I’ve been getting this feeling when I’m in my daughter’s room, like the walls are closing in on me. And I don’t mean in a ‘let’s talk about mental health’ sort of way, before you sagely nod. I mean it quite literally.I mean that, over the seven years she’s been alive, my daughter has accumulated so many soft animals, so many games, so many very tiny unidentifiable objects that are important due to intense sentimental value or because they are absolutely crucial to the working of a toy (the remains of which may or may not have been binned), that the carpet space has shrunk significantly.
Standing in the rectangle that remains, a blanket forming a makeshift den for the cat, a shrine to our old cat who died propped up awkwardly by the window, the walls pinned haphazardly with such things as ‘directions for how to spin a yoyo’, I get a sort of architectural anxiety thinking of what it might feel like in a year’s time, or five.
And then the familiar maternal guilt, this time unrelated to vegetables or screens, but because I have failed to build for her a Pinterest-worthy calm and beautiful retreat. I’ve seen them, you’ve seen them: compact but exquisite havens in shades of pastel and twine. Homemade bunting stretching yoga-like above the bed; a few carefully curated books displayed on a shelf. A single much-loved bear waiting patiently on the pillow for a 7.30pm bedtime, surely tearless and prompt.
When I was growing up, the ambitions that parents had for their kids’ bedrooms were limited to one word: ‘tidy’. Today, like ‘mummy and me’ fashion, a whole industry exists to help us create gentle extensions of our own identities through how our children look and where they sleep.
Trends move at high speed – unicorns, rainbows, rattan, clouds – each to be painted over as the seasons pass. Designing and maintaining a dream bedroom might be possible when the child is little, but as they grow in size, independence and ferocity the project becomes more complicated.
One school day when I’m working from home, a single word leaps into my head: makeover. I swing her door open with intent. Untangling the fairy lights wound hectically around the headboard, I wonder: am I raising a chaotic child by letting her live in chaos? What impact might a serene bedroom have on the speed at which she gets ready for school? A dull battle rages between my ears.
Remembering achingly such glories as Bauhaus children’s furniture inspired by Kandinsky’s colour theory, I am distracted by the thought: who am I to impose taste on another human, in this, the only space she can almost call her own? But then, how can I ever expect her to learn fractions if her room is itself fractured?
An hour later, despite a heaving bag for charity, I am further than ever from finding serenity, having dug myself even deeper into a psychological hole of distracting questions. About ageing, about play, about the objects we use to form identities.
I’m reading the psychotherapist Philippa Perry’s parenting book and it’s her advice on dealing with our children’s tantrums that I land on, there among the plastic. Instead of overreacting or stifling a child’s feelings, Perry says the role of a parent is to ‘contain’ them. It occurred to me that, rather than trying to disappear the mess or impose an acceptable aesthetic on the room she lives in, I could instead attempt to help my daughter manage the stuff she lives with.
Alongside the idyllic visions of childhood sold online are the many less-glamorous storage solutions, objects and furniture that acknowledge the mammoth amount of tat a child comes with. I’m imagining an inoffensive storage bed, with little steps to make her feel powerful, and perhaps one of those clever pull-out desks that remind me of a business-class plane seat.
My ambition for my daughter’s room has narrowed from a dreamy stage set to something just an ounce more aspirational than my parents’ generation. I want her to be comfortable, I want to make it as easy as possible for her to be respectful of her belongings, and I want enough room on the carpet so that a grown adult is able to lie down with their eyes closed for a few precious minutes during the day’s third game of teachers. There’s time later for taste.