The new year has begun. Time to clear out the old to make way for the new. But while sorting through a cupboard, you come across your son's old baby clothes. You stop, take down the box and pull out a newborn's vest. It's tiny. You can hardly believe he was once so small. How on earth can you throw this away? Back in the box it goes. "I'll sort it out another time," you tell yourself.
Parting with baby gear can be a key moment in a mother's life. It means accepting that the children are growing up and moving on and, for the mother, admitting that perhaps the defining period of her life, the childbearing years, is over. For some, this can be a very difficult, emotional event. For others it is simply a practical task - throwing away obsolete toys and sterilisers, making room for Game Boys and tennis rackets.
Lina Grizi, who has two daughters aged seven and four, has been selective about what she has kept since her children were born. She bought each girl a big box and has filled it with what she calls "small memories". As Grizi explains, "I put in each box every first thing they had: their first clothes they wore in the hospital, and at Christmas. Their first shoes, pacifiers, birthday cards, that sort of thing." She even kept a tiny newborn nappy - "an unused one! Just to remember the size they once were". The boxes provide her with lovely memories. "All these little things are very dear to me. Pictures are not enough."
If she had another child, Grizi says she would buy everything new. "The baby stuff I had would be over eight years old, and things change so much, I would prefer to buy them new. Plus, I might have a boy, and he would need different things." She gave most of her baby kit to friends, the Red Crescent and to a charity working with orphans in her native Lebanon. Like Grizi, Lizzie Tricks, mother to George, 13, and Lydia, four, is phlegmatic about getting rid of her baby kit. "Storage space in Abu Dhabi is a real issue. For a start, I have no attic, so I had to clear out George's baby things," she says. "It was hard to give things away, but it's bad enough finding room for suitcases, let alone bags of baby clothes." She gave away clothes and toys to her sister and to friends.
Happily, some of those toys and clothes came back to Tricks when she had Lydia. "Children's clothes don't get much use as they grow so quickly, so the clothes were all still in good condition." Tricks has sold a few things at tabletop sales. "It works well. I sell the things they no longer need and then put the money I raise towards the equipment they need for the next stage." Lizzie bought two Omani chests to use as keepsake boxes for George and Lydia. "They can take the chests with them when they leave home. What they do with them then is their decision. Perhaps they'll show them to their children." Every now and then she will go through the chests and pare down the things she has saved. "George loves going through his. He gets a real kick from remembering things from when he was little."
Some of us are natural hoarders, and find the idea of throwing baby stuff away too traumatic: we are not ready to cut that metaphorical umbilical cord. Lindsey Herse, whose two boys are aged nine and seven, admits as much. As well as the hospital wristbands and paper tape used to measure their heads at birth, Herse still has the boys' pram, cot, highchair and most of their clothes. "Part of it was thinking that we might have another, so we kept it. But even now that we know we're not going to have any more children, I just can't throw anything away." Herse did have one attempt to clear out the cupboards in Australia, before they moved to the UAE just over two years ago, but some things were just too full of sentimental value to part with. "I got rid of some stuff at a garage sale, but when people started looking at the toys, I had to sneak some of them off." There are positives to being a hoarder though, as Herse points out. "Having the baby car seat has been very useful when my little niece came to stay."
Admittedly, Herse's clearing out is on hold as most of the baby kit is now in storage in Australia, but her youngest boy was already five years old when she put it in storage to begin with. "I'm not very good at the different stages," admits Herse. "I do find it difficult letting go of their younger years." Tangible objects can sometimes have more powerful recall effects than photos. "I haven't got a great memory, so these things are really special," Herse says. "I look at a T-shirt one of the boys had and clearly remember him at that age."
Moving on and letting go can be hard, but getting rid of a cupboard full of old toys, or passing on a steriliser really shouldn't be laden with too much significance, argues Romaine Lowery, the author of The Clutter Clinic: Organise Your Home in 7 Days. Lowery has had several years of experience of going into people's homes to help them de-clutter. "I point out the difference to my clients between saving items such as the odd piece of clothing or a christening gift, which have sentimental value, and other items to which they have attached sentimental value but really shouldn't, like a car seat."
Lowery encourages her clients to put all of their baby equipment into one pile. "This way, people see what they have been squirrelling away, under the bed, in cupboards, in the garage." Once people see the sheer volume of baby stuff they have saved, it shocks them into action. "A lot of people put off making the decision to throw things away, or don't want to make a decision on their own." Lowery has noted that many mothers need to have her there to validate what they are doing. "Some women want permission to get rid of things so they don't feel they are bad mothers. They ask me, 'Am I heartless if I get rid of this?' I say, "Do you really think that when your child is 12 and you drag out their plastic baby bath, they are going to say, 'I'm so glad you kept this'?"
Having put all the kit in one place, Lowery encourages her clients to select the items of real sentimental value - "the things you would run into a burning house to save" and put them in a lidded box. "This way, you look after the best things properly rather than stuffing them under the bed." Lowery also arrives with several big plastic sacks - one to fill with things to throw away, one to give to that relative who has just had a baby and one to give to charity. "Larger items they can sell and use the money to buy the children one thing they really need." But she warns that holding onto things for too long will diminish their resale value. Romaine takes away the plastic sacks the same day. "Clients make the decision to clear it out. They follow through and it's done."
Significantly, Lowery emphasises what a positive experience clearing out the baby stuff can be. "It's completely positive," says Lowery. "You de-clutter and reorganise, then look at your new space. It's a very cathartic experience." There is also the positive aspect of giving helpful things to new mothers and to charities. As Lowery sums up: "Get it out of your life and let it be useful for someone else."