I love the website apartment therapy. On days when my own house is not just cozily cluttered and lived in, but is covered in oily fingerprints, and there’s urine sprayed on the bathroom floor and there’s a smell that comes and goes but whose source cannot be determined, I sometimes sit down at my computer and scroll through images on this virtual confection of a design website. Every room they feature is well lit, perfectly accessorized, and utterly escapist. I know the rooms are real, in that they physically exist, but the world they conjure is delightfully fantastical.
A recent post’s theme was “Kids’ closets used as reading nooks” and it was predictably appealing. The closet nooks were full of squashy pillows, and gallery walls of artworks in a restrained color scheme, and a pristine pallet on the floor. As with many images on apartment therapy, many of the examples of closet reading nooks allowed me to revel in the beauty while feeling pleasantly smug and derisive. The images hint at, or outright blurt out, all the worst things about a precious, upper middle-class American childhood these days. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at these images, trying to figure out what exactly was bothering me.
The first thing was a photo of a little girl reading on her pristine pallet under a framed picture reading “Mama Loves You.” Granted, this child is quite young, and at that age would not have an expansive life outside her small, home-playground-library story hour, sphere. But the placement of that picture, beaming sunshiny supervision down on the child’s head even whilst in her private nook seemed to emphasize surveillance. Mother as Big Brother, choosing the books, the paint, the pillows in fabrics that are just the perfect subtly zany mix match.
In the written copy for this post, I came across this: “You can keep the door to make a secret reading hideaway.” You cannot. When you build and decorate your child a designated reading nook, you may be providing them with a cozy space, a beautiful setting, and the much needed message that reading matters in this house. But you cannot make it a secret. My kids are not babies anymore, and we’ve been through the earliest phases of childhood where the sequential separations between mother and child begin. The cords were cut. They moved from sleeping in my bed, where I contorted protectively around them, into cribs in a separate room. They weaned, they learned to walk, they learned defiance and strong opinions. They went to school. As they get older, the physical separations shift to internal ones. The school age child begins answering, “What did you do today?” with, “nothing.” You find out from some other mother that your kid had some playground altercation and didn’t tell you.
The fantasy that a designated closet nook could ever be “secret” may be part of the desire to keep kids safe, to control their environments. And kids do love secret spaces. They like claustrophobic, dark little cubby holes. These closet reading nooks are cute, but they’re not secret, and to a kid, they’re not even all that nook-like.
I had a secret reading nook when I was young, and it was a corner of the closet I shared with two of my sisters, so it was jammed with stuff. I had to shimmy under the lowest row of clothes, wedge myself behind the hangers and shove aside a pile of shoes. It was almost too dark to read there, and it smelled like winter boots stowed away for the season while still snow and sweat soaked. I only went in there if I knew no one could see me climb in, and if someone called for me while I was in there, I wouldn’t answer for fear of giving away the spot. It was dingy and dim and secret.
Being one of five children, I often sought my escape outside the house. We didn’t have a treehouse or playhouse, or any adult-built, adult-approved play place. My favorite place to go was a medium sized pine tree where I had laid a plank across two branches to make a sap-covered, grubby seat. I would sit there after school and read or look out over the lake down the hill. It was nothing much, and would make a very poor feature photo for apartment therapy. But apartment therapy is for grown-ups. The things kids like are gross.
For now, I know where my kids’ “secret” places are. At ages six and four, they play out in the woods by themselves a lot but they still excitedly volunteer instructions on how to cross the fallen hemlock tree to get to a tussock in the middle of the swamp. I know they climb around in the unfinished, unheated crawl space under the eaves in our house. It’s dark in there, and it’s sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. There’s certainly no pallet in there, but there is some exposed insulation and nails sticking out in unpredictable places. It’s unattractive and fairly uncomfortable, and it’s what kids like. These places are still not really a secret, but they’re outside the realm of adult decor and aesthetics. They’re a little bit risky, and if kids aren’t allowed to go there, to push out from their safe orbits, to do stupid things by themselves, then I fear they’ll grow up to be the sorts of people who are too nervous to crawl through a tight spot, or to quell their panic and push on through a dark place and see what’s on the other side. Because much as I love a well designed room, the world is not a lovely, purpose built nook. It’s less brightly lit, but much more beautiful.