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How to Live Gracefully As a Large Family In A Small House

alec vanderboom

(in response to a reader's email)

One mental hurdle I had to overcome was this belief "each kid should have their own bedroom." My parents had three kids in a house with four bedrooms. Each kid had their own room and decorated it in their own way and went to bed at different times. My husband's family lived in a home with six bedrooms for a family of five. In their family everyone got their own room, Dad had an office, and they had an open guest room.

We lived in two bedroom apartments while our kids were small. My first two kids were a boy and a girl born 18 months apart. I nurse, so I usually keep the baby in my room for the first 8 months. Then I put them in the same room--one in a toddler bed and one in a crib. They were both great sleepers.  We easily saved $800 to $1,000 by having a 2 bedroom apartment instead of a 3 bedroom apartment while we lived closer to Washington D.C.

My first headache happened when we added a third daughter, Maria to the mix. Maria was my darling who could not sleep. She had infant reflux. It messed up her sleeping schedule as an infant and she never got it back. When she was three years old, she would still wake up in full screaming crying mode four to five times a night. It was awful.

So the deal was --no one wanted to sleep with Maria. We wanted her out of our room, but she was too light a sleeper to put with the other kids. At one point, we left her crib in our room and then we moved our bed into the living room. (If you can picture, we had 3 rooms. One bedroom, one common room, and a second bedroom all in a line) I lived with my bed hanging out in my living room for a couple of weeks during the "transition."

Eventually, we moved her crib into her siblings room around 15 months. The two older siblings left their room and slept in our room. Every night. It got to point where we made up two trundle beds and hid them our low IKEA bed during the day. Then at night, we put everyone to bed in the "kid room." By 1 AM, after multiple wake-up from Maria, both kids would be sleeping in their "second" bed in our room. Finally she settled down and learned how to sleep better through the night. The kid room because a true "kids room" and the parent room was solely for us again.

So in that 2 bedroom apartment--we slept as a family of six. I had my mini IKEA bed and a small white crib for Tess in the smallest bedroom. We gave the kids the larger master bedroom. We got two of those extending toddler/single size beds from IKEA. I put them on the "middle" size for a 6 and an 8 year old. Maria slept in her crib that was converted into a day bed.

The kids had one large walk-in closet for toys. Then they had toy bins under their bed.

Because we were in the smaller bedroom, every single thing that had any value went into a small closet that was about 3 by 4 feet. My husband just stacked everything up in boxes. We had one dresser for all of us. (I kept it in our room because I got tired of toddlers yanking all their clothes on the floor in their room.)

The City apartment was a bit of a transition for us because we had some money --but we didn't have space or a car. It's crazy. When you live on the bus, there is so much stuff that you can't take home. You can't carry giant juice boxes trays and chips to the park, because you can't carry them easily in your car trunk. On the bus, everything has to fit in a thin backpack. So I think that was a real time of transition for us. We drink water from a water bottle at the park, because that is "doable." We gave away almost all the clothes rather than storing them in boxes for younger siblings, because I didn't have extra storage space to house things I "might need" in two years.

Living in a small space means you're "in the moment." What do I need today. What might be sort of useful in six months--like sleeping bags for camping in the summer, but you can't save stuff that "might be useful" or "looks pretty" or "was a nice gift." Storage is a premium. Stuff has to earn a spot. If it isn't useful to someone in the family, then it gets donated to Good will.

Sometimes its hard. My husband found a great set of golf clubs for free when another renter moved out. We had no place to put them. They were stored in the kitchen pantry, which made me miserable when our son was 4. He loved them. He'd find them wherever they were hidden, slip them out when I wasn't looking and start to whack things. The golf clubs were like an irresistible draw. After a year of saving my husband's clubs and shifting them around our tiny apartment, I finally told my husband "we can't keep them. This is something that belongs in a garage not a home. " Just the other day, my husband was lamenting his lost golf clubs--but you know, in that moment as a wife, I totally trusted God. We ditched the golf clubs at least three years ago. Now that he's finally in a place to use them (and we have a proper basement to store them) I know that God will hand them back.

I think managing feelings about "lost items" are part of being a mother. You make judgement calls about what is critical to a family and what is not. Sometimes people are going to be sad about things that got left behind. I'm sad about some stuff that we "lost" during our moves too. I think because I'm force to deal with it more often, I'm more comfortable with "losing possessions." I'd never trade the freedom from excess stuff for the momentary comfort of knowing that a good winter infant coat is stored in the basement for the new baby.

Currently, I have 7 people in 3 bedrooms. Hannah, Maria, Tess and Abigail have the large Master Bedroom. I painted it pink. Alex has a bunk bed in his room and the family's computer. Jon and I sleep downstairs in a small bedroom on the main floor. Currently we are without any cribs or trundle beds in our room. (Yeah!)

Abigail is a light, troubled sleeper like her older sister Maria. On a good night, she's up 2 times a night. On a bad night 4 or 5 times. I was so frustrated that for her birthday in late March, I broke down and bought a $50 play pen. It's in our dining room. She goes to sleep upstairs with the girls and night and takes naps in her crib. On nights that she won't settle, I'll move her downstairs in the play pen, so that her fussiness won't wake up Tess and Maria. Then it's really funny. I'll wake up at 5:00 AM with my husband and sneak her back upstairs into her crib while she's still sleeping--so my commuter husband doesn't wake up the baby while he's eating breakfast and leaving for work.

It's musical chairs, in a little house. But you know, it's lovely. I'd so rather have an "extra" crib in my pink dining room rather than limit my family size based on the number of bedrooms in my house. No matter how many times they wake up in the middle of the night, new babies are great!

Note: Our little house has some "room to grow". We have a basement that someday could be finished and made into a nice room for my son. If that happens, I could have a "little girl" room for the new baby and toddlers, and a "big girl room" for the daughters that actually want to sleep the entire night. I think having that unfinished basement that's not being used helps me stay patient and flexible during this period. The musical cribs for the baby is just for a season, not forever.