The Emotion I Didn’t Expect When Downsizing

John Maeda said, “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.”  For anyone who has experienced downsizing to a smaller home in the hope of replacing real estate with freedom and adventure, you know that the act of simplifying is not synonymous with simplicity.  Culling years or decades worth of belongings is both physically and mentally draining.  Most of us have spent our lives accumulating “things” that we may not want to part with for many reasons…those things have memories attached, they are worth money, they might be useful in the future, they were given to us as gifts, or they were passed down from previous generations. 

The process of moving into a smaller space is often laden with complicated emotions…sadness, excitement, anxiety, anticipation, and overwhelm.  But for empty nesters whose adult children once lived in the home they are leaving, there may be another unexpected emotion that presents itself.  This feeling has certainly reared its ugly head for me during the course of my husband’s and my decision to downsize.  The emotion I am referring to:  GUILT

Asking ourselves to drastically pare our possessions down is one thing, but asking others to do so feels selfish.  After all, we are the ones reaping the rewards of moving to our personally-chosen, if much smaller, new home.  Our children, who currently have little storage space and/or are not permanently situated, are expected to whittle the treasures they have left at home down to miniscule proportions or, worse yet, remove them entirely with no tangible benefit to themselves.  Every bit as difficult is the vast collection of memories they have from the years spent in this house.  It feels so wrong to walk away from all of that history.

And what about all of the future holidays and family gatherings – the ones we dreamed of, when they would return home with their kids and pets in tow, spreading through the house in love and laughter?  There will be no room in the small new place to accommodate large dinners, let alone overnight guests!  Are we squeezing our own family out, and will we ultimately regret the move and the lifestyle we are so looking forward to?  These are the really difficult questions we keep asking ourselves and each other, even as we excitedly select cabinets and appliances for our new digs and tag our furniture for sale.  But we made a commitment and, for better or worse, we are ready to plunge forward into a fresh start.

Zig Ziglar said, “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.  The best is yet to come.”  There are so many relevant reasons for empty nesters to consider downsizing.  The practicality of simplifying life with less space to maintain and fewer expenses is obvious.  And while young adult children may not necessarily be able to appreciate it at the time, the burden of deciding what to do with so many obsolete possessions has been lifted from them in the future.  How many of us have had to disperse years worth of our parents’ hoarded inventories?  It’s heart-wrenching, not to mention a real inconvenience.

Don’t we deserve to be autonomously happy after all those years of sacrificing our own needs and desires for those of our children?  Our priorities change when the kids move away and begin lives of their own.  We’ve endured the pangs of watching them leave the nest, and we’ve adjusted our heart-space accordingly.  So should we still feel guilty about disrupting the original family vision? 

The honest answer is “no.”  It’s time for us to spread our own wings once again, to rediscover what lights us up as a couple and as individuals.  We can create new family traditions.  Maybe we’ll be a nomadic family, celebrating Christmas at one of the kids’ houses.  When we have grandkids, we can invite them exclusively (no parents allowed) for intensive weeks of full-blown spoiling. 

“It will all work out,” we keep telling ourselves.  But we’re still parents, and the guilt lingers…

15 thoughts on “The Emotion I Didn’t Expect When Downsizing

  1. This is absolutely wonderful. Very honest, very true. What a great piece to write. My husband and I are in the same place, in the thinking/planning/considering stage.

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    1. Thank you Anne. We will be moving later this spring from our four-bedroom family home to a very small condo downtown. We’re really excited, but there are also a lot of bittersweet and heavy emotions surfacing in the process. Good luck with your decision-making! Let’s keep each other posted on our progress!

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  2. What an interesting point – I wouldn’t have guessed but on second thought it figures – the minute we become parents guilt seems to nestle in 🙈 but like you say the only way is to look ahead at the benefits downsizing will bring for you and for your kids and grankids – one of my my best family experiences is when we celebrated Christmas in a desolate hotel with a closed restaurant in a ghost town – my sister saved the day and drew a xmas tree on the mirror and all 5 of us huddled on her bed singing carols and laughing – and I’m sure your new place is a lot nicer than that room 😂 Great post thank you

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    1. What a sweet story of your memory of Christmas in a hotel. The holidays are what we make them, right? And you hit the nail on the head when you said that as soon as we become parents the guilt nestles in. Oh my, isn’t that the truth? Thanks so much for sharing your insight!

