How To Tame a Chaotic Household

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S1: Let me ask you this, before you had the child, were you tidy, people would know, OK, now it’s only escalate. And tell me, like, is your is your husband pretty, like, tidy guy?

S2: No, it was like really bad. So when we first started dating, he had just like a cardboard box of his clean clothes and a cardboard box for dirty clothes, wet dust. You know, he’d never actually put them away.

S3: Welcome to How To. I’m Charles Stewart. I imagine you are spending a lot of time at home right now. Right, like like all of us are. And if you are anything like me, you’re just overwhelmed by the chaos inside your own house with kids being home from school and things being dirty and piles of things everywhere. And so we thought this week we would spend some time trying to help you and a listener tame her chaotic household. And later in the show, we’ll have our first quarantine Q&A, where our own listeners offer solutions about living through the Corona virus. Do you? But first, I want to introduce you to Sarah.


S4: Hi, Sarah. Yes.

S5: Charlie’s diagnosed in about a month ago before most of New York began sheltering in place. I went to Sarah’s apartment in Brooklyn. Sarah describes herself as a part time lawyer, a part time writer, and a part time stay at home parent. But with all those jobs, she struggles to find the time to keep the house orderly.


S2: It just feels like it can be like a whole day where my daughter’s at daycare. I do nothing but try to, like, put the house back together. Right. And and it can fall apart very, very quickly, like within minutes of that.

S5: I like I said, when I visited Sarah, she had just learned that her husband, starting the next day would be working from home in her daughter’s school, would be closing. Sarah’s daughter is 2 years old and keeping things clean. It’s tough even in the best of times. But now Sarah worries that the domestic chaos is only going to get worse.


S2: Yeah. Not that it’s only my responsibility to clean like I do have asthma, but it bothers me a lot more than it bothers him. I don’t feel like I can, like, actually relax or enjoy the house or really fully focus on anything else.

S5: When it’s this cluttered, Sarah’s family has lived here for a couple of years. It’s a two bedroom apartment. And, you know, being New York, it’s fairly small and fairly cluttered.

S6: It looks like you guys have two couches and a wooden thing with a bunch of toys in it, like some dinosaur toys there. And there’s an Elmo and a birds and then a stuffed shark that looks like it’s about three feet tall.


S4: Yeah. Is that because if you ever a small living room, which you really need, is an enormous stuffed shark. I’ve done some pretty hardcore Marie Kondo aim, like throwing stuff out.

S7: And I’ve developed my own kind of system, which is that in New York apartments, you can only keep what you need right now. OK. Keep stuff for the past, for the future.


S2: I keep like waiting to get over a hump of, you know, that if I can just get it really good, it’ll be almost impossible to mess up again.

S8: Ran’s If we can just get to that stage, somehow things will be smooth sailing from then on.


S9: Yeah. And has that ever happened? No, I don’t think so.

S3: Can we help Sara bring some order to her family chaos? It may take more than a little Marie Kondo cleaning up, and that’s why we invited over this guy.

S10: Checking your hair. Yeah. During those.

S11: Stick around.

S5: We’re back in Sarah’s Brooklyn apartment and our expert has just arrived to help us dig out from under the mess.

S10: Thanks for doing that. My pleasure. Some families were not hard enough. Now we have two social distance ourselves.

S12: I saw this is Bruce Feiler and I’ve spent the last 15 years thinking and writing about families and how to make them work better.


S13: A few years ago, Bruce wrote a book called The Secrets of Happy Families, and it came out of this experience he had recovering from cancer, which had forced him basically to spend a few years cooped up with his own family.

S14: And suddenly I couldn’t leave the home. I was in bed for a year. I was on crutches for two years. So I was like, oh, I’m gonna like become incredibly interested in what people do with closets and how to dinners work better and how can families relate together. And so was sort of us by accident. I got interested in.

S15: That’s really interesting. When you first had to be at home like before, like we first were thinking about this, like, were you like a particularly sort of tidey or organized person or was that was it like like what was that like?


S14: Even as I left the house this morning, my wife reminded me you wrote about happy families.

S10: Not because we had one, but because we wanted one. Right.

