In the bottom of my nine-year-old son’s chest of drawers nestles a tiny pair of newborn-size bootees.
He doesn’t need them, of course – not now he’s nine-going-on-19 and wearing a size five. But they’re there, nonetheless. Dusty and ancient-looking.
In my daughter’s room, beneath the pile of her dressing up clothes, sits a bag of old babygrows. One is a reindeer outfit from her first Christmas with an impossibly small pair of scratch mitts that look more suited to a kitten.
My children will never need these things again. None of my family is my pregnant or in need of hand-me-down baby clothes.
Yet I hoard them, because I simply can’t let them go.
I’m of the view that I’m trying to freeze time. That there’s some deep, inner fear that believes if I discard these things, I’m saying goodbye to my children as babies.
The babyhood mementos get stranger. My fingers will occasionally brush against my son’s first milk tooth, blood and gore still attached, as I reach into my jewellery box for a necklace.
My husband thinks I’m mad. “Why on earth do you hang on to these things?” he asks, adding with a shudder: “Especially that vile, blood-stained tooth!”
“I don’t know,” I answer.
It doesn’t end there. I’ve got finger-paint creations by the sack-load stashed away, collages made from fragments of wool, Easter baskets complete with eggs made at nursery school. There’s even a tin containing a solitary biscuit baked by my son at the age of six, now sporting some fetching decorative mould. Then there are the two hospital-issue ankle bands from my children’s births.
When I showed my son his tooth, he recoiled and jumped across the room. “That’s absolutely disgusting!” he shrieked.
I’m not a hoarder by nature, honestly. I hate clutter and find it easy to throw out my own things. I regularly dash to the charity shop with another sack of clothes I no longer wear. Once I even lived out of a suitcase for around two years in Italy, never buying anything new. I loved the liberation – it felt like true freedom.
So why is it so hard to get rid of anything connected to the children?
Sometimes I display, proudly, the items I’ve got hidden away. When I showed my son his tooth, he recoiled and jumped across the room.
“That’s absolutely disgusting!” he shrieked. “But it’s your tooth!” I retorted, indignantly. “Chuck it,” he said as he ran away.
My daughter, on the other hand, likes the fact I keep her babygrows and first dress-up outfits. She often tries – in vain – to fit into them again.
I’ll find a tiny pair of socks, or a touch-and-feel baby book, and I’m lost. I stop what I’m doing and start to reminisce.
On my cooler-headed, sensible days, I tell myself it’s time to clear the house of these pointless items. I’ll grab a few refuse sacks, march upstairs and vow to get cracking. I will discard it all with heartless, cold, calculated abandon.
Then I’ll find a tiny pair of socks, or a touch-and-feel baby book, and I’m lost. I stop what I’m doing and start to reminisce. The book reminds me of their toddlerhood. We’d read and point, them sitting on my lap as I breathed in the scent of their downy little heads. Or they’d pull the socks off and crawl away, giggling, knowing I’d give chase and wriggle the tiny tubes back onto their feet.
That time has vanished, never to return.
So is it a kind of grief, a lament to the loss of those early years? Is that why it’s so hard to let go?
In a psychological study by Barbara Phillips and Trina Sego, called The Role of Identity in Disposal: Lessons from Mothers’ Disposal of Children’s Possessions, the authors distinguished between two types of mothers – ‘keepers’ and ‘discarders’.
The keepers, they concluded, found it hard to dispose of their children’s belongings because of the meaning attached to them. They would delay discarding the items for as long as possible, while the discarders felt ‘weaker ties’.
It’s official. I’m a keeper. That sounds nicer and more positive than ‘hoarder’ or, even worse, ‘slob’.
Both groups felt guilt about their decisions; the keepers because they felt pressure to be organised, and the discarders because of society’s pressure on mothers to feel attached to items that represent their child’s identity.
So, it’s official. I’m a keeper. That sounds nicer and more positive than ‘hoarder’ or, even worse, ‘slob’.
I’ve tried to throw stuff out – really I have. After all, one finger-paint creation looks much the same as the next.
But I have a niggling worry. If I throw them out, will I long to see them again when I’m older? Will I forget just how small and innocent those children once were? Is that why I cling to all those scraps of paper, tiny shoes and gory teeth? Am I trying to freeze time?
Friends’ opinions are divided.
“I throw most of my daughter’s drawings straight in the bin,” admitted one. “I only keep a few good ones.”
Another was more like me, stashing paintings, drawings, creations and clay oddities in the loft. “‘I don’t look at them and certainly wouldn’t grab them in a house fire,” she said. “It’s just habit, really.”
Is it? I’m more of the view that I’m trying to freeze time. That there’s some deep, inner fear that believes if I discard these things, I’m saying goodbye to my children as babies.
So, for now, I’ll keep hold of the bootees, babygrows, drawings and yes, that blood-covered milk tooth.
I know one day a clear-out is inevitable – who knows, maybe a future house-move will be the kick-start I need? Or maybe, one day, my son and daughter might want to show these precious souvenirs to their own children, to prove that they were once tiny too…