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Ben*, put away your toys! Sara*, stop Instagramming and start cleaning up your room! And dear, can you stop wearing your torn shorts and socks, and throw them away? Some have holes so big that you’re flashing the neighbours when you walk the dog.”

Two years ago, this would have been part of a typical day in the Chong* household, where I am a one-woman organising-managing-cleaning company, helping my three family members sort out their affairs. I like cleaning, and I like to think I do a good job. That was until I made a mess of their lives!

I really dislike untidiness. Like a laser-sighted drone, I would hover around at home, and when I spotted areas that looked unkempt, I would zoom in and start a clean-up operation. My friends think I’m a Martha Stewart gone wild, but I do believe everything has its place – all drinks need coasters, all pens have their pen covers.

I’m also a huge fan of decluttering. It is my alternative to a yoga workout: Clearing away unwanted stuff at home is akin to sweeping away the cobwebs of my mind, leaving me feeling cleansed and restoring balance to my life. Every couple of months, I would push my husband and two kids to join me in my favourite spring cleaning ‘hobby’. After all, a family that cleans (while grumbling and groaning) together, stays together!

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Last year, however, I took things a step too far. After the annual Lunar New Year spring-cleaning, I felt a sense of accomplishment, but also empty and unfulfilled. I resolved to upkeep our home’s state of cleanliness.

I started operation TIDY – Throw It Daily, (Not) Yearly. Every day, I made it a point to dispose of a few items, like old dresses or makeup past their expiry dates. My advice to my husband and kids to do the same fell on deaf ears, so like a spy agent, I targeted their personal items to ‘eliminate’. I bid good riddance to my husband’s tattered undergarments and yellowed clothes. Stuffed Mr Bear-Bear and plastic Princess Dress-A-Lot met their ends in a black garbage bag. I was merciless, and did not ask permission from the rest of my family.

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Every day, I would become anxious if there wasn’t anything to bin. I started throwing away usable glassware and cutlery, just because they didn’t fit our home’s decor. I bought more things to replace old ones if anybody made a fuss, which undermined operation TIDY… but I didn’t care – it was throwing away old stuff I cared more about.

Then I moved from junking physical items to virtual ones – I took to trashing badly-taken family photos on the family laptop and online platforms, if there was nothing physical to clear!

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Through it all, I would make up lies that I did not know where missing things were, or pinned the fault of losing things on someone else if anyone asked for the binned items. At the back of my mind, I knew that it was all wrong, but I refused to admit that I was the one responsible.

Towards the end of the year, I finally realised that I had gone overboard. My husband kept hounding me about missing shirts and boxer shorts while packing for a last-minute business trip; Ben was screaming for his old figurines when he could not find them in his toy storage box; and Sara became her teenage surly self, texting me ‘sad face’ and ‘annoyed face’ emojis instead when she couldn’t retrieve our family holiday photos for a school project.

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All the while, I was getting frustrated figuring out what items went where, and which boxes they were in. I was left exhausted, as operation TIDY ended up becoming a cleaning catastrophe.

At the end of the day, I felt stressed and drained, not because of the housework, but because of all my lying, thoughtlessness and selfishness, that had ultimately caused my husband and kids unhappiness. The house was spick and span, but we missed the warmth, laughter and love we had when things were still a little chaotic. Those were the things that made up a home, I realised.

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What is a little clutter like ugly family photos and household keepsakes? After all they show how a house is lived in, and contains precious memories. For this coming Lunar New Year, I have decided to get my three loved ones to go on a short family holiday, and forget about cleaning for once.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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