A University of Minnesota professor's up-close-and-personal project shows empty nesters reclaiming kids' spaces - and what that says about all of their lives.
Dona B. Schwartz hopes her pictures are worth a lot more than a thousand words.
After all, the University of Minnesota professor's current project -- photographing empty-nesting parents in their departed child's bedroom -- is aimed at capturing nothing less than "a whole history that has collapsed into that space."
"On the Nest" will culminate next fall with a self-portrait after Schwartz's daughter leaves for college, followed by a photo exhibit and a book. By then she will have photographed dozens of Twin Cities parents who have transformed kids' rooms into offices or gyms, left them intact (perhaps even as a shrine) or done a little of both.
The results, Schwartz hopes, will give observers the view she got: "looking at that room and figuring out what kind of life that family led. You can really read out of that physical space a life history."
An associate professor in the university's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Schwartz has found a range of parental approaches and detected a few patterns.
Those with larger homes tend to leave a bedroom as is, but parents in smaller homes often "have something they wanted to do and not the space to do it," she said. "Those rooms go down pretty quick -- even though there might be some concern over whether the kids are adequately launched and won't need to return.
"One of the things I now look at is, can anybody sleep in this room? Sometimes people will use the bed as a table, lay things out on it. The child might return, but in the meantime that bed is a nice flat surface."
A familial scenario
Even in smaller homes, deciding to turn a child's room into something else entirely is not easy, especially given today's economy.
"I guess the phrase 'moved out for good' is sort of a question mark," said local parenting counselor Susan Abelson. "I'm not sure how long people need to wait" before overhauling a room. It's important for recently departed progeny "to have a sense of home," Abelson added. "To not have a room to come back to is very telling."
Jeralyn Mohr, a designer at West St. Paul's Full Nest, has done makeovers on kids' rooms, turning them into home office/guest room combos and even a "mini-woman-cave reading room." But more often, due to anxiety over college costs and the difficulty of finding jobs, "the bedroom-ness doesn't typically go away and the kid's personality doesn't go away. They'll update but feel like their kid's stamp still needs to be there because of how things are."
Indeed, many of the people Schwartz photographed have opted for a hybrid room that provides utility, flexibility and connectivity.
Bob and Jane Schneeweis of Mahtomedi created "a guest room/grandma's room," Jane said, replacing a large bed and crib with a trundle bed now that grandson Kian is 3 1/2. "While it was very difficult to see our son leave, to us it symbolizes that the beautiful moments don't stop -- they just get re-created in grandchildren."
Another subject, St. Louis Park's Lollie Eidsness, was photographed with husband Alan in a room they were transforming from a boy's room to a guest bedroom. "It was still pretty much like my son [Kyle] had loved it for 27 years," said Lollie, adding that she hoped the photo conveys "a new beginning. Rooms and objects serve purposes at a certain time in your life, and it's nice to have them convey something different sometimes."
The space frontier
That certainly fits Schwartz's mission of creating "a documentary ... of how we get from one place to the next in our lives."
She's been chronicling these conversions for the better part of the 21st century, starting in 2003 when she and her partner moved in together and suddenly had four kids at home and two in college. She determined that the kitchen was "the one space where you can learn an enormous amount about family dynamics," so she photographed her family's kitchen almost every day for 2 1/2 years.
"Whenever things happened that seemed to be telling the story I wanted to tell, I'd take a picture," she said. "We're bringing together two separate families with two different sets of traditions, routines and expectations. So I wanted to follow the way those worked themselves out and became blended into one way of doing things."
She especially wanted to capture subtle changes "like when the kids started doing things that look like the way their parents do things" and the "little things like watching people stand in front of the refrigerator like it's an entertainment center."
The result was a book, "In the Kitchen," and a related idea: "One day I was so fed up with teenagers and their drama, and I thought, 'Damn it, adults have transitions, too.'" she said. "And it was one of those eureka moments. I thought I should focus on adults' transitional moments."
So she set out on a dual project on "parents and not the occupants of the rooms." In 2006, she started shooting couples expecting their first child "in whatever space they were setting up for their bby."
"It's almost a sacred space," she said. "All our internal hopes and ideas of the future get externalized in the space."
A few months ago, she switched the focus from expectant parents to empty-nesters rebuilding, or even deconstructing, a room their now-grown child has vacated. (Both photography projects are continuing. If you're interested in being a subject, contact Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Along the way, Schwartz has learned a lot about love -- one father noted that his "focus had changed from ... supporting [his children] to making sure I'm not a burden on them" -- and about herself.
"I will be an empty nester next fall," Schwartz said. "When I first started the project, I thought that would be the most wonderful thing in the world. Now I'm not sure how I'm going to feel. You're getting your life back, but it's a whole different life."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643