I understand why the house is being torn down. The stairs aren’t up to today’s construction codes. The bathrooms and kitchen are small. When someone slams the door in the garage, you can feel the vibrations upstairs in my brother’s old bedroom. The plumbing, windows and electric wiring haven’t been touched in decades. The metallic wallpaper with blue flowers in the bathroom my brother and I once shared says it all: The house is clearly outdated.
Still, I dread its rendezvous with a wrecking ball. When my childhood BFF’s century-old house was bulldozed last spring (goodbye high ceilings and ornate mantelpieces), the teardown trend in our old neighborhood suddenly became personal. Was some nefarious force—McMansion mania? Voldemort?—out to destroy my childhood haunts?
And what might explain such emotions?
Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, says teardowns can be more traumatic for former owners, and their children, than sales in which a house survives.
For one thing, she says, it’s hard to escape the finality of a teardown, which makes it all the more obvious “that you can no longer go back to the safety and comfort” of childhood. “It’s in your face,” she says.
There is also an obvious analogy to my aging parents. With new construction springing up all over the neighborhood, the house suddenly looks like a relic of another era. Still, when I came across the property records in my parents’ files last spring, the comparison that immediately sprang to mind was to myself. Although I had always assumed the house was older, it was actually erected just a few years before I was born in 1964.
For many people, childhood homes function like a psychological safety net, says Gerald Davison, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “Even if you don’t feel comfortable knocking on the door, it’s nice to know that it’s always possible to do so” and reconnect with childhood, he says.
Neighborhoods do change over time but homes often represent permanence. This hints at the broader ideology of the American Dream as well as childhood. The first refers to the emotional attachment to single-family homes on plots of land, places that people can call their own. The second involves the development of childhood as a sort of “golden age” in the lifecourses filled with good experiences and exploring the world.
It would be interesting to hear more about the expression of and limits to such emotions. Perhaps we can add “McMansion mania” to the list of childhood bogeymen…