Tots in Tight Quarters

Lessons on family life in a small apartment in the big city.

I’m sound asleep in my pitch-black bedroom when a tiny noise taps my consciousness, causing little ripples to start spreading through the stillness of my brain.

First coherent thought is, “What was that?” followed quickly by, “Who was that?”

Sleeping on my side, I can’t distinguish noises from the left or right.

I turn so that both ears are off the pillow, listening carefully in case the noise happens again.

My daughter is asleep in her crib on my side of the bed. I can hear the gentle whir-whir of her feeding pump.

On the opposite side of the room, my son sleeps in his crib. My partner almost never gets up to check on him in the night, so I am praying that the noise did not come from our son because it will mean scooting around the bed to his crib.

The noise happens again, a choky cough that signals that my daughter is on the verge of spitting up.

Quickly, I roll out of bed directly into the folding chair tucked in between the bed and the crib. In one well-practiced series of motions I reach over and hit the Hold button on the pump, grab a dishtowel waiting nearby and roll my daughter onto her side, catching the spit-up in the towel.

I’m lucky this time and manage to catch it all. Many times, I’m not lucky and have to take her out of the bed, unhook her feeding tube from her tummy, clean up the yuck, change her clothes and the bed linens, then put her back to sleep. This happens pretty much every night.

Like many San Franciscans, we have had to figure out how to make things work in a small living space. Our first apartment here was a studio near downtown. When I was pregnant with our first, we moved to a 1-bedroom in a more family-friendly neighborhood (locals call it “Stroller Valley”).

Going from a studio apartment to a one-bedroom seemed like a great leap up the ladder of luxury. On our first night in the apartment, we shut the door to the bedroom and giggled to each other about what a treat that seemed like after two years in the studio, where the only way to get some personal space was to put on noise cancelling headphones and sit facing opposite directions.

When my first was born, it was cozy in the apartment, but very manageable. We had a mini-crib for the baby in our bedroom, on the side nearest to me. I kept a folding chair tucked between the bed and crib and could roll straight into it in the middle of the night for breastfeeding, then put our son back down to sleep and roll back into bed myself.

There weren’t as many toys, and we had space for everything baby-related in our bedroom. There was the mini-crib, a changing table with shelves for diapers and whatnot, and a hanging shelf thingy in the closet for the baby’s clothes. In the living room, we had an Ikea bookshelf with square cubbies that sat on its long side to hold the TV. First one cubby, then a second became dedicated to toys.

We had already made a lot of compromises for space considerations when we were in the studio, like sharing one dresser and trying to keep clothing, shoes and linens limited to the essentials. The kitchen was small, but we had enough room for a square table and chairs, and we added a high chair a little later on.

So I feel confident in saying that you can live in a 1-bedroom apartment with a small child. It’s when you add another child that life really gets interesting.

When you live in a small space, you become more intensely aware of many things that just aren’t as much of an issue in a larger home, such as:

  • Smells – Cooking smells, dirty shoes, musty closets, mildew in the bathroom, unwashed bed linens, overflowing garbage cans, and so on. These make the idea of an open concept living space really unappealing.
  • Lighting – It can be very gloomy in SF, and if your apartment faces north you never get direct sunlight in your windows. This affects your mental state, and invites mold (which also affects your mental state, even if it isn’t toxic).
  • Privacy – Personally, I’ve never figured out whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert. But I know that I need space to be alone with my thoughts, and that can be hard to achieve when sharing small quarters. Our studio apartment was blessed with a set of quaint, glass French doors that closed off the kitchen and eating area.
  • Storage – If you want to buy a home in SF, be ready to pay at least $1000 per square foot. This means getting very creative in how you store items not used regularly. Closets are obviously important, as are furniture pieces that provide storage space in addition to functionality. Some of my favorites that we had were a secretary desk with a tall hutch, and an old steamer trunk that we used for a coffee table and which held almost as much stuff as a coat closet.

After almost two years as a family of four with only 700 square feet, we moved to a house in a less central neighborhood that feels downright palatial, with two bedrooms upstairs and a guest quarters added to the garage downstairs.

There aren’t a lot of articles dedicated to surviving life in a small space with children, so here is a non-comprehensive set of tips that I have learned from my own experience:

  • Life in a small apartment is like living at the edge of the Saharan desert. Clutter constantly creeps in and collects in drifts like sand dunes piling up against every vertical object. Be ruthless about discarding things.
  • Use your wall space. Rows of hooks are amazing for keeping things organized. I have hooks for scarves, necklaces, hats, coats, backpacks, and so on. We had all of our shoes on a rack that hung on the back of the coat closet door.
  • Make your bed every day. Put a little more effort into making it pretty, since you’re going to see it a lot more than you would in a bigger home.
  • Say goodbye to specialty kitchen tools. Just put the items you use daily like plates and glasses, silverware, favorite pots and pans in your cupboards. Everything that doesn’t fit, get rid of. Trust me, you’ll never miss it.

Most of all, living in a small space requires the right attitude. You are sailing the world of life in a little boat. Your focus shifts from things to experiences, which really is an excellent way to live.



One thought on “Tots in Tight Quarters

  • Leslie, you are an amazing writer! You put me right there with you and Jean and the kids. Thanks, Grandma

Comments are closed.