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What It’s Like to Be the Child of a Hoarder

What It's Like to Be the Child of a Hoarder - From constant clutter to not knowing how or when to clean up, being children of a hoarder impacts your life for all your adult years. Cleaning up and decluttering isn't easy. You never learn how to organize, but these resources can help.

Imagine living in an ant hill, walking through trails barely wide enough to pass and finding a little pocket of space here and an empty chair there. If you were an ant, you might not mind, but if you're a human being, it's no fun. It impacts your mental health and well-being.

My mother was a compulsive hoarder.

She was the kind of hoarder you've seen on tv, where there are paths through the house and the stuff is piled up to your chest in every room.

She's been gone for almost six years, but I feel ashamed even now to talk about it, like it's a dirty secret that I shouldn't bring into the light of day.

She had a lot of good qualities, my mother. I still miss her almost every day. But the facts are the facts, and I grew up in a unique situation.

I desperately wanted the house to be different. I even took it upon myself to clean a space a few times, but it always got filled back up.

There was no real cleaning at my house because we couldn't see the floors or reach the walls. We ate out a lot because the stove was covered in stuff and dirty dishes were piled in the sink and on the counters and the table was piled as high as we could see with papers and miscellany.

There was a swivel chair in the living room where one person could sit at the computer desk. The rest of the room was full of boxes and bags and piles. There was no other furniture save some shelves against the walls, long since piled in.

Every surface was covered with something. Even the landing above the stairs was filled with old clothes, too old to be worn but never donated or thrown away. A glow-in-the-dark cardboard mobile of the planets hangs from the hallway light, made in the nineties and still hanging, caked with dust.

It all made me feel trapped, claustrophobic, like I had nowhere to go.

People are not meant to live like ants.

After I graduated from college, I couldn't wait to get a home of my own and get away from the mess. I did, and she filled in the spot where my chair used to sit.

Everything was important to my mom:

  • The inserts from the newspaper.
  • The pages from the TV Guide magazine (remember the TV Guide magazine?).
  • Cardboard boxes from all sorts of purchases.
  • Everything she ever made or painted.
  • Everything we ever made or painted.
  • Everything she ever bought.
  • Expired food.
  • Magazines.
  • Plastic grocery bags.

Actually, I can't think of anything that she threw away on a consistent basis. She put one small kitchen bag out at the curb every week, but she brought in bag after bag from shopping trips all week. There was a constant flow in and barely a trickle back out.

To be honest, I've inherited some of my mother's hoarding tendencies.

I have a real problem with books, clothes, and papers. School supplies and craft supplies pop up everywhere. My kids' toys clutter up all our rooms, and their clothes are literally a foot deep in my home office.

I'm largely blind to the piles. I tolerate a lot more mess than an ordinary person which causes frequent strain in my marriage.

I'm a work in progress. I forget to clean the toilet every week, and then I have to get out the pumice stone and some rubber gloves and scrape off the gunk that accumulates.  I forget to wash the windows and the tv screen. I forget to dust and giant dust bunnies fly off the ceiling fan when I turn it on in the spring. I don't notice the fingerprints on the walls until the walls are brown and grimy.

People don't often come over to eat a meal with us because of the state of our kitchen. There is grease on the cabinets, there are crumbs in the corners, and there is grime behind the faucet of the sink. I have six crocks full of utensils on the counter because they all seem to be important. We recently went through them, and I donated a few, but what if I need the rest? I just can't make myself get rid of them, so we have virtually no counter space.

I think I might know how my mother felt because I am overwhelmed at the work that needs to be done to make my home feel pride-worthy. I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to invite people over because I am ashamed of my home.

When you grow up seeing your mom and dad clean every week, when neat and tidy is the status quo, you learn to keep your own home neat and tidy.

But when you grow up with a hoarder, you don't learn how to keep your home neat and tidy – or even acceptably clean.

You have to come up with your own routines and plans.

I'm quite good at coming up with routines and plans, but I'm quite bad at following them. I've written about that before, and it has never changed.

One thing I've gotten good at is decluttering and purging. I donate books to the library with regularity, and I go through the toys every couple of months. I have bags of clothes destined for the Community Aid store (but not there yet, another problem), and I have boxes in the basement waiting to see if I miss them.

I need constant encouragement and inspiration to keep fighting in the right direction.

A Slob Comes Clean

I have found tremendous inspiration and encouragement in the work of Dana K. White, author of Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff and How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind: Dealing with Your House's Dirty Little Secrets. She writes a blog called A Slob Comes Clean, and we became blogging friends more than 8 years ago when we both attended the same blog conference.

