About a year ago, my husband and I were faced with a dilemma. We had a dog. We had a kid. We had a lot of material possessions no luxury cars or Steinway pianos – just stuff, the kind that is sometimes hard to remember where or why we acquired, the kind that takes up space. In addition to these things, we also had an apartment, not a particularly small apartment but an apartment nonetheless: two and a quarter bedrooms, a wonderful location in a neighborhood we adored, a mensche of landlord, access to basement laundry, an all-in-all good set-up. Still, it wasn’t our own place. There was no garage, no mudroom, no private back yard or separate family room or guest room or any of those cushy amenities that have become synonymous with middle-class suburban living. And so with a one-year-old and vague thoughts about a second child at some unspecified future time, we took what seemed to us and to our parents and to many of our friends the only logical step: we moved. We bought a townhouse in a less exciting but perfectly acceptable neighborhood where our family would have plenty of space and room to grow.
I should pause here to say that what follows is not one of the countless real-estate horror stories that have become so commonplace. We didn’t fall pray to sub-prime loan sharks or end up in foreclosure. We didn’t end up mortgaging off anyone’s birthright or buying a McMansion built on quicksand. We guiltily accepted the help our parents so graciously offered. We kept to a budget (most of the time), and the next thing we knew we were shopping for our first lawnmower. Of course, even for people as lucky as we’ve been, home-ownership is not without its drawbacks: I’m thinking of all those hours spent not with family and friends, not working, but trying to find a good plumber or worrying about a flooded basement or trying to erect an effective but not-too-ugly fence to keep the god-damned bunnies from eating the begonias. In other words, as happy as our family is in our new home, there are times when I wonder – was it really necessary? Did we really need more room and a house of our own to raise a family, or were we just buying into a cultural ideal, an illusion of necessity? I began to wonder just how prevalent the idea is in other industrialized countries that family = house?
I brought these questions to Cynthia Gabriel, an anthropology doctoral student at East Michigan University who spent a significant amount of time studying childbearing and family living arrangements in Russia’s urban centers. She explained how, “Western-leaning businesspeople are increasingly able to live apart from parents and grandparents, but multi-generational households are still the norm. In these apartments, the young mother or couple is usually given the one bedroom in which to sleep with the baby and the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great-grandparents sleep in the living room. Almost every living room in the Russian homes I observed doubled as a bedroom. So out of space necessity, co-sleeping is incredibly common. I rarely, rarely, rarely saw cribs in Russian apartments.”
I have to admit that at first I was shocked by this description. I certainly understood that Russia’s standard of living was not as high as that of most western countries, and that poverty was still pervasive. But the image of an entire extended families sharing an apartment seemed such an extreme example of want – the idea of not having space for something as simple as a crib an example not simply of a less affluent society but of real deprivation. How do they do it, I wondered. How do they make it work, raising a family in such close quarters when so many American families feel the need for a multi-acred lot and a ping-pong table in the basement just to stretch their legs?
For Gabriel, it wasn’t such a mystery. First, she explained, apartment buildings in Russian cities are usually designed with a playground at the center for all the kids. And second, “Russian children do not have nearly the quantity of toys that American children have. They have a box or two of special toys and that’s it. But there are lots of clubs for children: ice-skating, chess, gymnastics, etc.”
When I asked her if the Russian children she observed seemed to go stir-crazy without the private backyard American kids and parents prize so highly, she observed that, on the contrary, some Russian kids, even those in cities, seemed far more connected to nature than American kids she’d known with huge yards. That they tend to play outdoors in public spaces far more than urban Americans. “In the summer,” she explained, “many children spend big chunks of their vacation at a “dacha” – a rustic country home where they might live with their grandparents while their parents continue to work in the city. Often the mother and/or father visit for the weekend. The kids explore the forests, gather mushrooms and berries, play in the rivers, and help in the family garden. Not many toys needed.”
Eventually, it occurred to me how similar it sounded to my mother-in-law’s childhood in Chicago or my own father’s childhood in up-state New York. How charming, I thought. And how impossibly exotic. The scene Gabriel described sounded so much like something out of a fairy tale, I kept expecting elves to appear and begin whittling their lutes. And yet something about her account of Russian childhood sounded vaguely familiar, too. Eventually, it occurred to me how similar it sounded to my mother-in-law’s childhood in Chicago or my own father’s childhood in up-state New York. Though my father’s family did have their own house in Gloversville, NY, it was a small, three-bedroom, one-bathroom place for a family of five, and this was considered quite spacious for the time. My mother-in-law grew up in a city with a middle-class family that lived in comfortable, but very small, one-bedroom apartments, the living room doubling as sleeping quarters.
“Do you think it was a harder childhood then, getting by with so much less space?”
My mother-in-law isn’t sure. “There certainly wasn’t the same expectation that middle-class families have now that you have to move to the suburbs.”
My father, who’s lived in Richmond, Virginia for thirty years now, a part of the country where apartment living for families is an anomaly, puts it this way: “I meet people all the time who want to live on a big piece of land where they won’t be able to see their nearest neighbor. It’s not something I particularly understand. Space is nice, but it’s not everything.”