“When our children were born, I knew that if I truly wanted to establish a healthy and good relationship with them, room sharing had to be a priority”, says Jawaria Ansari. She and her husband share a 675 square foot apartment in Pittsburgh with their four children – that’s about 62 square metres, or just larger than four car parking spaces…
While in Australia we often take space for granted, there’s a consciousness in Jawaria’s approach to her home that comes from her cultural and familial heritage. “I grew up having my own bedroom, but also having access to my parents’ room”, she recalls. “This gave me extreme comfort, assurance and confidence as I grew up. Even as a teenager, I knew I always had that space if I was upset, frightened or lonely. I lost my parents soon after, and of all the memories, my favourite ones remain the ones where I spent those extra hours at night just snuggling and talking to them.”
There’s also the practical consideration of space: “it forces us to stay organised and shop consciously”, Jawaria explains, “because you can’t afford to bring in bored or mindless shopping in a small space.”
Of course, for most families, Covid-19 has made an enormous impact on the way we live together. For Jawaria’s family, the changes have been less obvious – she was already homeschooling the children – but no less impactful. “It’s certainly a much easier adjustment for my children as they were already at home”, she agrees. “However, we are living during an actual pandemic and I want my children to understand that. In this environment, school, grades, normalcy, routine don’t matter. In hindsight, none of these things will matter or even be remembered. My priority as a parent is not to provide normalcy, but to allow them to have an understanding of what is happening around them. I want them to know that it’s okay if they’re frightened or nervous. At the same time, I want them to know how privileged they actually are, and to appreciate each other and everything that they have, especially when the entire world is living through a full on crisis.”
We’re feeling inspired to downsize…
Follow Jawaria at @amagicalchaos6
Can you tell us a little about your family?
I was born in the US, but spent a good bit of my childhood between the U.S. and Pakistan. After completing my O Levels , I came to the US. My husband Jibin was born in India and came to the US when he was 18, for university. That’s where we met – I was a Sophomore and Jibin a Freshman. We were so young, only 18 and 19 years old! Post graduation, we got married and have four children, Zayn, 16, Sayf, 13, Zoya, 10, and Sophia, 6.
Coming from two different countries, cultures and religious backgrounds, and then living in a third culture, we consider ourselves very lucky. We were young enough to not have fully established ideas, beliefs and identities and as a result were able to pick and choose the best of all three cultures.
You've mentioned that being from Asian backgrounds, room and bed sharing is the norm for your family. What are some of the benefits of room sharing?
While I can only speak for myself based on my experience, the benefits of room sharing are tremendous. I grew up having my own bedroom, but also having access to my parents’ room. This gave me extreme comfort, assurance and confidence as I grew up. Even as a teenager, I knew I always had that space if I was upset, frightened or lonely. I lost my parents soon after and of all the memories, my favourite ones remain the ones where I spent those extra hours at night just snuggling and talking to them.
Most life lessons aren’t taught in the waking hours, they come in the form of bedtime stories, reliving the stories of our youth, counting the chances which were missed and the risks taken which made all the difference. These chats which seem meaningless as tales of lives past, or considered time-consuming during the days which are often filled with work, school and responsibilities, are often what truly connect people and allow us to learn about each other. The version of my parents which I saw was different than the version in their stories they told me of their youth, when I was laying in their room, right before all of us fell asleep.
When our children were born, I knew that if I truly wanted to establish a healthy and good relationship with them, room sharing had to be a priority. They had their own beds and room, but were always allowed to come to our bedroom and sleep in our bed if they wanted to.
As they got older, we asked them to knock before entering the room. The longer their limbs became, the less space we had on the bed so they started sleeping on the floor if they ever felt the need. As they get older, some nights, when we are getting ready for bed, they come in to say goodnight, and sit around and we chat and they get to know a version of us they didn’t know before. They ask us questions about our dreams, our lifestyles when we were their age, how we met, if we had nightmares, if we could count to one million, if we ever received scoldings. Some nights, as they are sprawled over our bedroom floor, we learn more about them, their passions, fears, dreams and sense of humour!
I love the children’s laughter and the over dramatic moments when my husband says something atrocious. We see their eyes shine bright and their minds working when we ask them about their opinion on a matter. I always get so impressed by their responses and their faces light up so brightly when their ideas impress their siblings, and us.
All four of our children are very close to each other. They actually enjoy each other’s company, despite the age and personality differences. Learning how to share a space has also allowed them to have more patience and become more creative.
With your children growing up in the US, have they ever wanted to have their own space, or have they always been happy rooming together?
Our children are happy sharing a room. We often discuss how they feel about getting separate rooms or at least sharing with fewer siblings. The answer so far, is always a no. They do have certain spaces which are strictly off limits to anyone else such as beds, their drawers, and lockers, where no one else is allowed.
I asked my children what they thought were the benefits of room sharing and here are their responses:
” We can always play together ” – Sophia (6)
“We can help each other with schoolwork or anything else that bothers us because we’re always together. And we can talk late at night” – Zoya (10)
“There’s a comfort of always having a friend. I feel safer because I am with my siblings especially at night” – Sayf (13)
” Since we are always together, we’ve established a safe atmosphere where we can share easily with each other. We know how to be responsible and respectful, and still share our feelings and thoughts comfortably with each other” – Zayn (16)
What do you love about living in a small space?
