What I Learned From My Cathartic Kitchen Clean-Out

Fourteen years ago, our family of five moved to our current home, a 2100-something square foot one level three bedroom, two bath with a bonus room. With a three-year-old girl and one-year-old twin boys, my plan for unpacking was “Get It Done As Quickly as Possible Even Though I Don’t Feel Like It.”

I vividly remember that I was overcome with the increased kitchen space that awaited my sundries and staples. Though it’s tiny by most anyone’s standards—especially compared to spacious 2021 kitchens with ginormous islands and dual ovens—my new kitchen had much more room than my previous, truly even tinier kitchen. My new kitchen had large, tall cabinets and a floor-to-ceiling pantry closet.

All those things I found in my kitchen reminded me of my quest to be a very good mom. (Twenty20 @klovestorun)

I unpacked my kitchen stuff with no plan

I was in heaven, but faced with all the storage space, I was paralyzed to make many (okay, any) decisions about logical item placement. ​Just get the stuff unloaded and put away; whatever doesn’t work can be rearranged later​, I told myself.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Stuff quickly piled into the cabinets; soon the stacks had stacks. The George Foreman grill migrated to a dark, dusty corner; Christmas-themed tins lived precariously on a high shelf waiting to be filled with non-existent holiday treats; and heavy casserole dishes were stored where the coffee mugs should have been. The rice and veggie steamer (not used in a decade) took up precious real estate in a main cabinet within arm’s reach.

This year I decided to clean out and reorganize my kitchen

Rearranging, cleaning out, and organizing my dysfunctional and neglected kitchen seemed to be an appropriate activity for beginning 2021. I attacked it with gusto, secretly hoping that my improved kitchen would somehow signal to the rest of the world that it was time to move forward.

My children now are eighteen, sixteen, and sixteen, but I still unearthed Princess- and superhero-themed placemats; lids to plastic toddler cups long ago thrown out; crazy curly-Q straws in multi-colors; and an hourglass-shaped slushie goblet, almost three feet tall and emblazoned with the Nashville Zoo logo, circa 2009.

I found cookie cutters in the shapes of dinosaurs, hearts, angels, and Christmas trees; small cafeteria-style trays in bright colors with cartoon characters; dozens of glass jars—some with lids and some without; a tarnished silver pitcher that is a rarely-used wedding gift but still considered too “something” (sentimental? expensive? fancy?) to just throw onto the Goodwill pile.

I tossed spices from 2014, about two dozen plastic dosing cups that come with liquid medicine for toddlers, and off-brand plastic food storage containers with a myriad of issues: improper seals, cracks and holes, and missing lids.

As I sifted and sorted, I kept asking myself, ​Why?

Why did I keep this?
Why did I put this non-important thing on this shelf where I need super-important things? Why did I cram super-important things wherever I could “make room”?
Why didn’t I make room meaningfully in a logical, helpful way?

I cluttered the house with things I thought would make me a “Really Good Mom”

Maybe it’s because my priorities were truly out of whack. I was chasing after what I thought could bring me importance, meaning, and fulfillment but in the end simply wound up leaving me with a cluttered mess. So many of the items I unearthed also reminded me of my past futile pursuits of becoming a “Really Good Mom.”

I’ve never been a terrific housekeeper. I’m not like my friend Lianne who is great at making a “lesson” out of everyday happenings or my other friend Ellie who is organized with chore and schoolwork charts. I did okay on the craft front but tired quickly.

My secret weapon, though? Food.

My secret power is that I’m a really good cook

I’m a darn good cook, and I was always up for a good food challenge. I knew how to sneak in secret ingredients that my kids would ordinarily refuse, and I stood my ground on not buying pre-packaged, high sugar, high sodium lunch items at the store.

My kids would be exposed to all foods, have (relatively) healthy diets, and enjoy a hot, home-cooked meal every night. Snacks would be healthy.

Truly, I devoted several years there to earning my righteousness by cooking—or die trying.

So, when I pulled out those long-forgotten tokens of that past life, I started to weep. The segmented lunch box inserts, the cute heart-shaped sandwich cutters, and the tiny containers with leak-proof lids were more than just plastic reservoirs for (homemade, preservative-free) dips or tools to make food fun (so that the kids would ignore what they were eating).

I wept for all the years of trying and failing to be the perfect mom

They represented years of striving—and failing. Miserably.

The feelings of trying to “do right” came rushing back with a familiar sting. I remembered being convinced that those good actions—whether they were making “homemade Lunchables,” baked kale chips, air popcorn, smoothies with probiotics, or zucchini brownies—would somehow make me a “Really Good Mom,” which would in turn guarantee me “Really Good Kids” and everything would turn out okay—or more than okay if we were lucky.

The gadgets and the plans and the intentions paraded in front of me one by one. I heard their taunting indictments: “Nope. No amount of healthy recipes, planned menus, or chopped veggies tucked neatly into tiny compartments can make it all turn out right and okay. All of this—these best efforts and good intentions are a big, fat red herring. A lie.”

I guess it’s taken fourteen years—including a decade of financial distress; losing a parent; a global pandemic; navigating a teen’s trauma, depression, and anxiety and another’s broken bone and surgery; grieving our best family friends’ murdered son; dealing with strained relationships, wounded feelings, and shattered trust—to arrive here.

At this point where plastic popsicle molds make me cry.

I’m just thankful that now they do—that they aren’t an invitation to try just one more thing (popsicles made of fresh-squeezed carrot juice!) to grab that coveted but elusive title of “Really Good Mom.”

I’ll be honest; life hasn’t quite turned out the way that thirty-year-old me had envisioned. My kids disappoint me, and I frustrate them. Stress, anxiety, and just good ole fashioned garden-variety drudgery have nudged their way into the rhythms of our relationships, work, and decision-making.

But removing the veneer of the idea that I’m to be applauded for their successes or blamed for their failures is liberating—for me and them.

It gives us all love, acceptance, and legitimate identity—a functional, clutter-free environment upon which we begin the next chapter of our lives.

And the freedom to enjoy a frozen treat guilt-free from the grocery store, filled with sugar, dye, and artificial flavors.

More to Read:

21 Things You’ll Love About Your Empty Nest

About Mary Bernard

Mary Parker Bernard is a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and editor, having worked for more than 25 years in journalism, public relations, publishing, and marketing. She and her husband, Chris, live in Nashville, Tennessee, with their three children: an eighteen-year-old daughter who begins college in the fall and sixteen-year-old twin sons, who will be high school juniors.

Read more posts by Mary

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