Discover more from Burnt Toast by Virginia Sole-Smith
Perfectionism and the Performance of Organizing
Some unorganized thoughts on finishing the book, gender norms, and food storage containers.
I spent last week finishing up my book revisions and friends, my brain is done. Revising a book is not nearly as satisfying as writing a book in the first place. When I first finish a manuscript, I feel only a flush of triumph because whatever doubts I have about how good the work is are immediately assuaged by the knowledge that I’m not really done and there will be many more chances to make it better. But the manuscript revision comes with so much more pressure. I’ll still have a few more chances to make changes — the book now moves into fact-checking and copy editing and then first pass and sensitivity reading, then second pass and the final proof. But with each round from here on out, the changes I’m allowed to make are smaller and smaller. This full manuscript revision was my last big chance to move whole paragraphs around, to add more reporting (I added 10,000 words of it, sorry again to my editor!), to completely rewrite the end of almost every chapter.
This revision is also when I struggled with big amorphous questions: Are my tone shifts working? Am I answering questions in a satisfying way, but also raising them and letting readers do their own work? Is the balance of narrative to analysis to advice right? Is there enough of me or too much? The problem with questions like these is that you can’t actually ever feel done with them. I could always make the tone shifts smoother in this book. And every reader I might ask will have a different opinion about the right balance for these various elements.
Revising a book (or any piece of writing) is about exerting control and imposing order over the first messy draft. But it’s also about running up against the brick walls of your talent and realizing just how much of the success of the book you absolutely cannot control. So it’s not a huge surprise that in between revising bursts, I’ve been organizing the shit out of my house.
Organizing is something I’ve done to self-soothe and relax since I was a little kid. I grew up in an amicable but slightly chaotic joint custody arrangement, so I got really good, early on, at knowing what needed to be in my backpack when I changed houses on Sundays and Wednesdays. I’ve always gotten into the big back to school organizing energy, but I also used to deep clean my bedroom at the end of every school year, maybe as a way of processing everything that had happened. I have never gotten into Marie Kondo but that’s because I already know our clutter does not spark joy and I have no problem tossing it whenever my kids aren’t looking. I also organize when I’m anxious or stressed out. The year my older daughter had two major surgeries and was critically ill for five months, we hired a dumpster and cleaned out our entire house in between hospital stays. Which felt both cathartic and insane.
Organizing is a complicated drug. It’s about instant gratification and control: This drawer/closet/mudroom looks so much better than when I started. But it’s also an illusion of control: This drawer/closet/mudroom will look like shit again in a few weeks or months and I’ll have to do it again. It’s something I am both innately good at, and was socially conditioned to crave and excel at, as a woman. Which means that women who aren’t naturally organized often feel like failures. And organizing both makes family life easier (now everyone can find the kids’ snack containers because we have established a designated storage spot for the snack containers!) and creates hours of extra labor, much of it invisible (will everyone else in the house please learn where we keep the snack containers!).
Anyway, I organized the drawer where we keep the snack containers (and the rest of the food storage containers that my brain still calls Tupperware even though it’s not). I organized the drawers in the kitchen where we keep school supplies so the kids can do their homework at the counter while one of us is making dinner. I took all the too-small shoes out of the mudroom. I helped my older daughter clean her bedroom (apples, trees, etc) while I cleaned out both of the kids’ closets and my own. I ordered mail sorters to hang on the wall by the mudroom door so we have a chance of locating the permission slips and library books that always, frantically, need to be located on the way out the door. And then, when Dan took the kids to the Adirondacks for Labor Day weekend so I could have three days to make a final big push on the book, I deep cleaned our playroom, excavating five giant trash bags worth of garbage and donations.
I did the book work, too. I revised two chapters on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and finished around 4pm. And then I spent almost the same number of hours working on the playroom, stepping around the dog who decided to sleep on the floor right in the middle of the mess, occasionally opening one eye as if to say, Why do you not know how to relax?
There is diet culture energy here, for sure. And productivity culture. And perfectionism. I’m not sure there is a more peak White Lady moment than texting your friends photos of your newly organized Tupperware drawer and yes, I did that.1 I bought new (non-Tupperware) food storage containers because most of ours were over a decade old and had reached the cracked lids/scratched sides stage where it feels dangerous to microwave them. And I was surprised-but-not to learn that every food storage brand now markets their “meal prep” size and sells them in packs of five or seven, because the expectation is that you are prepping all of your food in order to eat according to your “lifestyle plan.” I mean, the standard meal prep size container is also just a useful size, so fine, I guess. But they aren’t shooting the containers full of brownies or even pasta—it’s all rainbows of produce and smoothie bowls now, just as the momfluencers have taught us. And that’s before we even get into The Home Edit fridges, from which nobody is ever allowed to eat.
Another diet culture thread worth naming here is how I feel about my relationship with organizing the way lots of people feel about their relationship to exercise: It seems mostly good for my mental health and well-being? Until it gets super obsessive and unsustainable and no I can’t always tell when I’ve crossed over that line? As I was putting my children’s markers in rainbow order (I know, I know, THAT WAS THE LINE), I thought a lot about Catherine Newman’s recent Cup of Jo house tour that elicited such joy across the Internet just because it looks like humans live there. It isn’t messy, but it isn’t particularly organized; she prioritizes a coffee table that people can write on and piles of board games over clean surfaces. “I realized that, unbeknownst to myself, I had approached motherhood as hosting this really good, multi-decade party,” Newman writes. (For more analysis of Newman’s house tour, read Sara Louise Petersen.)
