The only clear dining table I've seen in the home of one of my clients belonged to a stasher. He lived alone, and he liked having his friends over to play board games. He would rush around cleaning up before a game night, hiding his clutter behind closed doors, but his main living area was always impressively tidy. For most people, the dining table is almost the first to go. If there's a formal dining room and a casual kitchen table, the dining table may even be the only really messy place in the house. Something about a broad, flat surface creates an irresistibly attractive clutter zone.
I'm writing this from my dining table. Our house is 728 square feet, and as a result, the only table that would fit in our kitchen is a little over three feet square. That's roughly the size of a bistro table at Starbucks. It's plenty of room for the two of us to eat together, but it would be a tight squeeze for four. I eat breakfast and lunch here every day, and the two of us eat dinner here every night. On weekends, sometimes we have a big fancy breakfast together, too. We love it. It makes being at home feel like going out on a date.
Why wouldn't we eat at our table? The real question is why other people don't.
Everyone in the family eats at different times
We prefer to eat in front of the TV
We prefer to eat in front of our separate computer, tablet, or phone screens
We mostly eat in our car, at the drive-thru
We always go out
Nobody cooks because we fight over the dishes
The table is buried under a pile of mail and other clutter
These things don't apply in our case. We eat together because we like it. We like talking to each other face to face. We both like to cook, and we prefer our own cooking. Going out a lot causes us both to start packing on extra weight. We trade off the cleanup, and we know it's fair because we swap every night. We're paperless, and we don't have enough stuff to really pile on the table. We have plenty of screen time, and we can certainly spare half an hour a day to put the electronics aside. Our table is clear because it's a focal point of our life together.
It could easily go the other way. It can involve unresolved conflict and resentment. It can include spillover from excess accumulation in other rooms. It can be a symptom of confusion or decision paralysis. It can be a sign of conflict about health, diet, and body image.
There are dirty dishes in the sink and clean dishes that need to be put away. Cooking a meal means doing a day's worth of kitchen cleanup first. When there are multiple people contributing to this mess, cleaning the kitchen can be a minefield of blame, recriminations, revenge, and abdication.
The table is being used for a kid's homework or school project, because there's nowhere in the kid's bedroom to spread out and do the work.
The table is being used as a desk, even though there is at least one desk in the house, because every flat surface is equally cluttered.
The table is being used to store pantry items, like breakfast cereal, because all the cupboards are full.
The table is being used as a surface to fold laundry.
There are intact shopping bags holding purchases with the tags still on.
There are layers and archaeological strata. Excavating them feels like it would disrupt some tenuous sense of chronological order or partially completed sorting attempt.
Eating at a table brings back strong feelings of family trauma.
It's always possible to reinvent something in your life. You can decide to reframe how you think or feel about something. You can experiment and test out different ways of doing things, and you can always go back to what you were doing before if you decide you like it better. If you want something better than eating in your lap or over a keyboard, it is a gift you can give to yourself. More importantly, it's a gift you can give to your family and friends. The table can be a place of hedonism, celebration, restoration, romance, laughter, elegance, and hospitality.
Cleaning up can feel like punishment. Reframe it as a necessary but messy stage of artistic creation, just like cutting pattern pieces or mixing paint.
Shifting paperwork and homework to other rooms can feel isolating. Reframe that as a way to add more companionship during meals, balanced with privacy and concentration during work.
Changing family patterns can feel confrontational. Reframe this as clearing the air and doing the work of forgiveness. There has to be a way to add more positive interactions, and why not over a meal?
Sorting stacks and files can feel overwhelming. Reframe this as a path to mental clarity and peace of mind. It will be hard, but when it's done all the stress and confusion will be gone.
Taking leadership on a clearing project can feel unfair. Reframe this as demonstrating the fairness that you want to see. It's fair when everyone in the household contributes to the function of the home. That includes you, since you live there. Making your effort visible is the very best way to inspire someone else to pitch in. Going first and initiating the process is the best way to get anything done on your preferred timeline. Clearing your own things is the bare minimum of fairness.
If you already know that you're the prime culprit of a cluttered table, give it back. A kitchen table is a common area. A dining table is, too. Common areas are for the use of everyone in the home. There is a ripple effect when anyone commandeers a common area for personal use. It causes conflict and resentment. It contributes to power struggles. If there is a power struggle with another adult, talk about it honestly and openly - after you've cleared your things off the table first, of course.
Give back the table. You have the power to create an area of relaxation and fun to be enjoyed at least once a day. You can contribute a little beauty spot. You can make a place for friendship and hospitality. A fully empowered dining table can build a family, and it can also build a neighborhood. There is no upper limit to what kind of conversations or community can be stirred up over a regular meal.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.