The other day, I found a clean bib and a tiny shoe in the bottom of the tote bag that functions as my daily purse. I wasn’t quite sure how long they had been there.
My son is now eleven months old, and I am taking him places all the time: the park, the train, the grocery store, to see a friend. It’s common for me to toss a necessary item into my bag as we head out the door, then get distracted by whatever comes next on my busy working mom schedule, never getting around to cleaning out my bag and putting these things back in their “proper” places. My tote bag is one of many spaces that used to be mine alone and is now shared by my son.
In my work as a writer, I know that uninterrupted alone time is essential to my craft. I’ve begrudgingly come to accept the diminishment of such time since becoming a parent, but I didn’t realize, after having a baby, how much I would miss not just me time but me space .
From birth until the age of sixteen, I shared a room with my older sister. Two twin beds, one long dresser, and a closet. When I turned six, we moved into a rental home with slightly more bedroom space, and our shared furniture increased by one small desk with a shelf, and a packed bookcase.
My sister was and remains an insomniac, so she would often keep me up as I tried to sleep, peppering me with questions, usually about the Monkees and which one we’d most want to be friends with, and which one we’d most like to marry. I always had a fondness for tall and lanky Michael Nesmith and his perpetual knit cap, while my sister leaned toward fan favorite Davy Jones.
While I’m sure that the late night conversations with my sister created some special memories and helped to forge the close friendship we enjoy to this day, they also meant that, even during resting hours, I never had much personal time and space growing up.
I vividly remember the moments I spent on my own as a child not just because of their rarity but also because they were so important to me. I remember my sister being in third grade, and my brother being in nursery school, and having the whole morning to myself at home until my kindergarten started in the afternoon. My mother was next door in the kitchen as I played and made up worlds in the corner of our living room, a seemingly vast expanse of emerald green carpet spread out before me. Sometimes I would crawl underneath my father’s wooden desk in that room to isolate myself even further, to make up stories in my makeshift cave and—sorry, Dad—deface the underside of the desk by writing my name in pen on it, claiming this corner of the house as mine.
As my sister and I got older, our room became a typical teenager disaster zone, the floor strewn with clothes, dozens of Tiger Beat centerfolds tacked all around my sister’s bed, piles of journals stuffed in the crevices next to my bed. It is one thing to be buried in your own stuff, it is another also to be suffocated by the belongings of another person in the one room of a crowded home that is supposed to be yours. Probably one of the reasons I kept so many journals was that I could actually stake out some space of my own on those pages. Anything I said out loud could be mocked or otherwise critiqued by my sister sitting nearby, while anything I wrote down didn’t have to be shared with anyone.
At the age of twenty-four, I moved into my very own apartment for the first time, an exceptional deal in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn that I probably should have kept forever, seeing as the rent was somehow less than $700 a month. It was a studio apartment, large by New York City standards but with a bathroom so tiny that the shower stall was the size of a phone booth and the sink no bigger than a shoebox.
I moved into the apartment and had nothing but my clothes and the nightstand and landline telephone that the previous tenant had left behind, but that was more than enough. My first day there, I unplugged the phone, locked the door, and sunk to the floor with a huge smile on my face. This entire empty space was mine , and I didn’t have to let anyone in or even tell anyone that I was home.
I spent the next three years making lots of art, earning an MFA in sculpture, writing songs, and performing around the city. Every time I came home to my apartment, a home for which I was the only key holder, I was in a space where I was in charge. No one was going to judge or have an opinion on that space but me. It did wonders for my creative output.
I went through a few serious, live-in relationships in my twenties and thirties, and in between each of these cohabitations I happily moved back into an apartment of my own. One solace for me in a breakup always was the fact that I again had the opportunity to have complete control over my home space.
I got married in 2014 after dating for only nine months, and we didn’t even live together until a full month after we became husband and wife. The first major adjustment in marriage for me was accepting that I had entered into an agreement that meant I might never have my own apartment again.
Fortunately for me, my husband and I are lucky to have one of those unique New York City home setups that made it possible for each of us to have a home office of our own. My office was just a tiny room off our bedroom, but it was all mine, and it had a door and everything. I painted the walls—slate blue with yellow trim—and moved my private and creative life into that room. Two years later, we had a baby.
