What It's Like to Combine Households Later In Life

 Photo by Noah Magnifico

A newlywed word problem: 

A fifty-something second-time groom marries a forty-something first-time bride. One month before their wedding, the math man and his writerly wife settle into a new home together.

A) If he brings five cookie sheets to the union and bakes two kinds of cookies three times a year, and she owns four cookie sheets and bakes six kinds of cookies one time a year, how many total cookie sheets will the newlyweds donate to their local Goodwill?

When my new husband, Steve, a professor of forestry and geographic information systems, and I first became engaged, I resided in a rented purple kit-house cottage overseen by three cats. Steve lived about an hour away in a renovated split-level that he shared with his two college-age sons, both on the cusp of launching independent lives, and a sweet if neurotic canine. 

Alongside planning our wedding, we began searching for a home in which to start our lives together. When we found a historic brick beauty with bright, sunny rooms and a wide front porch overlooking a local park, we were thrilled.

Prior to marriage, I’d lived alone for twenty years with no housemates other than felines; Steve had been bach’ing it with two boys for nine. Marrying at midlife comes with a lot of challenges: negotiating shifting family roles, re-learning how to share a bathroom, ensuring the bride’s cats don’t blind the groom’s dog in a territorial rage. But I’m not sure anything could have prepared us for the sheer amount of stuff.

I don’t mean emotional baggage: I knew Steve was a keeper in part because he’d come through some tough times without permanently loading himself up. I’m talking boxes. Boxes filled with books, dishes, craft supplies, tools. Boxes packed with stacks of clothes and shiny Christmas ornaments. And then there are the sofas, end tables, mirrors...Based on square footage alone, our new home offered a surplus of space, given the relative modesty of our previous abodes. Yet while we’d both moved residences with some frequency earlier in our adult lives (the best defense against excessive accumulation), we’d each occupied our most recent homes for close to a decade. And we’d both had basements. 

B) If she owns two racks that each hold twenty magazines, another six plastic organizers filled with twelve volumes each, and two one-foot-tall stacks of additional periodicals, how many months will she have to sit on the sofa reading to ensure she doesn’t overlook any recipes she might want to try?

Newlyweds are often asked, “So, how’s married life? Does it feel any different?” If I compare how “married” I felt the day before the wedding to the day after, I can’t really say there was a seismic shift; I was fully committed to Steve before, and I’m just as in love after. It’s less the marrying than the moving, the slow, daily process of combining our households, that’s teaching all the lessons.

Those magazines, for example. I’d allowed many multiples to accumulate: literary journals, fat fashion tomes, and (of course) wedding magazines, favorite pages tagged and noted. Reading magazines is my guilty pleasure, and I’m always sure I’ll go back and bake those double-fudge brownies, or re-read that inspiring article on decluttering (ahem). Even though I couldn’t possibly re-visit every page, I had an irrational fear I’d miss something if I tossed them. 

As moving day approached, the prospect of packing and schlepping the stacks made my gut twist, and the realization hit me like a wave of perfume from an advertising insert: I’d already learned that lesson. Pre-Steve, I’d stayed too long too many times in unsatisfying relationships and misspent more energy and opportunity by hanging on instead of letting go. The only way to make space for the future — and make the present a comfortable, livable place — was to let go of the past. I recycled the magazines.

The process of sorting through the rest of our stuff has led to a few more revelations:

Too much of even a good thing is clutter. That’s true whether we’re talking handsomely designed cherry end tables (Steve had eight!) or cramming our days so full of commitments we lose track of ourselves and each other. The loveliest piece loses its luster if you trip over it often enough. We’re learning to make hard choices, to keep the rooms and our relationship in balance.

Look closely enough at anyone, and there’s a mess in there somewhere. I knew, before marriage, that I was not a neat person. Having a daily witness, however, has made me even more conscious of my failings. So I’ve been comforted to see that, while Steve is neater than I am, he makes messes, too. I can overlook a mug with a moldering teabag for a week; he is equally blind to days-old whiskers in the sink. But keeping score is for opponents; we’re on the same team, and every mess is ultimately ours. Besides, cleaning is more fun as a joint venture, especially when you surprise your partner with the new sink’s flexible spray nozzle.

Entropy happens. Let anything go too long without sufficient attention, and there will be consequences, even if they’re not immediately apparent. Though I suspect the massive balls of fur we discovered upon moving beds and dressers may actually be evidence of the cats’ secret plot to clone themselves, they also serve as a reminder to look beyond the surface, to pay close attention. Taking care requires taking action.

C) If, as T.S. Eliot’s famous middle-aged apologist, J. Alfred Prufrock, suggests, life may be “measured out…with coffee spoons,” how many years can be measured out using 187 two-ounce jars of spices?

According to professional organizer Regina Lark, the average American home contains around 300,000 objects. When two middle-aged folk get married and merge households, then they’re probably looking at packing and moving something in the neighborhood of at least 500,000 items.

Two and a half months after the movers dropped the last load, I think we’ve unpacked 33,264 of those. Or 33,265, if you count last night’s pinot, now consumed.

Lately, I’ve been showing off our spice cabinet to anyone who visits the house. It’s the only space that is 100% unpacked and organized. The racks even have labels. 

Steve and I spent an entire Sunday afternoon organizing that cabinet. We gathered our respective spice stashes into a massive pile on the counter, then spent hours sorting out duplicates and examining expiration dates. We combined the contents of some jars and tossed others; we determined which spices we used most; we ordered them alphabetically and arranged them on racks. However strange offering a tour of our spice shelves may seem, the cabinet represents in miniature the larger process we’re engaged in, learning how to sift through and combine the contents of our separate lives into one. It’s a product of our teamwork and a promise of what’s to come. 

And on those days when I just can’t bear the thought of the 466,735 items we still have to go through, I open the cabinet door, read those lovely labels, and smile.

 Sandra McGlaun

Sandee McGlaun recently married for the first time at age 45 and chronicles her experiences as a midlife bride on her blog, Forty-Something First-Time Bride