The Tyranny of Small Spaces

One of the mixed reactions I had to the possible job with the non-profit was that the salary was so low that once I factored in the cost of the necessary after-school childcare it became clear that I would not earn enough money to get us out of this trailer any time soon.  As those of you who have been reading BCK for awhile know, we’ve been living in cramped conditions for much longer than I ever expected.  Granted our current trailer is larger (11 feet longer) than the one in which we used to live, and moving here did ameliorate some of the problems of the last trailer (notably by providing both more space and a working kitchen), but initial sense of spaciousness has long worn off and the walls are again crowding in on us.

In a nutshell we do not have enough physical space, storage space, or privacy, either indoors or out.  The space between our trailer and the neighboring 5th wheel is approximately 3-feet.  If both windows were open I could climb from one trailer to the next without touching the ground.  We hear everything that goes on in the trailers to either side of us, as well as on the other side of the fence – a parking lot where drunken men seem to congregate in the late evenings. We are very lucky to like (and be liked by) one of our neighbors and to have a neutral relationship with the other. Our beds are our only private space and my son has to relinquish ownership of his during the day when his ‘bed’ becomes the sofa.  This could be a very decent – small studio-sized – trailer for one person, but it isn’t a pleasant living space for 5.

I was struck recently when I read a description of the tenements in New York at the turn of the last century, by the descriptions of the horrible, unsafe, unsanitary, dark and crowded conditions, but even more by the effect of those conditions on the physical and mental health of the inhabitants.  The Board of Health in New York, over 100 years ago, stated unequivocally that it was unhealthy to live in crowded conditions and I agree!  Oh, we are nowhere near as dismally housed as those 19th century slum dwellers (many of whom lived in interior rooms with no windows or ventilation or in cellars that flooded during rainstorms) and our conditions don’t compare to the homeless of today who sleep in doorways and public parks.  Regardless of our comparative luxury, our housing situation is not healthy.

I have seen how living in such cramped conditions, with no personal space or privacy, has contributed to the deterioration of our cohesiveness as a family.  We do not, for the most part, enjoy each other’s company.  We tolerate it.  We all breathe a sigh of relief and expand a bit when one of the kids has a play date, or even better, a sleepover at another house.  We move a bit easier, with one less person to maneuver around.  Vacations are the worst with the kids home from school – even when we get out of the house we generally head to the swimming pool, beach or park all together and while we enjoy the extra physical space we don’t experience any relief from the emotional crowding.

This, more than anything has informed and swayed my decision to move.  I grew up in a family of four children and while we frequently played together and enjoyed each other’s company we were just as often found engaged in our own solo pursuits.  We had the freedom and physical space we needed – we could chose to be together or apart.  We had room to roam and could go into our rooms and close the door if we preferred peace and quiet.  I started writing as a child and I know for a fact that my writing gift was nurtured by plenty of time to read and think without distraction.  I don’t know that any of my kids will become writers – although I have plenty of evidence that they could very well go into creative careers – but I know that they too could benefit from more physical space, more privacy and more choices in their lives.

When we lived in Colorado in our big 5 bedroom house with a playroom in the basement and a big backyard with a garden we enjoyed each other’s company so much more.  I want to recapture that for my family and that is one thing I hope to do through our upcoming move!

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10 Responses to The Tyranny of Small Spaces

  1. Donna says:

    I think you are right that exterior space is really key. Most of those tiny houses seem to be on multi acre lots! I think even your small trailer would not be so oppressive if you had a comfortable and private outdoor area. I know that even with our largish apartment (4 teenagers and a pre-teen make even our bigger space a challenge at times, the teens can’t really get away when they need some space to deal with emotions), I long for just a small outdoor space to enjoy some solitude. I hope that is in your future.

  2. rta says:

    Hi – Why am I envisioning a commune/co-housing situation with land & trees, and chickens and gardens in your near future???? Not sure if you are dropping hints or still trying to keep us on pins & needles! It sounds like you are headed for the midwest, so am hoping you are sure all of you will be warm next winter!
    Can’t wait for more details!

  3. Lynn says:

    And today, a deluge of rain and hail, plus thunder and lightening! Good thing the kids have school today.

    Your plan to move makes sense. You have done a great job of coping and the kids are doing very well, but you all deserve a break.

  4. Donna says:

    I know you have posted on and linked to several articles about tiny houses and the trendiness of these miniscule spaces…as time has gone on and you have lived in something akin to those, what is your take on the long term viability of those very small homes?

    • boxcarkids says:

      I think the tiny house concept could work very well but it would depend on the following: have you put much thought/planning into the idea and is everyone in the family on board (as you know we were forced into it); do you have hobbies or other pursuits that require you to have lots of room or supplies; do you have outside space or frequent opportunities to get away from each other if that’s a personal need for you; and how many people are you planning to cram inside the tiny house? I could see it working for a young couple with no kids who leave home every day for a job or a retired couple who adore each other.

      • cs says:

        and even adoration needs breathing space; after almost 30 years we do everything together…but even that needs two remote controls.

      • boxcarkids says:

        Love it!

      • Rosa says:

        Also, enough outdoor space/non-car mobility, and adults to supervise kids in more than one place. I’ve met a few families voluntarily living in RVs, but they are moving from place to place and have either two parents or older teens who can supervise little ones, so not every activity is a whole-family activity. One or two can be “home” while others are off swimming, biking, taking the bus somewhere, etc. A kid-friendly safe place to park the RV makes a big difference, too – we were in a KOA a few weeks ago where it was perfectly fine to let my small child go play on the playground solo, and just check on him from the RV window occasionally.

        For a family with little kids, enclosed private spaces substitute for safe public places or multiple adult supervisors.

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