I never wanted to have the kind of home that gets taken over with baby toys and paraphernalia, and for the most part you can still tell that two adults live full time in our apartment. But there are nonetheless bright plastic things or diapers or tiny baby socks to be found somewhere in every room, especially now that our son zooms quickly from space to space on hands and knees. For a short time, my glorious office, with its wonderful door that closed, was immune to the spread of baby debris, but that immunity did not last for long.
During the first two and half months of our son’s life, he slept in a crib in our bedroom, and my office remained safely private. After that time, though, my husband and I decided we needed to sleep more (a wise and necessary decision on many levels), and we moved our baby’s crib into the only possible space for sleep training: my office, with its wonderful door that we could close after putting our baby down for the night, so that we remained close to him but outside his view.
The sleep training worked, but my office now had a crib in it. It was not a full-on baby room—the blue and yellow walls were still lined with my books, and my files and worktable remained—but my work space was shut off to me during baby nap times and overnight sleep times. I no longer had a space to call only my own.
As my baby’s first year wore on, I turned to that time-honored work space for New York City writers: the neighborhood café. I had three or four reliable cafés within walking distance of my home, and I could rotate through them depending on what location was proving most conducive to my output in a given week.
In the earliest days of my son’s life, he would be with me in those cafés. Like many new humans, my son was soothed by the movement of the stroller, and I shamelessly relied on walks outside to get him to take a daytime nap, ducking into a café as soon as he was safely down and I felt he would stay asleep even if not in motion. In this way, I was able to steal thirty to forty minutes of writing time at a pop.
Eventually, my son became agreeable to lengthy naps in his crib at home, and my husband and I worked out a schedule where we were each responsible for him on certain days of the week, leaving the other free to get work done.
On the days that my husband took on the parenting, I would try to work at home, sneaking into my office while my son wasn’t napping in the crib now next to my desk, but I found, to my dismay, that I could not write if the baby was also at home, even if he were in another room, and even if he were not technically my responsibility for the day. It was all too easy to get roped into a diaper change or a bottle washing in the middle of my creative train of thought. Plus, I could still hear his squeals through the walls, and I still walked past all of his belongings each time I left my office to use the bathroom. I could not disengage my mom brain enough to dive into my writing. And the crib was right next to my desk, looking to me like a ticking time bomb, ready to be filled with a sleeping baby who would kick me out of my work space at any moment.
I returned to my reliable cafés, this time without a stroller in tow. I found that, with my baby out of sight and in the trusted care of my husband on his designated care days, I could truly disengage my brain from parental duties for several hours at a time. My writing output and progress on other creative projects increased dramatically in quantity and quality.
I was getting back into my writing groove, but there was one problem: I’m not a person who feels comfortable taking up a seat in a café for hours at a time on a single cup of coffee or tea. At the very least I would splurge on a latte, and at my most fiscally irresponsible I would buy a sandwich and a cookie. But babies are not cheap, and this café writing habit was financially unsustainable. My husband and I came up with a more affordable solution: downgrade the size of our own bed from a king to a queen, create a divider in our bedroom, and make me a new office within the same four walls where we sleep. It’s not ideal, but it’s a step in a better direction.
My former home office, with its glorious door separating it from our bedroom, is now our son’s domain. When he is napping or sleeping overnight, I can work in my new office just on the other side of that door without fear of waking him. And I can work with more focus even when he’s not sleeping, as I no longer have an empty crib looming by my side, threatening to kick me away from my workspace at any moment should the baby get tired.
Like everything in parenthood, my adjustment to the changes in domestic space since our baby came along is a work in progress. Time remains a challenge, too—I can only steal away so many hours in a week, and often those hours are filled with pressing deadlines, which means my new office is far from being finished.
As I type this now, in my still relatively new bedroom office, there are items scattered across the floor, waiting to be properly shelved in their new home. First, of course, I’ll have to get those shelves in place. Maybe I’ll even paint a wall. One step at a time.
I can see my tote bag on the floor near my chair, and I’m sure there is something in there that belongs to my child. But I’m also aware that the chair I’m sitting in is a glider that I used to rock in with my baby before he was weaned, and my feet are resting upon the ottoman in front of me, my computer in my lap. It’s rather comfortable, and it feels powerful to have reclaimed this chair, formerly for breastfeeding, as mine alone. My baby may take over parts of my space but, with time, I’m able to take pieces of that space back. I hold on tightly, until the next change in life.