personal essay

I’m a Child of a Hoarder — And I’m Trying to Do Better for My Own Family

published Mar 30, 2021
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“Reach,” my sister said, looking at me appraisingly.

I was about 7 or 8 years old, with long arms and even longer legs. I stretched my gangly limbs over the kitchen sink, my fingertips just barely making contact with the faucet.

“Good,” she said, nodding with approval. “You’re almost tall enough to wash the dishes, so I won’t have to.”

That was the first, and last, lesson I ever got in cleaning the kitchen.

It’s deeply unsettling to look back at the easy, casual attitude my family had towards cleaning when I was growing up. Cleaning just wasn’t really something I was asked to do — and it definitely wasn’t something I was ever taught to do — because our baseline for cleanliness was totally different than my friends’ families.

My mother was a hoarder. But not the kind of hoarder that you see on those cringe-worthy shows, living in piles of dirty diapers, dead cats, and rotting food. No. She was lovely, creative, and generous. She had the very best taste, so she picked out and held onto the very best stuff. The things that she stockpiled in our home were brand-new and exquisite, found on sale or intended as gifts.

It’s deeply unsettling to look back at the easy, casual attitude I had towards cleaning when I was growing up.

We had a gorgeous dining table, matching chairs, and elaborate centerpieces — all of which just happened to be hidden behind piles of laundry, boxes, and bulging black garbage bags. A too-big, brand-new sofa set sunk under the weight of the stuff we meant to “sort out eventually.” We lived in what we affectionately termed “organized chaos,” which meant that we could uncover just about anything if we dug long enough in the right pile.

As an adult, I’m horrified and embarrassed — but as a kid, it was awesome. There was none of that “You can’t go play until you’ve cleaned your room” bickering. No chore wheel. And while I can’t recall more than one dinner during which we actually sat down at the table to eat together, I do have fond memories of eating on top of precariously tall laundry piles (bracing myself between a bookshelf and a fancy china cabinet).

If you’re wondering, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on family dinners. I didn’t always eat alone on top of laundry: Usually, my sister, mom, and I would eat in my mom’s bed. Everything happened in that bed. We did our homework, we played games, we ate dinner, we chatted about our days. It worked, even when it didn’t, and perhaps that’s why I, along with the rest of my family, didn’t realize for so many years that my mom was struggling with something. I honestly still don’t know what it was. That apartment killed her 13 years ago. She had an asthma attack, and collapsed while trying to get to the front door for the paramedics. The stuff — as nice as it was — was covering up dust, mold, a water-damaged ceiling, and who knows what else. To this day, it’s still hard for me to understand and accept, which is why the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I see her tendencies in my own actions.

When I was 16, I got my first job at a busy Starbucks at the mall. I had to be shown — in great detail — how to sweep a floor and load a dishwasher. I went to a prestigious private school, so my coworkers (and I) dismissed my shortcomings as “what happens when you go to a fancy school.” What other explanation could there be? (They laughed at my cluelessness when it came to cleaning, my nerdy references, and my “whitewashed” speech.)

After three years of working in food service, I graduated from coffee to cocktails and could afford my first apartment. My boyfriend and I moved in together. I was so excited to have my own place, but could not figure out for the life of me how to maintain it. It wasn’t dirty, but it just seemed … out of my control. Especially the kitchen.

I didn’t know how to clean it, and I didn’t know how to stock it properly. Did people really wash their dishes after every meal? Do I mop the floor like I’m at Starbucks? How many plates did I need? What about bowls? Honestly, I had eaten most of my meals off of disposable plates in bed, so this was a chance for an upgrade in a major way. I acquired table settings for 15, plus a restaurant-worthy collection of glassware, mugs, and wine keys.

If you had asked me back then, when I moved into that first apartment, if I was a hoarder, I would have said no without a thought. I would have told you that I was a bartender, that I loved to entertain, and that I could never have friends over when I was growing up, so now that I was an adult I definitely needed to have salad plates for 15.

I’m now in my 30s and I have struggled with maintaining my stuff for far longer than I care to admit. I have two small children, and while my mess isn’t as severe as mother’s, the kids are way more comfortable navigating the piles of laundry and toys than I would like. When I see my children step over clothes or the dishes pile up, I feel the anxiety rise. We have brief moments of clean, and I constantly look to my mom friends for reassurance that my house is a reasonable level of messy.

When I see my children step over clothes or the dishes pile up, I feel the anxiety rise.

I know I do hoard. Deep inside, I know that the things I hold onto are about control. It’s about security and about making up for the ways I’ve failed: It may have taken me seven years to finish my bachelor’s degree, but I have a fully stocked wine fridge and every kind of tea you can think of. That must count for something, right? I may be woefully behind on homeschooling my 5-year-old, but we have markers, crayons, paint, and colored pencils so the intent is clearly there.

Growing up with a hoarder is all about maintaining external appearances: No one comes in, so no one sees the mess, and you can pretend it doesn’t exist. It works pretty well, until someone wonders out loud where the hell you learned to mop (again, I didn’t). Living that way — with skeletons, and way too many coffee mugs, in the closet — teaches you to keep people out.

I’m trying to let people in, though. Literally. I’m doing what I can to keep my home in order, so that if unexpected visitors stop by, post-COVID, I can open the door. I’m trying to remind myself that there’s no reason my kids need to have every type of art supply under the sun. I’m working to realize that I don’t need all this stuff. And I’m trying to remember my mother, including what she’d want for me now. I have to imagine that would be a pile-free home that my family and I can be fully comfortable in — where we have space to enjoy who we are, as well as what we own.