Why empty nests are filled with kids' stuff

At 6:30 p.m. on an autumn Thursday, Room 307 in a suburban Boston high school fills with adults. By day, this is a Spanish classroom. But tonight it's the setting for an adult education class with a noble title: "Say Goodbye to Clutter."

For the 20 women and six men gathered here, hopes run high for a more orderly home. Instructor Jane Lawson, who bills herself as the Clutter Queen, offers tips on organizing every area of the house. When she asks for questions, one woman raises her hand urgently. "My kids have a huge house, but their stuff is still in my basement," she sputters. "What can I do?"

Others in the class nod knowingly. Clearly she has struck a chord.

Call it the myth of the empty nest. Yes, the children may have left home, but the nest itself is still bulging with items they've left behind. They regard Mom and Dad's attic, basement, and garage as Storage Central - their personal domain.

As a result, any supposed midlife crisis these days doesn't necessarily center on the old question, What do I do now that the kids are gone? The new question is: What do I do with all their stuff?

It's a question Mrs. Lawson, of Peabody, Mass., hears often as she travels around the country giving classes like this one on conquering clutter.

"A good chunk of my students are people who have somebody else's stuff," she explains in a follow-up phone conversation. "Their parents passed away or moved to a small apartment, or their adult children moved out."

Homeowners dealing with their late parents' possessions often have the easier task, Lawson finds. They understand that they can't blend two households.

But their grown children's stuff? That's a bigger challenge.

This is hardly the first generation of parents to give young adults the equivalent of a free storage locker. Many of us feel a measure of sheepishness as we recall various items we left in our parents' care longer than necessary. But parents today appear to be stuck with more stuff and for longer periods of time. The reasons vary.

Children are marrying later and taking longer to get established. High housing costs force some young adults to live in small quarters with no storage space. Even their wedding gifts gather dust in their parents' homes.

One mother, whose grown children and stepchildren still regard her basement as their own, offers another theory as to why midlife parents get stuck with so much of their children's stuff: "We're too soft on them," she says simply.

To the woman in the clutter class desperate to clear out her offspring's possessions, Lawson says, "You have to set limits."

Yet she also understands the powerful tug of ownership and sentimentality. Paring down, she says, needs to be a gradual process. "If you say, 'Take it or leave it,' it's a tough call. They're not mentally prepared."

Give them a deadline, she urges. "You can give them a month, six months, or until New Year's. Anything not claimed by then will be given away. If people have no deadline, they have no perception of time."

When children come to visit, she continues, ask them to go through their stuff with you. "You say, 'What can you take home with you now?' They'll say, 'I can't. I'm flying. I have a suitcase full of stuff.' But have them take a little bit. Reduce and reduce and reduce."

My mother once summed up the larger challenge this way: "People spend the first half of their lives acquiring things, and the second half trying to pare them down."

Even if midlife parents aren't ready to downsize to smaller quarters for retirement, they dream of reclaiming space and gazing with satisfaction at an orderly attic and basement.

Success stories do exist. Friends of mine are on a mission to clean out their attic, where their grown son's possessions still languish. In addition to games, books, trophies, and clothes, their son has kept bigger items: bicycles, two bookcases full of music, a violin, a clarinet, and a grand piano that fills a room.

For several years his parents pleaded with him to sort through his possessions. Nothing happened. Recently they mentioned that he could receive a tax deduction if he donated some of these things to charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill. "That caught his attention," his mother says. "He's coming Thursday evening to sort. Moral of the story: Incentives work!"

Perhaps it's time to form a new organization, the Society to Prevent the Accumulation of Children's Excess Stuff (SPACES). Empty nesters could share tips and strategies for cleaning out the nest. As parents gather their courage, a new rallying cry to adult children could echo sweetly and insistently across the land: "Come and get it - please!"

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