Decluttering the Nest: Helping Your Adult Children (and You!) to Move Forward
Why is it that so many adult children use their parents’ home to store all their childhood mementos? What effect does this have on them? And how does it affect the parents who allow it?
Four Adults and a Pile of Childhood Clutter
When my husband and I bought our current home in the UK, the retired couple who owned it wanted a quick sale, we wanted a quick purchase, and the legal boffins assured us that it could all be completed within three weeks at the most.
The only thing that slowed the process down was the time needed for the couple’s adult children, who had long since left home, to visit and sort through all the childhood belongings they had left in the house. That added another three long weeks to the process.
There we all were, four adults wanting to complete our business, being held up by boxes of childhood keepsakes that it turned out the children mostly didn’t even want. They came, they sorted, threw most of it out, and finally we could all proceed.
“Why on Earth Would I Want That?”
An interesting aspect of this was how shocked the parents were at how few things the children actually wanted. For years they had provided a rent-free storage facility for all these items, only to discover there had been very little point.
They gave us some examples.
“Don’t you want this photo of the two of us on the day we dropped you off to begin university?” the mother asked the daughter.
“Why on earth would I want that?” the daughter replied, and tossed it in the bin.
“What about this beautiful horse saddle?”
“No, of course not. It’s way too small for me, and I don’t have time for riding now anyway.”
And so it continued until the attic, the garage, and the children’s bedrooms were empty.
Maybe It’s Time to Declutter the Nest
We’ve all heard of empty nest syndrome, when children leave home and parents are left to themselves. The adjustment is especially hard for women who have put their own pursuits on the back burner for so long to make taking care of their children their primary focus.
However, as the American humourist, Erma Bombeck, once said, “When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth, or even the bottle of capless shampoo dribbling down the shower drain. They’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator.”
They wake up one morning and discover they are left to live their own life and are no longer sure how to do that. Motherhood has been so central to their identity that without it, they no longer feel useful or have a clear purpose of their own.
Curating a Museum of Mementos
Some mothers genuinely welcome their offspring flying the nest. They congratulate themselves on a job well done and enthusiastically embrace the next phase of their life.
But for those who find the transition more challenging, there is a much greater likelihood they will try to assuage empty nest feelings by allowing them to leave some or all of their childhood possessions at home.
This can start out quite innocently. The son or daughter goes travelling, goes to university, or gets an apartment that’s too small for all their stuff, so the things they don’t use or need on a daily basis get left behind. But weeks turn into months, and months turn into years, and before you know it you’ve become the curator of a museum of mementos.
It may bring you some comfort to maintain the connection to your offspring in this way, and you may think you are helping by keeping all their stuff. But if it drags on too long, you need to consider the effect it can have on both you and them.
Avoiding Stagnant Energy
Stagnant energy always accumulates around anything stored for a long period of time, including things you are keeping for others. In my book, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, I explain that different areas of your home relate to different aspects of your life, such as health, relationships, prosperity, and so on.
Even with the best of intentions, items permanently stored in one area will stagnate the energy of that part of your home and will have a corresponding effect on that aspect of your life. It can make you feel like parts of you are on hold.
In the story at the beginning of this article, it turned out that it was mostly the parents who had held on to things, not the children. By keeping all the items, they felt able to hold on to fond memories of when the children were young.
But the children themselves had moved on. They were living their own lives and didn’t need those reminders. Letting the items go not only freed them to live more fully in the now, but also freed their parents to do likewise.
Overcoming Cluttered Nest Syndrome
Of course not all adult children are like this. Some do hold on. Childhood items can remain for decades in the old family home, never used or looked at but comfortingly “there.” They are like a place marker, giving the reassurance of somewhere they can return to if life does not treat them well.
But this can give a false sense of security that prevents them from becoming all they can be. It can also hold them back because part of their consciousness will be resting somewhere else. And when you die, as you eventually will, they will have to sort through not just your possessions, but their own things too. It will multiply the number of decisions that need to be made at an already difficult time.
Far better you take a proactive approach to make them self-sufficient by using some of my suggestions to overcome cluttered nest syndrome. This will help you to reclaim your own life and help your children to move forward with theirs too.
Do your adult children still have childhood mementos in your home? How long has this been going on, and how much longer will you allow it? For others, how have you encouraged adult children to claim their mementos? What secrets can you share for decluttering the nest? Please join the conversation.