Purging the Kid Clutter? Save a Few Treasures for Empty-Nest Nostalgia

Kristin Van de Water
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Last weekend, I opened my entryway closet to find a doll stroller wresting the hula hoop, a jump rope strangling the tennis racquets and a jumble of scooters knocking the vacuum over directly into my shin.

And that was my seasonal cue to purge. Out went the neglected badminton racquets, neon green plastic baseball bat and outgrown balance bike. And in swept the bliss I find in freeing up space.

My default is to shed toys, clothes and art projects the moment they become irrelevant. I eagerly donate, toss or pass them along to a neighbor or cousin to make room for the next hobby my kids adopt. And, frankly, every single thing I get rid of, is one less item I need to manage.

It’s exhausting to constantly pick up pipe cleaners and toothpicks before someone’s barefoot gets stabbed. I detest tripping over dolls, slipping on marbles, and peeling Elmer’s glue off the windowsill from a drying popsicle stick creation. It’s frustrating to wage war against Rubik’s cubes monopolizing the end table, Scotch tape clinging to the coffee table, and the collection of apparently important twigs that have made their home on our kitchen table.

Yet I wonder whether, in wishing away the physical inconveniences of apartment living with four kids underfoot, I am speeding too eagerly toward the tidiness—but also loneliness—that may mark the next stage of my life journey. I fear that I will miss the clutter of childhood when my children are grown. In that case, I wouldn’t trade our happy chaos for the world.

Now I’m grappling with whether it’s worth holding on to items my kids have physically or developmentally outgrown but may find joy in rediscovering as parents themselves. But signing up to store something for several decades is a big deal when you live in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. With space at such a premium, what I choose to keep must be worth the square footage it occupies, either for its sentimentality or practicality.

I awoke last night to use the restroom and glanced around the living room, frosted by the glow of city lights. We had tidied up before bedtime, so the scene lacked the tell-tale signs of children. My daughter’s cardboard sword from a wrapping paper tube had been tucked away in the dress-up cabinet. Sequined backpacks were nestled into their cubbies out of sight. Stuffed animals were squished into their basket under the bunkbed. Looking around in the darkness, you wouldn’t know this was home to our family of six.

I groggily flashed forward to what my apartment might look and feel like 20 years from now. Peaceful, organized, clutter-free—yet perhaps eerily so. In a moment of boredom or loneliness, will I look back and recall our stuff-filled rooms with nostalgia?

As I struggle to balance out my love of decluttering with a desire to keep what’s worth holding on to, I learn from the examples set by my parents and in-laws.

My mom kept many timeless toys from childhood that I loved seeing her unveil for my kids. Indestructible DUPLO bricks in a big blue bucket. Playmobil. Battleship. My American Girl doll Samantha. Chinese Checkers. Barbies from her own childhood. A matching game. Wooden shapes. Travel games that kept our little minds and bodies occupied on countless plane rides to see my grandparents. This makes me want to be able to pull a similar treasure trove out of a closet to share with my future grandkids.

However, I do realize that whatever cherished playthings I decide merit a few square feet of storage space may not ultimately hold the same special status for the next generation. Let’s just say my kids didn’t shed a tear when they accidentally decapitated Grandma’s vintage Barbie. They were more focused on squeezing as many Beanie Boos as possible into Barbie’s speedboat. And while the Playmobil kids with their click-on backpacks and stackable bunk beds provided a few moments of fun, that certainly hasn’t rivaled the endless hours my girls have spent playing make-believe with their Hatchimals or setting up a doll house full of Calico Critters.

As for my in-laws, what brought my kids delight during visits with them was the simplest household odds and ends—a plastic Santa, vases filled with fake flowers, clip-on earrings, a window screen, Kermit the frog, an old cosmetic case, and musty pillows that transformed an empty basement area into their playroom.

They didn’t require shelves of toys to make those trips meaningful. My son just needed a coloring book to spend pleasant hours working his way through while hanging out on the couch with Grandpa. My daughters simply needed Grandma to whip out her recipe card and ancient cookware so they could make a polka-dotted cake together. Their joy continued as they raided Grandpa’s ice cream stash in the freezer and devoured their sticky sweets on the front patio.

I hope to become of mix of these grandparent examples. I want to keep some treasures so I can show my descendants a bit of what childhood was like for their parents and me. But I don’t need a basement or attic packed with playthings. Photos, stories and a bookshelf stocked with my favorite puzzles, board games and art supplies will suffice.

In fact, what I most look forward to sharing with the next generation is the joy I have found in daily life. Creativity through writing, dancing and cooking; learning through museums, reading and conversations and experiencing beauty through nature, music and relationships.

These sources of joy require little to no storage space. Plus, sharing these pleasures with others sounds like the perfect way to usher in, rather than dread, this next stage of life.

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Kristin Van de Water
Tinybeans Voices Contributor

Kristin Van de Water is a former journalist and teacher who relies on humor, faith, and her mom crew to get her through the day. Raising four kids in a two-bedroom NYC apartment, Kristin is always on the lookout for life hacks to save time, space, money, and her sanity.

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