Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Creative and Contented: Big Families Living in Small Homes :: Jenny Cook from Life in the Cookie Jar

Today, Jenny Cook (of Life in the Cookie Jar) shares words about acceptance and gratitude that can speak to each heart , whether we have a walk-in closet or live out of a suitcase. Welcome to Ordinary Lovely, Jenny! I'm so happy to have you!

“Be content with what you have, for God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5b)

Contentment is not a virtue or value easily come by in our materialistic culture.  In fact, it’s counter-cultural to be content with what you have.  I saw this ad on the back of a Real Simple magazine recently:

How ironic…a “real simple” life apparently can’t be lived well without a very expensive sports car.  As someone who has somehow been thriving without one, I beg to differ.

Our family also lives in a situation which is counter-cultural: we are a family of five making our home in a 500 sq. ft. trailer.  We moved in last summer.  Before that, we lived for a year in a 500 sq. ft. apartment.  

We haven’t always lived in such small spaces.  Some of the apartments or houses we’ve lived in have been perfectly spacious, but those were all when we had housemates (another counter-cultural phenomenon for many American families and a whole different story for another day!)  When we went back to living without housemates, we couldn’t afford a lot for rent, and small spaces were the only thing within budget.  

We never set out to live small, and to be honest, we’re not looking to make this a rest-our-of-lives thing.  It’s something that we need for this season of life and we hope eventually to life in a bigger home on a bigger piece of land.  But for now, this is what works…and it really works a lot better than you might think.

I have some other posts elsewhere on how we make it work in a practical sense, but here I’d like to reflect on how to focus on contentment and gratitude in the often challenging situation of a house which affords each person about 100 sq. ft.

Believe you me, I am not an expert at contentment.  Despite picking Hebrews 13:5b as my “life verse” when I was baptized at age 6, I—like many, I suspect—struggle to remember to be grateful for what I’ve been given.  There are days when living in a small space with three kids under five is really trying.  We have only two bedrooms, which are for the kids.  My husband and I sleep on a futon in the living room.  His clothes are in a suitcase next to the bed; mine are in a dresser in the boys’ room. When my three year old is having a tantrum, I can’t really get away from it.  He shares a room with his one year old brother, and although they sleep at night in there together well, they can’t be in there at the same time for daytime naps.  As a result, there is nowhere for my three year old to go when he’s tired and cranky and his brother is napping except in the main room with me or in the yard.  

A small space doesn’t take long to clean, but it also doesn’t take long to get dirty.  There is nothing dividing the kitchen from the main room, so dirty feet come tromping in all day long, even with a shoes-off policy.  Between tracking in endless pine needles and mud in our rainy Oregon winters (which last about 9 months!) and a toddler who loves to throw food, the floor is usually a wreck by day’s end, if not by midday.  There’s no dishwasher, so dishes are constantly stacking up, even with a double sink.  Because of the lack of storage and counter space, it takes very little to clutter the place up.  It seems counter-intuitive that a small space would be hard to keep clean, but that’s how it seems.  I often notice that if I’m not cleaning all day, the scale of the mess is massively above and beyond what it was when I lived in houses twice or three times the size.  It can get very discouraging.

