“Oh my… you should see Clayton run!!!” This text from Jon exhilarated me from out of the gray, 21 degree abyss outside my anxiety-inducingly cluttered apartment which I couldn't get myself to clean because...winter.
My boy had been winding up like a little toy for the past week, each day becoming a little more bouncy, a little more loud-spoken, a lot more restless. A kid who religiously took a two hour nap and had always slept 13 hours at night had started to play instead of sleep in his bed each afternoon, and was awake at 4 am every morning. This wasn’t going to work.
650 square feet had officially become too small for his little long legs. The legs on which he stood as a baby and would not bend to sit down.
I remember showing him one day, thinking maybe he just didn’t know how to sit,
“Hey look! You can relaaaax. See how nice? There’s the movie, and you can just sit in front of it. Like a lazy person. Isn’t it fun?” To which he instantly responded by jumping up to resume standing.
To play, he would pick up an object, any object, and run from one side of the apartment to the other, over and over, until I captured him mid-lap and took him outside to sprint.
This could be classic codependence, but it's my truth so hush your judgements: There’s an area inside me where I carry a sort of monitor for each child’s feelings. It’s like I have my feelings, frustrations, desires, and sense of equilibrium.
Then I have his. It's not a mind thing; it’s a gut thing. This monitor keeps track of tension and balance of his inner self. It’s as if when each day passes that he is unable to run until he is out of breath, a marker is raised on the monitor’s gauge.
If he’s gotten less sleep for a few days, a marker goes up. If he hasn’t had any time alone with either parent in awhile, up. Over time, I feel the unrest that he’s having and it makes perfect sense to me why he’s grumpy or hyper.
I feel the need to resolve that for him as if it were my own unrest and I don’t feel settled until I do. I can still feel happy myself, but there’s a mini alarm going off inside that’s saying
WARNING: CLAYTON NEEDS OUT! CLAYTON NEEDS OUT!
So that day when Jon took them to the enormous indoor playground that would only exist in the bitter Northeast and sent me that text, my heart soared. I could see Buddy’s little body shoot out of Jon’s arms like a rocket, bolting to the scooters and bouncy castles and laughing his freedom laugh. The unforced, impossible to contain elation that comes from exclusively living in the moment, something only a child can possess.
“They are soooooo happy”
In picturing it, I felt the incessant alarm turn off. Like the steam switch had been opened on a boiling pot. I could almost feel his energy burning off of him, propelling him forward, giving him that happy exhaustion that a full day of play and smiles does.
Living the City Life can be hard, especially when the city is cold and the apartment small. I write this from a one-bedroom apartment where we started with one baby and added another, where baby #1 resided in a Porta Crib in a nook in the kitchen and baby #2 stayed in our room.
The kids have graduated to sleeping in the bedroom, and Jon and I move our mattress out each night to sleep in the living room.
We eat meals, do projects, watch movies, and play Play-Doh from a tiny table in the corner of the living room, store our huge double stroller in the entryway, and host overnight guests on our fold-down couch surrounded by toy bins.
Whenever we want to go somewhere, we take our little parade a half block away to the car where they know to stay on the sidewalk while we get loaded up.
“Stay on the sidewalk” often means sprint up and down sidewalk, bumping into stranger’s legs while those strangers, unfamiliar with children in large quantities, sometimes look on with more than a hint of worry.
But mostly they smile and tap the kids on the head, saying things like, “Those were the days,” or my favorite, from a homeless gentleman watching Clayton run, “The future is safe.”
Our ground-level back window faces the entrance to the dumpsters, so to take the garbage out we send one of us (Jon) outside and the kids and I throw out bags to him to avoid multiple trips.
The kids look forward to watching the garbage trucks come, and to watching dad appear out the window. Sometimes we pass children through that window for efficiency in car loading, and talk about fast escape in case of fire!
Since we live across the street from Campus, our walkways and stairs are immediately shoveled and salted, and sometimes our street is blocked because a Supreme Court justice or the President are visiting the school.
Clayton learned to walk by stumbling, then walking, then running through the common areas of Harvard Law School, one of very few underaged voices heard in that building.
Living so close to the school is what keeps our rent high and our apartment small, but it’s also what allowed Jon to be home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the grueling law schooling process.
It’s what has allowed us to make friends with fellow students who are too lazy to trek very far to come visit (just kidding, Millennials), and given us access to an array of people in stages of life different from ours.
It has given us the chance to stop by all kinds of holiday celebrations, marches, peaceful protests, sit-ins, and birthday parties and baby showers happening across the street, spontaneous ventures we stumbled upon while walking through on our way to CVS or Shake Shack.
Life feels very colorful, very random, and often requires creativity to get what used to be basic life done. The image that comes to mind while trying to organize a closet or fold laundry or put together a new piece of furniture, is one of those little puzzles where only one space is open and you have to move all the other pieces one at a time into the free spot temporarily until you can maneuver them into their correct spot.
To think that some people in Texas live life with ROOMS THAT ARE EMPTY ALWAYS is actually hard for my brain to imagine right now. How would you ever have a disorganized closet??
We keep very little stuff- like, very little. For two kids we have two bins of toys. For two adults’ clothes we have two single door closets. Every time we leave for the summer and take just a couple of suitcases full of stuff, I decide I’m going to get rid of everything we left at home because obviously I didn’t need it if I went without it all summer. Then winter comes...
