Continuing my Small Home Series, this week's featured guest poster, Chautona, is a mother of many, wife to one and published author. She shares why her family chooses to Live Large in their Small Home and a few tips she's learned along the way. You can find more of her writing at www.chautona.com
I think the Lord was preparing me for life in a small house almost from birth. We moved constantly when I was a child—starting with my father moving us while my mother was in the hospital having me! We lived in a fun farmhouse, little bungalow, desert ranch, beach condo, city one-bedroom apartment, and so many more. My last year and a half of high school found me living in an eighteen foot travel trailer in the middle of the desert—running water and electricity unnecessary to our comfort. We took “Navy” showers and used Coleman camping lanterns for me to do my homework by at night. No joke.
When we bought this house, I loved the hardwood floors, the large bedrooms, and “old” feel. Our house was built in the 1950’s, and as one local who lived here at that time said, “They were the ‘luxury’ homes of the time. Everyone wanted to live over here. It was my dream home.” Now, of course, people consider our house a “starter home,” and that is how it was billed when we bought it.
Now, to be honest, I didn’t plan to move again once we moved into this house. I’d moved enough. I was eighteen and if you count every single time I had to pack my things to live somewhere for more than a couple of weeks, I’d moved thirty times. My dad wasn’t even in the military! However, after our third child was born, people started commenting about how we’d need a bigger house if we kept having children. I bought the lie. I mean, it’s generally accepted that only one, possibly two children can share a room, right? What if baby four was a boy? That’d be three girls in one room! Horrors!
So, I started looking. A friend was doing some house searching, so I went along. I looked at what was available. I saw floor plans, tried to figure out where we’d live and what we’d do if we lived there. Nothing impressed me. Then my dream house came on the market. I’d salivated over that house for years. It was simple but bigger and pretty. Almost twice our current square footage. Eagerly, we walked through with a realtor. The kitchen was outdated in a way that bothered even me—mostly the counter top, but I ignored it. Counter tops can be replaced, right? The carpeting was very high shag—white with gray and black blotches everywhere. It was so ugly. I mean hideously ugly. It looked as though someone had repaired a motorcycle in it. I looked at bedrooms (smaller than ours), the second bathroom (with shiny gold fixtures that for some reason revolted me in so many ways), and the back yard. The back yard is the only thing I liked. The layout was awful, the space was much less useable than what we currently had, and well, it was the death of a dream.
It was also the birth of a new idea for me. I walked around our neighborhood. I quit looking at houses in other parts of town. One reason was simply because I didn’t want a house that was huge. I didn’t want to clean that much to be honest. However, another reason was that I liked my house. I always have. It’s why I wanted to buy it in the first place. I decided only to look at houses in my area. If I was going to be inspired with new ideas, I wanted them for where we lived—so that I could copy them or alter them to fit us.
However, I’ll confess, I was sick of people asking, “How can you stand to live in that itty bitty house?”
That is what spurred me to embrace living in the home we had. That was back when I was pregnant with baby four. Nearly twenty years and five more (total of nine, yes you read that right) children later, we still live in that “itty bitty house,” and I have no intention of moving—until I leave feet first that is. Over the years, I’ve learned a few things that make all the difference in not just existing but living in a small space.
Embrace— You really have to embrace your life in your small house. By this, I mean don’t just accept it. Many people live in small homes. Frankly, most of the world lives in half the space (or less) of the average American if my old research is still true. So, you can be trapped by your small space or you can use it as your canvas for a unique and inspiring life. If you resent your lack of space, it’ll show in every other aspect of living in it.
Reinvent— You can’t allow the architect’s footprint for your home dictate how you live in it. We’ve reinvented our home with every change in our family’s life. I even came close to turning the back room into a huge dormitory and the front room into a huge school/play room once. The only thing that stopped me was that if I didn’t like it, the work to create would have been excessive, however it nearly happened.
Edit— Small space means that you are forced to own less. Period. My mother bought my first four children their own rocking chairs. It was such a sweet thing. I really wanted them to have those chairs for their own children later—which was her idea at the time. Guess what? We didn’t have room. I planned to have a “hope chest” for each of my girls (I have seven daughters), but after the fourth daughter, I realized it wasn’t going to work. There just isn’t the room for it. They couldn’t have closets stuffed with clothing. Have you ever seen a 1950’s closet? It’s tiny. The one in our bedroom holds all of Kevin’s clothing and mine without any trouble (we have no dresser so it also holds our underwear, pajamas—all folded clothes), but neither of us have large wardrobes. Can you imagine when we had six girls in our bedroom? Can you imagine if they each had dozens of outfits? Not possible. Toys, games, crafts, everything had to be kept to a reasonable minimum.
Be Creative—Without creativity, you’ll miss all that small house living can offer. The good news is that you do not have to be inherently creative to do this. Once upon a time, it was harder, but with the vast resources on the internet, you can see things others have done in their homes and make them work for you. Pinterest, design blogs, websites like HGTV and BHG are all there to give you inspiration. Thanks to Google, you can skim through dozens of ideas either by word or picture until you find what you need. One simple solution our family has used is shelving all around the top of the bedrooms and living room. Over windows, along walls… long shelves that give us a lot of storage for little effort—and it’s pretty too.
