The urge started a month before the birth of my first child. It was an obsessive call to orderliness—there were cupboards to be organized, closets to be arranged and, most imperative, little baby wash towels that needed to be individually folded like spring rolls with delicately tucked edges. “Oh yeah, definitely a nesting instinct,” I overheard my husband on the phone one night.

But it never faded. Eight years later, what began as a nesting instinct has transformed into a “homing” instinct, a compulsion to “mother” my house. I embrace it as an extension of my sense of responsibility and service towards my home and my family. It is a welcome change from life on my own, which just didn’t have the same feeling of purposefulness. However, with a large nest and four little chicks fluttering about, putting the twigs back into their proper place and maintaining a sense of order can often seem overwhelming.

It’s not just me. Not a single conversation with my girlfriends goes by without some self-conscious, guilt-ridden discussion about either how messy our homes are or how we need to become more organized.

Here’s a window into my home. Look at all familiar?

• Drop zones with bills to be paid, recipes that will never be tried and an innumerable collection of children’s artwork

• Little wicker baskets and bowls brimming with homeless trinkets from loot bags and kinder surprise eggs, biding their time till they can safely be thrown away without fear of reproach

• Dried out blobs of toothpaste stuck to the bathroom sink, the proud efforts of little hands with awkward dexterity

• A kitchen floor that looks like it hasn’t been swept in forever, though in reality the bent and splayed bristles of the broom tell a woeful tale of exhaustion and overuse

• A vacuum that frantically whips around the house in those final few hours/minutes before the arrival of friends, smashing into corners and furniture and causing even more damage.

“Let your house be,” counsels my mother. It’s a piece of advice I’ve heard echoed before and one that I have never quite understood. I acknowledge that I need to practice more tolerance, flexibility and understanding when it comes to my home. “You have four children; what do you expect?” questions my husband. It is true that for some of us, maintaining our homes can become an obsession. Sometimes it is at the expense of spending time with our children, nurturing their sense of mastery and independence, which often goes hand in hand with spills, and allowing them to be “creatively messy.” However, as Tao Te Ching writes, “Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” For me, the reality is that the more I delay the inevitable, the more it piles up to a seemingly insurmountable state. And the more it piles up, the more motivation I lack. Left unchecked, it would become a vicious cycle. Where then is the balance between acceptance and excellence when it comes to the state of our homes? How do you know when to just let it go and when to dig down and get at it?

Strike a Chord
When I was in school, my father would always say, “A cluttered desk, a cluttered mind.” To this day, this adage describes how I feel when my house reaches a certain threshold of discord. Negotiating LEGO® and itty-bitty Playmobil pieces on the floor, mountains of laundry on top of the dryer, shoes piled in the entrance way of the house and muddle on my counters, makes me feel restless, edgy and drained. I crank at my husband, I crank at my children. I can’t think. Any sense of accomplishment, productivity or forward momentum becomes stalled. My life feels noisy and off-key.

Orderliness can be music to our children’s ears, too. At one point, my eldest daughter’s room got to such a state that I gave up nagging, rolled up my sleeves and, like a human excavator, shoveled till I reached bare floor. “Oh thank you, thank you, Mama!” she exclaimed when she returned home from school, hugging and kissing me. Her typical grumpy mood changed as if a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. I could tell that she felt a sense of relief and I realized that it was not that she was indifferent to the mess, but more that she felt overwhelmed and paralyzed, not knowing where to begin. And with a clean room, she felt a greater capacity for creativity, joyfully rearranging the furniture in her room into different configurations.

Virtues Project founder Linda Kavelin-Popov writes, “Orderliness is living in a way that creates harmony around us and within us.” When achieved, it facilitates a sense of peacefulness, creativity and mindfulness that can dramatically alter the pace of our lives and the nature of our interactions with our families. For our children, orderliness can allow them to feel secure and gain a sense of control and predictability, regardless of how overwhelming, confusing and chaotic the big world outside may feel.

What that harmony looks like depends on each person’s or family’s individual rhythm. Whatever the order we have created or are striving to create, it should allow us to spend our time and energy effectively and sustainably, providing a sense of freedom that allows us to focus on the important. So if the state of your home is getting in the way of harmony in your family life, perhaps some orderliness is in order.

