My children are 4, 2 and 8 weeks and they have yet to hear me use the S word: space.
I swore 18 months ago when we moved into our two-bedroom that we would adopt a “have” rather than “have not” attitude. Growing up on stories that my grandfather, whose family of nine lived in a one-room shtetl home in Poland where they perched his mattress on their stovetop to optimize space, I reminded myself that our limited conditions would be cozy, not claustrophobic. I thought of the millions of displaced Syrian refugees who’d travel weeks on a boat just to find a persecution-free haven and said 800 square feet overlooking Central Park doesn’t exactly render me a victim.
But, with the impending arrival of a third child, most parents I know would have opted for the suburban escape. Between surreal rent prices, storage constraints and overall cost of living, there was little that made sense about our budding family expanding in our two-bedroom. My husband and I decided to stick it out.
For us, the benefit of having short commutes to our city jobs and thus, more time with our children, outweighed the cost of space. In short: We are able to spend more time with our kids, and when we do, it’s in extremely close quarters.
The bathroom sink is my infant’s bathtub where we also thaw spare ribs when a week’s worth of cereal bowls has reduced our kitchen sink to microcosmic landfill. I recently read a parenting book that said an infant’s room should be a calming oasis. Our newborn sleeps in my room —which is also the storehouse for five people’s wardrobes, my college notes and our hot pot.
I look around at our contemporaries basking in the glory of their first homes. When one friend Facetimed me from her walk-in shoe closet, I imagined how many toddler beds I could fit in there.
Manhattan family living has transformed me into a utilitarian utopian. The Container Store is my manifesto, and hooks and shelving units are my weapons. Any household item purchased requires a vetting process: Will its use outweigh its density? We’ve stymied a Costco membership because I can’t justify storing anything that won’t be used within a week.
My eldest son may have turned me into a mother, but on Fridays I become God. Because that’s the day my kids burst through the door with their week’s wealth of projects and I am forced to decide what will live, what will die. Scribbled Mother’s Day card reminiscent of the primordial void? Sigh. In.
Time in a shoebox has taught me some important lessons:
Kids don’t need much material good to be happy. Last year at our housewarming Hanukkah party, a friend peered into my kids’ room. She asked me where all the toys were. I hardly balked. My son’s side of the room features no basket of balls, truck collection or superhero paraphernalia. My daughter, whose only Frozen reference is an ice cube tray, has no dollhouse, only a few stuffed animals and spends most of her free play time swaddling her “baby” with a blanket she makes out of paper napkins.
As a first time parent, I spent time thinking of what my son needed. The high contrast starter library for visual development. The baby gym to boost hand/eye coordination. The plastic teething giraffe that promises to “awaken” the baby’s senses. As a third-time parent with a lot more wear and a little more wisdom, I’ve spent time thinking of what I can give away. With two older siblings doting and prodding number three I have no doubt she’ll have the requisite amount of development, coordination, sensory awakening — albeit at the expense of the occasional tickle-pinch.
Neither do adults. Ten months ago I began cleaning out my clothing (and tools, and photo album) closet, rummaging through piles of sweaters I haven’t worn since my engagement. It’s been seven years, and if the last time an outfit saw daylight was before the crash of the stock market, I feel no remorse in parting with it. In closets, as in life, less is often more.
Minimalism breeds creativity. With fewer toys available, my kids are forced to improvise. Some of their household creations include: converting my yoga mat holder into a dog leash (my daughter becomes the puppy at her older brother’s behest), winter sleds leaned on the couch become indoor slides and most recently, I found my 2-year-old drumming chopsticks on a diaper pail. Naked.
Finally, patience. It’s 8 a.m. and there are four of us in need of one toilet. Priorities: She who can hold it in the least is first. Next up, the older brother. In between, my husband reaches for his razor and shaves, every so often peering over his shoulder at the newborn in her bouncer seat who has yet to be tipped over by a sibling. I’ve resigned to brushing my teeth in the kitchen. When the kids return from school at 4 p.m., they opt for an art project, and several minutes after I’ve set up their paints they’re hungry. I wrap up their work and convert the desk to our dining table.
How do you do it, neighbors and friends ask. First, I’ve embraced mediocrity. I’m learning that my worth isn’t diminished by the marker stain on my couch or a pumpkin-stickered doorpost. Sometimes when our place resembles a natural disaster more than a living room I remind myself that I’m a mother of children, not a museum curator. My kids have become artful sharers. They hit more, but they hug more.
There is a famous saying in the Talmud: Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot. When it’s 7 a.m. and all five of us are shamelessly bopping to Klezmer around our living room, I know I’ve achieved this. And so, despite what my bank account says, I do feel I’ve bred some very rich kids. In the meantime, my kids won’t hear me complain. So far, our little square footage has turned into a pretty large life.
Batsheva Neuer is a political communications professional in New York, and a contributing writer on family and parenting.
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