Ecstatic Empty Nester
Hi. Here's what I am wondering. How soon after your final child leaves his room and moves into the dorm can I (with good conscience) redo his pigpen and make it a room of my own? Thank you.
Now, now, don’t cry. Let me get you some tissues.
This one is a little hard for me to answer, because, I’ll be honest, I don’t identify with this sentiment, or lack of, right off the bat. It might take me a minute to empathize with the impulse to clear out evidence of your offspring. Ok, the empathy is coming… I’m starting to get the feeling that you need this space, otherwise why would you try to do a takeover of the room when it sounds like his bed is still warm?
Usually, the empty-nester questions come a bit after college, way past the first move-out date, and are along the lines of “When should I finally get over the fact that he/she has flown the nest?” Or, “How can I enjoy this time of my life? Take back the spaces of my life that have been occupied by motherhood all these years?”
Your desire to immediately repossess the real estate in your home indicates either A.) you have ice running through your veins, or B.) you are a mothering model of superior mental health, who is acting from the insight that we raise children in order to set them free. I’m going with the very positive latter choice, B., since there are numerous clues in your question that you have been an exemplary parent and have nothing more than healthy boundaries you’d like to expand, and a self you would like to nurture.
Clues that your inclination to redecorate is rooted in good intentions:
The urgent tone of your question hints at exhaustion.
I noticed you said “final child.” So this last child was not the first rodeo clown you’ve housed and presumably fed. Well done. You've been parenting for at least for 19 years, probably a lot longer. All of the tired mothers reading this are now applauding your fellow-devotion to things that are needier, smellier and less wise than yourself.
Another clue that you have a beating heart is your description of your son's room as a “pigpen.” The fact that you have a pigpen to deal with is proof that... you let your son have one. And you know what teenagers desperately need? Agency. Rights. Territory. Compassion. By allowing your teenage son to have his presumably-undisturbed pigpen, you invariably let him nest in the way he felt comfortable. I’m going to make the leap that he must have felt at home, which is not the way many teens end up feeling in households where every single room is surveyed to be up-to-code by one or both parents. Many teenagers have to craft an underground individuality that stays under the radar and doesn’t interact with the tufted headboard or Farrow and Ball walls. So hats off to you for picking your battles, holding your nose and keeping the door closed. I’m presuming a lot here, as I’m sure there were more than a few mandates to deal with the chaos of his room over the years, but I'm choosing to imagine you more like Maria von Trapp, less like Baroness Schraeder.
There are two other indications you are not a merciless monster. You used the word “conscience,” and you concluded with “thank you.” You have principles and manners.
I feel pretty good about signing off on the acquisition go-ahead, to welcome his wayward room into the rest of your house-family, and make it friendly territory for yourself as well. I do have a few thoughts, to help ensure your disinfecting and decorating doesn’t shock your son with the surprise of having his precious corner of “home” taken away:
Please be sure and talk to your son about this potential conversion first, so he doesn’t come home for Thanksgiving and feel like his past has been erased. You have no idea what is meaningful to him in his dump of a room- what looks like a piece of old string could be a treasure about which you know nothing. The lone threadbare sock could be a lucky sock. The empty Coke can that has been roosting next to the dusty cigar box labeled “NO!”- the box you had the decency to never open- is possibly the can that Chloe left behind after their first--. He could be a jock who’s a sentimental, hoarding poet, or a poet who’s too lazy and preoccupied with art to deal with cleaning. I have no idea. Just do a thorough phone survey with him before you go in with a garbage picker, stick, and bag. Please.
If you want him to feel like he’s "home" when he’s home, then perhaps don’t completely erase his existence from the four walls. (I’m assuming he’s going to come back for holidays…) Maybe you can do some major organizing that consolidates much of the visual noise neatly into a closet. And keep out on his dresser or shelves only the things that you like to look at, objects that are warm reminders of his time at home.
I would end the decorating discussion with your son by thoroughly emphasizing some positive reasons why it’s an excellent time to makeover his room- this reasoning can have to do with both Your Needs and His Future. One vote of confidence for his future-self would be you envisioning him as such a success and so ready for adulthood that you can’t imagine he would ever want to live at home again. Another pro-adulting angle is that you wish for his room to be a place where he would be comfortable having a “special friend” come to stay one day as a guest… that’s a vote of confidence for his future love life. Anyway, you didn’t ask how to frame the conversation, but I tend to sprinkle some unsolicited into every dish of solicited advice I bake. No extra charge.
For most rooms, be it an office or guest room, you can easily turn a bed into more of a “daybed” by turning it sideways, and adding loads of back pillows and round bolsters. This will de-emphasize the sadness of a grown teen’s empty bed, turning it into something you may want to flop on and do some napping or laptopping. New bedding and throw pillows would make all of the difference in this makeover. And your son gets to enjoy an elevated thread count and a sofa-like lounge experience when he visits on vacations.
If the conversation you have with your son goes well, and he completely understands that your desire to Lysol and light his cave is so you can have some much-needed space, then start the transformation as soon as you hang up the phone with him. Godspeed.
The bottom line is that it’s your house. It’s perfectly ok to establish and update they way you live with all occupants, even family members. Just communicate your needs, and listen to their needs, so you don't cause unintended upset- children of all ages are very attached to their homes. Even adult children. Just be sensitive and talk about your ideas and plans first.
And when you find the right compromise and solution to your room redo...
Congratulations! You will officially no longer be a slumlord. You will be a much more elegant hotelier.
Aubrey Thorne is an interior designer, feng shui consultant, and astrologer in Los Angeles. She works with clients all over, both in-person and online. Feel free to contact Aubrey to ask a question or to schedule a consultation.