In 2006, my husband and I bought a one bedroom co-op apartment in a nice, suburban neighborhood. It seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. It was a comfortable space for the two of us, an easy commute to the city, and in a quiet neighborhood we could see ourselves raising a family in. Our plan was to stay there for a few years, then sell, make a profit, and buy a bigger place to raise a couple of kids in.
Then, right before we closed on the deal, I found out I was pregnant. Then I had the baby. Then the real estate market crashed, and selling our little apartment meant losing every dollar we had put into it — which was most of our savings at the time.
Long story short, we ended up staying in that tiny, cozy apartment for seven years, having a second child along the way. It wasn’t ideal for sure, and by the time we moved, we were so ready to get out. But since the mortgage was relatively low, it allowed me to stay home with our kids when they were little, which was something I really wanted to do. And it ended up teaching me some very powerful life lessons along the way.
You don’t need much to raise happy children.
Living small meant that we didn’t have space for a ton of toys, especially the biggest, flashiest ones. (And let’s be honest, most toys are played with for a few days anyway, and then thrown in a toy basket never to be seen again.) We spent a lot of time outside, looking at worms on the sidewalk and playing in dirt. At home, we read, did science experiments, and made lots of messy art projects. I definitely wasn’t Supermom, but having less forced me to do more interesting, homegrown stuff with my kids.
Kids need people more than things.
Paying less in housing costs meant that my husband and I didn’t need to work as much. My husband had a couple of part-time jobs when my kids were very small, and I stayed home with them most of the time, working sometimes on weekends and evenings. My older son, in particular, got to spend a whole lot of time with both of his parents in his youngest years. And as much as we worried about how long we could maintain family life in such a small space, we all look on those years as some of the best times of our lives.
The less space you have, the less you have to clean.
It took me about one hour to deep clean our 600-square-foot apartment. Boom.
Most of the world lives with much less than most of us do here.
Even though my apartment would be considered small to most people in America, we lived largely compared to families in most of the rest of the world — lavishly, really. Worldwide, most families live in much smaller spaces than we did, and often with extended family members too. Many don’t have dishwashers, air conditioners, and even clean water. Want proof? Check out this powerful photo series depicting the sleeping spaces of children around the world.
Before you complain, always check your privilege.
Anytime I would start to complain about our little apartment (and believe me, it was often, especially once my second child got big enough to crawl around and wreck havoc), I would remember just how very privileged we were. Yes, things felt cramped, but we really had everything we needed. Our home was clean, comfortable, and our fridge was always stocked with a ton of food. We lived like royalty.
If you live in a small space, just a little bit of clutter can drive you mad.
As much as I made sure to keep things in perspective, the fact is that I do like a fairly organized house, and clutter does drive me a little batty. In a small space, just a few toys strewn about the floor can make it look like a pigsty — really. To combat that, I ended up being the biggest tight-ass when it came to decluttering and organizing. But it proved to be a good skill to learn, even as we’ve moved into a bigger space.
Be grateful for what you have, however small it is.
I will admit that I complained my fair share while living in that apartment, and spent nights worrying how we’d ever sell it and move on. But I also learned to feel truly grateful for our space. It was the perfect set-up for a couple of young parents and their small children. I felt, at times, that we were living in a little nest with our baby chicks. (And yes, we still found space to have sex. Ever heard of the living room?)
When we finally moved two years ago, we upgraded to a three bedroom duplex with a yard. It’s still not huge but feels like a palace compared to our apartment. It’s been amazing to get to spread ourselves out, to have room for more stuff, and to be able to retreat to the other side of the house when one of us just needs a breather.
Still, I’ll never forget that cute little apartment, all 600 square feet of it. And I have no regrets about living there as long as we did. Hell, I even miss it sometimes.