life in a tiny apartment.

March 26, 2018

Survival Tip #162: Where do you put the people?

Where do you put all your stuff?

It makes sense that most tiny apartment queries I get have to do with managing the stuff in a tiny apartment. We’re a family of four in a one-bedroom apartment. It’d be cozy in here even without any of the attending flotsam and jetsam of 21st century life with two kids.

There’s a hundred plus posts in the archives dealing with the particulars of the stuff; how to store it, how to stuff it, how to part with it when neither or those options makes sense. But what’s harder to grapple with, and certainly harder to package into any kind of actionable tip, is not the stuff, but the selves. When I get questions about selves instead of stuff, I admit that I flounder.

How do you make the space in a tiny apartment for the soul searching, or the tantrum having, or the quiet finding? Where do you make art, or make music, or make love, or have yourself a good cry? How do you make room for aloneness and togetherness or catching a few extra minutes of sleep after a night with altogether too few of them?

What do you do when your husband needs to shape the bread and it’s 10:15 pm and you’d really rather be sleeping? Or when your wife is pecking at her keyboard because she’s had a stroke of genius she’ll devow by morning? When you said the light didn’t bother you, but maybe it does, just a little. And maybe a little means a lot?

The truth is that there are almost always block towers that need dashing at precisely the same moment that a phone call needs making, or a nap needs having, or a dinner needs prepping, or the tiniest bum needs wiping. This is life in a family with small children, of course. This is life in cohabitation. But it’s magnified, maybe, by a closeness that I’m not sure feels precisely the same in a home where physical distance is an option.

Where do you flee when your children are on minute ten of matching each other’s tones at increasing volume? Will the roof soon bust open? Is there too much of us for these walls to contain?

Pragmatists will want to know—or already know—that mostly we leave. We leave the apartment to do our work, or stretch our legs, or find breathing room enough to stay married, or sane, or whatever else feels particularly important on a given Tuesday. Where do you go when you need to move your body or cry out loud or stamp your feet? Out, out, out. Out into dark nights or the sunshiny mornings or the drizzle and the damp. 

The romantics will understand that mostly we cope and sometimes we don’t and that sometimes there’s a tempest in a tiny apartment and we all still come out the other side.


People ask me if I ever feel envious of other people’s spaces. Sometimes, is the short answer.

PS. For the inevitable questions about what I do with toddler art in a tiny apartment, stay tuned. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. More on that soon.

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  • Reply Diane March 26, 2018 at 11:01 am

    For my family, storage in the 500 SQ feet wasn’t the issue. It was having only one bathroom for four people. We finally moved just to get a second bathroom.

  • Reply Ann March 26, 2018 at 11:22 am

    “Where do you flee when your children are on minute ten of matching each other’s tones at increasing volume?”
    But if they were silent and suddenly came silence…..
    This is exactly the moment when it’s time to run.

  • Reply Katharine March 26, 2018 at 11:28 am

    This is beautifully written and also makes me reflect on how many thousands of people live like this by choice or by lack of choice. People constrained by finances, facing hardship of any kind, in refugee camps around the world, and in apartment buildings in every single city. People choosing to live with children and grandparents and more, all side by side. This is just to say thank you for bringing me a moment of reflection on the endless variety of happy and sad situations in our world.

  • Reply Oana March 26, 2018 at 11:33 am

    We will soon move from a small 2 bedroom to a small 1 bedroom apartment with a toddler, and we’re ok with getting rid of the stuff. I’m mostly concerned, as you pointed out here, with where do we put the people. Sure, the three of us can figure out living in a 1 bedroom apartment just fine, but what do we do with weekly dinners for lots of people? What will we do with frequent out of town guests? How do you handle extended family and friends in such a small apartment? Or do they not get to spend time in your home much? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

  • Reply Jennifer March 26, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Beautiful, Erin. Definitely bookmarking this for a rainy day when our own (slightly larger than your apartment but still very small) home feels too small.

  • Reply Karolien March 26, 2018 at 11:40 am

    Such a beautiful, true post! I’m a long time reader and have watched your apartment welcome two children, at about the same pace as two children filled our home in Belgium. And even though we live in a house, not an apartment, I can still relate to the closeness and the occasional tempests. Thank you for putting it into words so beautifully. You’ve reminded me that it’s okay (for every one) to need more space sometimes.

  • Reply laura March 26, 2018 at 11:49 am

    even now in our huge-to-us two-story home, another room isn’t always the answer. it’s always to leave: for a walk by the water, in the woods, to the store, etc. it’s the solution that works regardless of the space.

  • Reply Cecelia R March 26, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    We also live in a small space in Brooklyn with two small children. In the most frustrating moments I have to remind myself that one day we will miss this era of our lives. Even now, I reflect on the days gone as cozy and warm, intimate and in some ways…decadent. However, I am running into an increasingly depressing realization that my children are not being exposed to nature without the constant daily hustle needed to get there. Sometimes I just want my kids to wake up and FEEL the nature around them, not have to take the subway to it. I also often wonder how to move “up” with my family without moving “on” from this intimate lifestyle. Erin, how does your family plan on spending your children’s youth? Any thoughts on this? I’m so torn on where the beat place to raise my kids is, as many New Yorkers are!

