Childhood Home loss: how can I help make it better?

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It’s time for another edition of our newest advice posts: “Ask Dootsie!”

Goodbye childhood home. (Photo by: woodleywonderworksCC BY 2.0)
My fiance and I just moved into our own apartment and I am elated. We have, in our almost seven years together, never had our own place before.

But my fiance is having a hard time dealing with the move, as the house we just moved out of was the one he was literally born in — his father built it with his own two hands. My fiance lived there for 23 years, and is having complicated feelings of, “That’s my childhood home, I can’t ever go back there.”

The house is just 15 minutes away from our apartment, and I’ve tried to assuage his fears with suggestions of weekly dinner with his Dad, but I have no real comprehension of the loss he is feeling as I lived in six different houses before I was six years old, and have moved throughout my life.

Can anyone help with suggestions of how to make him feel welcome and happy in our new home, and not feel like he just lost his entire childhood? -Aimee

I’m intensely nostalgic about my childhood home and possessions. Like your fiance, I lived in the same spot until I left for college. It still takes a little bit of an adjustment period for me to feel at home in a new space — but eventually, it always happens. I suspect this will be the case for your fiance. Once he gets settled into the daily routine of living in your apartment together, he’ll grow to know it as his home.

I find it helpful to welcome people into a home by making use of their unique talents…

Let him contribute to your new apartment in a big, meaningful way that will give him pride in the space and let him know it belongs to you both now. Perhaps choose paint colours together, commission him to create something or work to organize your cupboards. If he seems dispassionate or adamant about a decision, be patient and understand that he’s lived with a set system for a long time. This will take some compromise and negotiation!

Little pieces of memorabilia from childhood go a long way to making a new place feel like home. That looks different for different people. For some, that might mean putting an action figure collection on display, putting up old photos, using furniture from his childhood home or keeping around a couple stuffies. Almost everyone has some items that help them feel at home no matter where they are. The goal shouldn’t be to recreate his childhood bedroom, of course — you’ve both gotta live there! Just pepper spaces with little tokens of his childhood (and YOUR childhood) to remind him that the past is a part of his present.

While the change in decor of a childhood bedroom can be jarring, that doesn’t mean that his childhood home is somehow gone forever. Home is very much a state of mind. This isn’t a loss — it’s an evolution. The things in that room may change, but the memories that fill it will never change or go away — they’re always with him.

If it will help, he might want to just talk to his father to secure for himself the notion that he’s always going to have a space in his father’s heart and home.

Comments on Childhood Home loss: how can I help make it better?

  1. Oh man, I’m going though this right now. I did not move until I was 18 and went to college (since then, I’ve moved every 4 months or so, so nowhere actually feels like home). It’s scary!

    I’ve also always had problems with social interactions so my home and my family were the people I could really rely on, and that’s why losing that symbol has been so difficult.

    My childhood bedroom has officially been made the office. The paint color’s changed, all my stuff is packed in boxes in the basement, my furniture is gone, the whole works. But I do know that there will always be a place for me at my parent’s house, even if I’m sleeping on the pullout couch in the office that used to be my bedroom.

    I think that the one thing that will make my eventual home (temporary living right now as I’m finishing up grad school) are my books. As soon as I started packing up my books from my childhood bedroom, it no longer felt like home, so I’m hoping when I do unpack them that it will begin to feel like home.

  2. I was OK with moving out, since I’ve always been a bit of an introvert who values “my own space” very highly. However, what I fear most is my parents selling their house someday. My siblings and I grew up in a beautiful old farmhouse in the country, and hopefully it will pass smoothly from my parents to one of us someday so that it stays in the family. However, big old houses take a lot of maintenance, and none of my siblings or their spouses really have the handy skills for the task. My husband and I are the most likely choice, but unless something changes by that time, we won’t be able to live in that area. 🙁

    • Oh my God, I feel exactly this way about my parents property. They have this awesome little spot up a ‘holler in the middle of nowhere. It’s just beautiful and it has this ancestral tug at my heart–it’s where my grandmother raised my mom and her sisters, it’s just across from the farm where my great-grandparents raised her. There’s a beautiful old barn, the great-grandparents’ house is still standing (though probably not for long,) there are hills.
      But there’s just so much work to tend the area. If you don’t keep the hills, banks and open field properly trimmed, it becomes a snake pit. My parents are getting older (weep, sob,) and it’s a little daunting for them to think about future maintenance.
      My brother lives in Michigan now (8 hours away or so?) and I’m two hours away. There are no jobs there, so I can’t move in. I can’t imagine that property belonging to anyone else–especially someone who might not care for it the way my parents have. But I can’t imagine being responsible for it full-time.

