“Does it bring joy?”
KonMari consultant Helen Youn helps moms find joy and reduce stress through decluttering
When Helen Youn sits down with a client at the beginning of a KonMari tidying-up session, one of the first questions she asks is, “Do you entertain?”
So much of the time, says Helen, the answer is no — “because they’re too anxious and embarrassed about the state of their homes. They have so much shame — and that really is a shame, because so many of my clients would like to have people over and don’t. Their shame isolates them from friends and family. They’re worried they’re going to be judged. They’re worried that I’m going to judge them.”
They needn’t worry. Yes, Helen is a KonMari consultant — in fact, she’s the first and only certified KonMari consultant in the Canadian Prairies, and one of 13 Silver level KonMari consultants in the world. That means she works with clients in her hometown of Calgary and further afield to coach them through “the life-changing magic of tidying up,” the process that became famous through Japanese author Marie Kondo’s book of the same name.
“The KonMari method is a way to live more joyfully and mindfully through decluttering,” explains Helen. “It’s a process of self-discovery: you learn who you are and what brings you joy.”
It’s a process that she and her husband, David, went through as well. Today, the two of them live in a modern, clutter-free, 1000-square-foot condo, surrounded only by the things that bring them joy — chief of which is their four-year-old son, Emerson.
But it wasn’t always this way. The two, who have been together for 18 years, and married for 8, used to occupy a Toronto townhouse twice the size of their current home. “When we first moved in,” says Helen, “we entertained all the time. I love to cook, and we’d throw lavish dinner parties.”
But the couple were also collectors: books, DVDs, exotic spices and foodstuffs, furniture to fill their four floors. “We shopped all the time. As we started to accumulate all these things, we stopped having people over — it started to feel overwhelming because we had too much stuff to clean up. And so we began to isolate ourselves.”
Their move to Calgary in 2012, for David’s corporate job, forced them to downsize. “We did a major de-clutter. Everything we took with us to Calgary fit into our new condo — but it didn’t fit nicely. Things were kind of crammed in there.”
And then, they had a baby. “And our life — and our condo — felt like it exploded. There was baby stuff everywhere. With a crawling baby and toddler, we couldn’t have shelves full of books and DVDs. It was messy all the time. David was on stress leave from his job, and I had postpartum depression. We couldn’t have anyone over, and we were miserable, back in the same place that we were in Toronto, but now with a kid.”
On a whim, Helen downloaded The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to her phone one day, during a marathon nursing session with Emerson. Within a couple of months, she and David had completed their own “tidying festival,” organizing their possessions into categories (clothing, books, papers, miscellaneous, sentimental) and jettisoning everything that didn’t spark joy in their lives. Today, they’re very choosy about what comes into their home, limiting their spending to quality items they know they’ll love, use, and maintain.
KonMari, says Helen, gave her the headspace to be able to make more mindful choices outside the house, too. “I used to look at a plastic fork at a restaurant and think, ‘I’m going to use this for five minutes and then throw it away, and it will last forever in a landfill.’ Today, I bring reusable cutlery wherever I go.”
In the fall of 2016, Helen — now back at her corporate job — signed up on a whim for a training course to become a KonMari consultant.
There was a considerable disjunct, says Helen, between her personal life and her work: “I was in charge of buying promotional goods — pens and stress balls and other things that companies hand out at corporate events. At home, I was trying to declutter. And at work, I was spending millions of dollars a year on crap I would never bring home. It didn’t align at all with my values.”
The week Helen began her KonMari training, she lost her job. At the same time, David was downsized. “We were the two happiest unemployed people in the world,” she says, laughing. “Without that push from the universe, it might have taken us a lot longer to make the leap into work we love.”
Today, Helen helps her clients find the same joy in their own spaces and lives. Initially, she reached out mainly to other mothers of young children, “because I had been an overwhelmed mom, and those were the people I knew.”
Another question Helen asks her clients is, “What do you want to do in your home when you no longer have to worry about organizing and tidying up all the time?” Often, she says, mothers will say that they want to spend more time with their kids. “And I’ll say, ‘That’s great,’ but I’ll push them: ‘What about yourself? What do you want to do for you?’ Because you can’t take care of another person if you haven’t taken care of yourself.”
Emerson was only about 10 months old when his mom began her KonMari training, so he’s grown up with the philosophy.
“I tell my clients, ‘You’re allowed to have as many things as you like as long as they bring you joy and you’re willing to take care of them.’ And we tell the same thing to Emerson: ‘You can have as many toys as you’d like as long as they make you happy and you can clean them up.’”
Emerson owns only about a week’s worth of clothing at any given time. That not only forces Helen and David to keep on top of laundry, but makes it easy for Emerson to get dressed in the morning, and avoids the headache of overstuffed drawers and closets. “He grows so quickly. When the clothes start to get a little bit ratty, that’s usually a sign he’s ready for the next size up.”
The preschooler is also great at recycling his old paintings and artwork. Helen will sit down with him and ask him to choose which pieces to keep and which to recycle: “He’ll say, ‘I made that when I was a baby. I’m not a baby anymore. I don’t need it.’ I want him to be involved in the process. I don’t want him to grow up thinking that his things could just disappear at any moment because we go through when he’s not around and throw them out. And I want him to learn how to tidy on his own.”
Today, Helen and David are back to entertaining in their happy, streamlined home. Now, instead of lavish dinner parties, they throw equally lavish weekend brunch gatherings, which better suit their own and their friends’ schedules as parents of young kids. The parties fit into the ideal life that she used to only imagine. “It’s not about minimalism. It’s not about practicality. It’s about freeing yourself from the things that don’t bring you joy to make more time for the things that do.”
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.
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