I remember the cool gel, the slippery feel of the ultrasound’s transducer, the crinkling of the paper below my body, but most of all the feeling of terror that crystallized into one undeniable conclusion: It was time to get my shit together.
“Oh!” the doctor said, smiling. “Two heartbeats!”
Two heartbeats? I looked at the monitor, then caught my husband Stephen’s shocked expression. Two heartbeats meant two. Freaking. Babies.
Suddenly Stephen and I were laughing. There’s something darkly comedic about having twins. When one baby is on the way, you can hold on to the delusion that life won’t change much. But with two? Those delusions shatter instantly.
The first of many pressing issues was our home life. Our “charming” (in real-estate-agent speak) third-floor walk-up with its exposed outlets and splinter-ridden flooring would not be conducive to the keeping-babies-alive stage of our existence.
But the crappy apartment was just the window dressing on a larger issue. I’m a complete slob. I goosestep over clothing on the floor, mountains of books are stacked up on every open surface, half-empty coffee cups sit on the nightstand, and I don’t even see the mess.
My husband is better, but only slightly so. His lesser evils include leaving clothes near the hamper but never in it and piling dishes in the sink until one of us breaks down and cleans them. We’re both bad, but I’m worse.
I’ve tried to change. I’ve Kondo-ed my way through half of my closet, getting rid of all my stained vintage clothes. I even still lovingly fold my socks in half thanks to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but that was the only takeaway that seemed to stick.
Now that I was carrying two fetuses, this lack of order no longer felt cute or eccentric. It felt immature and possibly dangerous.
Stephen and I dove into the nightmarish Brooklyn rental market and six months later finally found a home that seemed like an upgrade. The new apartment gave me a physical place to put all my fantasies about my soon-to-be-domesticated self. I started googling ways to make her a reality.
I arrived at glowing reviews for Apartment Jeanie—“a magician,” one wrote; “Jeanie changed my life,” another read—the business name for organizer Jeanie Engelbach, a decorator, organizer, move manager, and self-described “gentle drill sergeant” all in one perky, pink-haired package.
I immediately emailed.
Jeanie’s magical services wouldn’t run cheap (a full day started at $1,400). The financial commitment made it real: If I was going to spend that much, I would be forced to take it seriously.
A few weeks later, Jeanie, an effervescent East Village ex-CBGB sprite who is somehow warm and no-nonsense at the same time, showed up at our old apartment for an assessment. She had already asked me to fill out a form describing my style (“sty,” I wanted to write) and taking stock of what we had. (Thanks to my growing nesting instinct, I went above and beyond, supplying furniture dimensions, budget breakdowns, and floorplans, which prompted Jeanie’s assistant Emily to say, “You’re the most prepared client we’ve ever had.”)
Jeanie is all about discarding. She wants you to edit down your life before you’ve even walked through the door of your new place. When in question, give away.
I approached this stage with an almost religious level of zealotry. Expired spices and food went in the trash; ill-fitting clothes found their way to a donation bin; hundreds of books that I’ll never read again, along with chipped mugs and old phone chargers for Blackberrys, landed on the stoop. And in true brownstone-living style, every last thing—from pens that had long ago run out of ink to broken lampshades—was taken, with one exception: Stephen’s Dr. Katz VHS tape.
While I purged, Jeanie shopped at the Container Store, her holy land. She bought clear plastic shoe boxes (something I’d never had the guts to think I could use), organizer caddies, hampers, desk accessories, and plastic food containers. She—well, I—spent a fortune. When I got the bill I held my breath for a minute and tried again to picture that other self, that calm, cool, organized mom balancing two babies on her hips in her clutter-free home.
Jeanie returned the day before the move (which she had also arranged). She and her assistant Zora continued the purge, focusing on getting my clothes properly folded and packed. All wire hangers disappeared (Jeanie comes from the Joan Crawford school of clothes hangers). They set aside anything that needed laundering or new buttons and gave me a T-shirt folding board, which sent shivers down my spine.
