The first time I stumbled upon Rachael’s blog, Erstwhile Dear, I knew I’d found a place to return to. As mother to two with a third little girl on the way (this month!), Rachael writes with particular clarity (and good humor) on parenting. Since becoming a parent myself, I’ve been particularly intrigued by her ability to create a welcoming and imaginative space for her children in a small Boston apartment. Rachael recently answered my questions about raising a family in a small space, tweaking a rental to meet her family’s needs, and fostering creative spaces for children.
Erin: You’re getting ready to welcome a third child into a small Boston apartment at the tippy-top of an old Brownstone. While the apartment isn’t diminutive in the tiny house sense, at 900 square feet, it’s still quite modestly sized and it’s situated in a quirky attic space. Are there challenges in raising a family in a small apartment that wasn’t necessarily set up for maximum space efficiency?
Rachael: Well, if anything has felt like a challenge, once I compare notes with other mothers, it turns out not to be. I’ve learned that the other side usually has challenges that haven’t occurred to me. Learning to crawl in a small space also means no worrying about that staircase, or an unwatched room. Sharing a bedroom with the baby means the shortest walk from bed-to-crib. Older kids sharing a room means less parental time soothing them to sleep. But I do have what I mentally refer to as “yard guilt.” The girls don’t have time outside of my sight in the outdoors. When we go out, we go out together. So they don’t have unstructured time totally by themselves, puttering around in nature. That was an important part of my alone time as a kid—though more around the ages of 8-12 than the young ages my girls are.
Though Joe doesn’t work as an architect, he trained to be one, and he has given me the gift of evaluating the productivity of a space. Though our space is small, I think there are elements of the layout that are enormously helpful. For example, the fact that the girls can sit in the kitchen with me while I bake. And we have two rooms you can sit in without being within sight of each other, so if Joe and I are both trying to get work done, we can sit separately and get to it. Having lots of windows and full sun is a huge gift.
A disadvantage that I worry over sometimes: the tidying up at the end of the day. I’m not sure it’s fair to ask your child to put everything away every single day. If we had a basement or a “play room” I could let them get it messy and keep it that way for a week, and then clean it up. Right now the girls are young and they play better in a tidy space. But I know there’s an age of imaginative games coming later on that involves more convoluted staging and design.
Erin: You’re renters, but are there tweaks or modifications that you’ve been able to make in your space that help keep it a comfortable space for a growing family? Are there different changes or solutions that you’d make if you owned your space?
Rachael: Modifying our closets as needed has probably been the biggest thing. I know, I can write the plural: “closets!” Because it is an old attic, our home has many closets, and that’s really a rarity in city apartments. We needed to turn one into a pantry, and we’ve changed the design of Lux’s a couple times to put clothes either out of reach or within her reach, depending on the age.
I think our lease probably says something about not hanging art up, but we have never worried about that, just patched up before we moved out. And the art supply pinboard wall is certainly a large modification. We would love to not have carpet. Sweeping a wood floor is so much more satisfying! But then I fear we’d probably be much louder for our downstairs neighbors? So I can’t complain.
Erin: One of the most laudable things about your home is the spaces that you’ve managed to carve out for your girls. They’re whimsical and set up to foster creativity, but they don’t also appear to be chaotic or overwhelming. How do you strike that balance? What does your ideal space for kids look like?
Rachael: Sorting, frowning at the results, leaving them for a bit, and then sorting again! Throwing things away and never looking back. I treat it a little like a science lab. I will move things around and watch to see if the girls respond differently. I’m always curious to see how they play in their room differently after I’ve done a big organizing clean. My ideal kids space is objects set up in a suggestive and accessible manner. Something along the lines of a classic Montessori setup: low, open, containable, encouraging one project at a time.
This has a little bit to do with my style of parenting—I don’t like to suggest activities to them. I want them to meander around and find something for themselves. It’s extremely satisfying to me to have both girls wake up in the morning and immediately settle in with books, or drawing at their art table, or building Magnatile towers on the floor.
Here’s a good example of a trouble spot for me: the dress-up bin. A dress-up bin should be full of objects that can take their ideas in any direction, right? So a frilly dress, a tutu, a nurse’s uniform, some masks, leather cowboy breeches, farmers’ hats, magical headbands, butterfly wings…There is no wrong object for this box. However, if the box is more than 60% full, they won’t dig through it or even notice what’s inside of it. They keep it shut because it’s overwhelming when they open it. So I have a paper grocery bag of “overflow dress-up stuff” stored out of sight in my closet. It’s beautiful stuff, I still want to own it, but it’s been rotated out for now.
Art supplies is an area that I make room in my monthly budget to afford. I don’t like run-down, ratty art supplies for kids. When someone hands them a basket of crayons bits that have nearly turned grey from rubbing off on each other, the kids pick up on the lack of interest being projected by the adult. It took us awhile to get to a good spot with this stuff. For months, every time Lux wanted to paint, I had to dig around to find some clean paper for her to use.
