Small Space? No Big Deal

Our balcony...small, but we still managed to grow things this summer!

We did the opposite of what most people expecting a second child would do: we downsized. Our first apartment in Germany was about 1,000 square feet–the size of our home in the United States (minus a garage, basement, and large yard, of course), so it seemed reasonable to us at first. After all, our house in Michigan was smaller than anybody else’s we knew. Yet we quickly learned that we were paying dearly for what many Germans would view as an extravagant amount of space (“Space is a luxury, and you pay for it,” my neighbor said when I told her we were moving). Wanting to save more money, we relocated over the summer into a 730 square foot apartment. We have never regretted it.

The new, smaller apartment has served us quite well; it’s well-built and comfortable, with a nice balcony (pretty standard here in Germany) and wood floors. But this weekend, my husband and I had to re-strategize. Our baby daughter is almost five months old, the age our son was when we moved him to his own room. Like our son, our daughter has started showing signs of needing her own space– for several weeks she has been sleeping worse than ever at night, and I just have the “feeling”, like I did with my son at this age, that we’d all have better nights if she had a room of her own.

The problem? She can’t have a room of her own. We don’t have one. Nevertheless, we had to talk about how to help her sleep in the space we do have. We knew friends who had managed this, and assumed it would only take some careful thought. We discussed whether or not to move the baby into our son’s room, which would require quite a bit of furniture rearranging, but we ended up deciding for now to move our son’s bed into our room and put our daughter’s crib in his room. Our son sleeps in a converted crib that wedges perfectly against our back wall, provided I move my desk into the living room where my husband’s is (a good move anyway– I never use the desk in our room, since somebody’s always sleeping there!). Our son has been a great sleeper on a predictable routine for close to two years, so we thought sleeping in our room might be less disturbing for him than waking up with the baby as she adjusts to her new space. We figure we’ll see how it goes– eventually, when the baby has settled in, we assume we’ll move our son back into that room. After an afternoon spent rearranging and testing out naps in the new spots– they worked just fine– we feel comfortable and content with our choice.

I don’t want to over-romanticize living in a small space with four people and a German Shepherd. I miss my garden. I really wish we had a guest room and a second bathroom to make life easier for visitors. I know my husband misses his garage, which back in Michigan was crammed full of tools, boats, the occasional deer carcass. It’s hard having too many people over for dinner. Sometimes I just want to go into a room by myself and shut the door, but I basically never can.

But here are the advantages:

1) We pay attention to stuff. We can’t afford to just accumulate. Every item in our apartment has to have to be there. If we’re not using it now, we have to think carefully about whether we’ll really need it in the future. If we won’t, we sell it or give it away. If we will, we store it in the small closet allotted us in the basement of the apartment building. I welcome the freedom from extra stuff.

2) We’re not isolated from one another. We’re a family, and believe me, in this space, we never forget it. Our son plays with his soccer ball in the same room where my husband works on his graduate program and I set the table for dinner. We don’t avoid each other…we can’t! That’s probably a good thing.

3) We have a small footprint. The National Association of Homebuilders states that “the average home size in the United States was 2,700 square feet in 2009, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970.” The BBC reports average floor space in U.S. homes to be over twice that of most European countries. Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, Americans’ energy use per capita was nearly twice that of Germans’ in 2009. Hmmm. Is there a connection? The small house movement gaining ground in the United States seems to think so.

4) Cleaning is a snap. Even when I’m about to pull my hair out because the apartment looks like a tornado ripped through, it never really takes more than 45 minutes for me to get it completely tidy and mostly clean.

5) Everything’s right there. Our apartment has only one level–no stairs–and with two kids under the age of three, I’ve been grateful for that many times over. Having our washer and dryer in the bathroom is one of the greatest conveniences I’ve enjoyed yet, and if I hear a mysterious crash in one room, I never have to run too far to investigate it.

I don’t know if I want to live in a space this small forever. But for now, this is my life, and I’m learning from it, and I’m thankful.


12 thoughts on “Small Space? No Big Deal

  1. I love living in my 650 square foot studio for the exact same reason! I love the little zones I’ve created and the coziness of my home. And yes, definitely love how quick it is to clean and keep clean. 🙂

  2. How fun to read about your cultural and family experiences abroad. Thank you so much for sharing them.
    My first home, which I had built with some architectural help, was 750 sq. ft in northern Michigan. It was perfect for many of the reasons you described, as well as easy to heat with my Vermont Castings Wood Stove back in the late 70s. I miss it.

  3. When we moved to Ann Arbor, we could only afford a two bedroom apartment. We had one baby, with one on the way so no real problem. When we finally moved, we had four kids in that same apartment. Two kids in bunkbeds and a crib in one room, with a cradle in our room with the baby. I agree that the small space made caring for four small kids much easier. Toys had to be organized and clean-up took only a few minutes. Living with less space makes life simple since you only keep what you really need.

    1. It’s so neat to hear that story, Gail. Thank you for your comment. You’re right about life being simpler somehow in a small space. I’m so much more conscious of clutter…and I’m sure my kids accumulate fewer toys, but they don’t seem deprived. We have a lot of picture books, which don’t take up much space.

  4. Your post reminded me of two posts my friend wrote on her blog about the joys and challenges of a small house.
    For some reason, a lot of Minneapolis/St. Paul homes were built with just two bedrooms, so what to do with two kids on different sleep schedules (or no sleep schedule) is a common question around here. I’ve told some friends who are dealing with the same issue about how you put your older child in your room and everyone’s been kind of like, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

    1. Kirsten, thanks so much for passing on these links. I loved them– in fact, I tried commenting on her blog but the little “verification” box wouldn’t work. I’ll try again tomorrow. Anyway, having our toddler in our room is a temporary solution, but is working well so far. For the first two nights in a room alone, Joanie only woke up once, and last night she slept through from 8:30-5, then went back down again until 7! We figure as soon as she is reliably sleeping through, we can put them in a room together. I’m really enjoying the cozy feel of the bedrooms, actually.

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