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From Overwhelm to Calm: How Reducing and Refining Our Toy Collection Has Improved Our Lives

Our home has not always been a beautiful, calm and purposeful place to be. For many years I struggled to manage it. I was able to create pockets of beauty and calm, but with our cupboards bursting at the seams and every surface piled high with stuff, it was more a case of me constantly moving things around. At times, it has felt like we've been suffocating in clutter. Our home felt utterly overwhelming.



Where did the clutter come from?

This has been such a complex thing to get to the bottom of. There is always a reason behind hoarding, compulsive shopping and finding it hard to let things go, but it isn't always easy to pinpoint the source of the problem. Personally, I have identified it as a combination of the following things...


I was sad. When my daughter was just 11 months old, I separated with her father. Despite feeling sure that we were better apart, I was still grieving the loss of our friendship and the future I thought we would have together. Shopping is a great distraction from sadness, and from other difficult feelings.


I carried a lot of guilt for being the parent that instigated the end of the relationship. I worried about my daughter being at a disadvantage, and I tried to over compensate for that loss by buying her all the things. I believed that I was providing well for her.


At this time I also became a bit addicted to charity shopping and finding treasures at car boot sales. Having been financially dependent on someone else for the best part of a year, it felt wonderful to have a small income of my own, and to be able to find the things that I thought we needed at a fraction of the cost. I was determined that we wouldn't go without.


I was looking for stuff as a means to making my life easier, in any little way that I could, because I was struggling. I bought toys mostly, because I loved to witness the joy they brought my daughter and the children in my care, and I couldn't justify the expense of buying things for myself. I desperately wanted to prove that I could manage, but under the surface I was desperately unhappy.



What were the barriers to change?

I was parenting alone. I had a baby who didn't sleep well at night and who suffered from acute separation anxiety, which meant that I was chronically sleep deprived and I rarely had any respite from the intensity of lone parenting. I simply didn't have the energy to declutter.


In order to make ends meet I was working really long hours as a childminder too. I had children here for 30 hours a week, over three long days, but with preparation, cleaning and paperwork, my working hours were many more. I felt like I spent every waking minute meeting little people's needs, cleaning, cooking and managing the overwhelm in our home. I don't know how I did it, but I felt powerless, as this was the life I had carved out for myself.



What instigated change?

I had what I can only describe as a mental health breakdown. I became so acutely unwell with anxiety that I couldn't function at all. I was unable to eat or sleep. I spent all day crying and vomiting. Once through the acute phase, I spent months rebuilding my confidence simply to exist in the world. Everything was an effort. I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue and stress induced panic disorder.


After recovering from my first episode I didn't make the long term changes needed to prevent a relapse. I went back to the life I had lived before, and in no time at all, I was acutely unwell again. After my second episode, I knew that I needed to make long term changes.



What helped?

My recovery has been a journey, and is ongoing. I may always be vulnerable to anxiety, but I have strategies in place that help. These are the things that have made the biggest difference on my journey...


Counselling - I paid for private counselling, and it has been the best investment I have ever made in myself. I found a counsellor who I liked and trusted, and who I could speak to on the phone (such an important consideration for me at the time, as I had no childcare). She also offered a reduced rate for those on a low income, so was surprisingly affordable. I had just 10 sessions with her at the time, but have had more when needed. She listened to me, without judgement, and I felt heard. She helped me to process my grief, to identify the early signs of overwhelm and to build a bank of strategies that help when it all becomes too much.


Reading - I read a lot at this time, but these are the two books that literally changed my life. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo kickstarted my decluttering journey. Once I started, the exhilaration I felt after clearing spaces, cleaning, donating and selling, soon overtook any joy I got from shopping. Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne gave me the confidence to simplify our home and schedule by providing me with a sound understanding of the benefits for children. It wasn't long before we had a rhythm to our days that brought calm.




Decluttering and setting up a toy rotation system - reading both of these books (among others) led to a complete overhaul of our home. Over the past five years I have reduced the contents of our home by at least 50%, and I am still going. I read about and experimented with a variety of toy rotation systems and was completely blown away by the impact, not just on the quality of the children's play, but the feeling of beauty, calm and purpose it brought about in our home.


At this time I also reduced my childminding hours and launched Invitations to Play. This change improved my work life balance, by enabling me to prioritise time with my daughter and fulfil some of my own needs, i.e. to be creative and share my experiences with other families. The reduced income in those first few years also curbed my spending habits!