Messiness doesn't always equate to laziness.
On the contrary, when my mom finally had enough and insisted I clean up, I got stressed beyond belief. I had no idea how to clean up, because I didn’t know where to put things. Once I put them away I knew I’d have trouble finding them again, and I always did.
Fast forward 20 years and it’s a whole different story. I cannot stand clutter or mess. On the rare occasion that I let a mess go longer than usual, all it takes is one slightly stressful afternoon for the mess to become the veritable straw that breaks the camel’s back.
My husband usually looks at me like I’m crazy when I get overwhelmed and insist on cleaning. “You’ve been stressed by how much you have going on,” he’ll say. “Why are we spending time on cleaning?”
As it turns out, though, it’s not that I’m just neurotic — he’s just not sensitive. There’s actually scientific evidence that clutter stresses out women more than men, according to Parenting Isn’t Easy:
According to UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families, women react more to clutter in their homes than men do. They found that women in cluttered homes have higher levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone.
Men who live in cluttered homes, however, don’t have the same levels of cortisol as women do.
What’s most interesting to me, though, isn’t that clutter stresses me out more than my husband; it’s that clutter stresses me out now in a way that it didn’t when I was a kid.
My theory is that the more mental clutter I have going on, the less tolerance I have for physical clutter. So as a kid, I was only responsible for myself. Clutter didn’t bother me — rather, I found it somewhat stimulating to my creativity. I always felt uncomfortable in perfectly neat places, almost stifled.
But as an adult, I’m constantly aware of and responsible for the mental and physical health of lots of little people. It’s a lot of mental clutter, so physical clutter just pushes me over the edge. I don’t really feel creatively inspired by clutter anymore. I mostly just feel frustrated and annoyed.
I can’t say the same for my 12-year-old daughter, though. I often feel like I’m raising myself, watching her thrive in messy spaces and wilt under the demand for perfect order. It’s been interesting to try and find a balance between her needs for creative stimulation, which I remember all too well from my own childhood, and my current need for physical order to maintain my sanity.
I’m really grateful, though, that I’ve had the range of experiences to know that messiness and clutter don’t always equate to laziness. Sometimes it’s a form of creativity that manifests as a need for an unstable and surprising environment … and when you ask your apparently messy child to find something in their chaotic room and they know immediately where it is, chances are you’re not looking at laziness in action.
But I’m also grateful to experience what I’m experiencing now: a visceral need for order. It’s teaching me to understand and appreciate that temperaments different from mine are not wrong, or stifled, or “Type A” … They might simply be trying to find their own path to relaxation and peace. Like I am.
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