Practice Beauty
Orderliness is about creating a space of beauty. When we are in the presence of beauty, we feel inspired and engaged. My son’s new object of beauty is his baseball glove. He treasures and caresses it, almost reverently, making a special place for it, keeping it safe from the destructive forces of younger siblings and sometimes even cleaning it to keep it bright and shiny. Everything about his new baseball glove is “in order” and it evokes within him a sense of responsibility, respect and caring. Giving it our best effort to keep our homes looking fresh, orderly and beautiful can engage and connect our children in a similar manner. It is this thinking that is the basis for inner city beautification projects aimed at reducing vandalism and graffiti.

We can practice beauty and establish order regardless of where we live or what we own. Someone once asked my mother-in-law, “Do you feel embarrassed when friends come to this place to visit you?” At the time, she, my father-in-law and their two young children were living in a low-rental housing plan in Chatham, Ontario. The complex was new and initially the neighbourhood seemed fine, but bit by bit things began to deteriorate. Junk and garbage began to pile up in the yards, doors were broken, clotheslines were snapped. In answer to the question, my mother-in-law replied, “When I step through our door I am home and I am full of gratitude for that. I love looking after my home and the people I love no matter where that might be.” Orderliness can help us feel beautiful, aware of our dignity and knowing that we are worthy and have nothing to feel ashamed of.

Have an Open House
In the early weeks following the birth of my fourth child, our community health nurse would come over for regular check-ups. She was incredibly supportive, tending not only to needs of my newborn but to my family’s collective needs; reading to my other children while I nursed or helping take a batch of muffins out of the oven. But the day she offered to take out my overflowing garbage, I felt mortified and embarrassed. I became overwhelmed by a sense of self-consciousness. Had she triggered my feelings of not-enoughness? Perhaps I feared what other imperfections she might discover? Why did I interpret her actions as a judgment instead of a most welcome act of helpfulness?

Often times, we close the door to community and connection because we feel too embarrassed over the state of our homes. When I was growing up, I remember my parents shushing us when someone rang the doorbell—we pretended we were not at home, hoping that they would go away for fear that our messy house would be discovered, even though in hindsight, it was never really that messy. “I’ll have you over once my house is organized,” I’ve heard so many girlfriends say. Sometimes I wish we could all just admit to each other that mess in a household with children is inevitable and that none of our houses remain clean and spotless at all times. At least it would remove the additional unwarranted pressure of, “What will they think?”

Our choice then is to either keep immaculate show homes, which is virtually impossible with children, or to accept that our homes are works in progress. It has taken me a long time to allow friends to wipe the crumbs and goo off my table without feeling that sense of judgment. What does it matter if I am loading the dishwasher while someone stands on the other side of the counter and chats? One of the best visits I ever had with my sister-in-law was when we both sat down on the couch with a glass of wine and folded my laundry together. It was a fun way to visit and connect while getting the job done.

A Tall Order?
I flip through my beautiful colour-coded, meticulously organized daytimer and suddenly bold scribbles in brown and red leap out at me. My planner has been highjacked by my two youngest children! I admit to feeling irritated and grouchy. But I step back and ask myself these important questions. Does my planner still do what it is intended to do? Does it free my mind and provide me with a sense of peacefulness and confidence? Does it still organize my thoughts and allow me to plan with purpose? Does it provide my life with a feeling of flow and forward momentum? If I can answer yes to these questions, the next question then is, can I tolerate the scribbles, accept them and perhaps even smile and appreciate them as an extension of my children’s simplicity and joyfulness? Answering these same questions when it comes to our homes can provide us with perceptive wisdom on how to achieve a balanced approach to orderliness.

Orderliness can be a tall order, but with humility and perseverance it can be achieved no matter where or how you live. The light at the end of the tunnel is homes that reflect on the outside what we personally all strive to achieve on the inside—not perfect, just human with virtuous potential. That alone is worth the commitment.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator, trained Virtues Project facilitator, and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM.