Living large in a small house: fitting 10 in a house built for 4

Pour mes lecteurs francophones: Voici une traduction de ma publication “Famille nombreuse de 7 enfants dans maison trop petite”. Vous pouvez trouver la publication originale ici.

The most entertaining part — and it can become an obsession — of owning a blog is to read the site stats, especially the search engine terms summary. For those who are unfamiliar with the technical underbelly of blogging, every time someone lands on my blog following a Google search (or any of the other search engines)  I get a little note in my stats telling me what those searches were. It allows me to make better use of the tags (and change some language, especially in French regarding twins nursing, that tends to attract, ah, er, readers that are not exactely looking for family fare *cough*). All this to say that someone landed on my blog while looking for “Large family with 7 children in house too small”. I was inspired.

Now, by popular demand, I am translating this post. Ok, one person requested. But we’re all about customer service here!

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I do not live in a house too small with my large family. In fact, my house is too large and I dream of designing and building the smallest house a family of 10 can comfortably occupy. When I say that I dream of living in the smallest possible house, what I mean is that I dream of a house I can keep clean. Unlike this one:

My guess is that the owners of this house -- currently being built in my area -- are not the ones cleaning it.

My husband, who has a design hobby, drew a 1,300 sq. ft house for our family inspired by the ideas found in Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House: A Blueprint fot the Way We Really Live. I have no doubt that it is possible to live in a house too small for a family with 7 children. However, what is usually lacking in North American houses is not so much space as well-designed space.

It reminded me of a conversation with a friend. When she and her husband bought their suburban house, they thought “This house is a good size for 3 or 4 children!” She added: “In another country, a mom like me would look at this house and say ‘This house is a good size for 3 or 4 families!'” And the families would probably be bigger!

Big enough for 3 or 4 children or 3 or 4 families?

You can observe the evolution of what is considered an appropriate house-size for a family by moving from the downtown area of most Canadian cities toward the suburbs. I’m always reminded, whenever I see this type of bungalow (below) that they were once considered a good size for 3 or 4 children. They usually have 3 bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen with an eating area and a living-room. The basements were meant as storage, as witnessed by the size of the windows in the foundation: you could not build an insurable bedroom with windows that size. Some houses had single attached garages.

A single family house in 1950-60

In today’s suburb, a single-family home has two storeys, a finished (or finishable) basement, a kitchen with eating area, a dining room,  a family room, a living room, 4 bedrooms and a double garage. And yet, several features show that these houses were built for families of 4 and can feel cramped for a large family. Even in our too-large house, we  redesigned some areas to make them more practical for our growing family. Here are a few thoughts in no particular order:

1. Do not limit yourself to what should be in a single family house. Yes, most houses have a family room and a living room but most people do not have 5, 6, 7, 8 children. We used to live in a house with an eat-in kitchen, a dining room, a family room and a living room. In other words, two eating spaces and two resting spaces. We had a wall built between the living room and the dining room and turned them into a music room and a home office. Then we had a resting space, an eating space, a study space and a piano space.

2. Open concept areas were not invented by parents of a large family. We used to live in a house with a cathedral ceiling in the kitchen open to the second storey and a front hallway open to the second storey. Visitors would be all: “This is great! This way you always know what the kids are doing!” Maybe, but when my husband was grinding coffee at 6:30 am in the kitchen, he could have been grinding it right in the baby’s room for the difference it made in the level of noise. Not to mention that you could not have a kid practicing piano in the living room while another was doing homework or watching tv in another room. Avoid open concept or try to close it off.

3. Think function. When we moved in our actual house, two of the children’s room had huge walk-in closets. We turned the walk-in in the boys’ bedroom in a small 3-piece bathroom (toilet, sink, shower) and a small laundry room, separated by sliding doors. Believe me, I appreciate my upstairs laundry room more than my boys decry the absence of a closet. Where do they put their clothes? Right now, we re-purposed bookshelves but it does look a bit disheveled. We will eventually get a couple of Ikea wardrobes.

A little messy but you get the idea. This used to be a walk-in closet.

4.Beware of yourself. Too often, our houses become too small because of too much stuff, not to much people. I know families who perform miracles with very large families in very tight quarters (we’re talking 8 kids in a 3-bedroom row-house with no backyard) and still manage to make their space look bright and cheerful. These people are, without exception, compulsive about what they bring into their house and what they keep there. They do not keep anything that has lost its function or outlived its usefulness and they certainly don’t get emotionally attached to stuff. For a good dose of motivation on the cost of clutter — personal and financial — I recommend Is There a Life After Housework? from Don Aslett. In a nutshell, if you have any storage area dedicated to things you no longer know what to do with, see part of every mortgage payment as rent for your stuff.

I realized while writing this post that we have done a lot of small changes to our living areas to make them more family friendly. My husband suggested that I expand on that in future posts, which I will do. Eventually.

Friday’s Mixed Nuts

Pour mes lecteurs francophones: “Friday’s Mixed Nuts” est un ramassis d’anecdotes et de faits divers rassemblés au cour de la semaine.

1 one vegetarian recipe my kids all love: blackbean quesadilla from Canadian I serve it with salsa, sour cream and guacamole. I always double the recipe and we eat the leftover filling by the spoonful. I also warm-up the leftovers in a pan, throw-in some cheese and top it with diced avocado. It’s a gazillion time better when the salsa was made with love by your own mother using your own homegrown tomatoes and jalapenos. A little jar of spicy summer heat in the dead of winter.

2 two blogs I found this week that inspired me: The Lucas Adventures (family with 4 children and a touching adoption story from Rwanda) and Crackers (a homemade food blog about eating well, something I try to do in part by growing my own tomatoes and having other people make the salsa — Merci Maman et Faustina!)

3 three sizes of black socks is how I deal with  the laundry for 20 feet (well 16 really since the twins don’t count yet). Large black socks for mom, dad and the two larger children, medium black socks for the two medium children and small black socks for the little boy. Clean socks live in a laundry basket and people play mix-and-match as required.

4 four kilometers is how far I ran on icy sidewalks with my dog and my jogging stroller. You can read about it in the Running Diaries’ First Run post.

5 five billion dollars is what Facebook will file to raise in its initial public offering (IPO).  According to the company, its revenue rose by 65% is 2011 from 3-ish million $ to 1 billion. Ever wondered what made Facebook so valuable? It depends who you ask. According to founder Mark Zuckerberg, it is seizing the opportunity to connect people and building the tools that enable these connections. Uh? Since I don’t pay a dime for connecting with my friends there has to be more: investors are not paid in “connections”. Mashable has the real story here. In case you were wondering, Facebook is a giant advertizing bucket. We users are not the clients, we are the product. That’s good to keep in mind as Facebook prepares to put your personal information on show whether you want it or not. Is this a big deal? It depends how you feel about online privacy. Still, you may want to read this before embracing the mandatory timeline.

Such a Chore Part 2: Getting kids there

I promised a series in a few parts on kids and chores. This second part on how to get kids to perform their assigned chores should come with two caveat.

Parenting advice often come through a bit condescending and when written by parents with real-life children, it often makes the children look perfect. My children are not perfect and they do not enjoy chores more than I do. They sometimes resist or completely ignore my requests. On a bad day, I may even get attitude. I don’t live in chores Wonderland.

The second caveat is, as with every parenting advice, your mileage may vary. Different families have different dynamics and different personalities. No parenting advice is a slam-dunk. Ever. You should read this post as a testimony more than a road-map. This is how I get my toilets cleaned once a week with 8 children and no cleaning service.