I am in awe of Dana's decluttering journey and her work in general. I've studied her books closely over many years, and I have picked up a number of habits that I have incorporated into my daily life – they help, though I'm not cured by any means.

If, like me, you feel like you have hoarding tendencies, or even if there's just that one secret spot in your home that bugs you, check out Dana's Decluttering Challenge this week.

There isn't a quick and easy answer for someone like me.

I guess there probably isn't a quick and easy answer for any of us, but there is hope.

I have hope. You should have hope, too.

What It's Like to Be the Child of a Hoarder - From constant clutter to not knowing how or when to clean up, being children of a hoarder impacts your life for all your adult years. Cleaning up and decluttering isn't easy. You never learn how to organize, but these resources can help.

© 2019, Tara Ziegmont. All rights reserved.

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14 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Be the Child of a Hoarder”

  1. I am in the middle of this madness. Thank you. I desperately needed to hear this. My mom is a borderline hoarder. Grandma was a hoarder. I am struggling with these tendencies. My husband doesn’t understand the mental side to it. I am working really hard to control and maintain the clutter but find so many reasons (otherwise known as excuses ;)) to keep toys and bags of clothes and, and, one day at a time… Thank you again for your open and honest post. Helps people like me get through this.

  2. My mom was not a hoarder, but she was not a clean freak either. Our house was often cluttered and dusty. Big cleaning days happened once a month (or every 2 months) where she was on a mission and the house would look great for a week or so. She had no trouble throwing things away, it was just finding the time and energy to do it I think. Guess what my house is like? Yep, the same as mine was growing up. Drives hubby a bit nuts because his mom cleaned daily. I wish I could get into the habit, I have good intentions, like you, but it doesn’t happen. I have started to try using Fly Lady so many times – I get hooked making the binder and the plan and then don’t do the actual cleaning LOL.

    AND…if I lived near you I would happily come to your house for dinner and invite you to mine as well! {{{HUGS}}}}

    • YES! I have wished for that many times.

      I get so many emails about the Flylady when I post about my struggles in this area. I have the same problem. It’s a good idea, but it never works because I don’t actually do it. (And her multiple per day emails drive me crazy.)

  3. Thanks for posting this, it gives me insight into my husband. I grew up opposite in an extremely clean house. The one thing we often disagree about is the piles and hesitancy to just get rid of things. This gave me pause to go easy on him, I know he’s trying.

  4. I am much like Robin. I don’t mind getting rid of things. I am not super lazy- I have rental property and we own a heat and AC business… after working on a rental house all day- I don’t care about mine, at least not enough. Piles of paper and clean laundry are my Achilles heel. Good news though my kitchen and bathrooms stay clean! 😉

  5. You grew up in really unique circumstances and you must now better then anybody around you how important is to have a clean and tidy house. I am also a bit of a hoarder and I have many books, too. Every year I try to declutter my things and live only with the things I need and I use but is hard! Thank you for sharing this! Really interesting and well-written post!

  6. My parents are borderline hoarders too and I can’t stand it. Their house is cozy but FULL. Every time my family flies up to visit there is less and less space for us because closets are jammed with things and spaces are taken up with boxes. As another child of a hoarder I have to say that it definitely hurts my relationship with my parents that they can’t even clear space for my family to visit because their things are higher priority than relationships. We’ve tried to talk, but they don’t see a problem. I myself am a purger.

    • So true. It is hard to be the one squeezed out by the stuff. I struggle so much with my own stuff. It’s not at the level of my parents, but it is still too much. It seems like whenever I get rid of stuff, new stuff just fills up that space. I wish I knew how to be tidy. It sort of seems like a hopeless dream. 🙁

    • Phyllis, you are definitely not alone. I think there are more people like us than anyone would ever imagine. A lot of people who grew up in similar manners live in the same way and therefore don’t talk about it at all out of shame.

  7. Dear Tara, Thank you for writing such an open letter. You are bold with your words. My mother is about 90. She too was (and is) a hoarder. I grew up in a house that had many things all over. I did not feel bad because I thought it was normal. I now have my own house. I had to learn that there is a better way to live my life. My help came thru my husband who hates clutter. Thank God that he was patient enough to change me in this area and to let me be in other areas. God sends help thru the most unexpected people. I learned to let go of inferiority complexes based on my background (I was born in Romania 65 years ago and now live in Africa). God bless you and your family!

    • Thank you for your comment, Silvia. My husband hates clutter, too, but not enough to do anything about it but complain. We’re both kind of inept where cleaning is concerned, so it’s generally a wreck around here.

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