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The Parenting Issue

Kids produce endless stuff. How do you decide what to save?

Here’s what one mom learned when trying to determine which works of art, cards, and other mementoes to toss and which to hang onto.

blair thornley for the boston globe

I KNOW I’M NOT THE ONLY MOM who throws her kids’ artwork in the trash when they’re not looking — I just pray they don’t go looking for it in the trash bins we keep in the garage. Because if they did, they would see Hefty bags bloated with piles of their pictures and other stuff: fairy drawings lovingly rendered in colored pencil by my daughter, Sydney, almost 6; alphabets of the world painstakingly copied by my son, Marlow, almost 10. I’ve dumped around a dozen bags in recent weeks.

Both kids bring home backpacks filled with pictures and art projects that end up in the garbage, though Marlow has been particularly prolific at drawing, drilling down into various passions over the years: dinosaurs, Dracula, elves, the rock band KISS. Each phase produces hundreds of pictures on avalanches of paper, most of which my husband and I recycle. Some of it we keep, and one day, we will organize it. Exactly how, and when, I don’t know.

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Parenting may be the ultimate example of on-the-job training, except it can feel like you’re training for multiple jobs at once: cook, teacher, nurse, hostage negotiator. Add to that list amateur archivist — a role often taken on by mothers, the keepers of our children’s early histories. But how do you decide what to save and what to throw away — what to remember and what to forget? I wish I’d been better about filling out my kids’ baby keepsake books, but I mostly found it onerous at the time, preferring to capture their first smiles and first steps on my phone.

As a writer, I’ve spent a lifetime filling notebooks with what I want to remember, but what I want my kids to remember is a different question, one I’ve been mulling ever since my mother sent me touchstones of my own childhood. My parents moved away from Miami and the house I grew up in last year, downsizing in the process. My boxes arrived at the perfect time: I’d recently lost a job I had cared about, and the experience left me questioning my path. When those cardboard time capsules landed on my doorstep, I found pieces of myself in their contents, a mix of “important” keepsakes I remembered and items I had long forgotten. In a moment of self-doubt, they served to remind me of who I was, and who I am.

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If I’d ever doubted my decision to become a journalist, here was evidence that maybe it wasn’t a decision after all: filled notebooks of every shape and size, half-stories scrawled on loose sheets of legal paper, even a typed manuscript titled “6TH GRADE STINKS.” I thought of my favorite Joan Didion essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” where she muses that “the impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it... . I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.”

I’ve kept a notebook for as long as I can remember, but apparently, my mother had kept my notebooks since before I could remember. I’d had no idea. The boxes were expertly packed — yearbooks and other items coddled in Bubble Wrap; artwork and short stories preserved in scrapbooks with acid-free pages — and the collections they held had been carefully curated over decades. How did she know what to save? Faced with my own looming storage crisis, I decide to ask her.

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“I wanted to save things that I thought were going to help you remember, and me remember, what your childhood was like,” my mother tells me over the phone. “You did a lot of drawings, and you wrote a lot of stories.” Her own mother threw out her valuable keepsakes, including letters from her father. The house was full, “so I can’t really blame her too much,” my mother continues, but she also couldn’t recapture a part of her life that was gone. “The pain of remembering all of that ... you try not to repeat things that you thought were disservices in your own life. You try to correct them when you have children.”

I learned that my mother literally saved my childhood artwork after Hurricane Andrew destroyed our house in 1992. “I can remember being outside, trying to keep your little drawings dry and finding it very difficult because the rain was everywhere,” she says. She was able to salvage most of them, but in the process of losing and later rebuilding our house, she realized what was most important to keep: photos as well as “anything that was written down that was a documentation of our personal life,” she says. “My father kept a few little letters of mine when I was a child, and I can remember going into his desk and finding those handmade cards — and knowing that he had saved them made me feel loved. So, to me, it was a sign of love to save those things.”

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That love came through when I opened my boxes, assembled with such care. But I had the most fun going through the least organized of all the containers: a carry-on suitcase that my mother brought on my parents’ last visit. It looked like it had been packed in a hurry — one last purge. Inside I found my first diary, a chain letter, an album of a trip to California with dried flowers and sea glass pressed into its pages, random snapshots, a science report from 1993 titled “Bacteria and Your Skin, How to Get Rid Of It!!!,” a Ziploc bag of old Valentine’s Day cards, my graduation tassels, an issue of Playgirl my friends and I bought at the mall (and promptly concealed in an unmarked padded envelope), and a sleepaway camp “Slam Book” rating favorite songs, best couples, and biggest flirts.

It was all so disorganized, so unlike my mother. She knew I might not want to keep every item, she says, but “it should be you who decides whether or not you want to keep something. At least you get this last look at it.”

I’m trying to remember that as I cull through my kids’ things — that they’ll want to have a say, too. Still, I have to start somewhere. But where?

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Barring a few exceptions, old toys, dolls, and clothes vanished when my mother cleaned house. With kids’ drawings, you have to make some kind of “value judgment,” she says. With mine, “Not every drawing was important, but if it said something about you and about what you may have been thinking at that time, then I thought it was worth saving.”

Still, she says, “Sometimes you have to make things magically disappear.”

At my house, a snowball named Snowy that lives in our freezer will be the first to go. Other objects call to me — like a crumpled gingerbread girl made of brown construction paper that my daughter brought home from kindergarten and named “Ana.” Every night, Sydney tucks Ana into a paper bed next to her own, along with a paper glass of water, a paper toothbrush, and a paper slice of pizza in case she gets hungry.

The tattered pink princess dress that the author's daughter wore during lockdown.From Brooke Hauser

There’s one item in particular that I know I’ll never dispose of, even though it looks like it belongs in the trash: a pink princess gown my daughter wore during lockdown. My parents sent it to Sydney by mail at the start of the pandemic, and while it was love at first sight for her, it was eye roll-inducing for me. After a year of wearing only pink (she actually called her clothes “my pinks”), Sydney had just started wearing different colors again. But we were in the midst of a global pandemic, stuck at home, and the look on her face when she opened the package quieted my inner Peggy Orenstein. So she put the dress on, and, with the exception of the weekly event when I peeled it off of her to wash it, she wore it for about six months straight.

During that time, Sydney rarely saw another child other than her brother. She retreated into shyness whenever a “stranger” came by, whether it was a neighbor or an Instacart driver. But we also got to spend more time together — many mornings that spring, we walked (and skipped and danced) around the neighborhood listening to Disney soundtracks. It dawned on me that at least a few of those princesses were in a kind of quarantine, too: Elsa in her ice castle, Cinderella in her attic, Ariel in her underwater grotto yearning to be “part of that world.”

Our backyard became Sydney’s world. She mixed “potions” from plantain weeds, learned the names of every tree and flower, and watched the ants swarm and scatter in her wake. We brought home baby chicks and a poodle named Chance. Through it all, she wore that dress, and soon that dress wore the magic and debris of that strange summer: grass, sticks, and chicken feathers all tangled up in its tulle layers. After Sydney and Chance collided in the driveway one afternoon, leaving Sydney with a broken collarbone, I carried her into the ER still wearing that ratty princess gown. The nurses knew to let her keep it on.

The dress now hangs in her bedroom closet. The bodice no longer fits, and the skirt is literally shredded — she cut it one day with scissors — but I can’t bring myself to throw it out. In fact, I might get it framed. It’s an emblem of something: strength, I think, or maybe survival.


Brooke Hauser is a writer in Northampton. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.