Zora showed me how to use the device: With three flips of the board, one to the right, one to the left, and then one in half, you have a piece of clothing that looks like it belongs in a department-store display. Zora also contributed another hack for how to best store my T-shirts in drawers: Instead of folding them in half (that final flip), you fold them in thirds and then stack them up like hanging files. That way no T-shirt gets lost under the others. She then demonstrated how to properly fold a fitted sheet, which I rank as one of the crowning achievements of my adult life.
Everything was packed up perfectly so that we could unpack it all and put it away in the new place without an extra step. Every item was cleaned (some, like our dog-slobbered West Elm couch and our rugs, professionally). Jeanie wanted very little to do on the other side.
The movers whisked away our stuff without a hitch. At one point I turned to my husband and said, “Moving isn’t so bad!” He raised an eyebrow—a small reminder of the price we had to pay to make it this easy.
The next day, Jeanie and Zora returned. Jeanie shines in the kitchen, where she found a proper place for everything while maximizing the space at every turn (our chicken roaster now holds our pot tops). Everything was deliberate. Everything had a home. Then she started her work under the sink. What was once a site of last resort became a peaceful oasis: A shower caddy held all of our most-used cleaning supplies alongside beautifully folded (in thirds!) microfiber cloths.
Jeanie has a lot of dislikes: She hates exposed wires, despises instruction manuals (on the grounds that they’re all available online), and can’t stand food packaging. She pushed me to put my perishables in stackable rectangular plastic containers and label each with expiration dates. I’m still not sure how, but this opened up a vast amount of space in our cabinets.
She put all of our hardware in a craft kit organizer that unfolded accordion style. Our batteries went in a battery box (who knew there was such a thing?). Our cleaning tools hung on Command hooks in our closets.
In the bathroom, she situated my makeup in the top drawer of the cabinet. Lipsticks lived in one container; eye shadows in a rectangular plastic container next to it; the face creams together in another.
And then there was the closet. Jeanie and Zora arranged my clothes by type of garment and color, a kaleidoscope of happiness every time I opened the doors. My husband had a smaller former linen closet that didn’t look as spectacular, but did its job.
By the end of the second day every box had been opened, emptied, and discarded. All open spaces—the counters, the bookshelves, the desk—were clear. No clothes covered the floors or chairs. Books went on shelves and were alphabetized and artfully stacked.
For three months after the move, we kept to Jeanie’s system. I arranged the babies’ room according to her principles—I got rid of manuals and folded onesies in thirds, stacking them like I did my T-shirts.
And then the babies came.
Today we are at the level of surviving. There is no time for color-coding or nesting or covering up exposed iPhone wires. Those are relics of a time in my life that I probably won’t get back for another decade, if ever. Our kitchen counter is ground zero for bills and everything else we’re avoiding, but can’t throw away. We’ve gotten lazy about folding our clothes in thirds and putting them away. And the books now crowd the house in piles. Then there are new indignities. Lots of baby clothes, some outgrown, some in need of a wash, hang off our furniture. Toys litter the floor and sometimes light up on a whim to taunt us.
The cliche holds true: No one can prepare you for what happens once you have a child (or two). The sleepless nights. The sheer physicality of it all. The emotional stress and the almost overwhelming love. The chaos.
But I’ll say this: I notice the mess now. It’s no longer an ingrained part of my personality. And when the mood strikes to get myself together, I can do it in an hour or so, without days of Kondo-ing and self-flagellation. My makeup remains mostly arranged by use, and our shirts are still (often) folded in thirds and stored so every shirt is visible. From time to time I’ll even drag that folding board out while watching Bravo reality TV as the babies sleep.
There is something comforting about putting away the glasses without thinking, about knowing that the spot under my sink is in order, about hanging my clothes on velvet hangers instead of wire ones.
I may not be the tranquil mother with a perfect home, but I’m the kind of person who not only knows how to fold a fitted sheet, but actually has a place for it.
Susannah Cahalan is the New York Times best-selling author of Brain on Fire, a memoir about her struggle with a rare autoimmune disease of the brain. Her second book, The Great Pretender, an investigation of one of the most famous studies in social science history, is out now.