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    2. What a sweet story of your memory of Christmas in a hotel. The holidays are what we make them, right? And you hit the nail on the head when you said that as soon as we become parents the guilt nestles in. Oh my, isn’t that the truth? Thanks so much for sharing your insight! I don’t know if you received my reply yesterday, so please disregard if this is a duplicate!

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  3. We still had one in high school when we downsized to a tiny beach cottage. It was our daughter’s idea to be able to skate to the end of the lane, check the surf and get a few waves in before school. As a competitive surfer at the time, living at the beach was her dream come true.

    Now that neither of our children live in town, it’s a bit more difficult. We solved the problem of space at Christmas when we were all gathered together by going on family vacations. It was wonderful- I called it “adventures, not gifts”. We had Christmas in Mammoth, Lake Tahoe, Santa Fe, New Mexico and many many times in Kauai. But then a baby came along and our daughter wanted to start her own traditions in her own home.
    I honestly don’t think that our home would be their Christmas destination even if space wasn’t an issue. Once we had a family, my parents always came to us.

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    1. Oh, Carol, you have made me feel so much better! I have thought that when our daughter and son-in-law have their own family they will want to celebrate the holidays in their own home anyway. I know that things will work themselves out, and it really helps to know that you and your family have successfully navigated this same terrain. Thank you my friend!

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    2. Oh, Carol, you have made me feel so much better! I have thought that when our daughter and son-in-law have their own family they will want to celebrate the holidays in their own home anyway. I know that things will work themselves out, and it really helps to know that you and your family have successfully navigated this same terrain. Thank you my friend! I don’t know if you received my reply yesterday, so please disregard if this is a duplicate!

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  4. Excellent post as we are considering doing same. It seems to be harder for my husband than me. I have been considering this type of post for s long time, you did it for me . I will link to this in my next post so apropos.

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    1. You are so kind, Cindy. I didn’t discuss a lot of the feelings about leaving behind all of the memories of the kids bringing their friends here for prom photos, etc. But I guess that’s another post altogether. This is quite a journey and we are forging ahead. Thanks for commiserating with me!

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    2. You are so kind, Cindy. I didn’t discuss a lot of the feelings about leaving behind all of the memories of the kids bringing their friends here for prom photos, etc. But I guess that’s another post altogether. This is quite a journey and we are forging ahead. Thanks for commiserating with me! I don’t know if you received this reply yesterday, so please disregard if it is duplicated.

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  5. We downsized years ago and some of these same thoughts were discussed between us. The fact solidly remains that our kids to not live their lives for us and we cannot live our lives for them. We have to do the things that work for us depending on where we are in life. Keeping a larger home and more belongings (that they will never want) makes no sense when you look at life in the big picture. We are a transitory society and seem to make a home and memories wherever we tend to be, whether it is in a restaurant, hotel, our home, their home, etc. The guilt does finally subside…great post! Love and hugs!

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    1. Everything you said makes so much sense, Benita. Yes, we are truly a transitory society, and our children have already moved away from the city where we live. You and your hubby definitely have the right outlook on all of this, and it is time for all of us to enjoy exactly what we want to enjoy! I look to you as a role model in many ways 😉 Thank you, my dear friend.

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  6. Julie I have been KoniMarieing full speed and I came across this exact dilemma. I read somewhere that it is not right for our children to treat us as storage units where they can dump their stuff. If they are adults they should be able to take care of their things. Now I am not as harsh as that but I do see the value in it. I too have gone through grandparents who have hoarded way too much and been forced to deal with all the clutter and its disposal. It is better to periodically visit all your stuff and go through it then to have it accumulate to hoarder status. And yes, free up your life for new adventures.

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    1. Mary, my mother was not much of a saver so I am not one, either. My husband, however, is more sentimental than I am, and the kids tend to want to keep more than I would like to store! You are right, though…at what point do we stop being a storage facility? Obviously for us, that day is coming to an end soon. I am ready for the feelings of freedom when all of that “stuff” is out from under us, both physically and mentally. Good for you and your Koni Mari project – keep up the good work!

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