My Mom’s Hoarding Was a Barrier. We’re Now Working to Move Past It.

  • Growing up, I avoided bringing friends home because I didn’t want them to see our house.
  • I wanted a house where people could sit on the couch or things didn’t cover the floor.
  • Now as an adult, I understand what led my mother to keep everything. It’s helping our relationship.

“Just looked through my cards,” my mom texted me. “Can’t wait for this year’s creation.”

I sighed at her not-so-subtle Mother’s Day hint. She adorned handmade cards. But when I recalled the ones that engulfed our living-room floor, I was reluctant to add to the collection. I glanced around my own Manhattan apartment. There wasn’t a misplaced dish or shirt in sight.

But with a parent who hoards, sometimes I feel untidy regardless.

My mom’s hoarding became a problem after a big move

Growing up, I knew my mom loved me. She always made my favorite chicken-salad sandwich for lunch. She handwrote notes wishing me luck on tests. When I said I wanted to be a writer, she even had my amateur stories bound.

But her hoarding produced problems. When we settled in Pittsburgh after moving to four other states, my mom’s accumulated clutter spiraled out of control: dusty childhood drawings, decade-old mail, discarded plastic bags. The mess littered household surfaces, rendering rooms unusable and ensuring our foosball table didn’t see field time for years.

As debris multiplied, I avoided my peers’ gazes when we discussed getting together. Once, after six years of unreciprocated invitations to her home, my friend Lexi blurted, “You know, I’ve literally never visited your place.”

This was usually where I quipped about my dad needing quiet for work or our home being “slightly disorganized right now.” Yet to my surprise, I confessed.

“My mom has this problem where our house is messy. Like, can’t walk messy,” I said.

“Wow,” replied Lexi. A moment passed.

She hugged me.

I wanted a clean house

She kept inviting me in after that. Visiting Lexi’s house, I was awestruck. So people had clean floors, couches you could sit on? I despairingly wondered if I’d ever have that life.

I finally spoke out when my family’s dog, Asta, was still constrained within a 12-by-12, litter-free space by her fourth birthday. Watching her within the gates, I felt a kind.

“Why can’t we clean the house? It’s useless!” I shouted.

“I’m working on it,” my mom sighed.

Sidestepping crumpled magazines and holiday decorations, I didn’t believe her. I was frustrated.

When I vented to my dad, he’d laugh about living in a glorified filing cabinet. After I challenged him one day, he said: “As a kid, I loved inviting friends over. I regret that you can’t. But there’s a bigger picture here.”

Her past helped me understand her

At 17, my mom was with her father when he had a heart attack. She called 911 repeatedly, to no avail. Years later, she temporarily left graduate school to care for her ailing mother. At Christmas, my mom was alone with her last parent when she passed away.

I imagined a world without my mom, who gifted me a mock Oscar trophy for performing my school musical’s lead, and who saved her parents’ china for me. What would I cling to if my mom was ripped away? Suddenly, I understood.

Maybe she held on to things because she was forced to let go.

When I moved to New York for college, she had to let go of me, too. In my own space, I analyzed our relationship. So much remains unanswered. But recently, my dad texted me a picture of his spotless living-room floor. Mom had cleaned.

“I don’t know why it happened,” she said when I asked. “I was probably looking for something.”

“What stopped you from doing it sooner?” I questioned.

“I was busy with you and your siblings,” she said. “I could’ve done better at balancing, but you’re always my priority.”

After hanging up, I immediately recorded her admission. It wasn’t overdone or unnecessarily apologetic — it was just honest.

Our communication has since improved, though her hoarding still affects us: After my boyfriend broke up with me, I felt relieved that I wouldn’t be bringing him home.

I’m still trying to accept the mess, to acknowledge uncertainty. But that picture of the clean floor and our conversations mean more to me than anything I’ve ever owned. They prove that even if the past leaves indelible marks on the present, the future holds promise.

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