It’s that time of year again. Cabin fever is creeping in. Our homes feel closer, our spaces more confining.
Maybe it’s the extra Christmas pounds straining my waistline, but life just feels tight in January, doesn’t it? It’s about now, every winter, that I get the bug to rearrange furniture, purge excess junk, and knock down a load-bearing wall or two.
This sense of claustrophobia used to plague me year-round, not just in the doldrums of winter. Before we moved to our current home, we lived in what some might call a shoebox. I thought adding square footage would solve all our problems. Well, guess what?
Before I share what we’ve learned about the joys and frustrations of upsizing, here’s a little homeowner history to give you context.
When Tim and I married, we spent our first year in an old, two-story duplex before purchasing a foreclosure that needed serious help. (It was so ugly my parents cried the first time we gave them a tour, and promptly granted us permission to move into their basement for a few months while we gutted the place.)
After ripping out all the drywall, flooring, cabinetry, plumbing, electric, siding, roofing, and windows (envision naked framing hugged by insulation), we began to rebuild. Eight months later we were finished…just in time to welcome our first child.
When Annabell came along, the busy road a few feet outside our front door no longer seemed like an insignificant detail. Our driveway was steeper than Mt. Everest, and I had nightmares about our sweet cherub riding a tricycle straight down the death chute onto Route 322 during rush hour.
So we moved, sacrificing one bedroom and a sizeable chunk of square footage to gain a safe street in a quiet neighborhood. It was an ideal home for young children – a rancher with no stairs to worry about, a flat driveway and backyard, lots of sunlight.
Our first year there was like a fairytale. We were in love with our baby girl, enjoying a new home, and Tim was stepping out on his own as a general contractor.
Fast-forward a few years. We welcomed our second child, then adopted number 3. Somewhere in there we realized two bedrooms weren’t enough, so we claimed most of the garage as a third, leaving just enough storage space to fit most of Tim’s tools.
Problem was, Tim’s tools were multiplying. Business boomed. Soon his inventory had overflowed the garage and was now taking up space alongside our house.
Inside was no better. The intricacies of business ownership could no longer be confined to the dining room table. We needed an office, so we built one in the windowless basement. Depressing, but functional.
The children began to grow, which meant they required education. We decided to homeschool, but where? The basement was already taken, so we moved the kids into one bedroom and claimed the other as a classroom.
It worked. For a while.
After years of remodeling, rearranging, repurposing, and rethinking our limited space, we decided to take a peek at the market.
I’d just spent a month purging our house of everything we didn’t use on a regular basis, plus some things we did. So when I decided to browse the real estate listings, I was just trying to convince myself we couldn’t afford to live anywhere else.
Whether we could or couldn’t, we did. Our little house sold in nine days, we packed up our family, and here we are. Our new home has double the space of our last one, and while it could stand some repairs, it’s in better starting shape than either of our previous houses.
Still, it’s a mixed blessing.
Bigger = Better?
I’m not complaining, trust me. I remember the frustration of trying to manage a family of five in a space designed for two, and on top of that, I’ve been to a third-world country. I’m well aware that even our smallest home was a palace by non-Western standards.
But before we moved, when I was enmeshed in the frustrations of having outgrown our fairytale, it felt like square footage would solve everything.
Indeed, it has provided some delightful perks, like:
More privacy. As an introvert, I crave quiet spaces in which to recharge. While our house isn’t always quiet, the noise is at least muffled when I lock myself in the bedroom and hide my head under a pillow.
Designated space. Glory hallelujah, we have a playroom! A space for toys to go, live, and die. I’m not saying they don’t creep out now and then (I step on stray Legos hourly), but at least I can say, “Kids, I want all the toys back in the playroom,” instead of saying, “Kids, I want all the toys back in the baskets under the coffee table, on the bookshelf by the door, on the shelves in the living room, or under the stairs in the basement. And if you run out of space, stuff them in your closets.” (Yes, I know: TOO MUCH STUFF. Another topic for another post.)
Ability to host in comfort. When Tim’s family visited during Christmas, and we were able to offer everyone a bed. And on the rare occasion I work up the energy to invite people over, our guests can spread out and find places to sit in multiple rooms, instead of being perched on sofa arms or sitting cross-legged on the floor.
For each of these benefits, I am sincerely thankful. But that’s not the whole picture. Since moving, I’ve come to appreciate a few benefits of our previous, smaller house:
A close-knit family occupies the same space. The bigger the house, the easier it is to spread out and do your own thing. In our last home, I always knew where my kids were and what they were doing, because the place was just that small. Sure, it could be frustrating stepping on top of each other, but by default we spent more time together, often choosing to team up on activities rather than finding space to do our own.
Removing relationship obstacles. Because I lived in a small home, I know what is is to visit a “wealthy” friend and feel inferior or envious. Now that we’ve moved, the roles are reversed and I’m more sensitive than ever. I find myself embarrassed by the size of our home, feeling the need to explain that we got it for a steal because of unusual circumstances. Call it pride, but I worry about what people will think. It’s too easy to assume “successful” people have it all together, when success has nothing to do with the size of your house or your monthly budget. (As for having it all together, we most definitely do not.)
Ease of maintenance. In our previous home, I could plug in the vacuum cleaner and run it through the entire place without switching to a new outlet. In fact, I could vacuum, mop, dust, declutter, and clean the bathroom in about two hours, whereas it takes me half a day to clean just one story of our larger home. Same story for Tim – it takes a lot more time and money to look after a larger structure. It might have been harder to fit our guests when we entertained at the small house, but we spent less time maintaining and more time relaxing.
Houses, Homes, and Hearts
There are times I pine for my small home. I also pine for my childhood home, an old, sprawling farmhouse in Vermont. It’s not the structure I long to recapture, but the memories, the sensation, the phase of life. My childhood home was a place of love and laughter. Sure, there were bats in the attic and my bedroom windows were thin as cellophane, but I was loved there, and I was happy.
What will my children remember about their childhood home? What will yours? Wherever our family lives – whether we stay in this house, downsize, or join a commune – I hope my children one day long to return to the people, memories, and love they’ve known under our roof. Because a good home isn’t about the house, it’s about the heart.