Monday, June 06, 2011 • 6:31 AM Comments ()

Guest Post: Gina DeMillo Wagner of the Daily B is Pretty Neat

posted by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Guest Post! Here’s the story: I asked for—and received, from Seal PressPretty Neat, which is a book on organization. Rather than just write about it from the vantage point of someone who is pretty not neat, I asked my friend—through the blogosphere—Gina DeMillo Wagner whether she, too wanted to read it and write about it. She is pretty neat, in all senses of the word. I love her blog, the Daily B—and what I wrote is on her blog. Here’s what she wrote. Visit me in unfamiliar territory and read on to get her take organization, clutter, and a little bit of feminism to boot.


Confession: I appear to be one of those organized, driven moms who some women love to hate. My countertops are uncluttered. You can see most of my floor, most of the time. My kids’ toys get strewn about the house every day, but usually make it back to their bins and shelves by bedtime.

My house is fairly photogenic.

But look a little closer and you’ll see that things are far, far from perfect. My bed is made, but there are stray toys and clothes on the floor. My filing system is basically a box in the office closet marked “2011” in which I toss all the bills, receipts and statements for the year, to be sorted at tax time. Folding laundry is my least favorite task, so I usually wash everything and then pile it in a corner, out of sight, and then fold it in one long stint while I listen to “This American Life” on NPR.

I’m not striving for perfection. Any organization I exhibit is born out of a quest for calm in my frenetic, toddler-dominated world (my kids are 3.5 and 1.5). I’m what Sarah Welch and Alicia Rockmore would call Pretty Neat. I recently read their book (with the same title) and wanted to share some thoughts.

At first, I was skeptical. It seems a bit ironic to offer a how-to guide that at once promotes neatness and letting go. Here’s the handbook for being imperfect! The authors eschew overspending and comparing yourself to the styled homes you see in shelter mags and design blogs. Yet, they say we all could do more to excavate clutter and wrangle our family schedules. I wondered, where’s the line between striving to be “neat” and reaching for unattainable standards?

But the further I read, I realized Welch and Rockmore offer some great suggestions for cutting corners and maintaining a baseline standard for neatness. Which is what I strive for: Neat enough to maintain my sanity….but not so neat that I drive my family crazy. More importantly—I try to find that balance between neat enough to enjoy our home but not so perfect that I spend all my time cleaning and miss out on all the fun, messy adventures with my kids. You know, the stuff of life.

I do a lot of "just enough" cleaning and prioritizing some tasks over others to make the most impact with the least amount of work. Example: I make my bed every morning, because it's a quick task that makes the whole room look cleaner. Even when there are dirty clothes on the floor, a made bed dominates the room. I find it visually calming.

I also don’t wait for big blocks of time to house clean (because they never come). Instead, if I have 10 minutes or even 5, I tackle one corner or one room. Or I take care of a high-impact task, like cleaning one toilet or loading the dishwasher. This means my whole house is never sparkling clean, but most of the house remains fairly clean most of the time.

Like the authors, I also have rules and systems, like I won't bring the mail into the house unless I have time to sort it right then. So, sometimes that means we have a few days' worth of mail sitting outside in the mailbox. That may annoy our mail carrier, but it keeps things calmer inside the house. I also have a rule about “stuff”: We don’t bring new toys/furniture/clothes into the house until something else leaves (via gifting, donating to charity, repurposing).

So, I do really see the value in a lot of their suggestions....but again, I'm inclined to be neat. And I only have two kids following behind me undoing everything (unlike Ms. Buttenweiser).

I think the takeaway message is this: Do your best not to compare yourself to others (easier said than done, I know). You have to do what works for you and your family. You can garner suggestions from books and you can be inspired by blogs and lust just a little for perfection if it motivates you (and doesn't crush your spirit). But every family is unique and it's a lot of trial and error.

Beyond that, I always come back to what my mentor once told me. She’s a social worker and used to do home visits to new families. She said that if a home was too neat, too perfect, it was a red flag, because it begged the question: If these parents are focused so much on the house, who is focused on the children??

So when the Cheerios crunch beneath my feet, I remind myself I’m being a good, attentive mom.

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