Do We Need This? a meditation on stuff

In House and Home by Jenn2 Comments

About a year ago we decided that a good way to spend a weekend afternoon (instead of napping and teaching our newborn how to nap properly) was to go try out an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Three guesses which member of the family came up with that idea. As I was standing in the computer store wearing a baby and watching my husband fight invisible dinosaurs, an older South Asian gentleman beside me muttered, “Do we need this?” and then looked imperiously at me expecting an answer. I think I strung together some incoherent syllables and he walked away to grumble at something else.

“Do we need this?” has since become a family catchphrase, one that I uttered many, many times in the course of packing and moving. We never made a concerted effort to consolidate and organize two apartments worth of stuff, so packing to move also entailed sorting and purging duplicates and worn out items. I enjoyed this process for the first 3 weeks and then started losing my mind as things started going into boxes and the world crumbled around me. I am only slightly exaggerating.

While not a minimalist by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve developed a basically-just-hate relationship with knick knacks and decorations that don’t hang on the wall. (And after this move, I’m starting to get irritated with hanging pictures as well.) I think this comes from 1) moving six times in seven years and facing how much stuff I manage to acquire despite my best intentions; 2) growing up in a cluttered home; 3) being told (and believing) that my inability to keep my room tidy was a personal moral failure that would make me unattractive to future mates, despite having no examples for how to organize and declutter. I’m not the world’s neatest person, but despite this (or maybe because of it), I have come to find stuff rather oppressive.

For the record, I’m not a Vulcan with no emotions allowed in our home. I keep sentimental things like ticket stubs from our early dates and Fire Monkey’s first baby haircut. I have several boxes full of cards dating back to my 16th birthday. I love getting prints made and framed of our travel and family photos, and I’m totally not above getting a slightly tacky souvenir photo frame on vacation. But what I learned from the first half of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (the only part I actually read before I got pregnant and went insane) is that these special objects need to be seen and honored, or else they just become clutter. Additionally, I would argue that it’s the curating process that gives these objects their meaning in the first place. If you keep everything, is anything really special? I know I at least don’t have the emotional capacity to ascribe high sentimental value to everything Fire Monkey’s ever touched…I mean, if I did, I don’t think I’d be able to function. And I’m probably on the upper quartile for emotionalnessity. For me, physical clutter can easily turn into emotional clutter. (Or is it vice versa?)

So I’m not demanding a completely Spartan home. But I really do want whatever we choose to keep to have meaning, mostly because every knickknack means one more thing to collect dust and dirt. One of my most vivid childhood memories is watching my mother dusting around each and every photo on the built-in shelves in our family room, and this is not very motivating for me. Last year, with a newborn in the house and a dissertation being written and the ever-present knowledge that, “We will be moving soon,” I think Science Guy and I both decided that cleaning was a lost cause and some things honestly got kind of gross. Moving into an empty house with a clean slate was awesome, and I spent the last month drilling myself into some semblance of a cleaning routine. It’s going pretty well so far.

Science Guy also tends to hold onto more stuff than I do in general, and this makes me panic and cry concerns me because of the state of both of our childhood homes where our parents have lived for the last 30 years. Hoarder is a bit strong of a word, but for various reasons, neither of our parents are great at getting rid of things. I grew up with stacks of newspapers and magazines on the counter and dinner table, boxes of CDs and computer equipment in almost every room, and a cabinet full of porcelain place settings that were used once or twice a year. To be fair, now that I have a child, I have a much better understanding of the role I played in the clutter, not just through the physical toys, books, and clothes I contributed to the household piles, but through the time and energy I took up that maybe would have been spent on organizing otherwise. (Or…maybe not.) So I’m definitely not blaming anyone. But growing up with lots of stuff everywhere, and having packed up and moved all my stuff repeatedly for a fairly long period of my life, has made me crave empty spaces, or at least containment of most items, and really heavily resist the incursion or retention of more stuff.

Empty space with no STUFF is amazing!

I asked Facebook what to do with this space by our front door, and I really wasn’t feeling any of the suggestions because most of them seemed like just putting something there to fill the space. Finally, a friend (who lives in a 1-bedroom apartment in San Francisco with two young children and a husband) asked if there was anything wrong with leaving it empty…and there isn’t. So that’s what it is for now, and it’s great!

We had about two full days between our arrival in our new home and the arrival of all our stuff. Some things we missed sorely, but most we didn’t. So of course that got me thinking, Do we NEED this?! as we unpacked our stuff and I imposed order on chaos. I like to think that we do a decent job of not buying more than we need, which is fairly easy for me because I’m not a big shopper to begin with. (Except when I’m sleep-deprived, which is how we ended up with a box of third-grade level books because LOOK HONEY I’M GONNA TEACH THE BABY TO READ.) I really tried not to overbuy in the clothing and toy department for Fire Monkey and so far, thankfully, we haven’t had to have any talks with grandparents about overdoing the material gifts. For starters, we were on a very limited budget last year, plus if I haven’t made clear in this entire post, I don’t like clutter or putting things away, so the fewer things there are to put away, the better. And limiting the amount of toys allows kids to be creative and free and hipster and not bound to the capitalist system etc. On the other hand, I remember as a kid feeling self-conscious of my non-stylish clothing, and kinda bummed when certain highly desired gifts didn’t appear at Christmas or birthdays, and I don’t want him to feel deprived or, maybe more the point, like his wishes don’t matter. On the third hand, I don’t want his happiness to be tied to material objects or getting what he wants all the time. Ugh. Parenting is hard. We’ll figure it out.

Our new home has about twice as much square footage as our previous place and a lot more storage space, so it was a lot easier to find logical, accessible homes for almost everything. This has made cleaning a lot easier, and the establishment of a housekeeping routine has already reduced the amount of arguing we do, which is great. I know that we are super fortunate to have the amount of space that we do and that many people make do with a lot less, and that’s what I try to remember instead of grumbling that our curtains are ugly or that we need a new rug. I’m not a minimalist but I try to consume as little as possible and be grateful that we are able to easily obtain whatever we want or need.


  1. Oh, we are so going through this simultaneously. Mr. Hubster doesn’t get it as much as I do. It is unfortunate that we have to fight a good fight to find peace and openness in our own home. But, yet again, my office is, well not quite there either.

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