This is my favorite time of year in our apartment – the Hawthorne outside our window in full bloom, plants sprouting on the windowsill, my son on the floor playing marbles, sunlight and shadows striping his face.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to have it all: a loving, trustworthy husband; bright, beautiful children; a simple, quiet house; a fulfilling career; and the ability to stay home with my children when they were young. Several of these dreams were carved out of deficiencies in my own childhood – divorced parents, living with my single mother who came home and napped at the end of her long work day. All my life I had lived in apartments, many of them cozy, cluttered, crowd- ed spaces. I wanted a house. I wanted a garden.
In my early adulthood, several of these dreams came true. I married a caring, committed man and began a budding career as a poet and college instructor. During the process of trying to get pregnant with my first child, we decided to invest the money I had inherited from my grandparents into an apartment close to the neighborhood where both my mother and my husband’s parents lived. All we could afford was a one bedroom apartment, and the plan was to move when the child was three or four years old. That was 2006, when the housing market was booming, right before it crashed. This apartment was supposed to be our nest egg – we’d sell it after a few years, make a good profit, buy a larger apartment, and then eventually buy a house.
In January of 2007, our son was born, a planned homebirth in our dining room. So much of what I knew was turned upside down and backwards as I dealt with the endless needs of this baby. It was as though the world around me melted away and it was just me, my husband, and this baby in the close quarters of our little apartment. Months passed, many months. I realized that not only did it not make sense financially to return to work (with the commute, and my part-time pay, I’d probably break even if I paid a babysitter to watch my son), but my heart was pulling me in a different direction. I hadn’t considered this when I was younger – I thought I could somehow continue to climb the career ladder and be a full-time mom. But now all I wanted was to be with my son and my need for stature in my career diminished. Some mothers feel differently when it comes to their careers, but this was how it happened for me.
More months passed, then years. My husband decided to change careers himself and went back to school to become a high school English teacher. As he was finishing school, he lost the job he’d had for ten years due to budget cuts, and he began to take long- and short-term substitute positions. As our son got closer to four years old, we began to look into putting the apartment on the real estate market. As I suspected, its value had sharply decreased. After a year of trying to sell it, and getting such low offers that we would actually owe the bank money if we sold it, we resolved to let it be for a while.
Sometimes I ask myself how we’ve survived five years of raising a child in so little space. Six hundred square feet sounds unthinkable to most families. But the fact is that most of the world’s families live in spaces this small. Although we didn’t think too much of it at the beginning, staying here for so long has been a choice. We have decided to live in the area where our parents live, where it is relatively safe and clean, and accessible to the city. And we have decided to live on one income, and a teacher’s salary at that. I have grappled with this for years: “If only we had more money, more space, etc.” But we wanted to live in this area and have the lifestyle we’ve chosen, so this is what it is.
And the fact is, we have not only survived in so little space, but we have flourished. I have birthed a son; breastfed in every nook and corner;, watched him learn to crawl, walk, talk, play, make art, read, dance, sing, make up stories. He’s slept beside us, slept in his own space, slammed the door in our faces, dragged us to the window to show us a blooming sunflower. I have enjoyed the quiet of stolen hours alone with my books, my plants, and my poems. I have spent many evenings curled up in bed with my husband talking, laughing, making plans, making love (trust me, there are enough square feet in our home to find discreet places to do so!).
I have panicked about our space, of course. Every few months, things begin to feel cluttered, and I get waves of dread about continuing to live here. I have learned the importance of decluttering. I go through each closet, each bookcase, each toy shelf, each kitchen cabinet, and I remove the things we just don’t need. Living small has taught me how little I truly need. After a good de-cluttering, I feel so good and proud of our stuff and our space.
Small space living is perfect for the early, intense, intimate years of raising children. Less money spent on rent, mortgages, heating and electric bills means more time together. Less time spent cleaning, mowing, and repairing also means more time together. Less room for excess stuff means less stuff bought, and more money saved. There is little room for fighting in our home, and when our son was little and cried or lost his temper, there was no choice except to be with him, soothing him with our mere proximity.
I recently completed another big de-cluttering. One of my
areas of focus was our chest of drawers. I cleared out just enough clothes
to empty one more drawer in our dresser. Yes, this fall, our six hundred
square feet will soon be divided by four. I’m not sure how much longer we
will stay here after the baby comes, and to some extent we will not have
much choice in the matter (who can control housing markets or job offers?),
but I do know that we will have what we need. If I have learned anything in
the past five years, it’s that worrying too much about the future is worse
for the soul than any amount of clutter that may pile up on our tables and
floor. Most importantly, I have learned that it simply isn’t possible to
have it all, but ending each day in a home full of people you love is all
Wendy Wisner is a writer, mom, and board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) who lives in New York with her husband and sons. She is the author of two books of poems, “Epicenter” (2004) and “Morph and Bloom” (2013). Her book reviews appear regularly in Lilith Magazine, and she blogs about breastfeeding, motherhood, and writing at www.nursememama.com.