.

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Kids breed stuff. In the beginning, I welcomed this stuff. I diligently made a baby shower registry at (now defunct) Babies R Us, and I came up with a million and one reasons I needed multiple brands of pacifiers, bottles, nursing bras, creams, diapers, strollers, teethers, baby carriers, swings, etc. Becoming a mom was scary, so I thought buying the right things would temper this scariness. It didn’t.

Eventually, I became overwhelmed by this stuff, so I bought IKEA wicker baskets and a label maker in an attempt to create order out of all the junk littering our house. We weren’t hoarders. Indeed, I often received compliments on our home’s organization, but I spent so much time shifting things around and making new labels that I felt stuck in a Sisyphean struggle.

More Babies, More Stuff

After having two babies in two years and moving when my youngest was six months old, I was close to a breaking point. How was I supposed to pack, unpack, and organize everything, while also caring for a toddler and an infant? I survived the move, even decluttering a bit in the process, but as life went on, kid paraphernalia accumulated again.

Then, I had my third child in four years and learned we were moving yet again, this time halfway across the world. We put half our belongings in long-term storage, not sure when we would see those possessions again, and pared down the rest. I settled into our new home and slowly started to buy odds and ends. However, after one year overseas, we were told we had to move again. This was my breaking point. I hated the idea of packing up all our stuff once more, so I embraced minimalism and started our “great purge.” We gave away and sold so many of our belongings that the movers were confused when they arrived, wondering if we had already packed. That move was much easier than the previous ones, and I returned to the states a smug minimalist, that is, until I had to go through all the rubbish from our long term storage.

Abandoning Minimalism

My minimalism was short-lived. I was obsessed with owning as little as possible, always mentally listing what I could give away. As a minimalist, I spent just as much time thinking about clutter as when I was brandishing my label maker and shuffling around the too much stuff I owned. My sanity required a system for keeping clutter at bay, but one that wasn’t so stringent. I decided there had to be a middle ground between hardcore minimalist and borderline hoarder.

Even though I abandoned minimalism, I learned some valuable lessons during the great purge. I learned that I don’t need to get rid of everything to reduce clutter. Instead, I need to create systems. These systems are especially important with three school-aged kids who are constantly bringing homeschool papers, birthday goodie bags, gifts and toys from grandparents, and a myriad other minutiae that manage to sneak into their backpacks.

Five Decluttering Tips

These are my tips for combating clutter when you have three kids, yet don’t want to spend all your time decluttering.

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1. Keep a Budget

My husband and I didn’t start budgeting until years after having children, which was a huge mistake. We were never drowning in debt, just drowning in stuff. A simple budget would have curtailed some purchases, thereby eliminating unneeded junk and making us even more financially secure. Pre-budget, I’d talk myself into buying something; post-budget, I try my hardest to talk myself out of it.

Our kids also know we have a budget. This means I can stifle whining by reminding them that buying an unnecessary toy will reduce the amount of money we have to buy something else they might want, like new school clothes. The kids aren’t saints. I still listen to my fair share of begging, but they have started to internalize the concept of a budget and to deploy their whines more strategically. This shift in mindset has reduced the entire family’s clutter and has padded our bank account, a win-win.

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2. Have a System for Handling School Papers

School papers are the worst. They are incessant and never-ending. I’ve tried out a few systems, but my favorite is a simple file system in a plastic container. I reserve one manila folder for each year and that’s all they get for housing their school memories.

I also keep a separate folder for important school papers and a small section of the wall to display artwork. When the kids bring papers home, I give them options: Keep forever, either on the wall or in the file system, take a picture, or recycle. I do this immediately before the paper can build up. This system is so successful I often find myself rhapsodizing about it at the bus stop

3. Ditch Toys and Clothes Before Birthdays and Holidays

Before the children’s birthdays, I have them go through all their toys and donate anything they don’t want anymore. I don’t tell them which items to donate, but I set a minimum. The same happens before Santa comes. The kids are oddly amenable to this decluttering because they know newer toys will soon arrive. Similarly, at least once a season, I go through all their clothes and have them tell me what they don’t wear anymore. It only takes 30 minutes per kid and prevents their closets and drawers from exploding.

4. Create Photo Albums

A lot of our clutter is digital. During the first few years of parenthood, I took hundreds of pictures, but I had no idea what to do with them. The pictures snowballed into the thousands, and I became paralyzed by digital indecision.

Eventually, I decided these memories needed a home other than my iCloud. Making the first few photo albums was a huge pain because I had years of pictures to sift through. To make my life easier, I created calendar reference points going forward. This means every year I make a photo album for each child after his/her birthday. I also make one for the entire family after every New Year’s. I make four photo albums a year, which might seem like a lot or a little depending on how much you prioritize photos.

My tip: Make a system for the things that matter to you. Pictures matter to me even though I’m not a great photographer. I don’t particularly enjoy making photo albums, but I like having them. Every year, the kids like to line up their albums and marvel at how they’ve grown. This is adorable and shows that taking hold of clutter has tangible value.

5. Chill Out About Some Clutter

I have some control issues about clutter, issues that developed after having kids. I feel physically anxious when the house is too messy. Luckily, this anxiety has eased as the kids have gotten older. This isn’t because the kids have become tidier. Rather, I’ve learned to chill out and accept more clutter than I’d prefer.

For example, my daughter loves to draw and read, often leaving her desk a mess of papers and books. No matter how much I try to get her to clean to my level of satisfaction, new clutter appears almost instantly. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole.

This drives me crazy, but instead of fighting with her every day, I rely on my systems. I go through her toys two or three times a year and her clothes at least every couple of months. I have her declutter her desk every once in a while, but I try not to freak out about everyday messes. Decluttering can be just as time-consuming and overwhelming as clutter, so finding middle ground is important for my sanity (and better for my relationship with her).

Keep a budget, organize school papers as they arrive, set specific and multiple times every year to go through toys and clothes, create systems for digital clutter, and chill out.

My home will never be clutter-free, but this doesn’t mean it needs to drown in the stuff. I’m oddly thankful all the flux and moving has forced me to figure out how to handle my kids’ stuff without going insane or becoming a militant minimalist. I finally feel like I have control over our stuff and not the other way around.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 M Riley