When Sara Ryan and her husband, Kevin, learned they were going to have a baby, one of the first things they did was look seriously at their small but stately Dupont Circle apartment — and resolve not to leave it.
“That’s the first question you get: ‘Are you moving to the suburbs?’ ” Sara, 34, says. “So we thought about it, and we just didn’t want to move. My husband walks to work, we love our building, we love where we’re located, we love the lifestyle it gives us.”
They wanted their now-6-month-old daughter, Maggie, to be a part of that lifestyle. They also knew this choice meant significant compromises were in store.
For city-dwelling parents who choose to stay put in small apartments, cramped condos and narrow rowhouses, it is often challenging to make room for a baby — especially if the baby doesn’t actually have a room.
To prepare for Maggie’s arrival, Sara and Kevins donated bags of clothes from their wardrobes. They cleared space for their daughter’s books, built makeshift shelves around their HVAC unit and sent their Christmas decorations and photo albums to Sara’s parents’ house.
“Giving birth to her was the easy part,” Sara jokes. “Giving her room in my closet was the real act of love.”
The brightly colored exer-saucer sitting on the living room rug? Borrowed from a friend. The baby bathtub in the narrow bathroom? Collapsible. Maggie’s crib? A mini-version, small enough to fit between the foot of the antique guest bed and the wall of the second bedroom.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make it work,” Sara says. “A lot.”
Their home is now a methodically organized, aesthetically pleasing but undeniably tight squeeze. And this is a two-bedroom apartment.
Just a few miles away, Emily Giulioni and her husband, Michael, an aspiring architect, are making many of the same preparations that the Ryans did — except the Giulionis are working with a 630-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in the NoMa neighborhood, a wee space that is also home to Lola, the couple’s energetic 2-year-old terrier mix.
“It’s a small space, but we didn’t want to leave the neighborhood,” Giulioni, 34, says. “We don’t own a car, we’re within two blocks of the Metro, we have two grocery stores within walking distance, Union Station is within walking distance. . . . We didn’t feel that adding a small person to our life meant that we had to move at this point in time.”
With their baby’s due date fast approaching, the couple are starting to get serious about making space for their newest family member, Giulioni says. Her husband built a space-saving bookshelf and storage unit, and the couple opted for a mini-crib to fit in their bedroom.
“And we’re going vertical,” Giulioni says. “We have high ceilings, so we’re identifying places there where we can store things.”
These young families are not alone in choosing to make a small space accommodate a growing family. Housing in the District is expensive, so upgrading to a larger apartment isn’t always an option — and with trends shifting from small to “micro” units, there aren’t as many spacious apartments available anyway. Even as many millennials swap a walkable city life for roomier, more affordable spaces in the suburbs, others rail against the idea of lawn mowers and cars and longer commutes. The result is a steady rise in the District’s population of children age 5 and younger, a number that grew from about 32,000 in 2010 to nearly 36,500 in 2013, according to census estimates.
Emily Hemphill, a home and office organizer in the District who launched her business, Vital Organizing, last year, says she has already received numerous clients who are looking for creative ways to fit babies and toddlers into small urban spaces.
“I think sometimes people don’t appreciate how easily you can start to accumulate things for your kids,” Hemphill says. “And things that we think of as de rigueur for babies, like a changing table, you just don’t need.”
Regardless of the situation, Hemphill says the first step is always the same: “Purge!”
The imminent arrival of a baby has a way of shifting priorities, she says; a box of 250 CDs or a collection of drinking league T-shirts probably won’t seem like a critical keepsake anymore.
“Now is a time to prioritize and let these things go,” Hemphill says. “You really have to do the purge first. People are always surprised at how much space they can make. Then, you can start to think about the small-space solutions that are going to work in your apartment.”
When registering for gifts, Hemphill adds, it’s important to focus on the things you need — a changing pad, a bassinet or mini-crib, two-for-one devices like a combo car seat and stroller — while excluding things you don’t, like extra toys, swings or bulk packages of diapers.
“Be realistic about what you need and don’t stockpile,” Hemphill advises.
Raising a baby in a small space isn’t easy and may not be a permanent solution; once a baby starts walking, parents note, a tight space can quickly feel even tighter.
For now, Sara Ryan says her family hopes to stick it out. The trade-off is worth it, she says, to be able to incorporate their daughter into the lifestyle and neighborhood they love so much.
“I think it’s really awesome to grow up in downtown Washington, D.C.,” she says. “That’s a really different childhood than I had — but her neighbor is the Thai ambassador. We have the Costa Rican Embassy at the end of our block. There are children who speak French in our building. That kind of exposure is really awesome, so that’s why we’re making all of the other sacrifices.”
● Start with a thorough purge: By carefully going through your own belongings, donating or disposing of what you no longer need and scrutinizing your existing storage space, you can often create far more room than you might expect.
● Communicate with friends and family members — kindly but firmly — about your living situation and the need to avoid large items and gifts that aren’t included in your registry.
● Consider new storage possibilities in your space, such as shelves added to closets or walls, space-saving storage units and closet organizing systems.
● Buy or register for space-saving things you truly need, like a mini-crib and a changing pad. For bigger or short-term-use items such as exer-saucers or swings, buy them used or borrow them if possible. Focus on items that are easy to store (such as a collapsible bathtub) or provide a two-for-one use (such as a car seat-stroller combo).
● If you don’t have room for a nursery, try to identify a particular area — a nook or corner — where toys and other items will be kept; this way your own living area won’t be consumed by clutter.