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To Gather and to De-clutter: A Mini-Meditation on Stuff—and Time

Diaper Aisle 3 w grayLike most people (I mean, parents actually and maybe some grandparents, too), before the first baby, I spent an awfully long time in gathering mode. We acquired everything from unfathomably tiny items of clothing (we are Jewish; we weren’t observant of the have-nothing-beforehand rituals), a crib, crib sheets, bumper, and blankets, stroller, a soft carrier, a changing table, a diaper pail, diapers and wipes, and some baby grooming items, like the smallest nail clippers known to humankind. The things, most new, were so very curious, so filled with promise and mystery, and I think, ultimately, hope.

It was a little bit like back-to-school shopping, or filling a big backpack for some Outward Bound kind of experience, except instead of a classroom or a mounting our brand-new, mind-blowing adventure would be placed in our care—and off we’d go, a family of three.

I read up on the things and looked at catalogues and wandered through stores and felt nauseated (that was the pregnancy, at least mostly) and excited and overwhelmed. As I transformed my study into a nursery I shifted identities and I dreamt and I hoped and feared and tried up front to get it “right.” I set up treasures and picture books on the shelves in the sweet, little L-shaped periwinkle room. I’d fill a baby book with memories. I’d change diapers on the changing table. I’d set the babe down in the gigantic crib.

However pretty the room was, what I’d neglected to imagine turned out to be the import of room darkening shades on the windows. I guess that sums up what turned out to be my fatal retail error: real life isn’t like a glossy picture and real babies don’t need pristine anything. They aren’t pristine creatures, after all.

I didn’t gather as much stuff for the second, less for the third and for the last I didn’t really buy a thing (although a pink bomb arrived otherwise known as hand-me-downs). If anything, after the first two, while we still had more (and more and more) stuff, the thing I found myself studying and dreaming about and trying (again and again and again) to get right was proper storage for all that stuff and all those pieces and all those clothes someone would outgrow before the next kid grew into them. Seduced by wicker bins, metal bins, wooden shelves and plastic bins with lids, nothing truly worked.

Each time we approached the return to baby-dom, I froze. The moment I came to twice, once with the third and again with the fourth was the hesitance to walk down the diaper aisle at the supermarket moment. I knew we’d need diapers; I couldn’t quite comprehend that we’d be changing all those diapers, again. I couldn’t quite face knowing that I’d care about the color or consistency of poo. I couldn’t quite own up to the tether I’d be on—between me, a baby, everything ingested and everything excreted. By the third and fourth baby, I understood that’s what the diaper aisle meant.

At the same time, I also appreciated that the diaper era doesn’t last forever and that the accoutrements that seemed all-important, from wipes warmer to onesies, can be optional. I slowed my imagined need for lots of stuff. And now that we’re beyond diapers I can attest this is true—for once and for all.

Along with all those baby things we also accrued toys and games and books and blankets and stuffed animals. I carefully chose to have on hand for my boys the range of play options, not solely “boy” toys, so by the time our daughter arrived (last), we had baby dolls and a dollhouse along with train tracks and a legion of trucks. We do have three Barbies, now—and some My Little Ponies. And more things that sparkle, but anyway that’s not the point of my story: this all leads me to the other side of all that consumption—the moment when you’re done with so much gear and so many toys. It’s very freeing to realize we’re done with train tracks and wooden blocks and (almost all) the board books. It’s fine to let go of stuffies, even some of the most-loved ones. It’s like reclamation of space that will lead us to a renewed sense of house—as fitting the space in time we inhabit now. I will not lie; the process is quite consuming. Yet, as my playroom moves from engorgement, I have reached an amazing realization; the bins and shelves work best when they are not full.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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This entry was written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

About the author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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