Those are some of the challenges, but of course there are benefits that are not to be overlooked.  Here are some:
  • We own the house outright.  We bought it with a cashier’s check.  Of course, this was largely because it was in unlivable condition when we bought it. Thankfully, my husband is a second year carpentry apprentice and spent last summer working his tail off to get it ready for us.  Because it is in a trailer court, we do pay space rent for the land it is on; but at $430 a month, the rent is dirt cheap (at least for the Portland area) and includes water, sewer, and garbage.  
  • Because we own it, we can modify the inside to our specifications, which allows for adding space-saving shelving and other ideas to make the most of our space.  But even when we lived in an apartment—which couldn’t be modified very much and had no yard or shed or anything—we still found ways to make use of all the space afforded to us.  
  • We also own both of our cars outright, so we’re not sending any money out each month for car payments. Student loans, alas, are another story…
  • We make do with fewer things.  When we first moved into small-space living, we had a huge furniture/toy/stuff sale.  It was kind of liberating to sell a lot of things and let go.  
  • On a related note, my kids have fewer toys and we keep a lot of them up on shelves to allow for rotation, since we simply can’t have them all out at once!  And this doesn’t seem to affect my kids one little bit.  They love what they have and never seem to get bored.  
  • My kids don’t complain about the small space; I think kids are naturally pretty content.  The few times I’ve heard them say (and they say it very matter-of-factly) that the house is small, I know where they picked it up: from my husband and me.  Children often have to be taught to be dissatisfied.  The come up with lots of creative ways to play. They like sharing rooms to sleep in; it’s cozy.
  • We no longer take “basic amenities” like dishwashers and an in-home washer and dryer for granted.  Last summer and this summer we’ve done some housesitting for friends.  They don’t live in a mansion by any means: a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom ranch-style house with a nice backyard.  But to us, it feels like a luxury vacation. Even being in a bedroom of our own with a door to close (not to mention its own bathroom!) no longer is something that we feel entitled to have.  We know how to live without it, and we appreciate it so much more when we get to experience it.  I know that when we do someday live in a more typical house, we’ll soon forget to be grateful for “the little things” and take them for granted.  
  • It’s a practice in patience, humility, and mortification (in the sense of “dying to selfishness”, not in the sense of embarrassment).  For an introvert like me, it takes an extra dose of patience always to share space with my kids. Constantly picking up or walking back and forth to the laundry facility reminds me that my vocation as a mother is not a glamorous one, yet it is my calling.
  • It’s a way to sacrifice to make life better for our kids.  Because we’re not spending double the amount on rent or a mortgage in a bigger place, we can use that money to send our son to a Montessori preschool this year.  Isn’t it part of the American dream for parents to sacrifice to provide their children with enriching opportunities? I know my parents did just that; I didn’t really get it at the time, but I do now and I’m very grateful.  

Most of all, it’s a daily (or hourly!) call to holiness: am I going to use my “magic magnifying mind” to focus on what I don’t have or don’t like, or am I going to focus on what God has provided and gratitude?  As I mentioned, I definitely give in to dissatisfaction at times. Yet I am very grateful to have this season of life in which to learn contentment no matter the circumstances.  

No matter the size of your house, you will also feel the call: contentment or restlessness? Gratitude or resentment?  Trust in what God’s given you today or fear that you’ll never get what you want?  I hope that this post can serve as encouragement to you that it is possible, with God’s grace, to be content with what you have in this present season of life.  

Jenny Cook lives in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon with her husband and three kids.  When not trying to keep up with housework, she enjoys writing at her blog Life in the Cookie Jar, writing and editing for Real Housekeeping, and contributing to Shine Catholic.  


  1. I could relate to a lot of this one! Before this house we lived in a tiny apartment about the size of a trailer and our third was born while living there. I did find it much easier to clean and while I did miss some of my things, I realized how much I didn't really need. It was tight but honestly, it didn't really feel all that tight (most of the time!) since you just get used to it. I think it would be tougher now that kids are bigger and they're play (roughhousing) gets a little 'bigger' (plus two more added!) but still doable. So much is just accepting what you have and making it work.

  2. Jenny, I love ALL your thoughts here, but especially this: "I think kids are naturally pretty content. ...Children often have to be taught to be dissatisfied."

    I think it's so great to live within your means.We do the same although it isn't such a small space. But giving up the "American dream" was important to us because we wanted me to be able to stay home with the kids.

  3. So lovely! We will be sharing this on our FB page. It's so inspiring!

  4. mmmHMMM! Such great thoughts here. We had 5 of us in a studio apartment last year and the only door that closed (but refused to lock) was the bathroom door -- isn't it amazing when closing doors become a luxury?!


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