Large family, small space — still thriving
Early in her marriage, Rochel and her husband and baby lived in a small one-bedroom in the Beis Yisrael neighborhood of Yerushalayim. Their upstairs neighbors, who lived in the same apartment layout, had six kids, and cheerfully spread mattresses under the dining room table every night.
“I felt so spoiled that I was dissatisfied with my apartment when they were so happy in theirs,” Rochel says.
Still, cultural norms and different family cultures and temperaments are a real thing; Rochel now lives in Cleveland and is very glad that her home today is large enough that several of her kids have their own bedroom, or just one roommate.
Before they expanded their house, her boys shared a room, and Rochel and her husband tried many different permutations of dividing up the shared space, hoping to cut down the bickering. The boys’ own solutions didn’t always work out so well; Chezky once offered to do the division, and his guileless brother agreed to let him do the hard work. When Rochel next entered the room, she saw that Chezky had constructed a barrier around Avi’s bed, with the rest of the space allotted to Chezky. Since Avi wasn’t allowed to step on Chezky’s turf, Chezky had thoughtfully provided piles of clothing and pillows at carefully spaced intervals so Avi could hop from pile to pile without stepping on his brother’s share of carpet.
She admits that so much of what we perceive as “normal” is based on what people around us are doing. If they still lived in that Beis Yisrael apartment, her boys wouldn’t have the same expectations of personal space.
Words like “crowded,” “tight,” and “snug” are all cultural terms, meaningless in a vacuum. Spacious in Israel is generally cramped by American standards, and a huge condo in Boro Park is a basement starter apartment to a Lakewood family.
While researching this article, people told me about how their neighbors cleverly maximized space in their small 2,600 square foot townhouses, and others told me how much more livable the 85-square-meter rental would be than their current 75 square meters (about 800 square feet). And although all our lives are immeasurably richer than those of our ancestors who shared one-room shacks with their goats and chickens, most of us aren’t buoyed by that knowledge.
Still, although “cramped” means different things to different people, the essential challenges our heroines have to contend with are universal, the specifics merely a question of degree.
A Theory of Relativity
Shaindy’s apartment was killing her — literally. What had worked when her six kids were small no longer sufficed once several were teens. They took up more space, and their stuff — loose-leafs, makeup, clothing, sports equipment — proliferated at an astounding rate.
“People told me, ‘Come on, other people do this, too,’ ” she says, but unsurprisingly, that wasn’t helpful. She wasn’t managing. “Maybe it’s your personality, your husband, or your kids; my kids are powerful personalities, and my life was my kids and my house.” She couldn’t manage in the space she had. With every Yom Tov she cooked in her miniscule kitchen, her body broke down further, and she developed severe inflammatory illnesses. “When I got sick, I needed more space and quiet, but I was getting less.” Friends didn’t believe her, she says, but now that she’s moved to a slightly larger apartment with more open space, her body is slowly beginning to recover.
Even in a community where others’ lives might seem similar on paper, different families, stages, and personalities can create totally different realities.
Like Shaindy, Aliza from New York City resented assumptions about her life. During the Covid lockdowns, her family was confined to an apartment that was so small she originally mistook her walk-through dining room for a hallway. But teachers at her daughter’s school kept urging her to set aside a quiet corner for her daughter to do homework. What quiet corner? wondered Aliza.
Making It Work
Despite many kids’ suggestions, giving away annoying siblings is not an option.
The real key to small-space living is organization, agrees every single interviewee, and organization starts with ruthless decluttering.
Devorah, who lives in Geula and whose nine boys and girls happily share a single bedroom, says that her family’s secret is “100 percent organization. If you’re not organized, it’s not possible.” In their tightly packed neighborhood, their quarters aren’t unusual, but she observes that the kids of her less-organized friends do have a harder time managing. When you can’t find your shoes or a bare surface to do homework, or when things smell musty and the bathroom’s not fresh, it’s much harder to deal with lots of people in close proximity.
The challenge when in a smaller space, says Devorah, is that she really can’t let go of the cleaning and organization for even a night. “I can’t get off the train,” she says. “I can never let go, even if I’m exhausted.” Small spaces can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of a large family’s stuff, so there’s no leeway for slacking. Even when she has a baby, she needs to hire lots of help to ensure that her careful organization doesn’t crumble during the couple of days she’s off-site.
For Shaindy, that was definitely the case; being unable to organize and clean properly was a key reason she felt hopeless in her small apartment. Had she felt able to manage her home, she says, her mental and physical health wouldn’t have failed her.
What about those of us who are not naturally organized people? Are we doomed? Those with less innate organizational ability can compensate with additional cleaning help, planning help from decorators, or structural improvements to help conquer the clutter.
“People often don’t like to invest in a rental apartment, but if you plan to be there for the long-term, renovations can be very worthwhile. Some well-placed custom carpentry or structural changes can improve day-to-day life for years,” says Yael Wiesner, interior designer and professional organizer from Israel.
