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Emptying out Your Nest

Our son graduated from high school in 2001, daughter #1 in 2003 and four years later when daughter #2 left for school, our nest was finally empty. Hubbie and I idly tossed around plans for their rooms: A yoga retreat (my idea)? A giant new bathroom with a hot tub (his)?

But at first I was fine with leaving the rooms intact. We didn’t really need that space anyway and they came home often, so why rock the boat? I didn’t want to be like Peter Pan’s mother, who filled his bedroom with a new boy the minute he moved out.

I felt connected with daughter #1 when the chimes on her bedroom doorknob tinkled every time I went in there, just as I felt with my son when l looked at his book collection and with daughter #2 through her painted bed and the flowered stenciling on her walls.

I was less sentimental about the collage of torn-out magazine pictures that covered the rest of daughter #2’s bedroom walls, the clutter of sports page clippings inside daughter #1’s door and the 22 boxes of comic books piled up along one wall of my son’s room and occupying his entire closet. Let’s be blunt—I couldn’t wait to get rid of them.

RELATED: When Adult Kids Move Home

In another life I would have been a decorator, and here were three rooms calling out for transformation. I envisioned a sophisticated and tasteful homage to their tenure in the household repurposed to our current needs. My urge to begin those transformations increased as the kids became more established in their own apartments.

The youngest child’s room was the first to be tackled. Daughter #2 had been gone a year when a visiting niece refused to sleep in her bedroom: “It’s too scary in there with all those faces looking at me.” That was the push I’d needed!

What to keep and what to toss? The negotiations began. Our three children have very different personalities so each transaction was quite different—and I’m sure they will be in your house too.

Daughter #2 was almost too willing to shed her possessions: “You want to donate all those clothes? Are you sure you’ll never wear them again? You don’t want any of those photographs? Nothing at all???” I found it hard to accept that she could discard all the possessions reminding me of her childhood and life at home so cavalierly. And how had I gotten sucked into buying her so many things in the first place, when she cared so little about them?

The way we manage things is a mirror of how we manage our feelings.

Daughter #1 was the opposite: “Do you really need to hold onto that shirt that you haven’t worn since 7?"

(By the way, how many people ever wear their letter jackets again after they graduate from high school? Do any children take them to their adult homes? If not, where do they wind up? If you find out, please let me know—I have two of them!).

Son was a hybrid: “You don’t want to hold onto your blanky? You expect me to warehouse every single book you’ve ever owned?”

Why are transactions around possessions so emotion-laden? People sometimes say, “They’re only things.” True to a point, but the way we manage things is a mirror of how we manage our feelings.

RELATED: Finding Your Role After the Kids Leave Home

Think of those reality shows about hoarders. The stuff filling their homes helps them feel safe, while simultaneously filling those around them with dread and repulsion. It’s difficult to for a loved one to find the balance between taking care of the hoarder’s real need (to be protected from dying under an avalanche of possessions) versus their emotional need to retain all these possessions to manage the underlying anxiety.

In transactions about possessions with our children we can experience similar difficulties. We are trying to balance their needs and ours, trying to give them what they need, not what they want, but their needs and wants keep changing over time, as do ours.

There are many pitfalls we can fall into. We can suppress our needs and defer to theirs by never getting rid of their stuff. We can deny their needs entirely, sending their stuff off to Goodwill with no warning ahead of time, as the mother of one of my patients did. Most of us don’t go to either extreme, but the process can be hard nonetheless.

The best we can do is acknowledge the difficulty of saying goodbye to that era in our lives as mothers and the objects that represent that time, and have patience and compassion for both ourselves and our children while we work to reconfigure our relationship with them for the next era of their lives. Mothering is the only job where the job description is constantly changing.

You’re not a bad mom if you claim your child’s bedroom for yourself when they leave.

Here’s an update from our house:

Neither my son nor I enjoyed the six trips we made to the post office to send twenty-two 25-pound boxes of comics to the apartment where he will be living for the next three years. But he was very happy to be reunited with those beloved possessions on a daily basis. I gave away the threadbare blanky but kept the picture of him wearing it over his head as a reminder of those days.

Daughter #1 and I spent many hours during her recent trips home going through her closets and drawers. The negotiations went shelf by shelf at times. She discovered several lost treasures in the underbrush of that cluttered closet and took a bagful of things home with her. There are still many shelves left filled with her mementos, but each time more are freed up.

Daughter #2’s room turned into my new yoga retreat/guest room, which I love spending time in. Her closet still holds a few books, photos and other items that I couldn’t stand to give away.

RELATED: Now I Get What My Mom Went Through!

Hubbie gave up his dream of a giant bathroom with hot tub for now.

Remember ... you're not a bad mom if you claim your child's bedroom for yourself when they leave. You're also not a bad mom if you leave their room as is, as long as you like it that way. However, you may be a bad mom to yourself if you spend your money renting a storage unit for your children's belongings. Remember, no good deed goes unpunished. And finally, remember when Bill Clinton said, "It's the economy, stupid!" In this case, "It's the feelings!" that really count, not the stuff.

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