Moving house, not moving on?

By Christian Nielsen

Moving house is a back-breaking master class in logistics. But it's also an emotional rite – moving from what was to what will be, purging yourself of possessions and packing some away for good.

8 September 2010

I recently moved house. All things considered, it went smoothly. We shifted everything we owned from one place to another with military precision; boxes first, big stuff next, people in the car behind. It's just logistics.

But so much of who we are or what we represent is embalmed in this stuff and the places where we ‘house' it that this nomadic rite deserves closer inspection. Perhaps it's not a simple logistics exercise, after all.

There are no shortage of websites and services offering advice on moving, from preformatted ‘to do' checklists and stress exercises to formulaic messages to announce your new abode. Here's a couple of classics:

“We've found what makes a house a home… Lots of love, plenty of laughter, and the presence of friends and family! Stop by our new house soon…  and often!”

“We've packed our things and moved to a new address, but all the friends we've left behind
are what we'll really miss! Our new address is…”

“We've packed up boxes, lamps, and chairs… our home is somewhere new. We couldn't leave and settle in without telling you.”

It's wonderfully cheesy stuff. And if these soppy morsels didn't mask more serious emotional issues associated with moving, I'd happily tear them apart. The fact that people need to build their very own yellow brick road from ‘what was' to ‘what will be' says a lot about the human desire to be rooted, or connected.

New research even suggests the act of frequent moving on children can carry emotional baggage right through to adulthood. Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social , scientists took an established fact – that children who move house often tend to perform worse in school and can have behavioural problems – and looked more closely at what might be happening behind this.

Serial movers, the researchers say, tend to establish fewer so-called “quality” social , and the more they moved as children, the less “happy” they tended to be as adults – scoring lower on the “well-being” and “life satisfaction” scales.

But not everyone is affected in the same way, the scientists caution. Certain personality types like introverts and more nervous or high-strung characters tended to be affected worse by regular moves. Of course, some people may enjoy the variety of experiences it throws up.

It's your move

About 12 weeks ago we signed a contract saying that we would move our belongings – including two small human ones – across town. The preparations started then. I won't go into the details, as I'm sure everyone knows the drill, but I will comment on some of the unexpected things that this transition threw up. As I ventured into the hidden recesses of the old house to perform stage one of the campaign – throwing away stuff – I came to realise with every load to the container park how suffocating all this stuff had become.

After a few weeks of this, I began to see pockets of light filter into the cellar once again. I discovered remnants of previous moves gone wrong – the unopened boxes of five years ago. Table tennis bats reappeared and I remembered how much I liked playing it. CD collections – relegated by iPod to the draws – got dusted off ready for a return to the good old days of having something to read while you listen to the tunes.

From my wardrobe I learnt that I tried (and failed) a couple of years ago to be more dapper. The growing collection of prams, scooters and bicycles in the garage bore witness to my growing and changing family. Each layer of stuff, once peeled, revealed something new, and yet entirely familiar.

To throw or not to throw? It transpired that my life – in and out of boxes –could be summed up with this basic tenet. Mostly, the decision was to throw. I threw and threw and threw. So much was thrown out that I sit today in my new – admittedly bigger, greener, nicer – house with a half empty wardrobe, a half full garage, a half empty garden shed and a draining fear that this new-found liberty can't be sustained.

With each passing week, and each casual trip to IKEA, I dread the cycle of accumulation starting anew. I wonder if a new household regime will be needed, something like a nightclub policy of ‘one in one out'. One new pair of shoes, one old pair off to the op shop. One new children's slide erected, one child fostered out… okay so perhaps that's a bit extreme.

I'm a firm believer in keeping emotions out of logistics. And I approached the recent move as such. But the weeks of purging and packing kept reminding me of past moves and past times. Against my will, the ‘physical' gradually ceded to the ‘psychological' during this move. I recalled fondly moving house as a student, where everything could be packed into one car or on the back of a bike, and never looking back.

It's not like that anymore. And I haven't got a clue how I feel about this. Perhaps it's inevitable, as I accumulate more stuff – mental and physical – I can't expect it to all fit into a small Ford. No matter how hard I try to throw away the vestiges of the past they resist. I tell myself I'm moving on as well as moving away, but my heart and back are just not as hard as they used to be.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in 's The Age newspaper on 5 September 2010. Published here with the author's permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.


  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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