How to stay organized when everyone else isn't.

southernsurfergirlJuly 1, 2007

I thought that was a funny title. Since I'm living here at least until May, I decided I should keep this house looking nice. Unfortunately, I am being followed by a small force who leaves piles of chaos where I try to create order.

(Well, she's not really "small". She's only two inches shorter than me. And she did carry me for ten months so I have the deepest respect for her. And if she ever found out that I come to this forum to figure out how to contain her mess, she would cuss me out worse than I cuss out that crazy guy who shows up in our back screen porch every couple of days. How does he get in there?)

Back to my point. I've made a lot of progress over the last few weeks. It's definitely a trial and error situation. Tried to organize the bar. Got cussed out. Tried to organize her junk drawer. I was actually praised for that, but in less than a day, it was back to its original state. Tried to organize the pantry. Got cussed out for that too. But my dad reorganized it and she complains, but has actually stuck to the new system. So I have left all of the kitchen drawers alone and I left the attic/computer room (where I am now) alone. Of course the storage part of our attic is in danger of caving in so I might need to start working on that. I found this great paper filer thing that teachers keep on their desk in my garage. So I cleaned it and put all of her papers that were strewn about the kitchen in it. I hope she likes it. So, how do you stay organized when others aren't?


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I am sure others will disagree with me here, but...

It is her stuff and her house.
Unless SHE asks for help, you should leave her things alone.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2007 at 11:12AM
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I understand you desire to be helpful, but it sounds like a lot of stress is being created there. May is a long way off, so it would be good to get off on a smooth start and not come in like you have been sent to shape things up. After all, it's not your home, is it?

Maybe you could just keep your own things under control for now, and let the rest fall where it lands. A little picking up here and there probably will be appreciated, but it would be wise to ask first before tackling any big projects. Tread lightly. Personally, I would not appreciate anyone trying to "help" me as you are trying to "help" your parents.

Just my 2 cents.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2007 at 12:16PM
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I won't disagree with you luann. Surfergirl, we were pointing this out a bit in the old posts and maybe it's time to revisit. It's your mom's house. However she chooses to live, you can't control that.

I'm going to be blunt. You have some real unheathly emotional dynamics going on in your family. Your stepping in and trying to be the adult in the home is contributing to those dynamics. You stated before that your mom was young when she had you. Around 20? Tons of people have babies well before that and they step in and take on the parenting role. This isn't about age.

Step back and focus on your own space. Kick stuff out of the way and quit trying to control your mother. She has to deal with her own mess and dysfunction. You can't fix her. You have less than a year until you move out. Focus on you and let this go.


    Bookmark   July 1, 2007 at 4:08PM
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I think the things you can do in the house in general are limited. (in MY house, there are months that what I can keep organized is limited--thanks to the smaller-than-me chaos makers; though I *am* the mom)

Things that actually impact your own life in the place. You need to be able to get a meal together, eat a meal. Maybe it's OK to designate one chair in the living room as yours, and insist that people not pile stuff on it. You need to be able to find your own mail when it comes in. Stuff that's related ONLY to you.

Small things--like, the peanut butter goes here so I can find it; pls, mom, could I put a label here on the shelf so we'll all remember to put it there?

The dining table gets cleaned off every night, even if you're the one who does it. And even if what you do is simply move the stuff into a box off to the side--ask her first, "hey, mom, where do you want this? I'd like to clear off the table, but I don't want to lose it for you?" And if she doesn't have an answer, designate a box, and put it there.

Maybe you can figure out where your mom most tends to keep the laundry detergent, and put it back there every time you see it out of place.

You can encourage or extend or simply provide the manpower to enforce existing systems.

But beyond that--there's not much you can do. You can't reinvent another person.

How's *your* space? Do *you* have places to put your important paperwork? A system for determining what *is* important paperwork? A place to sit down, to rest, to study? A way to take care of clothes?

d I left the attic/computer room (where I am now) alone.

Why wasn't this the first place you started? You're there a lot; you could make changes without seeming quite as invasive.

I noticed that whenever I would say to my DH, "I've been doing a lot of clearing out of stuff; it's your turn, would you think of some stuff we could ditch," he immediately points to MY STUFF!! Stuff I already looked at and said, "no, I've used it 6 times in the last year; it's the smallest version of it that I could find; I need to keep it."

He will NOT look at his own stuff. He looks at MINE. Even though he knows I've already ditched 3/4 of my library; he will NOT look at his. He points to my books, my craft stuff (which isn't much; I'm not a crafter, I just have an X-acto knife and a triangle, both of which I use).

