We live in a small Cape. For many reasons, we bought a small house on purpose. Neither of us are big pack rats, so it was all that we needed.
Until M came along.
Before her, adequate storage was never really an issue for us because we didn’t have much to store beyond some Christmas decorations, old texts and notebooks and things like fans and humidifiers that are used only part of the year. Since we have a one-car garage that is only inches wider than our car, we also keep things like tools and painting supplies down there too. Since our kitchen is small, the back up boxes of mac ‘n cheese and canned goods reside in the basement. But since we tend to donate stuff like clothes or household goods once we realize that we’re not using them anymore, and because the mac ‘n cheese is usually in heavy rotation, we always had breathing room.
But then M came along and that put our limited storage capacity into sharper focus, especially after her first year. Our basement is partially built out, and because of how they installed the utilities over the years, it leaves us with little useable storage in the unfinished areas. M doesn’t even have a closet in her room to store things in, so we really have had to rely on the basement to store things that are no longer in active use. Things like clothes that no longer fit and toys and books that are now too young for her.
Since she was born, we’ve saved everything of hers. Everything. The idea was that someone else — cousins, friends, possible future siblings — would be able to use it again. We have enough board books to start a small library. We have multiple motorized ways to soothe a baby (except ours!) to sleep. There is a veritable stuffed animal zoo down there. There’s probably a good acre or two of pink fabric tucked in the various bins.
Thankfully, two of M’s cousins, and soon a third (!), have been able to use much of these things. And a close friend’s daughter has been keeping me connected to when M was a baby by borrowing and wearing M’s wardrobe from year to year. The reuse-reduce-recycler in me is ecstatic that these things will have had another, and in some cases, a fifth, life!
But we’re now at capacity. There is literally no more room in the basement. It is crammed from floor to ceiling. Something has to go. Many things have to go.
I think this, more than anything else, has really made our recent decision to have only M in our lives to become so real for me. So bittersweet. So hard.
Not hard in the sense that we are ambivalent about our decision to remain a family of three—we’re not; it took us some extended introspection for sure, but our decision is absolutely rock solid—but hard in the sense that I am really having to accept that M is growing up and her baby years are rapidly moving far behind us. There will be no more little feet of our making filling those PJ’s. There will be no more tiny hands of our making clutching those toys.
When the notion of another baby was still up for grabs, I think it was easy to avoid dealing with M’s growing up, mainly because there was still the possibility of at least one more baby to wear/play/use those things again. I know it’s not entirely the same when each successive sibling wears those things, but certainly it must, on some level, soften the blow about the first’s growing up somewhat. I won’t be able to test that theory now, but I think that was something going on in my own mind for the period of time when we were unsure about whether we’d have another baby. I could hold both the idea of sticking with just one simultaneously with the idea that if I missed something about M’s baby/toddlerhood, I might recoup it with another bundle later on. I wonder sometimes if that prevented me from living in the moment with M from time to time when I was tired or frustrated, that idea that oh, I’ll just remember this stuff better “the next time”.
Except, now I know for certain there’s not going to be a next time for us. All of M’s firsts, will be our lasts too. If that doesn’t make you pay attention the first time around, I don’t know what does. I sometimes wished I realized that sooner.
But that’s only half the point of this post. The other is, what do I keep? I am struggling with this. A good part of me, the practical part, thinks let’s just get rid of it all because we don’t really have the space to keep 18+ years worth of stuff, she may never even want it anyway, and there is someone out there right now who could probably really use it (after our extended family, that is). It’s just stuff, after all. We are lucky to have this stuff, and there are certainly bigger problems in the world than this stuff and where it should reside. Intuitively, I know this.
But then in the other ear I hear the sentimental part of me whispering. She’s telling me to hold on to these things so I can remember how little she was. How much she’s grown up and changed over the years. Her voice has been largely quiet these past few decades, or at least I had a better way to ignore her.
But if you could see M playing with the toys from my husband’s childhood, toys that “they just don’t make anymore”, you can see why the whisper grows into a muffled scream to “keep it!”. Indeed there have been many of my husband’s treasures from the 70’s and 80’s that periodically surface and please the grandchildren to no end.