    • Reply Jessica March 26, 2018 at 3:08 pm

      That feeling of wanting our kids to wake up and feel nature is what ultimately led us to move from LA to Vermont. We used to have to drive through terrible traffic to get to nature and now we live in a relatively small home (so we still have the intimate lifestyle I also like) within walking distance of the lake, with a big backyard garden and we love it. However, I do miss living in a large city and feel like my kids are missing out on a lot of other things by not growing up in the city. Grass is always greener 🙂

  • Reply Mickey March 26, 2018 at 1:05 pm

    As a society, I think we’re becoming indoctrinated with the expectation of massive of private spaces in a shared dwelling – sometimes with designated rooms that stay unused most of the time (like my MIL’s craft room or some man caves I’ve seen out there). The price we pay comes in the form of crippling mortgages, lifetime debt and social isolation.

    We choose to live in a small space because we choose to live with big dreams.

    • Reply Leah March 26, 2018 at 6:55 pm

      Yes, this is why we moved into an apartment. I’m so grateful to explore my career options without the overhead. The truth, though, is sometimes I struggle with the judgment of living in a small space.

      • Reply Mickey March 27, 2018 at 6:44 am

        Yes, the judgement inevitably hurts, even covert judgement. Family members commenting about how small our space is stings, even though I would never want to trade places with them. Our life in a city suits us so much better than a life lived according to other people’s rules.

        I would never ever go to other people’s homes and comment: “wow, I can’t believe you’re paying for this much space; that’s so weird.” or “do you really have no other interests other than mowing the lawn for two hours.” I feel ashamed even typing that judgement, let alone uttering it to their faces. So when someone says “wow, I can’t believe how small your space is; how do you … cook/have guests/dry clothes/store a vacuum cleaner?” I just have a mini-rage meltdown inside. Then I remember we do all those things well, and so many other things that make a house a home, and we live our lives according to our values.

        I think a better way to deal with criticism is to know that it comes from a place of curiosity (ok, sometimes ignorance) and not from a place of pettiness.

      • Reply Annaleah March 27, 2018 at 8:47 am

        I understand how you feel about the judgment of living in a small space! Our family of 8 lives in a 940 square foot home, and while it is (mostly) perfect for us, we have had our share of comments and questions about when we are going to move. But we love our home, and honestly, there are times even in this small of a space when we feel like we aren’t using all the spaces to their full potential. Our bedrooms, for example, are primarily for sleeping in and are often empty during the day.

        One thought I have for dealing with the need for alone time and space is to arrange your schedule to allow for it as best you can. Our family, who homeschools and is home together all day, has a family wide quiet time every day where we all pick a corner and do something quiet by ourselves. Even though there are still several kids physically close to me, I still have that sense of aloneness since no one is talking to me!

  • Reply Eva March 26, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    I had trouble living in a one bedroom with me and my boyfriend, so I cannot imagine how insanity must slip in here and there with a family of four. It’s impossible that it wouldn’t and it’s a marvel that you can manage. My apartment is small now, though we have shared living space with my family, and I struggle to find peace. In fact, I sent my husband on a week-long trip in order to gain some. Also, noise canceling headphones…just a thought! 😉

  • Reply Lena March 26, 2018 at 4:08 pm

    Wonderfully beautiful, Erin.

  • Reply Crystine March 26, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    Although sometimes I yearn for a larger space w room for a room of my own, a play room, a dining room etc I also truly believe that I know my children well because there is no escape from each other!That said, I do still yearn sometimes. Now that one child is older and has taken to texting me, I also appreciate the different stories we tell, the different language we use, when given some space.

  • Reply Amanda March 26, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    Ah, you write about such a pragmatic topic with such beauty. Keep pecking at that keyboard late at night! xo

  • Reply Katharine March 26, 2018 at 7:51 pm

    Love this. Our situation is very similar to yours, except that we still only have the one toddler occupying the bedroom. Getting out — every day, rain or shine — is critical. But I will also say, the tight quarters have made us excellent at finding quiet in our own heads. If my husband is playing blocks with the kiddo in the bedroom, I would swear I’m alone in the apartment. And whoever is not on breakfast duty never has any trouble pulling up the covers and going back to sleep, even though the dining table is less than seven feet from our bed!

