Dilemmas

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This week: we can't agree whether to stay on in an empty nest

Kate's been living with her husband in a large house with a big garden for 25 years. It was great when their three children were young, but they've flown the nest and Kate's finding the housework and gardening exhausting, though her husband does his bit. She wants to move to a smaller place to enter a new phase of her life; he's sentimental and wants to stay there for ever.

Recently a friend came round to give me some advice on how to redecorate my house. We talked of blues and reds and washes and stippling for a bit, and then she sighed. "The problem really is, Virginia," she said, looking first at the piles of ancient footballs, cricket bats, giant bubble kits and dusty candle-making kits, and then at the cupboards bursting with hundreds of saucepans, casserole dishes and plates, "that you're living in a family home when you haven't got a family any more. No amount of redecoration can alter that. You really ought to move."

I know she's right, but her acuteness makes me toss and turn in the middle of the night. "Not a family any more"; "ought to move"; "living in a family house" - the phrases make me feel sad and uncomfortable.

I imagine this is how Kate feels, only she's more positive than me. A home - its size, location and decoration - often reflects one's internal landscape, and a home that shrieks of a certain period of one's life when one's at another is a very uncomfortable place to be. Think, for instance, of still living in the pink or blue bedroom/playroom you had when you were a baby; or the poster-covered tip you loved as a teenager; or, worse, the scummy halls of residence you called home when you were at university. It would be a nightmare.

I instantly think, in a puritan way, of those who cannot afford to move, or people who count themselves lucky to have a palm leaf over their heads, but downgrading is never expensive and most people move into smaller places as they get older, to stop themselves rattling around too much. If Kate were much, much grander, she would, by now, have been moved to a charming house on another spot on the estate, moving out of the big house to make way for her first son's new family - a house to which her son and his wife would eventually move when their own children had fled the nest and were starting to reproduce.

Perhaps Kate would feel more secure in a smaller house; maybe she wants to move nearer friends. Perhaps, even though her husband does his whack with the cleaning, she still finds it all too much for her, and wants somewhere which she can keep clean just by standing in the middle of the room and blowing.

Yes, she could take in lodgers to fill the house; she could block off some of the rooms and rearrange the place as a smaller unit; but she'd still be in the same place, and she wants to move, as she says, to a new stage in her life. Some men can be amazingly obstinate and sentimental, hanging on for dear life to old photos of football teams, school caps and so on. It is often the woman who has to make decisions such as whether to move house, and I know a number of older women who've done all the legwork involved with moving and organised the whole thing, and practically had to pack their furious husbands up in boxes, so rigid had they become about staying in the same place - and then six months later the men have turned into fresh flowers, delighted with their new surroundings. I think Kate should keep the pressure up. When they move it will not just be her who necessarily enters a new phase in her life; her husband will be forced to do the same. It may not only do him good but also make him happier, and even grateful to her for taking such a sensible decisionn

What readers say

Keep going - it's worth the effort

Kate should persevere. We moved last year and it was well worth the (considerable) effort. Thank goodness we did it while we were still fit enough to cope; so many don't.

She should start now on sorting out, throwing away, the trips to the charity shops - without too much fuss. Each bedroom tidied up and virtually empty will be one fewer to clean. At the same time, Kate should do less gardening and point out quite often all the maintenance jobs in the house which need doing, meanwhile collecting travel brochures, to plan the trips made possible by the capital gain that will accrue.

If they find the right new place I'm sure Kate's husband will find, as so many people do, that his sentimental attachment was just that, and a genuine renewal of life will happen in lightening the load of past baggage, both literally and figuratively.

Margaret Reed

Middlesex

Let some rooms and find a smaller place

Why not suggest a compromise? Organise your unused rooms into a flat or en-suite bed-sit (depending on how many spare rooms you have), and spend the income buying or renting a smaller, easier house or cottage where you would like to live. This will give you a different interest for this new phase of your life, and enable you to live for as many months as you like in your new home, with or without your husband!

Anonymous

Harpenden

Does he know how upset you are?

To have written this letter in the first place, you are obviously reaching the end of your tether, so moving appears to be the only option as far as your happiness is concerned. Unfortunately, in this situation a compromise is impossible, as there are only two simple options: move or stay.

You don't specify how desperately your husband wants to stay put. Have you told him just how "stressed" you are? I am sure that if he cared for you enough and knew how things were getting you down, he would change his mind - I know I would.

The house may hold many sentimental memories for both of you, but remember, home is anywhere the heart is, and nothing to do with the concrete building you call home.

Michael Husbands

Solihull

You need to show him you are serious

Obviously you have made known your feelings, but they have fallen on deaf ears. Show that you are serious about wanting a change. Tell him you will no longer do any gardening or cleaning. Be firm and hire a part- time cleaner and gardener. You may want to clear some rooms of their accumulated junk. Be ruthless and unsentimental. When you do eventually move, these things will have to be thrown out anyway. As the rooms empty, their charms may decrease for your husband. Create a private physical space in the house for yourself in which you can commence something of this new phase you are looking forward to.

Your husband may also be afraid of change. Maybe he needs to see that you are very serious and that you are not afraid. He may also realise how expensive it is to maintain a large house if you are not prepared to clean it yourself.

All the best of luck.

L Slade

Barnet

Next week's problem: Why does spiritualism upset me?

Dear Virginia,

Am I right to be irritated? My boyfriend doesn't earn very much, but what he has he spends on going to fortune tellers or clairvoyants or feng shui people, or astrologers. He really believes what they tell him, even though I tell him it's all nonsense, and has taken to going round with a rabbit's foot in his pocket, which I think is ridiculous. He often comes back with strange new diets, or bogus medications, or talismans, and I have no idea why it it all upsets me so much. He says it's harmless, there's probably something in it, I don't have to do it, so let him be. But it drives me mad. He's already writing off for courses at the Mind, Body and Spirit exhibition and I dread the influx of crystals and special spectacles and so on. Last week he insisted on turning our bed round the other way because of energy channels or something, and I was surprised how angry I got. Why do I get so upset - and why does he do it, anyway?

Yours, Sophie

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, 'The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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