A Battle With Clutter: One Mother’s Exercise in Futility

by Allison Lefrak

Allison Lefrak works as a consumer protection attorney at the Federal Trade Commission where she focuses on issues of privacy and data security. Previously, she was the Litigation Director at a non-profit organization that sought to promote compliance with human rights norms through domestic litigation. Allison spent ten years in private practice, most recently at Reed Smith LLP. She served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Welton Curtis Sewell of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Allison obtained her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. She earned her BA from Colgate University. Allison’s essays have been featured in Washington Woman and MomsRising. Allison’s op-ed about representing detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was published in The National Law Journal and her essays are included in a book compilation - The Guantanamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law. Allison lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband and their three children.   

A Battle With Clutter: One Mother’s Exercise in Futility was originally published on MomsRising.org and has been reprinted with permission. MomsRising advocates for the well-being of all moms, women and families through public policy initiatives, grassroots community organizing, and providing a platform for their stories to be shared.

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When Malcolm and I moved into a 3-bedroom townhouse in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., it felt vast compared to our 900-square foot condo in the city.  I actually uttered the words, “What are we going to do with all this space?”  Stupid, stupid woman I think now of my younger self.

It was August 2007 and I was pregnant with our first child.  We had less than four months alone in the townhouse, along with a pug and an old black cat, before our son Luke and his giant baby trappings arrived and kicked off Project Clutter and Destroy.  Within weeks of his arrival, our previously appropriately sized dining room felt awkwardly crammed.  The table for four competed for precious space with Luke’s massive swing that ate size D batteries like goldfish crackers and a high chair with a base that rivaled the wingspan of a bald eagle.  One room was officially conquered and destroyed.

When our daughter was born in the summer of 2009, the extra bedroom that we used as an office was the next room seized.  The finished basement was the next one down when it became infested with toys.  In a futile attempt to stave off the toy invasion, I briefly and oh so naively decided to conduct a half-baked gender experiment by refusing to purchase any stereotypical girl toys such as dolls, kitchen sets and the like.  Surely, Harper would be content to play with Luke’s cars, trains, dinosaurs, and construction vehicles.  But society’s norms were far stronger than I had guilelessly anticipated.  Each holiday and birthday was followed by a tidal wave of doll strollers, princess Lego sets, mini-purses equipped with pink cell phones and fake eye shadow, and sure enough Barbies.  Lots and lots of Barbies.

Fast forward to the present and you have two adults, three kids, and two animals chaotically existing in our poor beat down old townhouse.  (The fifteen-year-old cat is still in a perfect state of health, much to Malcom’s chagrin.)  Once I finally brought a realtor into the house, I was less than shocked to learn that we would need to massively de-clutter, re-paint all of the walls, and put in new carpet – at a bare minimum – if we hoped to sell the house.

The trail of tears began as the kids watched me pack up half of their toys and stuffed animals in boxes and load them into a pod parked in our driveway.  Once all the necessary home improvement work was completed, a For Sale sign was hung in the yard, and the house was listed.  Then, the fun really began.

I would get a text from my realtor saying something like, “People want to come see the house in in 20 mins. Ok?”  At this point, Malcolm would predictably decide to take a long leisurely shower, while I morphed into a wild cleaning lady on crack.  Toys, clothes, shoes, sippy cups filled with petrified milk - I shoved all of it into bins and threw the bins in the closets.  I made the beds, opened the blinds, turned on every light, and wiped down the counter tops.  I also jammed Harper’s mattress under our bed.  (When Abbie was born, Harper lost her room and started sleeping on a mattress on the floor of Luke’s room.)

Moving at a frenzied pace, I was still no match for my offspring.  The faster I scrubbed and tidied the more destructive they became.  When I took away all of their toys, they resorted to making messes with their bodily fluids, typically vomit.  When my Sisyphean efforts inevitably failed, I put all three kids in the minivan with a DVD.  As the realtor’s Mercedes SUV pulled up to the house with her bright-eyed clients in tow, the kids would be sitting unattended in the driveway, Malcolm would be serenely shaving with a towel wrapped around his waist, and I would walk out holding a putrid smelling trash bag from the diaper caddy.

This was my life for thirty-nine days, before by the grace of God, a young couple mercifully decided to buy our house.  Unfortunately, I do not write from a place of perspective.  The process was horrible and I have no advice apart from birth control and/or baby spacing.  Because we are not yet financially in a position to buy a bigger house without moving to North Dakota, I am now furiously searching for a rental home in the same elementary school district.  On the bright side, I hear that moving with three kids under six will be a breeze.