Finally I went through a list written up by the Eric Carle Museum of favorite supplies and ordered many of them, including 1000 sheets of good white, and black paper. Now that we have that base, I can just occasionally pop into an art supply store and supplement what we have. But even there—if I go in with the girls and ask for colored pencils, they’ll say “Oh the nice ones are over there. But the Crayola ones are down this aisle.” If you go get the nice ones, they will last longer, are colored more vibrantly, and need to be sharpened less.
Erin: While you’ve managed to create a serene space, it’s clear from your colorful and art-filled home you and Joe are also collectors of sorts. Do you keep anything in storage? How do you decide what to keep and what to give away? What about your two tiny magpies?
Rachael: I must admit right now we have a few pieces of furniture stored in the basement of our building. Not enough to warrant a storage space, but I feel lucky that because the owner allows their presence, they can stay in our lives for a future date.
Joe and I both feel the tug of great art, whether it’s a fine print or a perfectly executed luggage tag. We frequently change the art that’s been hung up, or will have half-asleep midnight confessions of “I don’t like that anymore.” Then we put it under the bed. Every spring, it seems, we pull it all out and line it up and see if we still love it.
We have fantasies of owning the perfect vintage flat file. I wouldn’t mind keeping one hundred pieces in accessible storage if it meant we could store them safely and rotate them in now and then. I love white walls too, and will equally defend “my favorite white wall” to Joe instead of putting more art up.
Much of our college romance was built on bits of paper and notes to each other. We have a full file devoted to stationary in one of our file cabinets. So you could say we are both certified paper-people. Perhaps inevitably, Lux is too, already. She has two cigar boxes full of cards, labels, things cut out of packaging (like the fluffy dog from Cottonelle toilet paper), bookmarks, treasured candy wrappers. She goes through the boxes frequently and recites why each thing was important to her or gifts/loans pieces to Joan to play with for several hours. She’s never seen our collections, but I’m sure we’ve encouraged the trait in her somehow!
Erin: Do you ever find yourselves overwhelmed with an influx of kid-related stuff? What’s your strategy there?
Rachael: Giving away gifts that were given to your child can be really hard for parents. People love to buy stuffed animals for children, for example. The thank-you narrative Marie Kondo encourages is brilliant. Thanking a stuffed animal for allowing that friend or relative to feel connected to your child, and then throwing it away after your child’s interest has waned. Friend/relative doesn’t need to know that your child returned to their two favorite stuffed animals a week after the gift arrived. Goodwill and Salvation Army won’t accept stuffed animals because of all the germs they carry, and you’ll just have to throw it away. That’s ok.
My deepest true knowledge with kids stuff is the rule of “other people’s toys” that Karen Maezen Miller describes in her book Momma Zen: “You like them precisely because they are not yours.” Every parent has watched their child attach with true enthusiasm to an object outside of their home. This feeling and watching your child fall in love with an object can quickly translate into I have to get that for her, THIS is the toy we’ve been waiting for.
It’s so important to settle your mind and remember they loved it in that moment and it has nothing to do with how they will feel, or act, if you own that object.
Erin: As anyone who follows along on your Instagram account can attest, you spend a fair amount of time exploring the city with your kids. Do you see a relationship between this kind of daily adventuring and life in a small space?
Rachael: For sure. For one thing, city playgrounds have an abundance of those movable toys that you feel you must get when your child finally starts moving and develops a singular focus on mobility. But when you realize the playground has all of them (because no one wants them in their apartment) you count on that designated hour or two of focused activity.
It’s also about personal satisfaction for me. I really enjoy visiting new spots in my city, and that’s something I can do as a stay-at-home mom. It makes me feel empowered and piques my curiosity, two things can become a little deadened if you are home for a full day with your children. Every time I think about something like my aforementioned “yard guilt” I remember the reason we live here, now, is because of all these great things I can take the girls to without a car or much of a plan. That’s why the small apartment living feels like such a good fit for us right now.
I see it as an advantage that the smaller space pushes us out. That said, I know this January and February we’ll be in a deep winter babymoon, in the sense that I will really not want to go out with the baby. It will certainly be a stage where the older girls’ lifestyle will change for a few months—more movies, more indoor activities, more boredom, I imagine. There will be days in which we will feel moored in grim, ship-like tight quarters. They will probably look forward to their time with my husband or our weekly sitter as great adventures. That’s just the way it is.
The Simple Matters Series is inspired in part by curiosity piqued while writing my book of the same title. I wanted to know what simple matters were for other folks. And why simplicity mattered to them in the first place. My own story comes out on January 12, 2016. It’s available for pre-order right this way.