Most people do this. Jesus even made a point of talking about it in the New Testament: "take the log out of your own eye before you worry about the speck in your brother's eye."

Now, not everyone who focused on the OTHER persons' stuff, has that much themselves. But it is ALWAYS easier to focus on other people's problems, and think of what OTHER people ought to do. Especially when they obviously should.

Maybe your mom is really messy. But this is the lesson you are supposed to learn from it: worry FIRST about you.

The 9th and 10th Commandments are: "thou shalt not covet."

We think of coveting as "wanting someone else's stuff so bad that we'd be willing to take it away from them." But I think it also means, "thinking we know what other people ought to do with their money, their time, their energy, their stuff. Even their love."

I wonder if your mom and her mess is part of a lesson for you? I know when I worked w/ a guy who was absolutely awful, that I finally decided God was testing me--did I *really* understand how to love someone the way Christ calls us to love one another? I decided I didn't, and that this guy's purpose was to teach me two things: 1) that I didn't know this; and 2) how to do it better.

I think it's extra hard for you--you have to live among the mess, and I'm sure it's hard. We probably haven't been sympathetic enough on that point.

But we also know that you willl just make yourself crazy. Scale your scope down, and let the rest slide.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2007 at 9:49AM
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I tried to do this with my mother when I was in my 20's. It didn't work. I cleared out her house to great wails and accusations. A related thing she did is that she was never on time. I mean, 2 hours, 4 hours late for dinner, or to say she was ready for me to come over, all the while insisting that that was the very thing she wanted. So I also tried to organize her time management. Several other people in my family looked to me to "do something" about Mom.

Finally, though it took me several years, I began to see all the things that are pointed out here. My family and I did try to get other help for my Mom, but she did not want it and would not accept she had a problem.

I had to realize that I had to decide in each interaction how long I could wait, whether I was willing to eat something myself, or feed my small child, and then say, Mom, it's 9 pm now, and I have to go, because it's time take ___ home to go to sleep (her grandaughter); it was nice to see you. I ignored all her protests of how she didn't have a nice home or place for guests (all the rooms were totally filled up). It hurt a lot--I wanted my mother to be different, but she wasn't.

There is love and understanding in the responses in this thread, even though it's the internet and we can't possibly "love" you as you are meant to be loved by your family. But, if you can hear the are being supported to find yourself, and to remain a polite and good and yes, even loving daughter through it... but you will not find support to continue to try to find a way to fix your family.

Your initial reactions are very normal, but will remain so only if you examine them and use them as part of a process of finding your way out of this battle and separating yourself from your mother & father. You are not your mother; the mess has nothing to do with you. You can have a great life in spite of it.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2007 at 3:23PM
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This hits very close to home, as my 24 yo dd is living with us right now & just bagged up all my carefully arranged piles of stuff & threw it in a closet. I don't cuss, but it could happen anytime.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2007 at 11:57PM
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I know I should have started with the attic, where I am now, but that is where she keeps her photos and photo supplies, which is the main mess and she will flip out if I touch any of it.

Even though it is her house and her stuff, she is a hoarder. She will never ask for help. I have been to the COH website and I've tried to get help, but I will not live in trash.

Yesterday, I got up early, went to work, then spent the night at a friend's house. When I got back home the next morning, it was obvious my mom threw a 4th of July party. The kitchen sinks were overflowing with dishes and there were dessert cup with food still in them all over the house. It was very nasty. I asked her what had happened, and she said she threw a party and was waiting for me to come home so I could clean the kitchen. I said "Why should I clean it if I wasn't here and I didn't use any of these dishes?" So she said "Why do you think I had kids for? You need to stop being so gd lazy and start cleaning."

That's the kind of woman I have to live with. Yes, I want to move, but I can't until I graduate. I know I can't "fix" her. Sometimes I just want to vent though. I appreciate you listening. My mom fully expects me to be her maid. Sometimes I think if she had less stuff, there would be less for me to clean. Maybe that's a stupid idea.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2007 at 11:15PM
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If you were an adult child in my house and you started throwing away my things, you would not have the option to live with us any longer. I would pack up your stuff and change the locks. You're 21. You could live with a friend or rent an apartment with a roommate. It's just more convenient for you to live at home.

Keep your own spaces organized, help out if she asks you to, but don't try to force your desires on her.

It's just like trying to get someone else to quit smoking, or lose weight, or change some other kind of behavior. That person has to want it for herself. You can't force it on her. She may never change.

Or she may see that you are making good progress on your own things, and she may decide to take some small steps of her own.

