My mother has become a cleaning and organizing machine. Ever since my father died she has been cleaning closets, purging files, organizing shelves and rearranging furniture.
The fact is, her home has always been immaculate. My sisters and I joke that we could eat off the floor.
For years my mother has systematically pared down her possessions by giving stuff to others, selling items at yard sales and donating to charity. And my mother’s organizational skills rival those of Martha Stewart.
So why this sudden extra energetic spurt of tidiness?
I think several things are at work (besides my mother).
Whether it is a conscious thing or not, I suspect that my mother is feeling a level of anxiety as a new widow. A spouse’s death can trigger stress.
The loss of a life partner, possibly the person who knew the surviving spouse best, can leave a sense of loneliness and sadness.
The loss of one’s partner can also spur fears. What comes next? Will I be able to manage my finances? What happens if I get sick?
Studies have shown that carrying out regular vigorous tasks, like brisk housework, can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. So cleaning and organizing are indirectly helping my mother to cope with her feelings of loss.
Secondly, performing tasks one has become skilled at is a proven anxiety reducer.
Therefore, falling back on her strengths to purge, clean and organize is subconsciously helping my mother deal with her stress and anxiety. It feels good to succeed at something, and it’s much easier to succeed at a particular skill when you have mastered it.
We all know our stress level is reduced after a good workout. Cleaning is a physical activity. It’s an outlet for energy, and expending energy helps reduce stress.
Lastly, removing dust, dirt and clutter from one’s environment provides a cleaner, more comfortable atmosphere, and that increases feelings of relaxation and happiness.
At this point my mother has balked at taking up a new hobby to fill the time she spent caring for my father. She’s quite comfortable getting her home environment shipshape.
Although that’s nature’s way for my mother to heal, one can’t clean forever.
I remember when I was sick in my teen years, I had to stay home from school and be tutored. The tutor came after the regular school day, so after completing my homework each morning I had a lot of the day to fill until the tutor arrived.
I turned to making order in our kitchen. I cleaned my mother’s cabinets, rewrote her entire recipe box and separated the spices into categories: sweet, spicy, savory, salty. I’d inherited my mother’s organizing gene.
I remember at one point a hospital social worker pulled my mother and me aside and said she hoped that as I recovered I would become more social and engage with kids my own age instead of being focused on kitchen tasks.
It never dawned on me that I wouldn’t re-engage with the world once I was well enough to do so.
I hope it will be the same for my mother. It took me time, with small steps at first, but soon the need for socializing got me out of the kitchen and into the neighborhood.
We’ll give my mother the time she needs, but we hope that she, too, returns to the neighborhood.