Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Compartment Department

Yesterday morning I opened the utensil drawer in our kitchen and a shiver went down my spine.  Whisk intertwined with spatula.  Cookie cutter collided with slotted spoon.  A cacophony of kitchenware.  A mess.  I extracted the measuring spoon I needed and then closed the drawer quickly, turning my back on the clutter and resolving to order the drawer organizer I had seen profiled in Real Simple.  (I Real Simple.)  Compartments are what this drawer needs, I thought to myself.  Compartments.

I like compartments.  I like delineation.  I like neat piles.  I like work time and then play time.  I am the queen of checklists, the duchess of task-oriented behavior, the baroness of getting one thing done and then moving on to the next.  Try to talk to me while I'm writing or checking e-mail and I will either ignore you or offer you a response that conveys the same message.

But becoming a parent has knocked me out of my compartmentalized comfort zone.

And I struggle with jumbles.  With blurry lines.  With mixed metaphors.  With feeding an infant, serving lunch to a toddler, and foraging for my own food all at the same time.  Sometimes I watch Husband as he juggles the balls of parenthood and selfhood far more easily than I do.  New Yorker always nearby, he plays with Big Boy and entertains Tiny Baby while catching up on "Talk of the Town" and Malcolm Gladwell's latest pet theory.  He plays, he entertains, he reads, and he remembers.  He does it all.  All of it.

And parents need that ability to multi-task.  The power to do it all, all at once.  The ability to look at a messy drawer, grab a spoon, and move on, not worrying about order, reveling in the chaos.  Sometimes I think that Husband is more of a natural in the parenting department than I am because he does it all; he does everything.  When I try to do it all, I feel like I'm doing nothing.  By nature, husband is a multi-tasker; I am just a tasker.

But I've been working on it.

Yesterday evening after the boys went to sleep, I went into the playroom to tidy up.  I found a sea of Legos, a mountain of maracas, a landscape of dinosaurs.  I looked at them and then I looked the multi-colored buckets that came with our shelving unit.  When we first got it, I would spend time at the end of each day sorting Legos into the large yellow bin, dinosaurs into the medium blue bin, and musical instruments into the small red bin.

But last night, it finally occurred to me: the fun in this room comes from the mess.  The Legos are joy, the dinosaurs are imagination, the maracas are spontaneity.  Compartments don't work in a room that is supposed to be messy.  So what if the Legos and dinosaurs and maracas spend the night mixed up in some sort of architectural prehistoric Latin debauchery?  So what?

It may be messy, but that's life.  That is life.

Compartments don't work in a life that is supposed to be messy.  After all, how can you compartmentalize something that is not, at its essence, meant to be neat?

Are you a good multi-tasker or do you prefer to compartmentalize?  What compromises have you made to your chosen organizational systems to accomodate your partner and/or kids?


  1. I've found that even more useful than multi-tasking is the ability to just walk away. To let a job remain unfinished without subsequently defining myself as a failure. (Perfectionist much?)

    And it does get a little better. Sometime after the age of two. It really does.

    And you'd probably have a heart attack if you saw my pantry.

  2. I am with Goldfish. I had a friend around the last couple of days so wanted to spend time with him so put some things off.

    Being able to walk away will free you in a sense. I have come to embrace that the dishes (no dishwasher here) will still be in the sink if I want to read a book at night or have a glass of wine with a friend.

  3. I need to print this out and post it on my fridge (the cold thing in the kitchen that makes me want to scream every time I open it because it's such an uncompartmentalized mess!) because it's such a healthy reminder that it's OK at times to not have order. The difference with me though is that I've ALWAYS struggled with having appropriate compartments for things. I've always DREAMED of having things have a "place". My mom walks into my house and tries to give my rooms order (she's been known to say, "I just thought the silverware would be better in that other drawer!) but it just doesn't last. And with kids, please, it's impossible. What fun are organized bins? The fun is exploring through the bins and seeing how different toys can be played with together! The Little People characters with the legos! The Matchbox cars with the My Little Pet Shop house! At least it makes ME feel better to think this way... otherwise I'd go insane.