Really, I think you should stop focusing on her problems and just think about your own life. In less than a year you won't have to deal with her house anymore.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2007 at 12:09AM
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If you were an adult child in my house and you started throwing away my things, you would not have the option to live with us any longer. I would pack up your stuff and change the locks. You're 21. You could live with a friend or rent an apartment with a roommate. It's just more convenient for you to live at home.

1000% agreement.
You obviously aren't happy living there, so make other arrangements before your relationship with your mom is permanently damaged.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2007 at 6:34AM
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Please take what cearbhaill said to heart. More important than the messy house, however annoying that might be, is your relationship with your mother.

I grew up with a hoarding mom, although she hid it well so the house looked presentable. It was the closets, the rec room, the garage, the shed, the crawl space, the kitchen cabinets, even the refrigerator that held her secrets.

It didn't all get cleared out until my brother and I did it decades later, when my mom had to go into an assisted care facility. It was amazing the stuff we came up with. So many of those big black plastic bags placed out for garbage removal. So many trips to Goodwill to drop off things.

It was very sad, and sometimes quite funny in the laugh-to-keep-from-crying mode. I remember there was a jar of pickles in the back of the refrigerator with an expiration date of 17 years before ... and so many other cans and boxes of expired food in the pantry.

Tattered towels and tablecloths and other things she'd received as wedding presents, 50 years before.

Her large collection of dolls ... pottery supplies she hadn't used in many years ...

I hope you don't think we're being hard on you without cause. I think many of us here have stories of hoarding parents or relatives or spouses. That's what makes us more determined to keep our own lives under control. 

Ultimately, it's not about the things, it's about your relationships. Both of my parents have died and I wish all the time I could be with them again. Don't waste the time you have. 
    Bookmark   July 6, 2007 at 2:08PM
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Minet, I want you guys to be hard on me because there are no other adults who know about this. And I was really angry about having to clean up after her party. My mom actually asked me to clean the pantry and junk drawer. The bar was a surprise, so I know it was a mistake.

I do not throw away things without asking my dad first. My dad is always with me when I clean anything. And it is usually my dad who decides what to clean and when. So when he leaves on his business trips and returns to find the house once again looking like a fire hazard, it is obviously "my fault" because I can't take care of my mom and sisters. If something is not organized, my dad yells at me. If it is organized, my mom yells at me. Either way, someone is going to be mad at me. How can I possible have a good relationship with my parents if at least one of them will be mad at me at any given time?

If I had the chance, I would move out tomorrow. I want to leave more than anything else. My dad told me as long as I stay here, he would help me pay for tuition. Even with my scholarships, I can't afford it by myself, so the reason why I stay here is completely selfish. I know. But at least it's only until May. And if I don't learn how to organize now, then I'll grow up to be just like my mom and her mom and so on. My bedroom is the size of a walk-in closet but I try to keep it as neat as possible.

The main reason I want to clean is because not only do we have lots of paper and photos scattered everywhere, but we have candles and a fireplace too so this house is a fire hazard. If this place catches on fire, it will be gone quickly. What if I'm at work or school and my mom or sisters die in a fire? I would never forgive myself knowing that I could have prevented it.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2007 at 6:01PM
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Maybe I just don't know enough about your family history, but the situation doesn't make much sense to me.
Your mother is incapable of caring for her home but yet throws parties and trashes the place? Are there untreated mental health issues here?
Treat them.

Has you father officially placed you in charge of keeping the home up and tending your mother and sisters? If this is the case I would hope he is trying his very best to not be out of town for any sort of duration. If he is gone for periods of time and dismisses your mothers inability to care for herself, then that is just wrong.

It sounds to me (a stranger from afar) that you guys need a serious family meeting to straighten out all the gray areas in what seems to be a highly dysfunctional living arrangement. Either you are in charge of keeping house, or you are not. If you are, then I would truly suggest that you guys find a way to get your mother out of the house for a brief vacation while you do a major purge/clean. Having her there yelling while you try and go around behind her is not productive and is not setting anywhere near a good example for any younger siblings in the house.

I also think your father needs to take a more proactive position and not leave things on your shoulders. His paying for your school is just an easy way for him to avoid what is going on in his home. It sounds to me as if he is using you as a way to avoid taking care of the situation and your mother himself.
The home is his and your mothers responsibility. You can't do it- you haven't the emotional maturity to work around your mother without making things worse, or so it sounds. I know you want to help, but I honestly think they need to work things out for themselves. The family dynamic just sounds like it has no center- the parents should be the center.