In Aliza’s New York apartment, six of her children share a single bedroom, and the seventh crashes on the living room couch. All clothes storage happens in her room, which she describes as living in a walk-in closet. She buys just two uniform skirts and three shirts for her daughters, preferring to do laundry every other night than find a place to store an extra shirt for each. “Anything in my home has to be really, really worth it,” she says. “The less you have, the less you have to manage.”
Without storage space, Devorah and others also don’t pass any hand-me-downs to other siblings; anything that is in good condition but not currently in use needs to be passed on to friends or family, and purchased new when the next child reaches that size.
It might be a platitude, but every interviewee stressed cultivating an attitude of gratitude.
Hindy lives in London, where she shares two and a half small bedrooms and one bathroom with her husband and seven kids. That description sounds more spacious than it is, she says, because the half-bedroom is basically a glorified closet, and their total living space is approximately one meter, or three feet, between their couch and dining room table. “My kitchen is so small that if a couple of kids are in there, I can’t be,” she says. She has 20 inches of counter space from which to somehow conjure all the family’s meals. In her girls’ room, her youngest daughter’s mattress is halfway inside a closet, because there isn’t enough floor space.
Still, Hindy teaches her kids that when it comes to physical possessions, it’s important to focus on people who have less, which makes us appreciate what we have, as opposed to spiritual pursuits, when we should set our sights higher. During a period when her kids were particularly negative about their crowded home, she told them a dramatic story about Duvi, a little boy in Israel who shared his room with eight brothers. At the exciting climax, after Duvi persevered through all kinds of challenges, she revealed that Duvi was their own father, who had grown up with even less space than they had. “They couldn’t believe it,” she remembers, “and it helped them maintain perspective about their lives.”
Although she tries to maintain that kind of positive outlook, both for her own and her kids’ benefit, it can be extremely challenging, she says, especially when she lets her mind wander to the future, including worrying where she will put their next baby. She received a much-needed reminder recently, she says, when she overheard some of her mother’s friends chatting. One of them, an empty-nester with a five-bedroom home, was lamenting her lack of space; she never had room to host more than two of her married couples simultaneously, and the dining room table got crowded. When the space seems unbearably tight, and Hindy worries for the future, she reminds herself that there is no amount of space that will be enough for someone who doesn’t cultivate contentment, and that what she has can be enough if she is grateful for it.
She admits though, that while a good attitude is contagious, there’s only so much a parent can do about her child’s emotions. Hindy’s teenage daughter is often resentful of sharing a small room with four siblings, not having space to call her own beyond her top bunk, and not having room to invite friends. “We have to be creative,” says Hindy. Because her daughter is artistic, the family bends over backward to clear the dining room every Sunday so she can give group art lessons, and they managed to carve out a nook for the computer she uses for digital illustration.
Does living in close proximity lead to more fighting?
“Bad workmen blame their tools,” says Hindy ruefully, but she does put some of the blame on her close quarters, which make a certain amount of fighting inevitable. When the family recently went away on vacation, some other families who were there with them left a day early to get ready for Shabbos in London, but Hindy says her family stayed until the last possible minute. “The table was big enough for all of us! When it’s tiny, elbows are knocking into each other, this one’s plate is on the floor, someone took his place.… [On vacation] there was just so much calm,” she remembers. When room is at a premium, the crowding generates a competitive spirit as each child tries to grab some space for himself. And with nowhere to retreat from a provocation, fights are more frequent and prolonged.
On the other hand, sometimes the physical closeness can really engender an emotional closeness (assuming no siblings commit fratricide along the way). Devorah recounts how an elderly neighbor asked her teenage girls to take turns sleeping over so she wouldn’t be alone at night. Devorah assumed her girls would jump at the luxury of an entire bedroom to themselves, but surprisingly, they were each eager to get home as soon as their turn was done. They craved the cozy togetherness of their shared room.
Similarly, Hindy once sent her young girls to her mother for a week, where she thought they’d be delighted with the huge quantities of personal space. Instead, Bubby found the girls curled tight in the same bed each morning, looking for the familiar comfort of their sister.
Gitty, whose nine children include two with special needs (one of whom is wheelchair-bound), also agrees that the closeness helped build a unique bond between her boys. Although they certainly fought too, she feels strongly that all siblings fight, and that the siblings who fought would have done so in any size house about a different provocation, if it weren’t the shared space.
Ages and Stages
Aside from the physical space needed to contain a certain number of people, dynamic families also contain a variety of children of different ages with different schedules and needs.
Bedtime was frequently cited as one of the more challenging aspects of small spaces, with some women opting to stagger bedtimes, and others preferring to get it all over with at once (an undertaking only slightly more difficult than herding cats).
Hindy, in London, follows a complex sequence that involves putting some kids in their own beds, others in their parents’, followed by late-night transfers.
People say that kids get used to sleeping with others, and learn to sleep through noise, but Hindy says that’s only mostly true. If the baby cries a little louder or a little longer than usual, she has four very cranky sisters the next day.
During the day, mothers need to coordinate the needs of multiple ages, stages, and genders who all need to share a finite amount of space.
