A shopping day at IKEA took a toll on more than the pocketbook – lesson learned.
If you consider your family life healthy don’t test it by going to IKEA for the day, especially if you have recently moved overseas to an unfamiliar city such as London, with previous stops along the way in exotic-but-foreign places.
I’ve recently recovered from a family outing to a London IKEA after making just such a protracted international move. I’d prepared for our journey to IKEA well in advance, measuring every potential living and storage arrangement possible in our 900-square-foot flat. Except for clothing and personal effects we’d moved with nothing. Our flat was empty and a robust shopping trip was needed for items such as tomorrow morning’s cup for my American cup-of-coffee.
London living is synonymous with flat living, spatial dimensions which mercilessly teased out the difference between wants and necessities. I spent several days combing IKEA’s website and found exactly what we needed, down to trashcans and potato masher. In short, I meticulously filled over 20 notecards—front and back—with drawings, measurements, item numbers and color options.
This was no frivolous shopping trip: This was a new me on a new day and my husband wasn’t remotely aware. My expectations matched the adrenalin that had overcome me to meet the challenge of the previous six months of constant motion and moving. The frenzy of the move commenced when my husband simply accepted a job in London. I sorted our earthly possessions, making three piles: save, give and sell. Especially tricky was separating out clothing suitable for the places and their corresponding climates we would be living in interim before heading to London where—if all went smoothly—we would reunite with our remaining clothing and some coveted personal items. We needed attire for several weeks in Scotland during July, a time of year that is more like fall in our home city of Washington, DC. From there we’d take up life indefinitely in Dubai, coinciding with their brutal summer temperatures. Lastly, we’d find ourselves thrust into gray, ever-wet London. Bone-chilling, rainy, short days explain London’s winter.
The rest seemed easy in comparison: we packed all our earthly possessions and sent them to storage.
This entire experience had circled back and now I throbbed with an urge to nest. For me, this was an altogether alien yearning. When I was a new bride I had not felt this magnetic pull and neither had I felt this drumbeat after having babies. I had given birth to our firstborn in Germany, unable to participate in the conventional American baby shower tradition. Apparently our little newborn missed it even less than I did. For a few nights, she slept soundly in a suitcase. She had neither a legitimate nursery nor crib waiting her arrival, but I didn’t regard that with disappointment as a first-time mom. No romantic dream had been shattered. Rather, seeing our daughter sleeping peacefully in a suitcase only increased the unmistakable miracle of birth amidst the brightness of that day’s adventure. Up until now, I was the perfect wife for expeditions like this current whirlwind of a move.
But something quietly stored away inside me was preparing to blow. Internally, I held the impending IKEA visit and the transforming of our flat into a home with tight stomach and clenched fist. I wasn’t going to lose.
However, there was much to negotiate. Going to IKEA wasn’t just a long road trip like it was in Washington, DC. That would have been too easy. New to London and without a car like most, I’d carefully mapped out our train route. We would start early, hoofing it to catch London’s renowned underground tube to the nearest central station. At the central station, we’d connect with an over-ground train that would take us to the outskirts of London where the behemoth IKEA could spatially fit.
Detailed study also presupposed assessing the nearest station to IKEA that offered a free shuttle service for customers. As transportation coordinator for this outing, I matched the train’s arrival time and shuttle schedule so there would be minimal layover between our train arrival and shuttle pickup. We needed to maximize our Saturday and there was no room for error.
I had made the approximate time calculations required for the roundtrip, a flawless itinerary. But, indeed, it was going to be a long day. Every step needed planning especially since our grade-school aged children were along for the big day. That would most certainly involve frequent complaints of hunger pangs, bathroom breaks, dehydration gripes and other escape tactics.
Notecards in hand, I led the charge.
No more than 45-minutes after our arrival at IKEA, my husband warily regarded my plump stack of notecards. His eyes pleaded: “Are we trying to do too much for one day?” Behind me, he was manning the large cart. Our daughter was holding his hand tightly and her little forehead was dimpled with worry. Dragging his feet, our son’s body was draped over the cart. He begged for a break. “Aren’t we done yet, mom?”
We’d not even made it through the monstrous living room showroom. “Guys, we’ve just begun!” I said cheerfully.
I heard a little voice: Mayday. The team is going down. I blithely ignored it.
We wove through the endless warehouse maze of showrooms displaying home furnishings and organizational solutions. I found myself dizzy with my notecards, commanding my halfhearted troops.
My husband’s posture was thick with unease. His eyes spoke: “Where is the woman I married?”
Life had been as messy as it had been eventful. When we’d finally arrived in London, we lived temporarily in a furnished flat while searching for the perfect “home.” It was not without a little triumph that I could now rattle off an address where I was physically, semi-permanently attached. Home. I felt entitled to this desire to banish all signs of unsettledness and all I was asking for was just one day at IKEA to help make that happen.