A small space allows for a wonderful bonding experience. We have grown to be a very close-knit family and I firmly believe the small space has a lot to do with it. It’s more difficult to run away and hide in a smaller space, and you’re forced to have conversations. The more communication a family has, the greater the understanding is for each individual. You learn to be part of a group whilst finding your individuality and simultaneously respecting the individuality of others.
Living in a small space allows us to live in the moment and appreciate life as it is. Regardless of the size and location of their home, my wish is for my children to have the most magical, and extraordinary childhood. I love the fact that at night, I can hear the giggles and naughty schemes being discussed from the children’s room. It makes me appreciate living in a small apartment even more.
Oh, and tidying and cleaning up the space is so quick and easy! It forces us to stay organised and shop consciously, because you can’t afford to bring in bored or mindless shopping in a small space. We have to think before bringing in anything new…will this fit, do we really need it, is it worth eliminating certain items which we do have?
Is there anything you'd change about your home if you could?
I’d add a second bathroom and an in unit washer and dryer, even more so now during the pandemic.
We've heard from lots of families in Europe who live in apartments and have been in lockdown with no outdoor space whatsoever. Is that the case for your family?
We’re very lucky to have a tiny balcony. Even luckier that our building has a parking lot which is often empty, so the kids can play and run freely. We also live across from a small garden and although we aren’t going out as much, we’re grateful for the option.
What has your experience of lockdown been so far? How did you feel about it initially, and has that changed over time?
The lockdown is essential and it makes complete sense to us. We live in a state which has been handling it really well so far. Jibin is a software engineer and we are extremely lucky and privileged that he can work from home. I do wish our government would get its act together and do more, especially to at least ease the panic.
You were already homeschooling your children, so have they found this an easier adjustment than most? What's been the biggest change to their routine?
We started homeschooling 5 years ago. It’s certainly a much easier adjustment for my children as they were already at home. However, we are living during an actual pandemic and I want my children to understand that. In this environment, school, grades, normalcy, routine don’t matter. In hindsight, none of these things will matter or even be remembered. My priority as a parent is not to provide normalcy, but to allow them to have an understanding of what is happening around them. I want them to know that it’s okay if they’re frightened or nervous. At the same time, I want them to know how privileged they actually are, and to appreciate each other and everything that they have, especially when the entire world is living through a full on crisis.
I’ve let go of some strict rules such as no junk food or TV during the week days. Actually, I broke the biggest rule and let them have a TV (courtesy of a friend’s daughter who is home from University) in their room. Now they’re begging for a fridge for their room!
My desire is for my children to be healthy and happy. I want them to remember this time not with fear, but as the time during which they were allowed to break many of the rules, ate all the junk food, watched all the movies, played indoors without getting in trouble, ate every meal around the table and enjoyed non stop family time. My hope is that they learn to be appreciative of everything they have and have empathy and humanity for those who aren’t as privileged.
Have you found any silver linings in isolation?
We are loving all the time we have with each other and hope to continue to live a more relaxed lifestyle moving forward. Our biggest realisation has been that life is not meant to be so stressful, and piling on tasks and activities as society dictates merely for the sake of staying busy is ridiculous!
What have been the biggest challenges for your family in isolation?
We live in a small apartment in the city, and have always treated the city as an extension of our home. We went outside every day and our children spent a few hours outdoors every day, regardless of the weather. Currently, this is no longer an option.
Our winters are long and bitter cold, so we stay indoors a lot. However, our summers are short and hot. Our city offers a lot of activities during summer, and we spend a good amount of time outside which allows us to bulk up on sunshine, warmth, fresh air and the desire to be outdoors. That will be the biggest challenge as most places stay closed and even if they do open, I have to question myself, is it worth it? However, we’re all healthy and together and nothing else really matters. This will be a year for the books for sure!
What does a typical weeknight dinner look like in your house?
I don’t cook or enjoy cooking, but Jibin considers himself to be a chef whose cooking often leaves much to be desired! With the lockdown in place, Jibin has been trying various recipes from Pinterest and YouTube. His recent successes are cooking risotto which wasn’t mushy, and making chicken tikka which wasn’t overcooked.
Our children actually enjoy cooking and often come up with some surprisingly delicious and often questionable dishes. Luckily, our apartment is on a street surrounded by restaurants. We live next door to a pizza shop! And more often than not, we end up leaning on takeout food.
What's your favourite form of family entertainment in lockdown?
We’ve been spending a lot of time talking to each other, watching movies and shows, reading, playing board games, discovering each other’s music preferences, and the kids are enjoying baking.
What do you hope we will all learn from this experience?
My hope is that all of us find more empathy, humility, kindness and humanity within ourselves. I hope we can learn to live more in the moment and enjoy what we have now. Mostly, my hope is that we realise that this is a wonderful time to be united. However, unity only comes with acceptance, respect and the understanding that we’re not all in the same boat and it’s time we give privilege its fair due. I hope we learn to treat each other more humanely and aren’t punished for just being human. The old normal wasn’t working and if anything, this pandemic has shone a light on the failures of governments, systems, corporations and everything which was considered normal.