      • Wow, I could have written that! Going through the same thoughts…Right now, though, my husband and I live with my parents–problem is, not much in the way of jobs around here, so I’m not sure if we’ll stay long term…It’s likely that the property will end up being our responsibility, as my sister lives relatively far away (and her husband has a great job out there that wouldn’t be able to transfer here).

        My mom is understanding that we might not be able to manage the maintenance and will probably eventually have to sell, but my dad just piles on the guilt factor like nobody’s business if I try to explain the situation (and my overwhelming fear of the intensive maintenance of over 100 acres of land and a half dozen buildings).

      • I understand how you feel. I am having to move out of my childhood home in the next six months or so. I can’t imagine anyone else living in this house. I can’t imagine what they will do to change it, I can’t imagine some other people living here, The only thing I can hope for is that I find someone to marry in the future, and hope that this place goes back up for sale when I can afford it.

    • My childhood home was sold in the process of my parents’s divorce when I was in my twenties. It was difficult, although not the most difficult part of everything that was going on at that time. A year or two later my brother stole / reclaimed the sign that showed the name of the property from the front gate (my parents had named the farm when they built the house) and gave it to me for Christmas. It was a beaten up piece of wood that my dad had chiselled the name into. I have it out the front of each house i live in now. I guess the home was a symbol of my childhood, and the sign was a symbol of the house.

  3. One of the first and only things my mother and aunt did for me when I moved to University (I only lived in two places before University, for a long time each) was make my bed, because that’s the best way to feel comfortable when faced with “This is a completely new home.” Clearly, this isn’t the first night in a new home, but setting up the bed to at least feel similar to home might help. Like, same number of sheets and comforters, and same pillows. The way the bed is set up is about the only consistent thing that’s stuck with me through multiple house moves in University.

  4. I felt the same when I moved in with my partner a few years ago. Mentally, I’d never really been away from my parents’ house, even when I went off to college (only an hour and a half away, I might add). My partner, on the other hand, has moved so many times, to many different countries, depositing family members all over the place on the way (his parents literally live on the other side of the world from us!). So my hesitance to leave my childhood home was something I really didn’t know how to help him understand. I understand how that might feel frustrating for him at times.

    However, transplanting some of the routines I loved from my childhood home into this new one helped me quite a lot. Growing up, Friday night was always pizza night. The weekends were for doing something, anything, outside: riding bikes, planting and weeding and repotting things, rebuilding our always-falling-down fence.

    Now, my guy and I can’t do everything exactly the way I did it during my childhood (and I shouldn’t expect us to, this stage of our life is about about building our *own* version of home, I have to remind myself). But, eventually, they evolved into our own special traditions, which have really helped me start thinking of our apartment as home. Friday night may not always include a pizza delivery, but we’ll usually have a stupidly easy dinner ready to go that night (I’m talking, stick that sucker in the oven while we pick out a movie to watch, easy). And while we have no yard to speak of in our apartment, we can take longs walks or hang out at the park on the weekends.

    On another note, we still live pretty close to my parents’ house, and the fact that we can pop over for a big dinner together or just visit is very nice. But that still didn’t help me think of our apartment as home; I was just somewhere else, coming back to visit my home occasionally. Then we started inviting *them* over for meals, to hang out, to help!-come-look-at-this-misbehaving-(fill in the blank). Having them come in there, having us all feel comfortable together in this home my partner and I were building, seemed to soften whole apartment. It’s like they brought a little bit of themselves with them as a house-warming gift. And that opened my view of our place up in a way I hadn’t expected.

