When you’re a mother of a large family, spring cleaning takes on a whole ‘nother dimension. I’ve been a professional house cleaner and home organizer for a few years now. I hope these tips help you! Life with a large family….
When your regular, doing laundry once-a-day pile looks like this:
And this. My little girls came and happily informed me that their “room is clean!” I have some experience in these matters. So I took a rake with me to check. You know what? Their floor was clean. But when I took that rake (truly an invaluable house cleaning tool!) and pulled out everything under their bed, dresser and closet, this is what I got!! (can you see the baby??)
Then you begin to realize that having a large family means…well, a lot of stuff.
And then there’s this:
That is what happens when you have two dogs who are not impressed when you go out trick-or-treating (or “trunk or treating”as our case was, at the church’s fun kids program)….without them. And, in fact, leave them locked in the garage.
But really, when you have littles, whether human or canine, undoing your hard cleaning work behind you every step, you learn to adapt or go crazy. I think it’s possible to be a neat freak and keep a completely clean house if you have…maybe…up to two small kids. But three or more and you might as well just give up.
Which is what I’ve done. I’ve given up on stuff.
Obviously, living means you need stuff. But the more kids we have, the more I’ve found we must live with less, not more. Children get easily overwhelmed when they have more toys than they can reasonably play with. As a house cleaner I’ve seen it again and again – an entire room full of toys for one child, or two, and they walk in and just get overwhelmed. They either play with, and leave out, everything, or they don’t use 80% of the toys they have.
Moving internationally (which meant packing up first a family of 6 into one moving van, then a family of 7 into a slightly larger moving van (14′)) twice in the last 6 years has been a tremendous help in this department. When you have to ask yourself, “Am I willing to pay $25-70 in moving expense costs for this to come with us?” you really get to see what is worth keeping and what is best let go.
However, at least once a year regardless of moving or not, I do a “spring cleaning” for our large family. It’s not a standard spring cleaning where every window frame gets cleaned, although that’s a handy thing to do…some day…when you have all that extra time… but it is, essentially, a down-sizing, de-cluttering, joy-giving, life-changing…well I may be getting carried away, but it’s a large family Cleanse!
Here’s what I do, and I hope these tips will help someone else.
How to do a Large Family Purge (“Spring Cleaning”):
- Move it on down! With our littles so close in age, this is actually easier than it would be if we had large age gaps. I start with the oldest usually, and cull whatever clothing they have grown out of. I am ruthless. If it’s even showing a hint of being too small, out it goes. I only leave clothes that actually fit them, and will fit them for at least 6 months (when the next “spring cleaning” purging urge will hit).
- Yay! New Clothes! When I get to the next child in line, they “inherit” their older siblings too-small clothes. It really is shopping in your sister’s closet! Stuff that’s too damaged or too ugly (hey, let’s just face it, large families get given large amounts of random clothes sometimes) to last 6 months gets tossed into the donate or trash pile. Then their too-small clothes get weeded out and handed down.
- By the time I reach the bottom of the pile, I’ve usually discovered some large holes in at the kids’ wardrobes. I use this as an excuse to hit the thrift stores! And I’ve got a large bag or two to donate myself! (Note: if you have gaps between genders, for example our boys are our “bookends” and it’s simply not possible to hand down, then you’ll need the extra step of storage bins for too-large yet, for each child getting hand-me-downs that won’t fit yet).
- Once all of the kids clothes have been sorted, down-sized, etc, and I’ve taken note of which kids need some new clothes, I move on to the other “stuff” in our lives that is kid-related.
- Shoes. Every single shoe must be tried on, moved down, or thrown out if it doesn’t fit or is irredeemably damaged. Yes! We will be walking through the entry way again!
- Stuffies. Toys. Games. Aaah!!! This can be literally a drowning experience!
- Whew. Traumatized just writing that point.
- Ok, seriously though.
- We decided several years ago that our family was going to stop buying an assortment of different kinds of toys. Our kids still get other toys given to them, but in general we only get them sets of Lego or Playmobil. Our reasoning was this: it’s a great tool for them to develop their imagination, building skills, spatial awareness, engineering…the list could go on. In fact, recently the kids took some assessment tests. You know what they all scored exceptionally high in? Spatial awareness. So we have a communal pot of Lego and Playmobil and it’s quite large. We don’t downsize this.
