This is an actual advice essay, not a joke. I write joke articles about cleaning pretty often, but that is because I would rather do anything than clean, even write; and I would definitely rather tell jokes than write.
But not today! Today, I cleaned the middle upstairs bedroom, where three children sleep, including two of the rattiest packrats known to mankind. I’m a bad housekeeper, and I do a bad job making my kids clean. So their room was horrible. That’s just a fact.
However, I have a room rescue system that offers quick gratification; and, if you stick with it, you will eventually be able to see the whole floor. This essay is not about how to organize, how to decorate, how to make your children be tidy, how to optimize space, or anything of the kind. It’s just about how to get from “Oh Lord of mercies, please smite me now” to “Welp, now we have a floor again.” It’s fairly common sense, but I’m offering it in case you find yourself in this situation and need a clear plan and some moral support.
YOU WILL NEED:
Several garbage bags
A trash barrel (or upright laundry basket)
About three smaller collection containers
Broom and dustpan
Optional: A fan, because you will get angry and hot; a cool drink; music or podcast that’s going to encourage and energize you (not the news or anything challenging or upsetting). If the room is dusty, maybe take allergy medication at the beginning of the project.
If you want to really go hard, sweep everything onto the floor, including what’s on the beds and under the beds, what’s in the closets, what’s on and in the drawers and shelves, etc. It all goes womp on the floor. Only do this if you have a ton of time and energy and mental fortitude, and your kids have already been given an opportunity to take care of it themselves. Save the nuclear option for rare, dire situations. I recommend just sweeping clean the bed and under the bed.
Look at that mess on the floor! Decide what the mess is basically made out of. For a child’s room, it’s usually: Clean clothes, dirty clothes (including anything that needs to be laundered), costumes, books, toys, sorty things, art supplies (including papers they want to save), trash, little bitty things, and Hey That’s Not Yours.
ESTABLISH FLINGING ZONES
You are going to pick up every last thing on the floor, decide what category it belongs to, and fling it into a zone. The zone will not be its final resting place; it will just be a good spot for a pile. Try to help yourself, and make the dirty laundry zone be near the door, the book zone near a book shelf, etc.
SIT YOUR ASS DOWN ON THE FLOOR AND START FLINGING.
Just like it sounds. Make yourself comfortable, pick up the first thing you can reach, brush it off if it’s gross, and fling it into its zone. Do this over and over and over again until you can see the floor in front of you. Then shift slightly and do the same thing in the spot next to the clear spot. Continue until you can’t reach anything from where you’re sitting. Then move and do it again. And again. And again.
I know. It’s stupid and squalid, but I have found this to be the most efficient way to get through a knee-deep mess. It’s much easier on your back than plodding around the room with a bag, trying to pick out all the books, and all the socks, and all the toys, etc. It also gives quicker gratification, and is therefore more encouraging, then sweeping or raking the entire floor contents into a Towering Pile of Everything and sorting through it. This top-down,-one-spot-at-a-time method rewards you with a glimpse of the floor pretty quickly, and if you haven’t seen the floor in a while, it’s surprising how encouraging that can be. It’s very satisfying to watch the patch of clear floor grow and grow as you work your way around the room.
It is very helpful to have a trash barrel (or a bag inside a tall laundry basket) that stands up and stays open, rather than a trash bag, so you can toss things in from where you sit, rather than having to pull open a slithery trash bag ten thousand times. This is going to be a very frustrating job, so you want to save frustration wherever you can.
SORT AND PUT AWAY YOUR PILES.
Once every last thing that’s on the floor has been picked up, judged, and flung into a pile, and the room is all sorted, haul out all the trash and dirty laundry. This will clear out the room tremendously, which is encouraging. Then you just have to put away the already-sorted piles of stuff.
A few need explaining:
Little Bitty Things are items you pick out of the dirt pile before you sweep it up because you’re tender-hearted — things like like money, jewelry, tiny ceramic kittens, important Lego heads, and so on, that you don’t feel like finding homes for yourself, but which you don’t want to get lost. If the kids care, they can sort through it, but at least you rescued them.
Sorty Things are pieces of sets and kits that have been strewn all over the place. The kids will enjoy these things so much more if they’re all together again, so you don’t want to just throw them away. But you don’t know if you’re driving yourself crazy saving out pieces of a set that the kid only owns half of anymore. If you just put All Sorty Things into one box and then sort it all (or better yet, present it to the kids to sort) afterwards, you have already done the hard part. Way easier than roaming around a chaotic mess stopping and making a million decisions about whether or not to save something, and what set it belongs to.
Hey That’s Not Yours is obviously dishes and utensils, my missing cardigan, 46 pairs of scissors, etc. Feels a little like Christmas, in a profoundly pathetic way, to exit the room clutching your little treasure trove of reclaimed goods to restore to their rightful places in the house until someone immediately comes and steals them again.
SWEEP AND VACCUUM
If the room was so bad that you can’t see the floor, it will be necessary to sweep said newly-exposed floor before vacuuming. Then vacuum. (This kind of content is why people pay me the big bucks to write.)
And then the room is . . . cleaner. It is a good stopping place, and if you want to continue organizing and sorting, you can do that the next day. At least you can see the floor.
AND THE EMOTIONAL SIDE OF IT ALL
You don’t really need this essay, right? It’s a stupid essay. The truth is, cleaning is easy. All you have to to is pick up the things and put them back where they go, and everybody already knows this. But it’s the emotional side of it that makes it so daunting. When you’re facing an overwhelmingly, wretchedly chaotic mess, it helps to have a clear plan about how to tackle it, and to make things as encouraging for yourself as possible. It’s okay to encourage yourself.
The other thing that makes cleaning hard is the guilt and other emotional baggage that goes along with it. You’re not just sorting through Barbie shoes and Halloween candy wrappers, but also feelings of guilt that you let it get to this state and you never taught the kids better, feelings of rage that they made this mess, feelings of shame that you spent money on toys and never made them take better care of them and now they’re not enjoying them and you’re filling the world with plastic and what about the poor dolphins, and then maybe the ghost of your mother or grandmother is haunting the closet making hissing sounds about all the socks on the floor.
All I can tell you is that, if you are feeling not just aggravation but crushing, paralyzing guilt over a messy room, it’s almost certainly inappropriate guilt. You can feel bad about a mess, but you shouldn’t feel like you murdered someone.
Unless the mess is actually dangerous — like there is mold, or vermin, or your children wear the same outfit every day because they have no clean clothes — then whatever failings have led up to this point are probably not as bad as you’re telling yourself. Really. It’s just a mess. I say this as someone who just cleaned a real stinkhole of a room, and who (thanks to several years of therapy) just shocked myself by feeling nothing more than moderate irritation because, oh, that’s where my tape measure went. It was a big mess, but it was just a mess. I should have cleaned it sooner, but oh well, I’m cleaning it now. This is something I’ve been struggling with my whole life, and I think this is just as good as it’s going to get. I’m good at other things. The end. Got my tape measure back.
Good luck! Good luck with it all.