S14: So I think that we found ourselves in a situation that everybody finds themselves in, which is the old rules no longer apply. And the new rules have not been written.

S13: We thought that Bruce, if he saw Sarah’s apartment, he might have some suggestions for how to think about taming the chaos. So we started with a quick tour.

S1: Okay. So I’m looking at your at your living room, which is right by the kitchen table at the desk, too, isn’t it? And this is the game center. Then next to that you have like a kids’ kitchen. Yeah. A little like like a chair or like a kid’s chair, which we actually have the same one.


S6: So this one has a number of dolls in it. There’s drums. There’s an oven mitts. There’s a plastic colander. And then you guys have a kids’ table here like a barrel with the table on top of it.

S4: I’m unclear what that. I can’t explain it, but it just is OK. So we’re walking down short, short hallway. You guys have one bathroom. OK. All right. Here’s records. OK. So here, here’s your guys’s bedroom. Okay. Yeah. This is just like the trash heap.

S1: It looks like a whirlwind came through and just deposited clothes in kind of randomly around her.

S4: Yeah. It’s generally like we’ve just closed. We’ve taken off. And then you guys have a bunch of like games in a cabinet of art and more clothes in front of the small bathroom on the ground. Sounds right. Yeah, it’s a little it’s a little messy.


S11: I just I’m just in. Like to shut it out. Denial about this, you know?

S3: Bruce had been quiet for most of our tour through here, his house. And when we sat down at her kitchen table, slash desk, slash game center, he told us what he’d been thinking.

S16: What you have here is a child centered house, definitely OK. And you can see it.

S14: You described it when you were describing the living room, the heart of your living room. It’s very telling. It’s a television.

S16: The centerpiece, actually is it is a children’s kitchen set.

S17: And what that says to me is that creating an environment for your daughter, where she can feel like she’s the center of the family is really important to you.


S18: Which is a beautiful thing. But the problem is, is that you feel like your voice is being drowned out.

S12: Is there a place here where you feel entirely comfortable that is your space? That is not child centered. That is not husband tolerant. That is your space.

S18: Nothing I can think you can do now. Massive rule that I’ve been thinking about since the second I walked in here. To me, like the bumper sticker of 15 years of thinking about families who spend less time worrying about what you do wrong and spend more time focusing on what you do right. Looks to me like games or tea parties around that. What is a table? It makes no sense except for the fact that it’s the perfect size for a tea party with a two and a half. Maybe that’s why you keep it around. How does this strike you, sir?


S19: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, I had thought about the question about the space. I thought, you know, the balcony was the first place my mind went to as a possibility, as a space for you, the actors.


S20: But then it also has sort of just a storage space for like the scooter stuff.

S5: You know, here’s our first rule. Create a space of your own. Everyone needs their own space. And right now, it’s hard because we’re all jammed into quarantine alongside each other or because the easiest thing to use a spare room for is storage, but especially now making sure each person has a space will help make your home feel less chaotic and it will give you a sense of control.

S12: High functioning families. They adapt all the time.

S21: There’s a line from the startup Internet.

S12: Silicon Valley culture that I think applies to families, which is if you’re doing the same thing you did six months ago. You’re doing the wrong thing. Listen to yours, your particular situation. OK. My daughter is getting older. I’m now going back to work. We are now in a in a national emergency. Now, suddenly, my husband is coming home.

S22: That’s not an aberration that every week in some capacity, because the next week, mom has a business trip and the next week dad has a big presentation.

S1: Then life is just constant chaos.

S22: Life is costly, chaotic. And you need a way to adapt to the fact that is changing at all time.

S7: I guess I feel like I’m constantly trying new organizational schemes and like throwing out more stuff and trying to find something that will just work and then I’ll stick with. And I haven’t found it.

S21: So my reaction to the conversation that we’ve just been having is when are we gonna start talking about the family? Because we haven’t been talking about the family. We’ve been talking about the house. We’ve been talking about tidiness. We’ve been talking about laundry. We’ve been talking about kitchens. We’ve been talking about furniture and bathrooms and and and trash and recycling whenever there’s talk about the family.