    But, on the other hand, if the tupperware containers could all be with their tops, in one cabinet, I think I'd be a happier person.

  4. Fantastic post. I found myself thinking just this morning about the relationship between external and internal order (stay tuned for a post). I wonder if our need to structure our environments boils down to a longing for internal order? If our physical clutter mirrors our existential piles? No clue. But fertile soil indeed.

  5. There is so much to this post, Kristen, that I will need to come back. Think, breathe, (feed a teen) and come back.

    Compartments are necessary in the business world, in the functioning of systems (compartments are another way of saying slots or categories - it is in this way that we run businesses, market products, target audiences even as writers - into 'buckets' that are useful for specific objectives).

    Compartmentalizing people and emotions are different - at times helpful, always superficial, and in many circumstances, problematic. We miss out on gold, because we are looking for silver.

    I'll leave it at that, and come back to this again. Another provocative write, lucid and open.

  6. PS (As the oven is pre-heating)-

    I will say that I live with a high degree of chaos and mess; it is not by choice and it becomes (at times) overwhelming and even paralyzing.

    I would prefer more order without complete order (probably impossible for me anyway - it makes me uncomfortable).

    There are times when too much is thrown on the proverbial fan and order is among the casualties, en permanence. I like to think that I have a (relatively) ordered mind, though not linear - and I believe that saves me from what others would walk into, and in which they would be completely unable to function.

    We adapt to chaos and disorder and learn to function in it as we adapt to everything - or nearly - it seems. Accepting things we never thought we could. Certainly, parenthood tosses many preconceived notions into the air, and its sheer volume and constancy of tasks makes "orderly arrangements" of many things a lower priority than loving, nourishing, sharing, making, teaching, learning, experiencing.

  7. Before children I was so organzied, so tidy - it was annoying. Even to me. But then I had children. And everything changed. And if a bed didn't get made - the neat police never issued a citation. The world continued spinning and I had more time to enjoy my kids.

  8. I am so much calmer and nicer to be around with everything is tidy and in it's place. But that's practically impossible with kids. And I've learned to deal with it because some things are more important! My husband says I'm a pro at compartmentalizing (emotions, that is) but my organization is definitely lacking of late!

  9. My subscription to Real Simple magazine just ended. And I'm not getting another one, because it was stressing me out to look at the pages, and realize that right now my life will never look like their pages. And that's ok. When the kids are older, hopefully some order will come back. But you're right, the joy is in the mess.

  10. Somehow I continue to find myself surprised that other people enjoy organization. ;)

    I live in a perpetual state of chaotic disarray, and somehow I manage not to notice (most of the time). We're so disorganized, we don't even have our own sides of the bed. I am not shitting you -- I know, we're the only people on the planet who don't have a side of the bed.

    I am not claiming that my ability to let it go makes me a supreme multitasker or parent, I am just noting that I didn't realize there was a way to have a utensil drawer that did not involve whisk-spatula sex.

    I've been poking around your site (sorry it took me so long to get over here!) and you're a great writer. I love the issues you tackle.

  11. There is definitely a learning-curve here that I have not yet mastered. When is chaos absolutely acceptable or even desirable? It is an extremely relevant question when children under 3 feet roam about your home.

    What doesn't help? Having your house on the market. Yuck.

  12. Kristen,
    Fantabulous post. Goldfish is right in that the ability to walk away can just save you when you suffer from the need to order. The need for neatness. And it is a huge point of contention in this house - to walk away or not to walk away. In fact, I am working on a post this very moment about an emotion about an incident about a fight about ORDER and NEATNESS and HOUSEHOLD TASKS.

    Like most everything else, I go through phases. I let the toys mish mash together until I've had enough and I take the time to straighten the bins. And so on, and so on.


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