Long Reads

A love letter to our bedrooms, our private sanctuaries of sorrow and joy

Our bedrooms play a key role in our lives, and are often the only places we can be ourselves, unobserved. With more of us than ever living in houseshares, as rent and housing prices rise, writer Penny East pens a love letter to the bedrooms of her past… and present.

I was an avid watcher of MTV’s Cribs; an after-school habit that led to a lifetime obsession with terrible property programmes. 

The master bedroom reveal was always my favourite moment. The Hollywood star or music producer would fling open the door to expose an endlessly white bedroom with an impractically high bed, complete with piles of pillows that would take at least 10 minutes to remove and rebuild each morning and night, and a large, inbuilt television, usually playing his latest music video or film. The star would grin at the camera, ever so pleased with himself, and say ‘this is where the magic happens’.

He uses his bedroom to have sex, you see. And he would like you to know that he is really rather good at it. 

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And I agree with him. Not about his supreme love making, of course, but that the bedroom is, indeed, where the magic happens. That is, if by magic you mean staring at the wall while stood in a damp towel, letting the morning minutes slip by. If by magic, you mean dropping my phone on my forehead as I do one more Instagram scroll before sleep, or singing Whitney in the mirror to motivate myself before a difficult day at work

If by magic you mean the one place in the world where you can just be yourself. Unobserved. 

white bedsheets
Where we’d rather be…

For most of my adult life, the bedroom has been the one slither of space that is entirely my own. Like so many of us, I have shared homes with family, or friends, or strangers found on spareroom.com; cluttered lives living on top of one another where we must compromise and tolerate. Things will not remain as you left them. You will have to make awkward conversation with the girl subletting for the summer when you’d rather just eat your cornflakes in peace. 

I once lived in a houseshare so uncomfortable that I trained myself to wash up the pans and utensils while cooking so that when my food was ready, I did not have to venture back downstairs to clean up. Instead I could eat, in my bedroom, undisturbed for the entire evening. For bedrooms are not just bedrooms. They are more than just the place we sleep and have sex. They can be where we eat, work, write, think, socialise, and hide. For many, the idea of ‘home’ now fits into just one room.  

When thinking of my past houses, it is always the bedroom that comes to mind most clearly. As a child, the bedroom was somewhere to be sent; often too early for sleep, where I would enviously listen to the sounds of a busy family watching television and drinking wine, tempting me to creep downstairs and beg my mum to let me stay up for just one more hour. 

From the age of 13 or so, the bedroom became a fortress; somewhere to sulk alone, feeling increasingly miffed that my family hadn’t checked on me. I slammed the door in the faces of confused adults and scrawled notes in private diaries that I secretly wished someone would find and read, so they could fully understand the deep despair of being a teenager in middle England. 

woman in bedroom
Being alone: “For decades, my bedroom was a small sanctuary preserved for me, where the outside noise would soften”

At university, I moved from home to halls of residence, and found myself in a bedroom in a row of other bedrooms. I decorated with black and white posters of French films, left intelligent looking books strewn around the room, and lined the window sill with empty gin and whisky bottles. I thought I was creating some sort of Twenties drinking den that would entice the coolest students in the corridor to drink with me, flirt with me, and discuss politics until 2am. 

Looking back, it was far from that: the carpet was itchy, the sink was stained and the bed was so small I slept with my knees up under my chin. The mattress was insultingly encased in a waterproof cover meaning the sheets would come loose and I would often wake with my face stuck to the sweaty plastic underneath. But none of that mattered at the time. The bedroom always allows a reality of our own making. 

Of course, I have chosen to share my precious bedroom with people in the past. Sometimes it was a fleeting invite, sometimes longer, and sometimes they outstayed their welcome by a few hours, days… years. But for a while, their presence in the bedroom was exciting, then comforting, and then, at last, unwelcome. Their snores and socks and sweat became alien. 

I have had relationships where we still enjoyed one another’s company in crowds, or in restaurants, or even while lying on the sofa in the evening eating pizza, but their presence in my bedroom would make me feel backed into a corner with no space left to breathe. So eventually our relationship would break down, their shirts would leave the wardrobe, their contact lenses would disappear from the side, and I would feel sad. For a second. Until I could uncurl again, and feel my feet stretch out from corner to corner of the mattress.

Our bedrooms change with us. 

woman reading in bed
Staying in bed: “Bedrooms can be where we eat, work, write, think, socialise, and hide”

Eight months ago, I found out I was pregnant. One of the first things I learnt about babies is that it is recommended they sleep in your bedroom for the first six months, and many parents have their babies sleeping next to them for a whole year. It was a surprise; not a nasty surprise of course, but I admit it took some time to come round to the idea. Where would the baby sleep? Would there be room? Would I get a quiet minute to myself ever again?

My husband and I are used to one another. I am as relaxed around him as I am by myself (perhaps to a fault). But now we have a third addition. We must make space. I have spent the last few months clearing the bedroom: removing boxes of birthday cards from ex-boyfriends and relatives I no longer see, notebooks full of nonsense, unworn shoes, lipsticks and handbags that I hoped one day may suit me. Bags of belongings I deemed precious enough to move from home to home, to bedroom to bedroom, holding onto each item for reasons known only to me. 

And yet now, they are gone, shoved into black bin-liners. I’ve let them go to make room for teddies, and tiny clothes, and things for nipples and nappies. 

baby in bed
Newborn baby: “My body is already my baby’s home, and in just a few weeks we will share a home together”

It is more than physical space, of course. For decades, my bedroom was a small sanctuary preserved for me, where the outside noise would soften. It was a place where I could rest and reflect, wearing an old stained t-shirt, eating pasta and pesto in bed, watching Grand Designs on a laptop balanced on my knees.

Now, it is a space for a whole family. Where we will sleep, eat, argue, cry and scream at 3am. My body is already my baby’s home, and in just a few weeks we will share a home together. The three of us in the bedroom, in a row, nose to nose; my body, bed and attention shared.

My bedroom has gone from the room I used to protect myself from others, to where I am the protector of others. It is terrifying. And yet I could not feel more grateful. 

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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