The Virtues of Living in a Small Space

It’s a tale as old as caves (probably): If only I had some more space! When writer Elizabeth Passarella relocated from the south, where she was raised, to less spacious digs in Manhattan and began raising a family, the questions from home were as numerous as the taxis in her new city. Although she didn’t really need to defend her life choices to her friends and family, she did. The result, as hilariously chronicled in her new book Good Apple: Tales of a Southern Evangelical in New York, will speak to you if you’ve ever coveted an extra bedroom. The truth is, space can be overrated.

By Elizabeth Passarella
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When I told people I was pregnant with my third child, the response I got most often had to do with real estate.

“Where will you put him?”

“Will you buy a bigger apartment?”

“So you’ll move out of the city, right?”

Most of the time the questions came from old friends or family members who had visited New York City plenty but still didn’t quite understand how or why I was continuing to live here in a two-bedroom apartment. They were curious. Some people were genuinely, supportively curious. Other people were curious like one might wonder how a dog manages to lick its own bottom — interested in the logistics but still harboring a sense that the whole affair is uncouth. With everyone, though, I tried to answer in the most openhearted and generous way possible. I explained the layout of our apartment and how we planned to rejigger things. “We don’t feel like we’re bursting at the seams Just yet,” I’d say. Occasionally, if I was annoyed and prone to patronizing, I’d try to suss out what kind of preconceived notion the person was bringing to the table. That way, I could either heroically affirm an exciting part of city living they’d always wondered about or (gently, so gently) tear down a negative perception. Only rarely did I get full-blown defensive.

This way of life isn’t for everyone. I have sincerely counseled friends to move out of the city and cheered them on all the way to Connecticut or California. But it is absolutely for me. And as long as people have question, I have answers. Who better to explain this existence than a woman who, true story, arrived at college, met a classmate who was from Manhattan, and asked that woman if she lived in a hotel? I’ve come so far and learned so much.

And now I’m sharing answers to the most common questions I get about living in a New York City apartment with kids.

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Q: But seriously, where did you put the baby?

A: In a closet. Here’s how our bedroom situation shook out over the years: When Michael and I bought our apartment in 2008, on the downward slope to the financial crisis, we had no children. An extra bedroom was, frankly, ridiculous. But Julia came along in 2010, and by then, we had a handle on the mortgage and felt like geniuses for taking money out of the stock market and putting it in Manhattan real estate, which eventually bounced back. (In reality, it was dumb luck.) Julia slept in the smaller second bedroom. When James was born, he slept in a crib in our walk-in master closet, something you don’t always see in Manhattan apartments, which was the result of the funky layout of our very old building. When James was two and a half, he started sleeping with Julia, something we instituted as a solution to her waking up and getting into our bed, and when it stuck, we decided to flip the rooms. The kids took the master (we eventually bought bunk beds), Michael and I took the smaller room, and the closet became a closet again. Many years later, when I got pregnant with Sam, we did some minor construction on the master closet, adding wallpaper and more streamlined shelving. It’s pitch-black at night, and Sam sleeps incredibly well.

Q: If the baby is in the closet, where are all of your clothes?

A: There is a second, medium-sized closet off the hallway outside the master bedroom; my clothes are in there. The big kids’ clothes are in an antique armoire in their room. The baby’s and Michael’s clothes are in an Elfa system along one wall of the nursery/closet. Michael has a little bit of hanging space in the closet in our bedroom, but not much, because the washing machine is in there.

Q: I’m sorry, the washing machine is in your closet?

A: Yes. When we bought the apartment, there was no washer/dryer in it. Some apartments have a reasonable place to put them, where there’s open space and a water hookup. Ours did not. Which was fine by me, as our building had a lovely, clean, communal laundry room in the basement. My mother-in-law, however, declared that I’d regret not finding a way to install our own, specially once I had kids, and became determined to figure it out, which she eventually did. (I’m very grateful, in hindsight.) The trick was buying a European-brand washing machine that was extra narrow and putting it in a closet that backed up to a bathroom. The contractor simply cut a hole through the wall to give us a water hookup. And it left the top half of the closet open, so that Michael can hang up his pants.

Q: You haven’t explained where the dryer is.

A: You’re right. The dryer situation is even weirder. There was nowhere to put it where it could vent to the outside, so we had to buy a ventless dryer, which captures condensation in a container that you empty after every load. It only needs a high-voltage electrical outlet to run. Not wanting to lose the entire second bedroom closet by stacking the washer/dryer, we (my mother-in-law) elected to put the dryer in the walk-in master closet instead. Which means, yes, the dryer is in the baby’s room. We don’t run it when he’s asleep.

Q: But what about all of your kids’ stuff?

A: All of our kids have too much stuff. Mine have considerably less, because we have limited space, and I throw things away while they sleep, and they still have too much.

Q: You sound mean.

A: You sound like my kids.

Q: But doesn’t it make you sad that your kids can’t ride their bikes around the cul-de-sacs like you did back in the day?

A: I don’t know, are kids still riding their bikes around the cul-de-sacs in suburbia from morning to night like we did back in the day? My sister’s sons do, but they live in an almost creepily utopian neighborhood with lots of sidewalks. The majority of my suburban sources say those days are gone. I think kids are too busy at debate practice or ballet or watching YouTube. We do ride bikes — through Central Park, which is arguably more picturesque than the stomping ground of my youth — but it requires an adult to ride along. Fortunately, Michael enjoys riding bikes. I used to go for runs and let Julia ride her bike alongside me, but I’m terribly out of shape due to writing this book.

Q: Don’t your kids drive you crazy, being in close proximity all the time?

A: Yes.

Q: And…?

A: Listen. I’ve spent time in big houses with my kids. I’ve watched my friends in their big houses with their kids. What I’ve observed is that, regardless of how many square feet you have, your kids want to be wherever you are, preferably touching one of your limbs or pulling lightly on your earlobes if possible. I don’t think a playroom or second floor would buy me more peace and quiet at this stage of life. Admittedly, my children are still young, which makes them more cling; I hear teenager treat you like a stranger who wandered in from the bus stop. However, when we get to that phase, as much as I hate to say this and will likely regret it, living in a small space might make even more sense.

Regardless of how many square feet you have, your kids want to be wherever you are, preferably touching one of your limbs or pulling lightly on your earlobes if possible.

Q: What if you and your husband have an argument? Can’t the kids hear?

A: Yes! Yes, they can. Which is why we frequently scream at each other outdoors, on public sidewalks. Occasionally, though, we do fight within earshot of our kids. If anything, it prompts us to apologize and ask for forgiveness from each other in front of them. Time will tell if this mitigates their therapy costs.

Q: Will you ever move?

A: I don’t know, Mom. To another apartment? I think so. Once Sam is out of a crib, we either put all three kids in one room—there is such thing as a triple bunk bed, amazingly—or we move to a bigger place. We love our building and our neighbors, though, and we’ve lived here for so long. All of our babies came home from the hospital to this apartment. And moving is expensive! Honestly, when I think about having to pack, sleeping in a bathtub starts to sound appealing.

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Elizabeth Passarella is the author of  Good Apple: Tales of a Southern Evangelical in New York, from which this post was  excerpted.  Elizabeth is also a contributing editor for Southern Living, where she writes the “Social Graces” column. A former editor at Real Simple and Vogue, she has written about food, travel, home design, and parenting in outlets including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Parents, Martha Stewart Weddings, Coastal Living, and Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn. She lives in New York City.

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