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Downsizing — The Good, The Bad and The Hopeful

How a smaller home unleashed my exciting next chapter.

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gif illustration of woman shrinking her home, downsizing
Vincent Kilbride
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Downsizing is a cliché. Moving to a smaller place comes with the well-documented emotional struggle of sorting possessions into piles of discard, donate, sell and pack. We wrestle over our kids’ adorable lumpy clay creations, our wedding china and myriad other items with sentimental pull.

Sure, I can sound detached about this in theory. But having recently moved out of our home of 35 years, I’ve been humbled. It’s been wrenching — just not in the ways I’d anticipated. Yes, getting rid of a good chunk of our stuff was initially difficult and ultimately liberating. But the real challenges were surprising.

We moved into that house in 1988. We could only afford it because the stock market had crashed the year before the seller had an accepted offer fall through, and they dropped the price considerably.

I remember being in awe that we could live in this beautiful home. My children could grow up here. I was seven months pregnant and we had a three-year-old.

Getting this beloved home ready for sale was stressful. Our realtor suggested “light staging” to lure potential buyers. All surfaces had to be cleared of family photographs and personal knickknacks. The books were removed from the bookshelves, leaving just a few to be tastefully stacked.

Many of our own things (including antiques inherited from my grandmother) were replaced by white plastic bowls and oblong jars which the realtor picked up at HomeGoods. Our bedroom curtains were taken down for a “cleaner look,” which resulted in the sun hitting my eyeballs at 5:30 a.m.

Every morning, I almost dropped my coffee on the floor, because the end table where I used to rest my mug had been moved to the basement to give the house a less cluttered look. This de-cluttering also included hiding the coffee pot, the salt and pepper shakers, the toaster and even our toothbrushes.

We cleaned constantly, trying to hide all signs of human life.

I get it — buyers need to be able to project their own lives onto a neutral space. But being in my once-familiar, now stripped-down house unmoored me. I couldn’t find things. Had I given away my gray sweater during the cleansing binge or was it in a box somewhere? My favorite spatula? A flashlight?

It felt like living in a rental with a tyrannical landlord. I missed my messy kitchen bulletin board, decorated with favorite cards, photos and cartoons. Even my cookbooks were boxed up.

Despite the upgrades and staging, potential buyers voiced a stream of objections. Our home was dismissed by young families because it didn’t have an open layout, would take too much work to renovate or “wouldn’t work for the au pair.”

Never mind that we’d put in a new kitchen (granted that was 25 years ago), updated the bathrooms and — per our realtor’s instructions — ripped out the wall-to-wall carpeting and put in finished, wood floors. The comments were the place looked “outdated."

It didn’t help that I took the criticism personally.

“You take it personally because your home is an extension of yourself,” said Dr. Patricia Jaegerman, a clinical therapist who specializes in life cycle transitions. “Our homes are a kind of expression of who we are.”

Worse, I began to identify with the house. We were both simply too old and not quite good enough. You can toss white throw pillows on a worn sofa, and it doesn’t transform the house into new construction. I can apply layers of mascara on my eyelashes, and it won’t hide my crow’s feet either.

My husband reminded me, “It’s a business transaction.” Memories don’t translate into market value. Only we could appreciate the three and a half decades of family life in those walls — where the Christmas tree was set up, how the crib was positioned so we could see it from our bedroom, the hours of play, the sibling squabbles, the sleepovers, the high school dramas (which, by the way, the carpeting helped to mute), the graduations, and so on.

Jaegerman noted that moving from one’s home evokes a host of emotions, both positive and negative. Feeling nostalgia is inevitable.

“It’s always a sense of loss because you are leaving behind a life,” she said. “Memories are often attached to places — the smells attached to the house, the sun from the window and how it reflects on the furniture. There’s a real sadness because it’s a loss of something you can’t get back.”

Finally, I realized that what was really upsetting me was accepting that this chapter of our life was over. It wasn’t the actual house I was sad about. In the end, that was simply walls, floors, windows, a furnace, a hot water heater and an oil tank.

My resentment of picky first-time buyers was misplaced. I realized they’re just looking for a nice place to raise their kids, as we did long ago. They’re just starting their family lives. They will create their own memories in our house, that will become theirs.

I may have finished one chapter, but there are plenty of others left in the book. Downsizing your home doesn’t mean downsizing your life. Our new home will be closer to our daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. It’s an area with beautiful hiking trails and historic areas to explore. There’s something exciting about the new and unknown, especially at this stage in life.

Meanwhile, I’m guided by this quote from the composer John Cage: “We carry our homes within us, which enables us to fly.”

Have any of you downsized recently? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below. 

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