    *End my incredibly wordy two cents*

  5. Unless you found a really amazing apartment, I doubt that he’ll ever be truly happy there. All the apartments I’ve ever lived in or visited have the personality of a cardboard box. Is it possible for you to rent a house instead? There really isn’t much difference in rent, but it is harder to get your hands on a house simply because there aren’t as many of them. But if you persevere by putting the word out that you want to rent a house and also check craigslist on a daily basis, you’ll get one eventually.

  6. I felt like this through mine and my husband’s first flat together; we rented it from friends, so it always felt at least a little bit temporary and not-quite-ours. The fact that I was still having to travel two hours back to my mum’s house to go to work at the weekend didn’t help (I worked there before I met my husband and started going to his University, but haven’t been able to find a job in this area yet). That said, my mum’s been doing a lot of decorating in the two-to-three years that I’ve not lived there full-time, and whereas my sister and I were in the front room, ‘my room’ is now at the back of the house, with my brother’s old bed, so things are switched around enough that it doesn’t feel quite as much like my ‘childhood home’ any more.

    However, I’ve been feeling a lot better since we moved into a new, privately rented, flat (letting agencies notwithstanding) and it feels a lot more like ‘our’ space, especially now that we have more of our furniture assembled. Like someone said earlier, even just making up the bed helped (and this is ‘our’ bed, not our friends’ rented bed).

    I still refer to my mum’s house as ‘my’ house though, and travelling there is still ‘going home’. But so is going to ‘my’ flat. I don’t think I’ll feel any differently until we’ve bought somewhere to stay permanently, because even while feeling better than the last flat, there’s still a mostly subconscious part of me thinking, “We might try to buy somewhere in the next year or two. Don’t get too comfy or you’ll be sad to say goodbye.”

  7. My husband moved from the UK to NZ, mostly for me. The thing that made him feel like it was our home, rather than my flat that he also lived in? Having HIS art on the walls. He’s not really a guy who cares much about the furniture or kitchen or decorations – amongst other things, he’s colourblind! – but the art that he’s owned since he was a kid (and begged his parents to let him bring here) made it home.

    It might be a duvet or chair or something for your fiance, but get him to think about what makes home *home* for him – and then try and move that item/object into your shared space.

  8. When I saw this post I thought it was going to be about a childhood home being sold. To me, moving out of a childhood house is not loosing that house. It is still there and you can go visit any time you want. Once it is sold, that’s different and then being sad is normal.

    On a different subject: I keep seeing comments and mentions in articles of painting apartments. Could I ask where people are renting that painting is allowed? Anywhere I have rented wouldn’t even let you hang pictures on the walls, let alone change the color of the walls. Perhaps this varies by state, and I know that some other countries have different expectations about rented properties.

    • In my area in California, some apartments will let you paint the walls however you want, as long as you paint them back to white when you leave, some will not let you paint the walls and some will do things like letting you paint (or painting for you before you move in) a single accent wall in one of a set of approved colors. It really depends on the specific place you are renting.

      I’ve never had a rental place that had problem with hanging pictures, though, as long as you didn’t leave holes in the walls too big to be covered over by a fresh coat of paint.

    • In Kentucky, it seems like the most common policy–though it still varies wildly by apartment–is that you can paint the walls as long as you paint/prime it to the state it was when you moved in. One place I lived at insisted on approving the colour first.
      The no-damage decor tag has a lot of alternatives for people who can’t hang stuff or paint!

    • I’m in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and both the places I’ve lived have been fine with painting — and one even reimbursed us for our paint — but wanted to approve the colours first. Our current place says on the lease that they want to approve the colours first, but then when you actually ask, it’s more like “well, as long as it’s reasonable and easily covered, it’s fine… we just don’t want a repeat of that time when someone did brightly coloured polka-dots….”. I think it really depends on where you are what’s considered “normal”. Also, the age of the place — we’re in a really old apartment building right now (plaster and lathe walls, anyone?), and they don’t really care what we do to the place, as long as we’re not really destructive, since the place has already seen plenty of abuse over the years.

    • In other countries (in my case Germany) it is completely normal to be allowed to paint walls, as well as put nails into walls and lots and lots of other stuff – I was really shocked when I read that this is usually forbidden in the US.