(Oh, and I was asked to specify that I would be nothing without my husband. I am neither a neat-freak nor a well-organized person. Paul is the list-maker and the task-assigner and the brain-thrust behind that whole chore business. )

Chores come in different brands and flavours. Some must be performed daily, others weekly. In our family, daily chores include pet maintenance, waste management, meals-related chores such as setting the table and emptying the dishwashers. I should also add “baby-chase” which is the chore that befalls the child responsible for following Sarah’s every step and preventing any inspired-by-Sarah chaos. I won’t get into the kind of trouble Sarah gets into, that would be a post in and of itself (and you wouldn’t believe me anyway). I am not including as chores personal hygiene, lunch-making and any other self-serving tasks that the kids have to perform whether they like it or not. I define chores as “family work”: tasks that must be performed for the family or as part of making the family work.

1. The Set-Up: We (meaning Paul but we’re really big on parental unity here so bear with me.) “We” have a list of daily and weekly chores printed and posted where everyone can see it.

Now it’s been there so long that nobody sees it anymore but whenever a child needs a reminder, we refer  to the list. We also have a trusted white board that has given me much grief and aggravation at work because once you start working with a white board you just. can’t. stop. I have a really nice white board at work and people visit my office just to write stuff on it. On Saturday morning, we <cough> write down the chores list for the day on the white board.

2. The Assignment: Try to choose chores that match your child’s personality and interests. Much has been written about choosing age-appropriate chores but you can also increase your chances of success by asigning chores wisely. For instance, my oldest daughter has more interest in looking after the animals than her brother. It may not always be possible: computer maintenance and upgrade does not need to happen every week and my son has no natural interest in taking out the trash daily. And yet…

2. The Warm-up: Manage your expectations. Children do not see dirt and chaos like we adults do.  If you are only starting to put your children at contribution around the house, you will be disappointed to realize that getting tangible results requires a time investment equal or superior to performing the task yourself, plus some added aggravation and mental strain. You may also be disappointed to realize that children are not born knowing how to sanitize a toilet. “Thorough cleaning” is in the eye of the beholder.

3. The Execution: 3.1 Show them how it’s done. Children are not born knowing how to clean a toilet or operate a washing machine. We often tend to leave children with a chore (clean-up the bathroom) without telling them what it means. If you expect your 12 year-old son to know he must wipe the inside of the toilet seat, you will be sorely disappointed. When I introduce a new chore, I do it once or twice with the children. Then they do it once or twice with me. Then I write it down and post it. Some children don’t need the list, others have fights over it (“It says clean tub before clean sink!!!”; “It doesn’t matter as long as we don’t clean the toilet first!!!”; “We can clean the toilet first if we don’t re-use the rag to clean the sink!” ; “I cleaned the toilet with your toothbrush!!!”) but it does the job.

3.2 Don’t do it for them but make sure they do it. Children are masters of passive resistance.  They also have a knack for finding the shortest route between A and B. Add the two, multiply by the number of children and you’ve got yourself doing your children’s chores for them (or dealing with a public health disaster).

3.3 Make them come back to finish it. That’s important so they know you mean it. It seals it for the next time and makes sure there is no erosion of quality over time: kids, especially teenagers, will naturally revert to the path of least resistance. So make sure you apply resistance consistently.

3.4 Nothing happens until the chores are done. This is counter-intuitive for busy women because whether we are a stay-at-home mom or a working-for-a-paycheque mom, we are constantly reminded by advice columns to take time for ourselves and that work won’t run away. But your children need to learn how to work before they can learn how to take a break. This may take more discipline from the parent than the children. Case in point: my daughters needed to go to the shopping centre to pick-up a birthday gift for a birthday party later that day. We warned them that chores had to be finished before we could leave the house. As the morning went by, it became increasingly likely that they would have to go to the birthday party gift-less. Now, do I want to be the mom whose kids show-up at a birthday party empty-handed? No. I really had to sit on my hands that day. But the chores were done and we had time to pick-up a gift.

Family is where children learn work ethics and the value of a job well-done. Chores are one way to get them there.