S23: So here’s the thing, when we come back, we’ll start talking about the family and what really matters, not the clutter in your house, but how your family actually functions inside of it.

S24: Stay with us.

S5: We’re back with Sarah and our expert, Bruce Feiler. And Bruce himself knows, based on his own experience of being cooped up with his family when he was recovering from illness, he knows what it’s like to have a family life that feels out of control.

S25: We had what we thought at the time was a unique set of circumstances. I work at home, OK. That creates a certain dynamic that is kind of different from most people.

S12: My wife leaves the house every day and goes and is a business executive. We had identical twins, which means we have this dynamic times too.

S25: We were always kind of reacting to an incredible kind of crush of events and circumstances and chaos that we thought that was unique to our situation. The reality is every family in their own way is responding to a crush of children, chaos, technology, old set of rules and expectations that we bring to our relationships in our families.

S12: And there simply is no kind of open conversation about how to make it work, about the essence of being a family, which is how we’re gonna live together in a way that doesn’t kill us. And in fact, makes us healthier and stronger and happier.

S1: Yeah, OK. So we toured through Sarah’s house. We’ve kind of looked at the physical chaos of the house. But what should we be talking about first that gets to the heart of this?

S26: I mean, just ask a couple of questions. This is your home yourself. Let me just ask a couple of questions. What do you like best about your family?


S8: It’s like hard to answer. I mean, I think that in general, we have a really happy marriage and a happy kid.

S19: And I knew I was gonna cry.

S10: You started bringing emotion into the other man.

S27: Sometimes.

S28: Look, I think that our marriage, you know, it’s been a lot harder since we had a young kid.

S19: But then I look at how other people are doing with young kids. I actually feel like we’re doing really, really well. Like we really support each other the best we can under difficult circumstances.

S27: What what are the bedrock values of this family?

S29: I think that a lot of parents kind of get caught up in the crush of like, well. My kid deserves the best at all costs and at the cost of other kids. And it’s very, very important to me that our family doesn’t operate like that. And then we make choices that also. I also respect like the the greater good for for other people.

S26: So that’s one more question. When people come over, we’ve just come over in effect. What are you most proud of?

S28: I don’t know if you guys if if my husband and daughter were here, I would feel proud of them. I feel proud to have such cute and talkative kid. I guess there’s nothing about the physical space that I feel particularly proud of. It’s really more like the stuff about us. It’s this internal debate that I feel proud of.

S12: So to me now what? Now wait. Now we can have a conversation. We’re having a much more holistic conversation. And the conversation that we started having, which was the place is a mess. I feel stressed. I feel it’s not order. It’s my job. Now we’re rolling up our sleeves and we’re saying, OK, how does our family want to operate in this kind of roiling stew of change that we’re all experiencing?


S23: Here’s our next rule on how to tame mechanic household realized it’s not about the MSA and it’s not about waiting until changes will stop because part of being a family is accepting that things are always changing. Rather, when things feel like they’re out of control, you might be a sign that we’ve lost touch at least a little bit with the things we really care about with our values and our ability to communicate with each other. It’s when we feel out of step with those things, not when things are messy, that life starts to feel chaotic. And so we have to get back to living in a way that feels meaningful again.

S26: So who who is the keeper of who is the who’s the CEO of this family? Right. Definitely. Yeah.

S12: So this is the thing that jumped out at me so that it seems to me that you feel like you you were running the operating system of this family. Yes. And of course, one of the questions I have is, why is that your job?

S29: Well, part of the reason I left my full time job because I felt like I couldn’t do it like it. I have my tolerance for feeling chaos is pretty low. And so that’s a you know, a big recent change for something that we’re try it out, I guess. To tell us more about that.

S1: What do you like? So you decided to. Like, why did you decide to leave your job?

S28: Well, because in part because I’m trying to really pursue a writing career and in part because we just we we were in this gap where we couldn’t afford the child care necessary to cover full time hours. But it was also very difficult to make it work without full coverage at what was ostensibly a full time job, where I was in the office two days a week.


S29: But then supposed to work from home full time, which worked when she napped.