M’s current fancy is “Tub Town“. Had we owned it, it’s the kind of toy that the practical side of me would be driving to the Goodwill store in no time once she grew out of it. Or so I thought. Because the sentimental side of me kicks in and I have to really rethink my thought process on what’s appropriate to save as a keepsake, especially when I see it is EXACTLY the kind of toy that children like to play with. She’s been borrowing it for the past few days and it was the first time that she was undressed and ready to get in the tub before we had even gotten upstairs to start running the bathwater. Her prune-y fingers played with it for 25 laughter-filled minutes. She loves that thing!
But if I am going to keep those kinds of books and toys after all, isn’t it with some sort of notion that M’s children would want to see and play with them in the future? Does that put any kind of pressure on her, implicit or otherwise? What if she doesn’t want children or end up having any? Would it be harder to give them away then than it seems to be right now? Hard to know.
Sure, I could keep them for nostalgia’s sake no matter what her child landscape looks like in a couple decades, but that would likely mean a whole different vetting process on my end. Obviously, there are certain outfits, a few books and a couple of beloved toys that are no-brainer “keepers”. But what about the rest?
There’s very little of M’s toys that I can’t argue has some sort of sentimental value making it worth keeping, either because of the amount of time that she played with it, the circumstances of how it came into her life, or because of who gave it to her. But short of buying another house, that is not plausible. Not to mention, if I am not actively thinking about these things—which I am largely not, it’s only just fresh because of us not having the room to put things in now—then would I (or M) really miss it if it was not kept long-term anyway? Likely not.
Yet there is something about having these tangible memories and connections to the past that I cannot get over sufficiently enough to move them out of our lives, at least not quickly. I think some small part of that comes from the fact that I do not have any such keepsakes left from my childhood. I did have two stuffed animals that I had kept, but they eventually got moldy and had to be pitched a year ago. I think this is where I envy my husband a bit because he has a meaningful way (at least on a pre-Kindergartener’s level) to connect his childhood with hers in a very visual, tangible way. If I had kept that Easy Bake Oven, I’d be killin’ it with M right now!
It almost seems silly that I would even contemplate keeping a mass-produced, dime a dozen pair of sneakers or plastic farm animal. Yet, when I think about M’s little life during the periods when those items were relevant, I realize it’s harder to get rid of than it should be. I think some of it is related to the process of fully embracing that she is it for us in terms of having children. So, other than us as her parents, as for what happens in our humble little house on a daily basis, she does not have another person like a brother or sister to keep the thread of her childhood intact as she gets older. I think this is somewhat what makes these tangible reminders seem particularly valuable as I sit there amongst detritus of her babyhood and toddlerdom, trying to figure out what stays, and what goes. And also because, by going through this stuff, it has become clear that I have already started to forget some things about her first few years, like when I have to ask myself “She wore this??” or when I cannot recall ever having seen before a certain stuffed animal, even though it was clearly well-gnawed on at some point.
As crazy as it sounds, a part of me feels like if I give some of it away, I am somehow giving away part of her, even though I know fundamentally that is not true. But then again, why do any of us keep anything, really, beyond what we actually need from day to day? Things like books, college T-shirts, movies or jewelry. Is our “stuff” really any different from a framed photo or shell saved from a vacation? I’d argue no: that “stuff” is nothing more than souvenirs that connect us to a time or place in the past, and often reminds us of who we are or who we were. Who am I to say what of M’s toys, books and clothes are worth keeping?
As her mother, it is also my connection to her that I am largely vetting in this process, not just her connection to those things. The relationship between me, M and her childhood ephemera is a multi-pronged relationship, while my connection to my own belongings is one dimensional. That’s why it’s far easier for me to ditch last year’s bargain sale mistakes hanging in my own closet rather than her chewed up copy of Goodnight Moon (that’s going to be a keeper).
Eventually, we’ll sort it all out, literally and figuratively. But thank goodness I only have to do this once.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
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