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