S20: But yeah, I’ve read else all these books about the mental load and the physical load that falls on women in particular. And it does really annoy me of it.

S18: That’s a real thing. What if I told you that the single best thing that you could do would be to decentralize that operating system? We have to get the rest of the family into the conversation about how we’re functioning as a family. And we adopted a system in my family called a natural family meeting from the agile way of running businesses. So once a week, we’re gonna sit down, have a family meeting, 20 minutes, half an hour, max, your daughter’s younger. So would it be less time for you? I have teenagers. So sometimes there’s some know there’s lots of conflict around this. But we’re going to ask three questions. What’s working well in our family this week? Everybody’s gonna go around and say something. What’s not working well and then more important, what are we gonna focus on this week?

S5: Here’s another rule. Hold family meetings. It might feel formal and strange. It at least at first, but it works. That’s why companies have meetings, right? So why not families? The process of setting a time to sit down and to check in with each other and make sure that we all feel appreciated and we know what we’re supposed to be doing this week. It only helps distribute the responsibility. That’s how you reinforce your shared values.

S17: Okay. And you’re gonna say maybe in this conversation, I’m upset that the bathroom is messy. And rather than saying it’s my job to fix it, you’re part of our system. It’s all of our job because your husband’s gonna have something else. It may be you know, I don’t like X or I’m frustrated by this. And eventually, as your daughter is able to join this conversation, she’s gonna have things. But the point is, we’re not having a conversation where we’re gonna talk about how we can all together make it work better.


S5: The next rule also comes from Bruce’s experience in business management. You should write out a family mission statement.

S17: Anybody who’s been in an organization has done this, but an organization that is most central to our happiness, our families. We don’t do it. So I would actually advocate going out and doing it like sitting down, asking a series of questions where do I like best about my family? You know, when people come to visit, what am I most proud of when I’m not here? What do I miss the most? And articulating it, if you can.

S14: If we were doing this in my breakfast room kitchen area, which is also open like this, it’s literally on the wall, like a whiteboard like you’re putting up on the wall here. Originally did it on a on a flip chart.

S21: You know, it’s got things like we bring people together, we help others to fly. We’re travelers, not tourists. And a few weeks after we did this, literally, the hard thing was in my office. And then one of my daughters in first grade, we got a call from the principal’s office that. She’s got into a fight with a kid and we have to come in.

S18: And so my daughter comes in and my wife, who runs an organization in 40 countries around the world, she’s very commanding. She was like an. No idea how to solve this problem. And the flip chart was on the wall. And so I said to my then, whatever, six, six year old, anything up there that seems to apply.

S21: And she looked down and there was one like we help others to fly. And that allowed us to have a conversation. And this is the thing like we know a lot. If you look at modern psychology, you have to identify your best possible self.


S12: You have to say this is who I want to be to make personal goals is the same thing with our family and we don’t do it now. I want to be clear. We don’t sit around every morning and dance Kumbayah and say, this is who we are.

S18: Chaos reigns. But when it does rain, we have a reminder of this is what’s most important to us, sir.

S1: I’d love like let’s try and come up with your with the missions. I mean, obviously, you’re at your husband and daughter aren’t here to help you with a but we think we can take a stab at it. But like, where would that conversation start? Where. What are the five things that you think are most important to you guys as a family?

S28: Yeah, I mean, it’s just like a basic one and sort of a cliché one. But I do think we it’s really important to us to respect one another. Okay. And though, you know, we have the very best we can treat our daughter with respect like a person with her own agenda and missions in our head that are obviously generally in conflict with her so that her voice has a weight. It’s interesting that you mention that.

S30: Do you feel like. You mentioned that you’re often the one tidying up in your you’re sort of straightening up things and that that it falls more on you than it does on your husband. Does that feel like it’s not in keeping with that respect that you that you have that that duty and he doesn’t?

S31: Well, it’s funny.

S8: Like, I think that it’s a bad path for me to go down to view his messiness as mean after me. And being as a disrespect of me as a person then of my time and all of that, because ultimately he was like that when I met him. I’ve said to him before that I wish I could see a pie chart of exactly how much of his mess is within his control and how much just kind of just part of who he is.


