Magazine article The Christian Century

Close Quarters

Magazine article The Christian Century

Close Quarters

Article excerpt

WE HAD A NEW bunk bed delivered recently, and our sons spent a happy afternoon--albeit a dangerous one--wielding socket wrenches and screwdrivers as we put it together. Buying this bunk bed allowed us finally to move the youngest out of our bed, where he has happily parked for the last three years, to his older brothers' room. We placed a third mattress below the bottom bunk that we pull out at night and push under during the day.

This means that our three sons, ages seven, five and three, are sharing one room. At night they look something like a three-tiered rock formation, one layer of boy jutting below another jutting below another in the silent strata of sleep. I do not know how long this arrangement will last.

My father slept in a room with his two brothers; my husband shared a room with one of his brothers. But these days, most of my sons' friends have their own rooms. This evacuation of siblings from the American child's bedroom can be traced, in part, to the ballooning square footage of new homes. The average new American house size has nearly doubled since the 1950s. For middle-class kids, having your own room is something of an inalienable right.

Our own sons' tripling-up is in some ways little more than a provisional answer to the question of how to fit five people into a rather small ranch house. Yet I'm hoping that living on top of each other, besides increasing the number of arguments and territorial squabbles, which it's bound to do, will teach my children something about intimacy, tolerance and the inescapable nearness of the Other (or in this case Brother).

In the 1950s, the average American house had 290 square feet per person; today someone moving into a new house has over 900 square feet to call her own. The National Association of Home Builders says that almost half of new homes built today have over 2,400 square feet, compared to 10 percent with that much space in 1970.

Our house is 40 years old, and while roomy enough according to 1960s middle-class standards, by today's measures it leaves a lot to be desired--namely, a great room, high ceilings and a couple of sleek black kitchen appliances. Our development, which consists mostly of split-levels and ranches, was the residence of the American dream in the 1960s and 1970s; the dream has since moved across the highway and left our neighborhood mostly to blue-collar workers, single-income families and retired folks.

Mansionization, the tearing-down of smaller houses and replacing them with larger homes, is occurring in neighborhoods like mine that are located close to large cities. And while mansionization has yet to hit many small towns, the phenomenon means that houses like mine have shrunk within the American imagination, becoming a cultural cognate of the fabled childhood memory, "It seems so much smaller now than when I was six!"

"The big house represents the atomizing of the American family," said John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard University, in an interview on National Public Radio several years ago. "Each person not only has his or her own television--each person has his or her own bathroom.... The notion of compromise is simply out one of the very many windows these houses sport."


Stilgoe overstates his case; it's way too simplistic to correlate the size of someone's house with the state of their family life. Virtues like compromise, generosity and hospitality are very much alive in many of the big houses I know. …

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