Keeping a house at Instagram-level organized is the opposite of throwing a good party. I am trying to train my kids to put away shoes and hang up backpacks when they get off the bus in the afternoon, but also recognize how that conflicts with their more urgent needs — to get a hug, to go to the bathroom, to tell me some random fact about their day. I love when the markers are sorted in rainbow order, but I love more the mess of their art projects. I recycled dozens of drawings and paper scraps but forced myself to keep two giant painted cardboard contraptions that were lovingly built (I believe, to be mazes for hamsters we do not own?) and fit nowhere into our lives.
I want there to be a way to preserve what’s good about organizing — the catharsis, the feeling of calm, the ability to find the snack containers—and reject what gets messy about it. It helps that I’m married to someone who values organization almost as much as I do, who will remember where we keep the snack containers, who spent two hours dealing with the mice invasion in our pantry last week while I shopped for pretty food storage containers. So my labor feels visible. And it felt like a choice, albeit a complicated one, to organize for hours during my first solo weekend at home in nine years.2 But lots of people, particularly straight women in cis het partnerships, play the role of the Noticer in their household, which tends to translate to also being the Organizer and resetting that balance requires the less organized partner to start valuing that there is now a place to put the permission slips and library books and also to put permission slips and library books in that pace. And even in an equal partnership, we could probably both stand to relax more in a way the dog would approve of. We could both be more okay with feeling less productive; we could both resent the mess of kids a little less.
One way to do this is to think of this level of organizing as a hobby, not a requirement, in much the same way that KC Davis talks about pretty laundry rooms as a hobby, not a care task. Listing “home organization” as one of my hobbies feels both embarrassing (I mean, the ship has just officially sailed on my ever being cool?) and incredibly honest. But if it makes it easier for other people, especially women, to be unapologetically unorganized, I’m here for it. Making a snack and craft cart is clearly organization-as-hobby (and sponsored content). But it’s also the kind of thing we told mothers to do during remote schooling to make our lives easier, you know, instead of the paid leave and safe schools we actually needed (and still need) to parent in a pandemic. So yes, let’s sort through what about organization is recreational and what’s functional and even then, ask whether it’s necessary or a just Band-Aid solution to a larger problem.
It could also help to be less rigid—a little more unorganized, if you will —about the way we classify people as organized or not. I made a joke on my family text thread recently about how if I were the middle child, I’d be so much less bossy and organized3 and my sister (the actual middle child) was understandably a bit affronted. Because she wasn't so organized when we were kids, but her pantry is now a wonder. Rather than thinking of organization as a test we pass or fail based on the current status of our house, we could frame it as a coping technique that serves some of us more than others. I organize to feel in control in the face of chaos; other people embrace chaos or escape from it, but in different ways. These are morally neutral strategies. We’re all just trying to survive whatever feels hard right now.
Organization would feel both less required and more attainable if we didn’t make it an identity. The clean countertops that I find soothing may strike you as sterile and anxiety-provoking. There is comfort, too, in a cozy mess; in the nests of stuffed animals my children burrow into to sleep every night; in the puzzle I leave out half-finished to pick away at over the course of a week. If we stopped attaching so much status (and aesthetic value and capitalism) to organizing, maybe we could allow ourselves to move more freely along the tidy to messy continuum. And I’d feel less trapped on the days (many days! most days!) when my kitchen counters are cluttered in last week’s homework and half-opened mail and the kids’ hairbrushes and water bottles and some kind of screw that someone wants to figure out how to reattach to something and my own gardening pruners that should go back to the potting shed but will live here by the coffee maker for many days instead. Because I’d know the mess isn’t permanent and doesn’t define me.
Of course for that to be true, the tidy food storage drawer moment of glory can’t define us either. Which is fine. It is still a thing I could do and got done. And sometimes we need that.
Help Me Report Burnt Toast!
One good thing about the book revision being done: I’m ready to get to work on several more deeply reported features I’ve been wanting to do in this space for awhile. I’m looking for sources to interview on the following topics. If one of these resonates, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the topic as the subject line, and tell me a little bit about why you connect to the story. Paid subscribers can also respond in the comments on this post. (And yes, feel free to share this!)
Kids’ Plus Size Clothes: I know, I know, I’ve been saying I’ll research this forever. If you’ve got plus size kids and a story about how you’ve struggled to find certain types of clothes, I want to hear from you. If you design plus size kids clothes, or have ideas for how the industry can solve this and why they haven’t yet, I really want to hear from you.
Co-Parenting in Diet Culture: Do you have an ex-partner with very different views about diet culture and fatness than you? How does this show up in your parenting decisions, how do you navigate the differences, or what tools do you need to make this easier? (Would also love to hear from therapists, etc who work with families to bridge these divides.)
Before anyone stages an intervention: I also went for a hike, read a novel and binge watched the new A League of Their Own. It’s honestly amazing how much TIME there is in 72 hours alone in your house?
I’m the oldest in case that wasn’t already glaringly obvious.