- Instead, we downsize any other toy or game. The way I do it is assess each toy by a variety of factors. Is is sturdy, or is it breaking all the time? Does any child seem particularly attached to it? (we don’t give away or get rid of favorites. C’mon. That’d be just cruel.) Does it engender good play? Is it too young for the kids? Too old (can it be put away for a while, and then enjoyed like new in the future?)? Is it always under foot? Do I hate it with a passion?? If you looked at the picture of the girls’ messy room above, I can tell you that only about 3 of those things came with us on the move. I down-size stuffies on a yearly basis as well, although not as drastically because apparently all of our stuffies are related to each other and they would suffer emotionally if so-and-so was given away to strangers. Ha!
- Books. Ok, this is my weak spot. I love books. I love my kids reading books. So I do a reverse-clean for books. I simply do not allow books I regard as below-par to enter into our “collection” – period. I love the Charlotte Mason approach to books – it emphasizes learning from “living books” which are delightful and interesting and written by someone who obviously knows and loves their subject. We get plenty of “meh” level books from the library, but they always go back. On the other hand, there’s been a few books we have gotten from the library that were so outstanding or captivating to a particular child that I ordered a copy for our home collection – I’ll link them below. Still, it’s helpful to do a good cleanse every year or so, and get rid of some to make room for new.
- Games. I’ve always loved games, and in general they get a “pass” during spring cleaning. However, this year I realized that having a toddler around who absolutely loves dumping out board games makes owning board games the kids don’t really play almost an exercise in frustration. So I downsized our game collection by about a third. Monopoly and Life both got the boot, as I’ve noticed that the kids just turn into greedy little fighting monsters on those games. Not worth the grief. We’ve been enjoying playing Settlers of Catan with them, but I decided to find a new home for Settlers of Canaan. That’s a Catan copy with a “Christian” remodel. It’s simply not big enough for a family our size to enjoy – we have and use three of the Catan games. I also got rid of a few educational games that the kids don’t use. However, we use GeoPuzzles for the kids’ geography classes and a few other fun or educational ones also made the cut, like Phineas and Ferb’s 100 Days of Summer, Scattergories and Cadoo. I’d like to try a few new games with the kids now that they’re finally getting old enough so this will make room for those!
- Now that the kids’ clothing, games, stuffies, toys and books have been purged, it’s time to turn the attention to me. I’m usually totally inspired by the joy of it all by this point, and it makes it easier just to keep the momentum going! On Dancer, on Prancer!
- I go through our closet with less vigor than the kids’ because, well, thankfully, we’re simply not outgrowing our clothes every six months! Having had so many kids I usually keep decent maternity clothing in a storage bin if I’m not pregnant…just in case. 😉 I also get rid of things that are frumpy, outdated, unappealing, too worn, or just not my style. You’d think after downsizing yearly I wouldn’t have anything left like that! But I sometimes get suckered in at a thrift store by some item, only to discover it doesn’t fit quite right or it doesn’t really suit me. Or, occasionally, I’ve been given bags of clothing by friends. So usually I have a few things to get rid of. Dear husband, thankfully, is not a clothes horse. So I usually leave his few things alone, unless they’re really too small. Mostly I try to weed out the socks that have gotten too “holy” for thou!
- By this time the pile of to-be-donated stuff is growing large and engendering an energy of its own. I just have to find more in the house to keep it company! Nothing is sacred! Literally – stuff is just stuff – so unless it’s useful, beautiful, or sentimental, out it goes. I’m getting excited at this point and sometimes noticing that hey, we could really use an XYZ, so I let the desire to buy that new XYZ keep me going like the proverbial donkey after the carrot. I find that one area in our life that seems to grow unhindered, like a bunch of mushrooms in the dark, is the linens. Towels, sheets, blankets – when the closet door won’t shut any more, it’s time to down size. PS – old towels make amazing rags, if you cut them up! And baby’s receiving blankets (the flannel or cotton kind) can be cut into nice squares and used for cloth wipes for dirty bums – just add water!