Be Flexible—What works today likely won’t tomorrow. I’m sorry about that, but it’s true. Your family’s needs change as children grow older, are added to the family or move away. This is why reinventing is so key to living in a small house. This is how we’ve managed to house eleven people in 1,100 sq. ft. for so long. Even though I haven’t moved in over twenty-three years, I have moved within this house dozens of times. Bedrooms shift from here to there. Dining areas move and change. The only thing that has stayed one hundred percent constant is the bathroom.
Dream—This one will seem contradictory to embracing your space and its limitations, but it is good for those of us who are truly sacrificing things that we love for other things that we love. For me, dreaming is one way that I can see beyond the limitations of the house. This house is limited in what it can do. I accept that. The truth is it will not always be full of growing children. Our children will grow up. They will marry and move away from here. Slowly, rooms will empty and give way to new ideas. When that happens, I will have a new canvas to create with. I have so many ideas for what I’d like to do. I have a great room planned for the back bedroom—a sort of “sleepover” place for grandchildren to enjoy spending nights together chattering into the wee hours before falling asleep. The middle room (what we call the “boy’s” room now) will become my craft room. I want to put a library in the closet at one end with a comfortable daybed built in. It’ll be cozy and fun to fall asleep while grandma or grandpa reads them a book. Hey, it’ll be fun for grandma to read a book and fall asleep herself! The other end will hold bookcases and a bench that folds out into another bed. It’s going to be beautiful. Of course, none of it may happen and that’s ok too. However, when I feel cramped (and of course that does happen) I let myself imagine a house where things are exactly how I’d choose for them to be and where it stays like that. I know that when that day comes, I might miss having kids around to clutter it up with their artwork and things, but I suspect grandchildren will fill that gap.
Storage—One thing you’ll discover is that you have to maximize storage. Check shelving in closets. Do you need more? I’m with Elizabeth Bennett when she says, “Shelves in the closet? Happy thought indeed!” I know she was being sarcastic, but for me it’s utterly true. Top, bottom, side—anywhere you can put one, do it. Then learn to limit what you put on them. I have a peculiar habit. I like empty space on shelves. Full shelves make me feel claustrophobic. I feel the same way about wall-to-wall furniture. Please, by all means, give me empty wall space! So, when planning your shelves, drawers, etc., once you know what will go there, be sure to discover what you can do without in order to save space for later. If you load them up now, you may discover that you have to unload something later when a new need arises. Why keep that unnecessary stuff now just because you have room for it?
The ideas are endless. I could talk about how to store games, books, fabric, cookware that you need and don’t need—the works. However, I think we’re all a little too unique to make such blanket statements. What would work for one family won’t for another. However, I fully believe that living within the space we have is possible if we’re willing to embrace it and be creative in how we do that. For us, five things have been essential to making living here work.
1. Triple bunk beds. We bought three and they were worth their weight in gold. Sturdy as anything and beautiful. I bought them from a man in Illinois and paid a fortune to ship them out unassembled. It worked great for us. I highly recommend them.
2. High shelves in the rooms. I honestly do not know how we survived without them. We got rid of an entire wall of white storage cupboards simply by adding that shelving.
3. Avoiding large toys and “heirlooms.” Every time we made the foolish decision to purchase something large like a giant K’nex set or doll house, we’ve regretted it. Those rocking chairs are long gone. The hope chests went after them.
4. Giving things too much control over you—in either way. If something gives you great pleasure, make room for it. There is no virtue in stripping your life of things simply so that you can say you have few things. If that old settle bench really blesses you, find a way to make it work somehow—even if you have to hang it from the rafters for a few years. By the same token, no matter how much you love something, if it’s a burden, chuck it. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to give away the phonograph my parents owned. That thing was gorgeous—truly gorgeous. It had wonderful memories for me, but it was in the way. Every time a kid bumped it, I got angry. Every dent or tiny scratch was a sore spot until I realized one day that I cared too much about something that really doesn’t matter. I loved that thing—but I didn’t love the kind of control it had over me and there wasn’t a way to store it for “later.” I rarely miss it and never enough to wish it back.
5. Teaching children to enjoy playing outside. If you’re an introvert like me, you’ll be grateful if your kids love to be outdoors. You’ll get a break from the constant—seemingly ever present—interaction.
I don’t regret our choice to stay in this house. There are days when I wonder if I’m insane (usually at the change of seasons when things get cluttered for a bit or when it’s time to make changes to keep it working for us), but then I look at floor plans, imagine cleaning the double or triple square footage that others in my town might have, and I realize that this is the life for me. My kids know how to live with less. This is a good thing. No, they really don’t know what it’s like to live in want, but they know that they can live with less than others around them. I’ve always seen staying in this small house as a privilege. If it became a burden in any way, I think my husband would insist we move. That has kept me motivated. We live here by choice. We could have bought a bigger house—we could today. People assume we live here because it’s all we can afford, and I’m fine with that. They can think what makes them comfortable. The truth is that we live here because it’s where Kevin and I want to live. I hope never to have to live anywhere else.
Come back next Thursday as we continue our Small Home Living Series with a post about embracing your small space by accepting the limitations, featuring more creative storage solutions.