S1: So in a situation like that, where where a value that’s clearly important in this family mission statement is respect. And you don’t want to get into this finger-pointing thing. You don’t want to say like I have to clean up. It feels like you’re disrespecting me because otherwise you’re gonna feel like that all the time. Yeah. How do we make it a source of growth rather than recrimination?

S32: Well, first, I thought your question was beautiful about.

S33: Ish. Are you being respected by carrying this guilt? But his beautiful question was blown away by your beautiful answer. Right. Which is that there are certain aspects of being in this situation that I’m in. A happy marriage with compromises as any marriage is going to have. And therefore, I’m not going to be able to to to change that and having it, as we all know, having a relationship based on hope is not having a relationship.

S30: Let me ask you this. We started the conversation talking about your apartment as sort of a chaotic place. And what we’ve really spent most this conversation about is. Is the emotional life of your family in the chaos that occurs just when people live with each other? If we come back in a month or three weeks and I walk into this apartment, what do you think is different? How do you know that things are getting better?

S31: Well, I think it’s it’s you know, how I feel about. What it looks like vs. what it actually looks like.

S28: Yeah. So it hope that our bedroom would look better, but it’s kind of refreshing to hear that it’s not that much about the actual physical look of space.


S32: I was in high school. When I first read Anna Karenina. And encountered the most famous opening line in world literature. All happy families are alike.

S33: Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. There is no universal happiness.

S12: This this house is can be maricon dode and family meeting and rearranged and IKEA Tupperware storage to forever and did ultimately not going to give you or any other people who live in this place.

S33: What they are looking for. It is a commitment that as long as we’re going to be together, we have to be committed to working it out. You can take small steps, you can have conversations, you can get frustrated, come back and try again. You can have small wins.

S32: And in the process you can make yourself happier and you can make everybody in the family happier.

S30: I mean, you guys have a beautiful apartment, and it sounds to me like the apartment itself doesn’t bother you as much as feeling like things are out of control are all falling on you. That matters much more.

S29: I think that’s right. Yeah, it is nice to focus on the things you’re doing, right. That it’s not chaos on the time. Not all bad.

S34: Thank you to Sarah for sharing her story and opening up her home to us in. And thank you to Bruce Feiler for his fantastic advice. You should look for his book, The Secrets of Happy Families, which has lots of tips like this, or his latest book, The Council of Dads, which has just been made into a new NBC television show. And by the way, just a quick update. Sarah says she and her family have already had three family meetings and it’s helping.


S35: Hey, everyone, it’s Sarah. Overall, I feel proud of us for how he’s handled the last two weeks. We’re not at each other’s throats. We’re doing what we need to do and we’re all OK. So thank you again for coming. I hope I can have people over some day say.

S13: We hear you, Sarah. And in fact, that’s a perfect segue way to a new feature that we’re doing called Quarantine Q&A.

S34: Each week we’re asking listeners to send us the questions they have about how to survive this pandemic and solutions for things that they found in their own life.

S36: My name is Terry and I need your help with how to convince a family member that COVA 19 is a real pandemic and a real threat.

S34: And here’s what another listener suggested as a solution.

S37: My name is Damon. My is a real salt of the earth kind of guy. He works as a tow truck driver. So he’s on the street every day. Every night. And so it’s hard to columns let him know that we’re going to go visit him because we were afraid for his safety. That that struck a chord with him. I think that made him realize that it was a little more serious, because you’re saying, look, I can’t see any worse for our safety. It’s better than nothing. That’s kind of how I’m choosing this here right now.

S13: That’s the voice of Ayman Ismail, host of the Slate podcast Man Up, which is a great show if you haven’t checked it out and keep calling us with your questions and solutions at 6 4 6 4 9 5 4 0 0 1. Make sure to follow me on Twitter. It’s Sea-Doo HIG to see what advice we’re asking about. Thanks. How TOS executive producer is Derek John? Rachel Allen is our production assistant in marriage. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hani’s Brown.


S34: June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to Asha, Saluda and Sung Park. Stay inside, stay healthy.

S38: And I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.

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