And I have to say- I worked my way through school while being a single mother- tons of women do it every day. Doing it as a single person would be easy IMO. Sooner or later you will be leaving them to their own problems- now or next May isn't that big a difference. I'd be leaving now.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 7:39AM
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I think you can make some distinctions between "organizing" and simple daily cleanup that you might do as part of living in a family--doing the dishes, putting away laundry and so forth. --I know they're related in the sense that underlying order helps with maintenance and cleanup, but that's something for your own home; really, you don't need to clean out the attic in your parents' home or throw out their plastic containers. So it is definitely not healthy going into drawers and closets in attempt to "organize"--these actions are part of the parent-parent-child power struggle and you are seeing yourself in the wrong role.

You might try a family meeting, but that could be hard without a neutral party such as a family counselor--it would be again, the 21-yr old being the family/marriage counselor. It could be done if you were able to use it simply to state your discomfort and what you feel comfortable doing vs. not, and to ASK for their support. You wouldn't be able to lay down any ultimatums, such as "you have to..." It sounds like you are already at a point at which you would need to have conversation with your dad alone, to some extent, in that you have identified him as a driving force requesting you to fix your mother--if you can't talk with your dad or if he doesn't "get it" in conversation with you alone, he won't get it in the presence of your mother. But, see, you would have to really WANT to stop being in the middle in order to propose to your father, here, I can do this and this, but I would prefer it if you would not ask or expect me to that and that.

You could stay there if somehow you are able to change YOURSELF--to develop some serenity and distance from these struggles and just smile and fix an occasional meal, do daily and weekly chores as a good citizen of the family, and, if you really like organizing, graciously do so whenever your mother gives you a target drawer, etc (assuming she doesn't later accuse you of doing it wrong). Some people can manage a year like that.

But, another approach as mentioned is to get out your pencil and paper and calculuate your way into moving out and continuing school on your own even if at a slower pace. You would be the one to know whether your father would be willing to discuss tuition or a loan if you move out. But, it can be done with or without their financial support.

You could do either approach, and it's not completely wrong to stay to get tuition if you can manage all these other emotions and situations, but you can't really stay and stew about why your parents won't change. It isn't really good for your siblings to watch that dynamic, either, because it certainly won't be a successful strategy for them to follow as they get older.

One of the reasons why protecting your siblings isn't a helpful rationale is that, under that reasoning, you would have to stay there until they all leave home.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 12:42PM
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Considering everything you've said so far, I would just focus on areas that demand cleaning as far as health goes. Kitchen mainly and bathroom. Your bedroom too since you can control that. When your father is there to "supervise" the cleaning then fine, clean away, but when he isn't there, don't touch anything except for maintance cleaning.
The house may be a fire hazard but it will probably always be that way unless your mother gets help. Just make sure there are working smoke alarms throughout the house, that's about as good as it will get....(if the house is in really bad shape, then it might be appropriate to clear pathways to doors and windows in case of fire so family can escape quickly).

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 4:16PM
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Do you ever watch some of those de-cluttering shows on tv? Maybe if she started seeing other people with similar problems, and how they handle them, she would begin to understand that it's not normal to live like that.

Of course, most of the shows show an instant transformation that's unrealistic and probably unsustainable. But they are informative in a lighthearted way, and might at least get her thinking about options.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 9:06PM
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I suggest you keep only your own room clean, spend as much time at school as possible. The time will pass and you'll soon be on your own. You can't contriol other people's messes. I know. Even if you organize to perfection, no one will be happy with the results. And it will slowly slide back to its former condition. Good luck, time will pass. This is only temporary.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2007 at 8:54AM
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Thank you for all your comments. I will keep your suggestions in my heart and I will try to relax and look forward to moving.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 5:13PM
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I feel for you. You know what is right, and you want to accomplish it, but you can't make it happen. What if I told you that you can't get this job done? It isn't you, it isn't anything you lack, or anything you haven't tried; you just can't do this job under these circumstances. (You also don't get to change the circumstances!) If you can avoid letting this make you crazy, maybe you can figure out what you want to do given that you can't get this done?

I've had to do a lot of "letting go" in the past several years too. Things I could see were wrong, and I couldn't fix them. It's been really hard, and it is still really hard. I haven't gotten to the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but I couldn't keep beating my head against the wall either. I feel like I failed because I couldn't do what I thought should be done. That is the biggest struggle. On the other hand, I do not think I could have succeeded with most of what I was trying to do, no matter what I did.

If that is where you are at ... I wish I could give you the recipe to make it better. It is a long, hard, journey that I am still on too. Accept the many many painful awful things you cannot change ... and figure out what you want to do from here.

Best wishes (for both of us),
Jean Marie

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 12:07AM
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