- Closets. Closets need a special note. Closets can apparently take on a life of their own. Get rid of your closet doors. No, really – I promise the closet monster can’t live without a door. The beast will shrink. But if you can’t get rid of the door, devote a chunk of uninterrupted time to each closet, vowing to find a new home for at least half of the contents if the closet is difficult to close.
And once all of that purging is done, you will likely find that you have a much lighter house. It will be a lot easier to keep clean too…at least for six months, when you’ll need to get your purging game on again. 😉
Other cleaning tips:
- When overwhelmed, pick a small corner or spot and completely finish that. Then move outwards. Slowly but surely you’ll get to it all if you keep your head down, your tunnel vision “on” and chug away like the Little Engine That Could.
- Clean while you organize. If you’re doing drawers, wipe the drawer down while everything is out, then move it back to a clean drawer. Etc.
- Don’t get distracted. Choose one thing or place to clean/organize and stick to it no matter what else comes in to to distract you. This is definitely my weakness so I know of what I speak – Tunnel Vision!
- Make sure to only do major cleans or purges when you actually have the time needed to devote to it. Don’t start it at 10pm for example. If you need to, write it into your schedule – Monday, kids’ clothes. Tuesday, adults’ clothes.
- When dealing with what clothes to keep and what to get rid of, I find a useful metric is “church clothes” quality. While many people associate “church clothes” with their “Sunday best,” for reasons of culture and necessity my definition of church clothes is anything that I would not be embarrassed to have my children seen in at church. It’s fine to keep a few items as strictly outdoor mud play clothes but if that’s your entire wardrobe, and you’re not literally dirt poor, go shopping (even at a thrift store) and make sure your kids (and you!) are not continually dressed in a way that would make you feel embarrassed to be seen in a church. Here’s a picture of an adorable little girl we met in Africa who would not qualify for this advice:(she was convinced we were going to “snatch” her and this is as close as she’d get at first! The other kids eventually convinced her we were safe. 🙂 Telling this girl’s parents to go shopping would obviously be an ignorant, rude insult – so let me be clear, there is no shame in dirty torn clothing if you cannot afford to buy better. None.)
- Get your kids involved in cleaning as much as possible! Let them do a preliminary “purge” of their stuff. It will give them good skills for later in life, and you’ll get to see what’s not precious to them.
- Hold your “stuff” lightly. For many reasons, people become attached to material things. As a professional home organizer, I’ve seen if not all, then most of the human tendencies towards stuff and emotion. Sometimes “stuff” makes you feel safe, makes you feel rich, makes you feel like you’re not failing your children because you’re providing “stuff” for them, reminds you of fond memories, reminds you of things left undone (usually relationally) that should have been done and so you keep the thing(s) out of guilt….it’s a rainbow of emotion. And of course there’s hoarding, which is the term for when emotional causes lead to excessive ownership of stuff. Try to be as honest as possible when you go through your stuff, and decide on some good questions to ask in order to help you decide what to keep. And then stick to it!
Recently I read Jen Hatmaker‘s book Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. I suspect Hatmaker’s book is more helpful for people who live a typical American life. I didn’t find it terribly life changing because I was already a convert to down-sizing. But it’s a good read!
I have heard good things about Marie Kondo‘s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Basically, get rid of whatever doesn’t bring you joy. I am guessing she doesn’t often deal with large families full of little children. Just sayin’ – my kids would have nothing in the small-toy-that-hurts-when-you-step-on-it category if I did a Kondo clean! Ha!
(this is a wall decoration at LegoLand. They get it.)
I know people who highly recommend the regular, day by day, cleaning method popularized by Fly Lady.
Here is a challenge that I know has inspired at least one friend: 40 Bags in 40 Days
Some of the things I’ve mentioned at Amazon:
Jen Hatmaker’s: 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess
And some books we’ve enjoyed so much from the library that we bought them:
Rachel Isadora’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses
Alexandra Siy’s One Tractor: A Counting Book
Leslie Parrott’s God Made You Nose To Toes
And of course, why we find it so hard to keep things clean with a large family….:)