How Trauma Shaped My Home-Making

I’m often asked how I am able to keep my house so neat and tidy with as many kids as I have. The truth is, it’s really more of an obsession than anything.

I grew up with a dad who was very particular as to how things are done. He would scold me for not throwing something away in the trash correctly. The dishwasher needed to be loaded a certain way. The laundry needed to be done a certain way. Everything needed to be done a certain way. I always just looked at it as one of his quirks. He does the same exact thing, every single day and when something interrupts his daily routine, he gets very anxious. Same restaurants, same stores, every single day. My mom on the other hand, is a bit messier.

We always had a cleaning lady growing up. My first one, Susan, was one of the nicest women I have ever met. She went above and beyond at what she did, rather than just rushing through it to get the bare minimum accomplished before moving onto her next client. I loved the way she would make my bed and line my stuffed animals up for me. When we re-modeled our home, a cleaning lady was unnecessary because our home was so out-of-whack. Once our house was finished, my mom hired a new cleaning lady, Connie, who has been with them ever since.

As a child, I remember being obsessed with going to Organized Living. I would dream of one day having a home that is perfectly organized. I would convince my mom to buy me organizational tools for my items: boxes, baskets, hanging storage, etc. I loved walking the aisles of the Pottery Barn Outlet, picking out all of the things that I wanted for my own home one day.

As a drug-addled teenager, I would stay up all night long doing drugs and organizing my things. I’d rearrange my furniture in the middle of the night, re-organize my closets and drawers, and make lists upon lists while color-testing all of my pens and markers.

As a young adult, I enrolled in The Art Institute of Cincinnati for Interior Design. I had big plans in mind to become a professional organizer. I ended up taking a break when I was about to have my son, and never returned due to my relapse. That relapse led to years of different rehab facilities, some of the nicest available.

But then I ended up in government-funded “rehab jail.” During all of my years of addiction, I had been in some sketchy places, including abandoned squatter houses and run-down motels that were known for housing crack heads and prostitutes that were in significantly better condition than this vile dump. I was ecstatic when I was “expelled” from this program and put back into The Hamilton County Justice Center. The jail was regularly sanitized and I felt much more at peace. In jail, we would get one roll of one-ply toilet paper in our cell that was to last us a week between two people. I was pregnant and we all know pregnant people pee pretty frequently.

When I was released from jail, at 6 months pregnant, my parents gifted me a home that I have been paying them back for since. I was a pregnant, five-time felon. It would have been extremely difficult to find someone who would have rented to me with check fraud charges and my parents didn’t want to see me out on the streets, but they already had my son and couldn’t go through it all over again.

A month after moving in, my ex went to prison. He committed a burglary, and brought the stolen items back to our home while I was with a friend. That friend called the police the next day to report what she had witnessed, including that I was with her. That didn’t matter though, because the items had entered our home. Our home was raided and the police destroyed my home; made the biggest mess that they possibly could in a desperate attempt to find anything they could to use against us. We were both known felons, and they acted as if this was going to be the biggest bust of their careers. There were 13 police cars up and down our street, police from many districts walking in and out of our home. I felt so violated. I was incredibly traumatized by this experience. I developed an intense paranoia that they would be back at anytime. I started watching out the windows, having a panic attack anytime I saw police near my home even though I was not doing anything wrong.

Being completely alone for the first time in my life, I had absolutely no idea what to do. So I just began cleaning and organizing everything. I would save up any money I could, even if it were only $1 a time and I would use it to buy only things for my home and my soon-to-be-born daughter at the thrift store. I would pick up furniture and decor on the side of the road to re-purpose. I was gifted some furniture from a friend’s family that were downsizing. I lived on next to nothing, and managed to furnish my entire home by myself. I got a job at Big Boy as a server and began learning responsibility. I began paying my parents back for the home. I began buying more and more stuff because growing up in Suburban American, I attributed success to material riches. I became somewhat of a hoarder, especially of children’s toys because I thought that being a good mother meant giving my child everything they could ever want. Boy was I wrong.

