Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
It’s not every day that someone makes headlines for announcing that their house has become a mess since having children. My toy-strewn house, after all, has yet to be aggregated by major newspapers. But such a revelation becomes newsworthy when that someone is Marie Kondo, the mega-bestselling author of, among others, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
Thanks to that 2010 publication, people around the world – myself included – experimented with folding our T-shirts for vertical arrangement in a drawer, seeing how small we could get our sock balls, and contemplating which of our pilling leggings “sparked joy.”
And yet, here is Ms. Kondo today, with a change of heart. The Washington Post reported that Ms. Kondo recently revealed in a webinar that “her life underwent a huge change after she had her third child, and external tidying has taken a back seat to the business of life.”
In other words, she now lives in a pigsty like the rest of us.
Anyone who fails to practise what they preach sets themselves up for charges of hypocrisy. But some such errors are more forgivable than others.
When, some years back, Ms. Kondo broke from her minimalist image to sell knick-knacks, I don’t remember it making much of a stir. What I certainly do remember is that food writer Alison Roman called her out and, because this was in May, 2020, and Ms. Roman’s criticism was read by some as a racist imitation of Ms. Kondo’s accent, this turned into an unrelated controversy. Which is to say, Ms. Kondo’s reputation remained unscathed.
But it’s something else when the world’s premier tidying expert – a woman who has spent years insisting that no one, not even parents (I remember her Netflix show!), need live with mess – is quoted as saying, “My home is messy, but the way I am spending my time is the right way for me at this time at this stage of my life.”
When regular families are messy, we see it as a lack of discipline; Ms. Kondo’s mess, one is to believe, is a deliberate choice. So if you’re someone who feels ashamed of your mess, or have felt judged by Ms. Kondo through the page or screen, maybe you’re offended. But if not, perhaps you found it – as I did – delicious.
That neatness goes out the window for people once they have children is among the oldest clichés. In an episode of the 1990s Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, Edina Monsoon gets a visit from a couple she remembers from her 1960s youth as committed minimalists, living in an all-white apartment, serene and judgmental. Edina cleans frantically in anticipation of their arrival, only for them to cross her threshold with a baby – and every product anxious parents might purchase for one. (The only giveaway that the episode is from 1994 and not 2023 is the cigarette dangling from the wealthy new mother’s mouth.)
What makes that one of the best scenes in television history gets at why it is hilarious to imagine Marie Kondo, of all people, stumbling through a room filled with (glances around the floor) dolls and stuffed animals; a child’s drawings, some torn apart by a baby; rearranged children’s furniture; every plastic toy IKEA has ever made; wooden alphabet blocks (because maybe a one-year-old will have this sudden urge to learn how to spell); repurposed toy boxes; Frozen stickers that have long since unstuck; and yes, maybe the odd bit of a previous dinner, impervious to the near-continuous attempts of both parents to wipe down surfaces.
Upper-middle-class North American parenting culture has a complicated relationship to mess. There are the influencers with homes that look like nicer versions of Montessori preschools, every toy wooden and properly stored. There are no-gift birthday parties where it is an unwritten norm that gifts will still be given regardless of what the parents request. And there’s that mildly smug refrain, “We have too much,” in the Facebook posts of those who suffer from the plight of overly generous grandparents.
Above all, there are the laments about cheap plastic junk, which does have a way of taking over a living space. But it sparks such joy for small children. All the more so if it was a piece of actual garbage they found outside, which at least covers the sustainability angle.
Say what you will about a lack of clutter and the benefits of natural materials, but I’m delighted imagining Ms. Kondo learning that when a child begs for a toy to join them in the bath, you’re in luck if it happens to be some randomly acquired plastic doll and not, say, a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – which, and I am not even joking, my baby just removed from the bookshelf.