Like most Americans, I feel like I am constantly fighting the clutter in my home. From stacks of papers and magazines to the kids’ outgrown clothes and toys, there is a never-ending pile. Finding the time to go through the items and properly recycle, trash, donate or sell each one takes time, which is always in short supply. I’ve tried many times over the years to attack the clutter, but I would always give up after getting rid of just a few things.
I forced myself to get rid of one item a day for 40 days
One day, after tripping over a stuffed box in the playroom followed by almost being buried alive in an avalanche of stuff when I opened the hall closet door, I’d had enough. I created a challenge for myself to give away one object a day for 40 days. I decided I would donate everything I decluttered instead of trying to sell items online because in the past, pricing, posting and following up on sales had become such a hassle that I’d quit. Forcing myself to gift an item a day for 40 days gave me both a structure and a time limit.
At first it was easy. I culled books and magazines, threw away broken toys and recycled papers. Clearing away that layer energized me—I was making visible headway. But then I unearthed an embarrassing number of new items I had purchased with the intention of using, yet were still in their original boxes. Like a set of stoneware gingerbread house molds and fancy chip bowls that I never got down from the high shelf. Surely I would use these eventually, I thought, and if not, shouldn’t I sell them to recoup the money spent?
Our budget was perpetually tight and yet I’d bought things I clearly didn’t need. Plus, I wanted to be the mom who baked gingerbread houses from scratch for her children to decorate. I wanted to be the hostess who used matching chip bowls. But I kept to my self-imposed challenge, dusted off the boxes and gave them away.
Do you throw away unused wedding gifts?
I hit another snag when I found some lovely glass bowls, picture frames and crystal candlesticks we’d gotten for our wedding 20 years before. It felt wrong to give those away, but our current lifestyle, with three kids and a dog, definitely didn’t mesh with crystal. We weren’t that double income, no kids couple anymore. I took a deep breath and gave those away too.
It wasn’t until I delved into the playroom, around day 21, that I really hit a wall.
We had a dress-up corner in our playroom, which contained a variety of costumes as well as hats, shoes and jewelry. I knew I needed to attack that mountain next. I figured it would be arduous, but I wasn’t expecting the wave of nostalgia that hit me. As I sorted through knight and superhero costumes along with fairy wings and sparkling dresses, I was flooded with memories.
Getting rid of my kids’ old toys and costumes was really difficult
I remembered my son as a preschooler, who once wore a Spiderman costume daily for months, even to church. And my girls traipsing through the house with playmates, dressed as animals, witches or fairies.
I sat on the floor, surrounded by mounds of child-sized costumes, though my children were all teens. I knew it was ridiculous to hang onto things that would never fit my kids again, but the strength of my resistance to letting these go was intense.
I finally forced myself to cull all of the costumes that no longer fit and posted them on Buy Nothing. Next came the play kitchen and play food. My children had spent hours playing restaurant, serving me and my husband “dinner.” My son would dress in an apron, don a chef’s cap, and then busily bake pretend cookies and cakes.
Some of my kids’ things brought a rush of memories
I had no problem giving away the play kitchen, but the Melissa and Doug-brand play food stopped me. By that point I was mentally drained, so I just put it away and returned to gifting items that were less emotionally loaded.
A few days later I came across a post in Buy Nothing. A woman wrote that she was a teacher in Africa, and while she was home seeing her family, she was looking for specific items to take back to her classroom overseas. On her wish list were Melissa and Doug-brand toys. Specifically play food.
I couldn’t ignore that message. Before I could change my mind, I quickly boxed up all of the play food and dropped it off at her house.
I cried all the way home.
Giving away these toys meant this stage of my life was over. Never again would I choose an entrée from a restaurant menu written on construction paper in a child’s misspelled, uneven lettering. Or look across the dinner table to see a kid dressed as a superhero or wearing a tiara.
There is something about being invited into a child’s world of make-believe that is precious. My kids had their own worlds now, populated by their peers. My children are still very creative, but I’m on the outside now, as an observer and encourager instead of a playmate.
Giving away my kids things felt like closing the door on a chapter in my life
Though this is how it’s meant to be, it felt like a door closing.
Although I may not be sitting on the floor pretending to eat play cookies anymore, I’m still on the sidelines, cheering, as they continue on their chosen paths. I’m there every time I watch my grown actress daughter perform in a play, or when my middle child shows me videos of the new trick she learned in acrobatics class.
My now 15-year-old son still says “Mom, watch!” when he learns something new in martial arts.
In those moments, the door cracks open.
Some of the people to whom I gifted costumes sent me pictures of their kids dressed up. The teacher in Africa sent pictures, too. Seeing the next generation using our playthings warmed my heart.
Our wide-open playroom now had room for the guitars, yoga mats and sports equipment of the teenage years. By letting go of the past, I created space for the future.
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