My arguments having failed, I couldn’t at this point master my edgy body language. I defensively held my notecards, unmindful of the protests—some silent, others not—coming from the people dearest to me.
My husband’s body language spoke back to me, a gentle but convincing questioning of my tactics. He understood the children’s frustrations and they naturally looked to him for comfort. Blinded with focus, I was unmindful of their collective misery.
Our daughter’s voice trembled, “My tummy hurts. I’m hungry, mom.” Our son yelped about needing to go to the bathroom again. Shoving a granola bar into my daughter’s hand and clamping a hand on my son’s shoulder, I re-stated my case. My husband’s calm words of distress went unheeded.
After all, we were almost there. The battle was on our side: we were in view of checkout. I surrendered to the adrenalin rush, but why couldn’t the rest of the troops?
Like us, hundreds of other Londoners on this Saturday were shopping. Concessions were swarming with people of every nationality. I realized how differences melted away here: the desire to make a home is universal. The basis for IKEA’s success crystallized for me like never before. A global city of ten million residents, London had beckoned to people of every background and every walk of life. And it seemed that today, they were all here at this particular IKEA trying to find their way home too.
Since there was nowhere to sit with our food, we joined other bedraggled shoppers who’d dropped to the floor propping up against any available anything to rest our IKEA-maxed selves. Consistent with the day, the shuttle back to the train station was leaving just as we hobbled up and we waited for 30-minutes before it returned. Once the shuttle pulled up, I probably don’t need to tell you that the driver was due for his coffee-bathroom break. I believe he dilly-dallied.
A cotton-candy vendor was serendipitously strolling around where we were holding vigil and we weakly caved to the kids’ tugging. Two, please. Naturally a parent would want their child to have cotton candy to polish off a meal of cokes, hotdogs and fries.
The train ride back home was blessedly quiet. I was numbly exalting in our conquest and praising the kids for their great work. “We don’t ever want to go back to that place,” they mumbled. My husband just looked weary—and relieved. I was completely wasted as well, and feeling contrite. Because of me, it had possibly been one of the worst days in the life of our family. A precious Saturday, relegated into the family brain’s memory file titled, Never Again.
But the mission was over and I had the goods. I’d won. Or had I?
What I had considered to be living up to my responsibilities turned something positive—my energy to create a home—into a tense family crisis.
Guilt flooded me, drowning out any smug satisfaction for having accomplished my mission. Seeing cheer restored to my nearest and dearest would have been well worth surrendering all that I’d materially gained that day. Confronting my pride, I now ached to take the entire day back in exchange for our normally unified family.
Specifically, I had replaced my most valuable asset—my husband—with a handful of notecards.
My husband of seventeen years was not betrothed to me. We chose each other. One of the things that attracted me to him both then and to this day is his sense of intuition. It has kept us from doing too much—and too little. It has kept us laughing amidst big adventures that many people would regard warily as too risky. It has kept me from charging when I should proceed with caution just as it has counseled me to charge instead of walk timidly. Over the years, I’d mostly relied on this tremendous secret weapon for guidance.
That day at IKEA I gave ear to my notecards instead of my husband’s good judgment. It was a poor decision, considering that it completely made my husband irrelevant. Ruled by my notecards, this negatively executed day was pitted in sharp relief against the best decision I’ve ever made: the man I chose to marry.
This new me on a new day was no good. Sometimes, conceding defeat is the victory.
Salvation was mine when I unclenched my fist and released what I had wrongly regarded to be victory. My trusty notecards, now represented by the ample stash of small boxes and bulky-papered packages around us on the train, had deluded me. My best friend in battle had been my greatest foe all along.
Walking slowly home from the tube stop to our empty flat, we arrived hand-in-hand, fully reconciled. My husband’s run to the grocery for dinner via one of the numerous pubs nearby brought him back refreshed, eyes alive with stories about our new neighborhood.
Not only had my husband forgiven me, he’d already forgotten the lousy day at IKEA. He was the battle-weary but resilient hero. My wounds were more complicated and I was slower to forgive myself, put the day behind me and not further punish the family by treating the IKEA merchandise as contaminated goods. They were simply means to an end, not joys in and of themselves. It had been a remarkably full day in ways I couldn’t have predicted.
Our little London flat was alive and buzzing with laughter that night. We unpacked our merchandise side by side as the kids danced around us, as eager as we were to mark this new place as our home. In every way, the grim day at IKEA as well as the intimate living room scene were equally significant in this comprehensive picture; its totality reflected not only the nitty-gritty of moving with young kids, but of marriage.
And my pile of notecards? I let go. They’ve moved into their new home—the IKEA trashcan.
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Photo: Flickr/Zac Zellers