  9. I went through this as well, sort of twice. Long story short, my parents and I lived in a Victorian house built in the 1880s, and my grandmother lived in a spacious house built in the 1960s, about 12 miles away. I grew up spending the days with grandma and going to school near her, and going home to the Victorian house at night. When my grandma passed away when I was 18, we moved full-time into the 1960 house, but we rented out the Victorian one… and then when I was 22, I got some roommates and moved back into that Victorian house, and had the same room I grew up with.

    When I was 25, I moved in with my then-boyfriend (now husband) into the condo he bought around then, and for the first time in my life besides college, I was living somewhere that wasn’t a home I grew up in. Luckily, some of my old roommates (who are still my friends) live in that Victorian house still, so I can visit them on occasion, and my parents and sister still live in the 1960s house… but it’s hard to have moved from these two wonderful fairly spacious houses into this dinky condo in a crappy part of town with a terrible HOA and even worse parking situation, no yard, a million awful speed bumps, very few windows and mirrors… I hate it. It was REALLY hard for me to move over there and now, three years later, I still hate living there, but because the housing market plummeted after he bought it, we can’t sell because we’re still really far underwater. We had been planning a big east coast (we’re in CA) move so I could go to grad school out there and experience something new, and find something we could pick out together (my boyfriend bought the condo without showing it to me first, so I’m kind of SOL that I hate it), but the HOA won’t let us rent it out because too many people in the complex are already renting out their places… so we’re really stuck, and I don’t know for how much longer.

    It has helped that I offered input on decorating, and when I moved in, we painted some of the rooms cheery colors that I like (we’re allowed to paint because we own the place and we’re not renting), put up my posters and pictures, brought in my furniture (and my kitty), etc. It feels like “home” now, but I’m still very unhappy living there… but I love living with my husband and my (now our) cat, and he lets me help decorate (moar mirrors please!), so it’s gotten better with time.

    I’m hoping that my parents will leave the two houses they own to me and my sister, since both of those houses belonged to a set of grandparents and they’ve been in the family forever. I’m torn between wanting to live in one of those places again, or finding something that’s new and “ours” for my husband and me… but like I said, we can’t do a damn thing until the market turns around in a big way. *sigh*

    TL;DR: I’ve been there, and it’s unhappy, but it gets easier with time and frequent visits (I go to my parents’ house for dinner twice a week).

  10. I feel this acutely. Both my husband and I lived in the same houses ( I mean, not together) until we went to college, when our respective parents moved to different houses and sold our childhood homes. Years later as we were purchasing our own home, both houses were on the market! We viewed them both, but agreed that going back just wasn’t the same without family there surrounding us (and after intervening owners painted and renovated the houses).

    However, I do still think about my childhood home, and dream about it. My uncle lives down the street, and the folks who own it now have a huge family, and are making their own memories there. So that makes it feel a little better.

    • I think it’s always important to think about the new memories being made there. Even though they don’t include you, they can be just as precious to someone else. I really like that feeling, like I’m sharing something with someone.
      My first childhood home was actually a single wide trailer (a mobile home.) It was towed away by its new owners when I was 14. It was sad, but I was really pleased that they’d get to have a fresh start there.

  11. I spent the whole of my pre-university life living in the house I was literally born in. As a child, I always imagined that I would someday inherit the house from my parents, and continue living out my days there. That didn’t (and won’t ever) happen, seeing as my parents sold that house after my second year of university. They were planning to sell the house and move for several years before they actually did, so I had some adjustment time, but it was really hard, especially before I went to university. I had so many memories in that house, and it was the only place I’d every called home. I needed time to mourn that loss.

    By the time my parents actually moved, I was ok with it — I’d settled into a new life in a new city, away at university. Sure, I still have friends in the old city, but my life is here now. I’m not entirely sure what helped me make that transition. Partially, it was just time. Partially it was my parents making me clean out my room, since they’d be moving soon. Finding a wonderful guy and falling in love with him certainly didn’t hurt. I guess I made a decision to move on, because I knew I had to — there was no going back. I made a decision to focus on the new and the future, instead of focusing on the past and the gone forever. That’s a journey your partner will need to take for himself, when he’s ready — it’s not something you can do for him. He’ll probably need some time to grieve that loss, and it’s important that you give him the space to do so. Beyond that, I’d suggest asking him if there are things he’s excited about with the move, and trying to focus on the positives of having your own space for just the two of you.