“You have to be a good captain of your ship,” says Devorah. “It’s all about the puzzle pieces and making them fit together.” Having her kids’ friends over is a priority, so she masterfully choreographs a complex scheduling dance. Knowing that her kids come home in shifts, she staggers the use of common areas based on children’s dismissal times. When the boys are coming home, the girls are shopping or studying in the bedroom. When the boys head out to learn, girl talk takes over the living room.
Though people’s methods differed, one thing they agree on is that it’s less about space than about meeting needs. Aliza’s daughter once commuted on a bus from the city to a camp in the suburbs, laughing and chattering with her friends the whole way. With that wholesome social outlet, Aliza says, the small apartment that could barely accommodate a play date magically grew; it simply mattered less when the social need was met in a different way.
While small-space living presents challenges even for families that are relatively cookie cutter and healthy, throw some neurodivergent or handicapped children into the mix, and you get even more layers of complexity.
Four of Aliza’s seven children have diagnoses on the autistic spectrum, and she believes that her children’s disabilities don’t just make it harder to live in a small space, but that they were exacerbated by their living conditions. “Sensory issues, low muscle tone, social and pragmatic stuff…. I see the small spaces and lack of access to outdoors as exacerbating that dynamic,” she says. In fact, she says, she disagrees with two of the diagnoses, and believes that with better living arrangements and more access to the outdoors, her kids would make better developmental progress.
She says that outside space would be a higher priority to her than more square footage. Given a choice between a larger apartment or one on a lower floor, she’d take the latter, she says.
Living with ADHD can be a huge challenge to anyone, and without space for the child to release excess energy, it’s a recipe for disaster. Hindy says her 12-year-old son with ADHD spends much of his waking time with her mother, who lives just a couple of blocks away. “He goes to let off steam. With everyone around, he’s bouncing off the couch, bouncing into people — it’s literally not safe.”
The flip side, according to Gitty, is that sharing limited resources with a special needs sibling teaches children to be more giving overall. Although challenging, she found that her kids became more gracious and generally understood that their wheelchair-bound brother needed the space more than they did.
Looking back, though, and observing the dynamics among her grandchildren, Gitty concedes that the benefits and life skills her children accrued came at a cost. “Today, some have anxiety that I didn’t see when they were little and didn’t complain about him.” Observing her grandchildren’s lives in their more spacious homes, she sees how beneficial it is when the kids, particularly the teenagers, have quiet spaces to retreat to and process life. If her own children had had more personal space, she muses, perhaps they might have handled life’s curveballs with more resilience.
Devorah is thrilled to be where she is, and wouldn’t choose another life, even though she admits it can get hard at times. Life is about choosing joy, she says, and finding the beauty wherever you are. Her personal splurge is fresh flowers, which she orders abundantly for Yamim Tovim. Once, the florist told Devorah’s husband how astonished she’d been the first time she delivered a floral arrangement to their house. “Here you order flowers like you live in a penthouse, and it’s this little cave!” exclaimed the florist. “I needed air, I felt like I was going to pass out.”
Devorah’s husband assured the surprised florist that they do, indeed, live like they’re in a penthouse. They don’t let small spaces stop them from having frequent company, they set a beautiful table, and take pride and joy in their home.
Devorah knows that crying on the phone to her sisters about the tight space or about feeling stuck would be a recipe for ensuring that she and her kids would resent their life. But by viewing her home as her palace, and living each day maximally and with joy, it has really become one.
Yael Wiesner Says:
Once you give it the negative label of “crowding,” there’s no chance of doing this successfully. Here, it’s called “bruchas yeladim!” A home shouldn’t be thought of as crowded, but as blessedly full with a bustling family.
People fight when their needs aren’t taken care of, which can often be solved with design or organization. If she has curtains around her bed, if he has a small, youth-sized desk, if they can close the door to the living room for two hours… a bigger house isn’t the only answer, perhaps you can manage with just a door. Making a list of all the kids’ specific needs and then trying to fill them can help a lot with fighting.
The more empty space you have, the more you can give each person, so start an aggressive purge right now. Clutter isn’t garbage; it’s anything that’s not servicing you right now, like spare pajamas, bibs the baby isn’t using, or games that aren’t in current use. The more you get rid of, the more options you have to work with, and living the results is the push people need. The feeling is liberating.
Personal space doesn’t need to take the form of floor space or your own bedroom. Personal closet space, a personal bulletin board, an accessory drawer, a tchotchke shelf, a desk, design concept around a bed… all these ideas will make a child feel less lacking in a cramped home.
The open-plan layouts that have been popular in recent years tend to be counterproductive for the busy frum household. Although people think that taking down walls will help their house feel more spacious, the result is that there are no longer private spaces for different activities and demographics. While a kitchen with a door might not feel quite as open, it lets the girls close a door and do their thing while Tatty is learning at the table, without feeling like everyone is in each others’ faces all day.
Yael Wiesner, author of “How Does SHE Manage?” (Feldheim), works as an interior designer and professional organizer, transforming thousands of households.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 830)
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