Dear Diary,

Growing up, we would tease my grandmother about being a pack rat. She never wanted to throw anything away. That’s one reason why her house had an attic! Some of my favorite childhood memories involved climbing the ladder to third floor, rummaging through the boxes stacked to the ceiling, trying on clothes from a distant era and looking at old pictures. I inherited my grandmother’s love of collecting things. As a child, I collected pigs–long story for another day. As an adult, I buy books–lots of books that I may never read but enjoy displaying on the shelves.

But although I enjoy shopping, I enjoy donating things to charity even more. Before Christmas or birthdays, I pack a trunk of clothes and toys and make room for the gifts we’ll unwrap. Too many things cause clutter, which tends to be the case in our place from time to time. It also causes undue stress and even accidents. I don’t want my daughter to trip and fall over anything. I often wonder how some moms become hoarders. Do you slip into a state of compulsive collecting?

Recently, I interviewed Author Judy Batalion to find out. This week, she released her new book, White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between.


Heather: What was it like growing up with a severe hoarder for a parent?

Judy: My mother’s hoarding definitely got worse over time, but my childhood home was filled with tuna cans and hundreds of VHS tapes stacked in walls around the den and playroom. We spent weekends bargain shopping, and filling our rusty Pontiac with bags of liquidation shampoos and paper towels. I’m an organized, list-making, clock-obsessed kind of person (Is this genetic? In reaction to my mother? I don’t know!) and so having this mess around me meant I always felt on-edge. My memory is that I was always trying to carve out some space for myself, literally. Mom’s piles made me feel blocked from her, physically and emotionally. Her bed was full of clothes and files, so it was hard for me to climb in if I had a nightmare. As I got older, the mess struck me as ugly, and I projected it onto my body, and felt ashamed.

Heather: Why did your mother hoard? I often hear there’s a deeper meaning underneath the massive mess.

Judy: I can’t answer on my mother’s behalf, and I’m not sure we ever really know the concrete reasons behind behaviors. Most mental illnesses, as far as I understand, manifest from a mix of genetics, how you were raised, and life situations. But I can hypothesize. My mother was born on my Jewish grandparents’ escape from the Nazis, on their way back from Siberian work camps to post-war Poland. She was a refugee before knowing what home was. I guess that this affected her deeply. She grew up with chaos and loss all around her, and I can imagine these conditions made her want to barricade herself inside walls of safety, to hang on to whatever she could clutch. Her mother was also a hoarder. Again, perhaps that was in reaction to the traumatic events in her life, or to inherited traits. Or both.

Heather: How did you ensure you didn’t become a hoarder? What tips do you have for moms who have a hard time letting go of things?

Judy: It’s important to distinguish between cluttering, a common behavior which runs along a spectrum and might not interfere with a person’s life, and “hoarding” which is a mental illness that has specific characteristics. My mother was a hoarder, and her condition is pathological, and I don’t have that same mental illness. If anything, I’ve spent most of my life doing the opposite, creating spaces that were clean, geometric and sparse. I worked in art galleries, because I liked being surrounded by pristine objects and white walls. I do find myself hanging on to some of my daughter’s stuff–her craft scraps and baby clothes–and I try to be aware of why I do it. Usually it’s because it reminds me of our connection, of the happiest times of my life. But there’s a difference between saving mementos and severe hoarding. It’s OK to have stuff, even though the current cultural trend is so much about throwing stuff out. For me, I just try to organize it, so I don’t feel overwhelmed by the chaos.

Heather: How can you teach your child not to become a hoarder? For instance, this week, we dropped five bags off to Good Will. I would like to say it was purely out of the kindness of my heart, but I needed to free up space in our apartment–I told them no need to give me a tax write off slip!

Judy: If you’re talking about hoarding as a mental illness, it’s not something you can teach someone to avoid. I know that I harbor genes for mental illness, and I’m always aware and looking for any problematic behaviors in my children. If you’re talking about non-pathological cluttering, I think children pick up on things we do, and imitate us parents, so our own behaviors influence them. We teach by acting. My daughter generally doesn’t have issues with throwing things out–she likes completing the task of tossing something in the trash. Kids often don’t have our anxieties. The trick is to keep them that way.

Heather: How can people help hoarders in their family, especially those with kids who can’t leave (well, I assume they can be removed from the home)?

Judy: A real hoarder needs professional help. There are psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and many other specialists who are trained to help hoarders. Often hoarders don’t have “insight” into their problems, in the sense that they don’t realize their collections and homes are dysfunctional. They often refuse to be helped. That’s where things get difficult and again, specialists can help and support family members through this.

Hey DFTM Fam–Do you live with a hoarder or know someone who needs help? You can learn more about living with a hoarder and how to cope by reading Judy Batalion’s new book, available on Amazon. 

About The Author

Vlog Mom/DFTM Creator

Not long ago, Heather Hopson hosted a television show in the Cayman Islands. Today, she's back home writing a different kind of story as a new mom. In her 15 years working as a professional journalist, this by far is her best assignment! Growing up, she dreamed of becoming Oprah Winfrey. She was the features editor for her school’s newspaper and a teen talk show host for her city’s most popular radio station. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Michigan State University. After graduation, she worked as a television producer and reporter at CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates throughout the U.S. Instead of heading to Chicago to join Ms. Winfrey on her set, she bought a plane ticket to the Cayman Islands instead. She arrived five days before a category five hurricane! She lived in paradise for seven years, hosted an award-winning television show and traveled the globe with a government delegation. She also served on the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters and spearheaded a Send a Kid to Camp campaign. Then, she relocated to Washington, D.C. to obtain a teaching certification and instruct 8th grade reading at a high needs middle school. She later returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh, PA to raise her daughter Caitlynn, now 4-years-old. During her 10-month-stint as a stay-at-home mom, Caitlynn inspired her to create this blog, and Diary of a First Time Mom was born on Mother’s Day 2012. Two years later, she expanded the family to include 20+ writers. Currently, Heather serves as the communications director at Allies for Children. In addition, she is the owner of Motor Mouth Multimedia, which ranked #49 in Startup Nation’s Home-Based 100 Competition sponsored by Discover Card and Sam’s Club. Recently, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments selected Heather to receive an Emerging Black Artist award to develop Diary of a First Time Mom.

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