  12. This hits home. I moved for the first time when I was 17, and it was pre-recession years, where the norm for my neighborhood was 1) sell house 2) developer buys house 3) old house is demolished 4) new, cookie cutter house is put up in its place. My childhood home is gone, and in it’s place stands an ugly duplex. When it was for sale, I stupidly went to the open house, and it was the worst feeling ever, seeing familiar sights out the windows, but in a different house. And super strange.

    I still feel that loss, even though it’s been years. Nothing will ever be like that house, and while it’s tough, I agree that bringing small elements (like a toy, or decorations) from the old space can meld the old with the new in pleasant ways. Decorating together is similarly a great idea. Also, accepting too that it will never be exactly same the again.

    • I wish there were some sort of advice fairy who flits into people’s lives when they’re about to try visiting the spot where their childhood home once was.
      Sometimes, it’s a beautiful experience wherein you leave feeling at peace. More often, it’s a haunting experience that you simply can’t shake. It’s something a lot of people just gotta do, but I feel like it’s just so nice to go on living with the illusion that everything’s the same there.
      My first childhood home was a mobile home that its new owners towed away when I was 14. I’ve purposely avoided finding out where it went because I don’t want to know what state it’s in now. My parents always took such pride in keeping it in perfect repair and clean. I like to believe that the walls are still covered in rose-spotted wallpaper. I like to believe that the little 3’x8′ hallway is still covered in perfectly plush beige carpet. I like to believe that there are no water spots in the ceiling. I know that’s not so, but I can go on believing because I just don’t know the truth.

      • This comment thread has made me cry a year after I lost my childhood home, that’s how hard its been for me. I left home at 18 and i didn’t even think about feeling sad, my parent and sisters were still there, I went “home” a lot. At 24, I lost my job, had a breakdown, left my husband and moved back home. Except itwasnt home, as in the intervening 6 years my mum had moved out and my parents were going through a messy divorce. Then my dad moved in with his new girlfriend and it was just me in a 4 bed house which was falling apart around me waiting for a buyer. My dad had really let it get in a state, there were leaks everywhere, mould and it was impossible to get rid of the smell of dog piss. I wouldn’t have people round and only went in half the rooms. My dad would have left everything in there so I cleared out all the acquired detritus of my and my sisters childhood, my parents marriage. It was horrible and has left a deep rift in my relationship with my dad. I moved out a year ago and it still hasn’t sold. None of us have been back, its too painful.

  13. I was anticipating this being about your childhood home being SOLD. I have lived out of my parents house for eight or nine years, now, but it’s always felt like a comfortable place I can go back to- either to visit, or occasionally temporarily move into when it has been needed. What I am not looking forward to is the day when my parents sell the house (which they are planning to do, at the latest when they retire) and I will no longer have access to the house. I know that I’ll still have all those memories, but something about not being able to go back there makes my tummy upset. 🙁

  14. For me it’s just about keeping the memory in my head. I can walk through my favourite house, still. I see the key turning just the right way, feel the little rush of air when the door opens, feel the light switch on my fingers, and smell the things that made that house my home. I can even remember and see the way the furniture moved and changed over the years. I can see the different holiday decorations. When my grandmother died and the house was sold, oh my gawd did it hurt. It was like a piece of my soul was cut out. When I drove by and saw things change, I’d get so mad. I’d scoff at whoever lived their now, like “do you even know the history here? do you even care? house murderers!!” it took a few months before I realized that even tho the new folks painted and renovated, I could still see MY house, the house I grew up in. I still feel a tinge of loss, but I just had to keep visualizing everything I loved and remembered. I’ve also come to think that it may not just be moving or a new place that hurts the most. But the “loss” of the time and memories from that house.