Around the time Ella was 2, my ex returned from prison. I am not going to go into much detail here, but out of spite, he called Child Protective Services on my now-husband with false accusations when I refused to give my child to him at midnight while he was high. It led to a fight in which the neighbors called the police. I asked the police for domestic help, but was met with a “we can’t do anything about it” and learned that if he were to get her, he could legally run away and I would never see my child again. I developed a way more intense paranoia. So when CPS showed up a few days later, I assumed it was over the fight. I had no idea that HE had called them, trying to get them to bring my daughter to his house for him which did not happen. That was hands-down the most traumatic event of my life. I tried to take him to court for a restraining order. I was granted a temporary one, and proceeded with filing for divorce and sole custody. Throughout that entire battle, I began living in absolute fear. I couldn’t have any windows open, I became suspicious of everyone who spoke to me, and I began experiencing life shattering panic attacks. To make matters worse, he and his mother live at the end of my street.

I became obsessed with having a spotless home in case any government members arrived at any point. I wouldn’t let anyone inside of my home out of fear of them making a mess. I couldn’t sit down at any point to relax, everything had to be absolutely perfect at all times. I was spiraling into insanity.

After a few years of living like this, my son’s father committed suicide and I absolutely broke. Any amount of sanity I was clinging onto, was gone. Once again, not knowing how to function, I began not just cleaning and organizing, but de-cluttering. I hated everything and I wanted it all out of my house. Everything had memories attached to it of people I wanted to erase, events I wanted to forget, places I would never return to. I emptied at least 75% of our home. If it didn’t have a purpose, it was out. Every day I would take multiple full boxes and bags to the donation center. The more I emptied my home, the less stuff I had, the more peaceful I felt.

I began a life of minimalism. I bought with intent. I no longer bought anything just because it was “cute.” I no longer bought anything “just in case.” I began purchasing only what I would use regularly. I thought ahead if I would have space for it, or if I really needed it. I use what I already have, and I buy second-hand if necessary. I stopped having anything on the counters. Everything has a place. It’s easy to keep everything neat and tidy when it belongs in a certain space. I was finally feeling free.

Then 2020 happened. Having my kids home all day was rough. Trying to keep my home perfect while trying to also home school and entertain toddlers was really hard. For most of the year, we stayed outside as much as possible trying to avoid messes as much as possible. Around May, the depression hit me hard. I got further and further behind on my house work, which led to me falling back into the insanity hole. I developed a rage, or as my husband calls it, a battle cry. I would see a mess and just absolutely lose my shit. Scream, cry, scream, cry… all day, every day. Everyone was walking on eggshells. I knew my family and I couldn’t live like this and I enrolled in therapy and Empowerment Parent Coaching. I learned that I was not alone having a difficult time coping in these trying times, but I should be very proud of myself for both admitting to and making the effort to change my unhealthy behavior.

As the years have gone on, I have developed daily and weekly cleaning routines. We have assigned chores to our girls to help do their part in keeping the home neat & tidy. We have regular “clean up” sessions throughout the day where I set a timer and we get everything cleaned up as quickly as we can before the timer goes off. My kids have learned that if they just do their part to keep the house clutter-free, we all have a great day and don’t have to spend a ton of time cleaning up. My husband has learned that if he does his part to clean up after himself, I am a better wife. We have all learned how to work together. I still can’t relax with messes, and my house must be clean and spotless every night or else I won’t be able to sleep. When I wake up to a spotless house, I wake up to a productive day. I wake up feeling relaxed, rather than overwhelmed from already being behind.

I am just a human doing the best that I can. I envy those that are able to live in a more relaxed, easy-going way. As much as I enjoy having a clutter-free environment, I often overwork my body and I am easily overwhelmed. I worry how my obsession with having a clean home will affect my children in the long-run. Balance is something that I was never skilled at, but after surviving 2020 I’m learning to accept that messes happen and they are able to be cleaned up. Messes aren’t forever, and they don’t mean that I am a total failure even though I am not sure I will ever be able to stop measuring my self-worth based on my productivity. I have learned that when things in my surroundings are happening beyond my control, I feel an intense need to control what I can of my environment, which happens to be my home. My home isn’t neat & tidy because it comes easily to me. My home is neat & tidy because my life experiences have led me to live in this obsession with control.

Don’t judge yourself based off of someone else’s curated photos that you see on social media. Please, please don’t compare or think you are less than because your home isn’t spotless. You are doing an amazing job, just the way you are.

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