Thursday, April 16, 2015

Parenting in a Small Space

[You can also find my guest blog post of this article on Hudson Valley Parent Magazine, an amazing parenting publication in print and online. I'll be writing an article for the June print issue, so be sure to pick it up!]

We used to be "normal". You know, a 1200 square foot, 2-bedroom apartment in a city, with closets and things sitting in them that we didn't use. For a family of three, this seemed just about right.

Then we started off on an adventure.

When we first called the seller to inquire about the small house we now own, he warned us: "This isn't really a full-time living space. It's pretty small for two people, but - perfect for a vacation home!" (Little did he know, we were actually a family of three!) But we liked it, so we bought it anyway.

Our daughter was about 10 months old when we closed. No way could we even think about fitting her stuff, our stuff, and ourselves into this place! It was okay, though. We weren't going to live here. We would rent it out, share it with family and friends, and enjoy our own vacations here once in awhile.

Then, thanks to a friend's post on Facebook, I stumbled across the tiny house movement. I found cute story-book houses and blog posts telling the chronicles of brave souls giving away their possessions and living with less, all to live in infinitesimally small spaces. Maybe it would be possible for us...

But the one thing I didn't find much about were families living in tiny and small houses. Individuals, absolutely. Couples, sure. But with kids? Not so much. We decided to move here full time, and I just figured that we'd have to figure it out on our own.

Since then, I've found a number of notable families that have shared their experience living small. The numbers are growing of families diving into small house living. There are definite joys: less to clean, less to buy, less to pay for, smaller mortgages and utility bills. But parenting in a small space comes with some challenges too.

Wait - parenting is always a challenge and a joy (and, sometimes, both simultaneously)! For us, we're making it happen in a small house with an open floor plan, where just about everything gets shared, all the time. Living space? Shared. Play space? Shared. Sleeping space? Shared.

Headaches? Sometimes, they're shared, too!

Probably the hardest part of living in a small space is handling a two year old's temper tantrum. She needs a break, and I need a break, but we can't get away from each other!

We understand the power of going outside. The fresh air, the change of scenery, the temperature change, all provide a good opportunity to take a breath. During an outburst, it calms us down. But we live in the mountains, so this is not always a viable solution. When it's 10 below or raining (both of which happen frequently!), we make a point to look out the window and find something outside to focus on: a bird, the weather, the wind, a leaf.

Since we're constantly sharing space, I find it sometimes difficult to impart healthy separation to my daughter. She is always in my sight and I'm always in hers.

On the other hand, my daughter plays where I can see her, and we always get to be a part of each other's lives. When she squeals over a re-discovered book she hasn't read in months, I'm right there to share in her joy. When I'm working on a project, she gets involved. When she's about to draw on the wall with a marker, I know. In reality, her independence is stronger because I'm not worried about her getting into trouble in another room. She can explore with freedom.

I've always been a very independent person. Having a child was a huge shift for me, and I really do need my down time to recharge. So when living in a small space gets too much for me, I ask for help. My husband is great about responding to my needs, and he'll take her out so I can breath. Even a few minutes is sometimes enough.

Yes, we sleep in the same space: we have a sleeping loft, where one side is hers and the other is ours. Until we bought this house, I never considered that there might be any way of living other than each kid having their own bedroom, with a door, and toys and books, and a closet full of clothes, and space. When my daughter was an infant, I remember feeling so very relieved when we finally moved her to her own bedroom in our last house. Freedom! And it was great, at the time.

Now, I treasure the fact that I can hear her breathing when I wake up in the night. In the morning, I see her sleepy eyes and her amazing little smile first thing. I'm literally right there if she needs anything.

Believe it or not, she still has enough space to practice her dance moves on the carpet before she hops into bed for the night.

This seems to keep coming up in my conversations with friends and family: Where do you go to be alone? The truth is, nowhere. I can try the bathroom, but any parent knows no toddler is going to let that happen!

Where do you have private conversations? We wait until bedtime, or go outside. Or, we spell things. It makes a two minute conversation last ten, but right now it works. I've heard pig latin works well too, and we might have until middle school before she figures that out!

Where will your kids get private space? Honestly, I'm not sure. My daughter has a reading nook with her books and a miniature rocking chair of her very own. She loves to hang out there, and it seems to make her happy. And there's no way on earth that I can fit in that rocking chair, so that space is all hers!

If one of us really needs to escape the shared environment, our sleeping loft provides some private space during the daytime Sleeping lofts: for more than just naps!

For now, our kids are small (one is two and a half, the other in utero) so living in a small space works for us. We know that, as our kids grow up and start playing in the school band, they'll probably need more space. And so will we!

We'll cross that bridge - and buy that house - when we come to it.