For Reshma Memon Yaqub, too much stuff is not the problem. As she surveys her blissfully barren home, she wonders what's lost when the obsessions of her hoarder mother continue to define her own.
My childhood home—a four-bedroom colonial in a Washington, D.C., suburb—had an exquisite exterior. But inside there was too much furniture crowding every room; too many Sears receipts spilling from end tables with too many drawers; too many televisions, with their confusing array of remotes, making too much noise; too many boxes of yellow cake mix aging in the overstuffed pantry; too many shoes and coats crammed into the hall closet, making it impossible to find the ones I needed in a hurry. Don't get me wrong: Ours was never one of those unsanitary houses you see on hoarding shows. It was just uncomfortably full, like a belly straining against a belt while its owner made room for one more pie and seven more mini-muffins.

The problem was my mother, who had trouble parting with anything she thought someone she loved might someday need from her (in other words, anything). My father vacillated between resister and accomplice. In my more enlightened moments, I imagine that if I had grown up as they did, in a poor village in Pakistan, I, too, might have held on a little too tightly once fortune finally favored me. But as a child, I felt as though I were drowning. I remember coming home from school to find things in my closet-wrapping paper, extra blankets-that didn't belong there. In protest, I'd toss these intruders into the hall. Then as now, clutter had a physical effect on me. The sight of knickknacks caused my left shoulder to rise and fall, tic-like, as if trying to shake something off.

Since leaving home for college, I've been making up for lost space. The home I currently share with my two sons looks from the outside like the one I grew up in-gorgeous redbrick, huge yard-but inside, there are no walk-in closets. No kitchen pantry. And gloriously, no garage. There are no coffee tables, because with them comes coffee-table clutter. No televisions, because their sidekicks are remote controls and piles of DVDs. If a decorator walked through my home, she'd recommend an ottoman here and there, a decorative accessory for the hallway, or end tables to cradle the telephones that sit on the hardwood floor in front of the jacks. She'd suggest art for my untouched walls. She might wonder why there's no dining table in the dining room.

It's not that I dislike decorations; I truly admire beautifully appointed homes. My laundry room holds tightly taped boxes full of mementos from my travels. I just can't figure out how to put them up without turning into a woman who has animal statues flanking her front door. I fear that if I start, my DNA strands-with their broken C gene-might eventually strangle me, leaving me writhing in a pile of throw pillows. Surely children of alcoholics are just as careful about taking that first drink.

Though my home is empty of the extraneous, it never feels empty enough. I frequently walk around with a cardboard box hunting for donation targets. For me, de-cluttering is an itch that pleads, then demands, to be scratched. If something's not being used this very moment, or on the cusp of being used, it's out. There's no ill-fitting clothing in my home, save the two onesies I held on to from my sons' baby days-and one small box of prepregnancy pants that keep me jogging. I purge my closet seasonally, tossing anything that isn't earning its keep. What have you done for me lately, red sweater?

Next: How her kids deal with her neat streak


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