  • Reply Heather March 27, 2018 at 11:04 am

    I’m always grateful to find some commiseration here! We are a family of four, living in about 625 sq. ft. We are constantly re-evaluating how to make the space work for our family. My husband and I are both introverts, who, before having children, always cherished quiet alone time. This year, we’ve found switching off taking the girls to Saturday morning gymnastics, while the other has a quiet house, has been life changing! Also, I’ve finally been taking more initiative to get out on a walk alone occasionally or to see musicians perform at open-mic night, with a friend, and that’s made a huge difference in my winter. We really, really love the space we live in and sometimes I think we could rent here forever, but I admit I sometimes wish my girls could have their own room, as my room was such a haven and creative space for me, growing up (did you have your own room?). I’d also love my own room for creative work! My younger daughter is just a little younger than Faye; I look forward to seeing how your family chooses to live as your children grow and I’m curious to know if you do have plans to move by a particular time in your children’s development. I’ve pretty much promised my six-year-old that she’ll have her own room when she’s sixteen! 🙂

    • Reply Connie April 26, 2018 at 6:16 pm

      I live with my 13-year-old twins in a one-bedroom. I just recently ‘split’ their room to give them each their own half by parking their bunk beds in the middle of the room and utilizing light-blocking curtains for both privacy and to help allay the issue of light from one or the other’s computer in the evening. They really both immediately took to having even this small bit of space to call their own, arrange to their liking, etc. I also try to grab one or the other to run an errand with me, just so the other has a bit of time to themselves. For me (also an introvert), I adjusted my work hours in order to be able to drop them off at school and return home to savor some peace, quiet, and alone time before heading off to work. I’m also super firm on their bedtimes so that I have the late evening to myself. And I’m taking vacation to be home during the week they’re both in camp this summer! (We also have a vacation together as a family earlier in the summer.) While I do realize I will miss the togetherness once they’re up and out, I also see the value of each of us having our own space and time away from each other as well, and the irritation that creeps in when we all go too long without some alone time.

  • Reply anna maria March 28, 2018 at 11:29 am

    your writing is so beautiful, erin – and your reflections inspiring 🙂 thanks for sharing it in this space.

  • Reply SEM March 28, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    I love your enthusiasm. All of my BK and Manhattan friends are in similar tiny boats but the trade off is your living room is only limited by how far you decide to roam! I think for me personally, my adjustments would have to be in the areas of paring down my stuff and figuring out how to do mostly free/inexpensive indoorsy stuff in the city setting, in winter. My last apartment was about the size of yours (though in an isolate suburban area with no sidewalks) and we mostly struggled with needing occasional alone time. I was always annoyed being relegated to the bedroom to write papers or read but we share a car and I couldn’t always drive to the university library for a better setup (also hauling books is the worst). I’m curious about your seating set up…I know you use your bed and have a settee….is that ever a struggle as far as relaxation? We have a very uncomfortable couch and it makes reading and netflix annoying. I hesitate to use my bed bc my clothes are out and about and I don’t want them touching my clean bedding. What is your work around when you need to chill?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE March 28, 2018 at 1:05 pm

      Getting into pajamas 😉

  • Reply McKenzie Allyshia March 30, 2018 at 12:35 am

    First, your writing is absolutely beautiful. I can only imagine that living in a smaller space with four people can be crazy and hectic, however you managed to make it sound so cozy and wonderful at the same time. As if it were the best thing to do and I love that. My husband and I are tossing around the idea of purchasing an RV to live in for about six months to a year so that we could plan to build a home on property. It is a very scary thought to be that close, constantly, to not only us but our three boys and three dogs. I am going to be immediately checking out more of your posts on smaller spaces.

  • Reply Amanda March 30, 2018 at 9:27 am

    i could not love this more, or agree more whole-heartedly!! we’re 100% in the same boat. you said this so beautifully!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE March 30, 2018 at 12:54 pm

      Thanks so much, Amanda!

  • Reply Deanna April 27, 2018 at 9:56 am

    Just discovered your blog from another small space blogger. We are a family three living in a 850 Sq ft Condo in Chicago and we always get these same snap judgements as others have expressed here. But our backyard is the city! We live down the street from a playground/park and run all our errands in foot. It is definitely easier once they are in school because I work from home. Husband is travels M-F for work. Weekends and yes winter can get a little tricky but someone is always out and about running errands or hanging out in one of the bedrooms while the other hangs out in the living room etc.

    I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one and I think it’s rather sad that people get so caught up trying to keep up with the Joneses and feel everyone need to live in a large home and spend all their money and time on it. I much rather use that time and money to travel and explore the city!

  • Reply Amanda Noble May 15, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    I like tiny apartments. It is less cleaning and forces you to keep things organized. Sometimes I feel that big spaces is just for storing things that in most cases we don’t need.

  • Reply Lily June 5, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    There’s 3 of us (2 adults + a 1 year-old) in a 420 sq ft apartment. It has a walk in closet that fits a mini crib and I honestly feel like there’s room for more if not for sleeping arrangements. It looks like your arrangement at present is kids sharing a room and adults sleeping adjacent to the main living space. But I’m curious- what did you do with an infant and toddler? I’m not cut out for co-sleeping and I wouldn’t trust the toddler with the baby. So I’m curious how others do it. I wish our walk-in was accessible from outside the bedroom. That way I’d put the baby in there and the big kid(s) in the room. And maybe do a Murphy bed for the adults to get more room for playing. Absolutely love this series and blog!

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