  15. I lived in the same house for 23 years, from the time I was two until it burned down two years ago. Yes, I lived at home through college and my parents allowed me to live with them after school. For a LONG time, nothing felt like home. It was both terrifying and liberating. I coped by taking a two-week vacation where I was able to pack up everything I owned (literally) and go to another country. Proving to myself that I could be happy, self-reliant, and have all the comforts of home was exciting, and it helped give me the courage to move away from my parents when the opportunity presented itself.

    The things we were able to salvage from the house are very precious to me — to all of us — so bringing them into the new house can help. Also, if it doesn’t drive you absolutely crazy, let him set up some space (like the bedroom) how it was in his old house. That helped me out tremedously when we finally got a new place.

    I also have held on to all of my house keys as we’ve moved. I keep them on a keyring to remind myself just where I’ve been.

  16. I wish I had seen this post, I kind of shell-shocked my now-husband into getting an apartment with me almost 30 minutes away from his family. His family was super-supportive and since I grew up never staying in the same town for more than two years (a lot of family drama) I got used to settling wherever the wind took me. Heck, when I lived with my mom in FL, there were weeks when I would just crash at friend’s houses and she would just call to make sure I was alive. Or even the time I “ran away” at 17 years old to live with a guy friend and ultimately with my manager, babysitting her grandchildren on the side. All of this stranger-hopping was a STARK contrast to my husband who at 22, NEVER lived anywhere else in his life. Went to the same school his family has gone to for over 5 generations, etc, etc. I lived with him in his bedroom for two years before I finally had enough of being woken up at 8 am by his mother on weekends, his nieces causing meyhem, and NEVER getting an ounce of privacy…trust me..I went through more cigs than I can count.

    Then I got a good job in the healthcare field and was able to afford a LOT more for rent and we decided it was THAT time to get our own place. His parents at first were more apt to getting us a trailer in their backyard…no. Just no. We needed our independence, especially him, to grow as adults and find out what we really wanted to do. It wasn’t at all hard for me to find us an apartment. I researched several in the area, even haggled with an apartment manager for an extra $30 cut from rent for being on a third floor with no elevator. We got it. A beautiful third-floor apartment at $560 a month for 1,100 sq ft space with arched ceilings. Like DAYUM I did good for a first apartment, and only 10 minutes from the beach of the gulf! Having that, it helped ease my husband into the space more easily..and I did something some people would just say, “REally?” I let him have a man cave. Yes, I spent time finding a two-bedroom, one bath apartment , specific to my need to help him transition into this new place. I knew in my heart his bedroom back home was his sanctuary, that where he retreated for peace and solitude that I could not pass up the idea of just handing him what he wanted to keep peace and acceptance more easily in his mind. His man-cave contained the basics, all of his fishing, hunting, gaming, and tv stuff in one little bedroom. Just. For. Him. I had the rest of the place to decorate and do as I pleased. He, at first, retreated a lot to his “man-cave”. I finally got him to come out more and now we watch tv shows and have dinner like a regular couple, then he goes back to his little sanctuary and enjoys himself. We are on our second yea rna d saving for a down-payment for a home, but he has already told me he does NOT regret moving out, and the peace that comes with having your own place. We still get called out to do chores and activities (Like this past weekend we made sauerkraut the old german way…with the whole family helping smash that shit in buckets like We still love the fact we can still step away from the drama of some things and be able to just relax in our little home. =) Sorry for the long post but to some it up, to help a stagnant home-body transition, be sure to always mention and prepare things your loved one is familiar with, make sure they have their own “space” they can feel safe in when they feel unsure or uncomfortable. Good luck, though!!

  17. I have lived in my home for 13 years now. Growing up in this house we had birthdays, family get-together’s, Christmas,etc. I always get very emotional looking at childhood pictures thinking.. I am never going to see this home again. When I see the for-sale sign I know I will break down in tears. I plan on getting better by comfort from close ones, and encouragement that this is life, it happens to everyone. I will miss the special features of my home.. (koi fish pond, Jacuzzi, etc.) There were lot’s of memories in this home, from my first day of elementary to my last, and my tiny bedroom I will never forget. I hate thinking that strangers will be living in my house and I will say to myself “Hey this isn’t your home, this is mine!!”. I also plan on carving my name on the back of my closet door..hehe.

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