Tiny House, Big Problem

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I think I am in over my head and I am not sure what to do.  I have been married for 8 years and have two children, ages 6 and 2.  My husband and I have always been environmentally and socially conscious, and recently decided to try “simple living”.  Against the cautions of some of our family members, we decided to downsize from a 2500 sq ft suburban home to a 650 sq ft “tiny house” that we had custom built for our family.  It is super cute and we were pretty mindful in our planning, carefully considering what we thought we could live with. But now that we have been living in it for a month, I hate it!  There is no room to do anything!  I feel like I am constantly tripping over stuff, there is NO privacy, and I feel terribly confined.  I am often grumpy and find myself snapping at my husband and kids over the smallest things.  I feel this way now, in the summer, when we have been able to spend lots of time outside…how am I ever going to get through a winter like this?    I had NO idea that I would find this so difficult.  While I am struggling with our new home, my husband seems to think it’s all great.  He is constantly sharing the “joys of simple living” with everyone we meet.  We have invested a lot of time and money in this “new way of life”, and I feel like a schmuck for wanting to bail on it so soon.  I don’t want to let my husband down, nor do I really want to hear “I told you so’s” from our families.   But really….I feel like I am going to go insane if we don’t do something different soon. I don’t know what to do.

-Missing my space

++++++++++

Dear Missing,

P: Ah, my dear, I’m sure you thought the honeymoon would last a little longer… This is/was a huge undertaking, and however carefully you plan about the space, I’m not sure there’s any way you can plan about the realities of so much less space. This is something you need to learn to live with, something that it will take discipline to make work for you.

I suspect that anyone can learn to thrive in smaller space although not everyone will choose to. But it’s only in the last couple generations that most people had large spaces to live in. We’ve developed notions of privacy and privilege that go along with that space.

B: Americans like space. We’ve been culturally ingrained with romantic ideals of wide open spaces and big skies. Large cars. Ample personal space. Certainly, most of us don’t even consider what it would be like to live in the stackable apartments they have in Japan. I have a friend who is planning a move into a tiny house with her husband, this very spring. She said, “Space is difficult. I think it is both the most overrated and underrated commodity we have.”

I get that you’re environmentally conscious and want to reduce your carbon footprint. And I’m glad that you care enough about the state of our planet to want to pass that caring on to your children. But you made a tremendous leap into a new extreme, and now, it seems like you’ve found yourself stuck, and I am presuming you can’t move back to your old home, or that moving at all isn’t really an option you’ll willingly entertain. Now what?

P: The tiny house movement is new, so I looked around the interwebs for discussion boards concerning the transition to a small home, and couldn’t really find anything. As I looked I realized, oh, right, people live in apartments with their families that are this small and manage not to ruin their lives or their children. I suspect you need to change the rules — and it make take some time to figure out what the new normal for simple living is. It may take some iterations before you finally settle on what works for everyone. Because of course it doesn’t work if everyone else is happy and you aren’t.

B: My initial instinct is to remind you to take a breath, take a walk outside for five minutes–alone, of course!–and calm down. You’ve only been in that house for a month, and you may be going through growing…shrinking?…pangs. You’ve lost roughly 75% of your former living space, so you need to allow for an adjustment period. It’s a different way to live. Energy gathers in a home differently in a space that small, especially when there are four people contributing to it. One toy left in the middle of the living room floor creates a sense of clutter, one heap of socks looks like a mountain of laundry. It’s entirely possible that once you adapt–once your vision adjusts to your new surroundings, once you learn how to manage your family’s presences, once you create house rules that reflect where you live now–you’ll breathe a little easier.

But the important thing to remember in all this is that you aren’t managing that household alone. You have a husband with you, a life partner, who should ostensibly help you with how your home flows. He may be telling everyone how much he loves tiny-house living. Have you ever told him how YOU feel?

P: Your discomfort is the whole family’s problem. And they need to recognize that. ‘Cause as the T-shirt says, “If mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

How do you blend privacy, play, work, studies and remember, romance?

B: It’s all well and good that your husband is busily extolling the virtues of tiny living, and I understand that his apparent enthusiasm would dampen your desire to tell him how unhappy you are in your new home. How can you tell him you’re unhappy with something in which he’s clearly delighted? What you need to bear in mind is, this is your life. This isn’t some temporary inconvenience, like getting a new roof put on or having every window in the house replaced. Tiny house living may have been an idealized projection of you vis a vis a green-living, Little House on the Prairie-esque romantic notion, but the functional part of you that dislikes your living situation is your real self. It’s uncomfortable to realize your ideal and your real selves are in conflict, but you need to honor who you are and what you want. It’s time for you to take what you have and make the best of it.

P: Idealism is amazing. But reality takes some getting used to. You are not practiced at this. Some of the family living skills you had from living in your house that was 4x your beautiful, new, little one will not transfer to living in a much smaller space.

So do some good research and then some thinking. Plan as carefully for your day-to-day family life as you did for space. Could you have done this before? Sure! Did you? No. So what? Now’s the time to look at things. Talk about it. Start a blog about it.

B: Talk to your husband about how you feel, and tell him you want to institute some changes as to how you all operate in your new space. You may want to institute new clutter rules, which could make a difference as to how you perceive the open space you have. You may want to try and institute a quiet time, to mellow out the collective energy in your smaller space.

P: In small space you have to work as a unit. Individualism takes a back seat to the family, although everyone needs to be acknowledged. The balance of privilege and family priorities needs to be built to fit the home you have. Teach your kids to be productive members of the family. Make them responsible for chores and living skills. They’ll still be kids, but we need to learn to be aware of others; it’s not inborn.

I remember that growing up, we all used to sit in the living room and read quietly. TV was a communal activity. Pretty much everyone watched. If we didn’t have TV we wanted to see, we played games. We had a big house, but we did things together in the evenings. And we learned to like quiet activities. Turn off the noise; if there’s music on, consider sitting and listening to it. Or make it a treat that gets turned up to dance music when there are chores to be done.Remember, you are creative, you figured out what to do with stuff, now you have to build a family that fits in your little home.

We forget that we can go out in the winter as well. It’s not as easy if we’re in the country as it might be in the city, but kids used to spend hours playing outside in all kinds of weather. Time outside in fresh air makes you lots less rammy. Build a play house, hang a swing. Learn to snow shoe or ice skate or cross country ski. Do it with the kids. You’ll feel better too.

B: I’d advise that you and your husband set a deadline for you to see how you feel after new house rules and activities and spatial negotiations are implemented. If, at the end of it, you still think you need more space, then give yourself the respect you deserve and act on that. Build on an extension to the house. Or put up a she-shed. If you end up expanding your living space yet again, remember, there are ways to be environmentally mindful without confining your living space to 650 square feet. Create a personal food garden. Keep bees. Create a protected wildlife space on your property; there are ways to do that even if you live in town. Look into solar paneling and ease your burden on the national power grid. You don’t have to upheave your life–again–in order to change it. You just need to be respectful and honest toward everything you already have.

P: You’ve got this. You just need to reconsider what works. And if in a couple years, yep, keep trying, it doesn’t work, then find something that’ll make mama happy. But no sense leaving before you’ve really done your homework.

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