I’m not going to go into all of the “but on the other hand, we are closer together because of our closeness in proximity.” Sometimes that is true, other times it’s not. But what is true is that we chose this life.
We want it this way. We are so, so lucky to get to want it rather than it being how it HAS to be. Because let’s face it, choosing to go without (which we rarely feel like we are doing) is a lot different than having to go without.
Choice is always, always something for which to carry immense gratitude.
Because of this choosing, I have a few words of support and encouragement for anyone struggling through tight quarters with little ones and not so little spouses.
Listen: When you are feeling like your baby’s nursery isn’t decorated beautifully, and you worry that somehow she will be deprived of the ideal amount of stimulation that will get her to that key milestone early enough to get her into that Ivy League college,
or give you both the opportunity to bond in the sweet reverie of a white nursing glider under soft recessed lighting,
or that there’s simply NO WAY she can sleep well without a mobile and twinkly stars on the walls…
Just do this: picture my son in a Porta Crib in the corner or a five foot wide galley kitchen, lodged between the pantry and the back door, facing the dishwasher, with a box fan on the counter for white noise and a sheet acting as a curtain between his “room” and the living room.
Then know that he has slept soundly there for 2 years, going to bed at 5pm.We didn’t cook past that time, and I think it was good for our figures. He is well-adjusted by all medical accounts, and he's progressing normally in every way, or so they tell us.
When you find yourself worrying about your bare walls, or your “lacking” table settings, think about my apartment I’ve lovingly labeled 'Dorm Room/Church Nursery Chic'.
Anything and everything that I allow into the living space serves a purpose- a functional, childproof purpose, and photos on the wall and table cloths on the table don’t fit that description.
If I’m already spending several moments a day blocking baseballs from hitting my head or chipping cereal off the chairs, I don’t have the time to waste repairing shattered picture frames or doing extra laundry.
Playtime is learning time for kids, and rest time is savor time for parents. When I rest from tasks that will only reappear immediately after I do them, that’s when my joy in my children has room to re-blossom.
When I look at the babies instead of at the things I’m trying to keep them from destroying, I remember why I’m here, on this floor, playing this "game".
When I put my mind on the tower we are building instead of on the moment they will go to sleep, I get to cash in early on all the investments I’m making in them. They notice; I notice.
My children nor my marriage are in perfect form at all times. Well, maybe perfect, because 'perfect' means complete, and they are complete- always.
But they aren’t always tidy, well-behaved, happy, and scream-free (my kids nor my marriage). But they are doing fine; we have everything we need, and pretty much everything we want.
Anything that we don’t have that we do want, wouldn’t be found in a bigger apartment or more stuff or a nursery for the baby. So please let me put your heart at ease: it’s going to be okay.
Delete Pinterest and Instagram for a week, and you’ll see just how amazing your messy, puked on couch feels then when your partner and your tiny ones pile on top of you at the end of a rough day.
Remember what it’s like to see them “soooooo happy” and remember that stressed-out you has a hard time creating that, seeing that, and worst of all, feeling that.
I can promise that the tasks that take up a huge part of our Mom days can only assist minorly in creating that feeling inside.
Trying to stick with the minimum in low-yield areas and the maximum in intangible, unrepeatable areas is my constant aim and struggle.
The minimum to keep the house uncluttered and peaceful (which in my experience is most easily done not in the house, but in the store or on Amazon. If I never buy the stuff in the first place, I never have to make decisions about whether I’ll spend my time taking care of my stuff and space or whether I’ll be with my kids and my husband).
The minimum to keep our bodies healthy and well fed (unless prepping and cooking food brings me great joy, which sometimes it does).
The minimum to create beauty and cleanliness that allows me to walk into my home and feel peace and comfort, photogenic or otherwise.
The minimum dollars spent to provide safety, warmth, and space for each member, without adding more stress with increased rent or mortgage.
When I look back on things, I only remember their general vibe. I don’t remember how long I procrastinated emptying the Diaper Genie or how many three-course meals I prepared, or likely didn’t prepare. I just get a sense, a feeling, of what that time in my life was like.
I sense whether I was worried a lot about what others were thinking of me, or whether I was often stressed about the state of the home (spoiler alert- my house usually looks the same whether I’m hyper-vigilant or relaxed, but the comfort of the home is deeply affected by which one I am).
Whether my marriage was creating synergy or tension, and whether I was stopping to soak in* my children.
*Sidenote: “soak in” is not code for how many art projects I did with them or outings I was planning and taking and on and on. My kids are 1 and 2 years old. To keep my wild ambitions and mom-guilt in check, “soak in” has to mean for me, to just be with them.
In Shonda Rhimes' book she talked about her decision to “always say yes” when one of her children asks her to play with them. She says that although that sounds impossible to both working moms and otherwise, she defended it by explaining that most of the time, a child will be more than happy with even 15 minutes of purely focused play. No phone, no hopping up to do “just this one thing”, no wiping the snot from their nose (I added that). I have found this to be true.
Just see them. They are almost grown. Be here now.
But just as importantly, be you now. There is no waiting for another time or place where you can fully thrive; such a place doesn’t exist anymore than this place does.
Create a space within your tiny space, figuratively or literally, and crawl into it and create. Search. Read. When it’s too small for even that, get out. Connect. Serve. Breathe.
No place is too small for that.