Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How to Stop Grieving Your Kids' Childhoods

I found some Legos in a closet a couple of weeks ago. We're integrating households and it seems all T and I have done for the past three or four months is clean out closets and put items out at the curb.  A little over a year ago, my firstborn, at sixteen and with a newly-minted driver's license, decided quite abruptly (or so it seemed to me) that she wanted to live full-time with her father and stepmother. Cleaning out her room took me six months to work up to--her brother had been squatting there for quite some time and I realized I needed to get past the hand-me-down phase--and one evening when I was alone in the house with the dog and the cat I took a box of tissues in there and sorted through the closet.

She'd taken all she wanted. What was left were items from phases of her childhood she had discarded like a hermit crab with shells she'd outgrown.  Soccer trophies, an American Girl Doll, and a homemade bulletin board with photos from her sixth-grade science trip, which included photos of her with a dolphin. There were former favorite t-shirts she'd outgrown, and essays she'd written in elementary school. At this point, I felt rather tossed upon this particular pile, so the exercise took pretty much the whole stash of Kleenex.

My beloved has many wonderful qualities, among them good taste in furniture, or at least compatible with mine, and fortunately for him I don't have a passion for chintz. We've had no When Harry Met Sally wagon-wheel table moments, and he's helped me manage a transition towards living as a couple and letting go of our house as a shrine to my kids' childhood, though he always checks before we throw. The man organizes my utility closet and my garage. Sometimes I can't quite believe my luck.

This transition must be hard for every parent contemplating an empty nest, but I grieve it particularly because my children have been living between two homes for the better part of a decade. Every favored stuffed animal or once-coveted piece of plastic I unearth reminds me I've been saying goodbye to my kids every other Monday for as long as they can remember. What did they have at their other house? Early on, they decided to leave things in each of their homes.  How did they feel when they came back to half-familiar surroundings every week? 

We put the family heirloom girly bed in the storage shed and T moved a nice California King from his San Francisco house into the boy's room; the child sleeps like the dead and he and his friends enjoy the new, big couch and the larger television now in the family room. On weekends when they are all hanging around, we have our kitchen and civilized living room where we can eat and read and stand sentry until the boys, relishing their own space, finally come in to forage for more food and water. 

As for the Legos and bulletin boards, the very few things that are particularly memorable to me have gone in boxes, no doubt to be moved around in my households of the future until the kids have to pack me off the nursing home. If the kids left the rest without a look back, it means they won't miss it later. I personally have a box of school awards and yearbooks that mean not a thing to me, but I will keep them because packing them up made my parents cry.

In the end, it's just stuff.  Until recently, I thought of myself as a keen thrower, but this latest stage has given me an understanding of wanting to hold onto the past. Then I remember the peanut butter-smeared outfits, the innumerable soccer games, the grocery store meltdowns, the focus on avoiding broken limbs at the playground and the parking lot, and it all makes me exhausted and I'm amazed all involved lived through it. Now all we have to consider is driving, college sex, drinking, drugs and post-education employment.  No wonder I am nostalgic.

These days, I see our daughter fairly often, but even though she lives blocks away it feels like she's already gone off to college, which she's planning to do next fall. She blows in and out without notice, full of news and excited about her future, working and studying and getting ready for her new adventure. I miss seeing her every other week, but now delight in every moment of her company. In some ways, we may be closer than if we had to live in the same house. Her brother is gearing up for high school and we love it when he and his posse descend upon us.

Our family was blessed in the early years with a wonderful caregiver whose kids were nearly out of school by the time she started watching ours after school.  She is among the most devoted mothers I know. One day she said to me, "I'd do it all over again." In the middle of the fray, I know I looked at her like she was crazy.  A few weeks ago, her comments came back to me as I felt the pull of nostalgia. Would I do it all over, even with what I know now? There are new adventures ahead for them and for me. I'll just keep the sweet moments in my heart.  

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, Sue. Letting go is hard, and have a box of keepsakes for each of my kids in the attic. Do they want them? I don't know. They'll find out when they have to clean the attic. But me? I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. In a small way, I am doing that.