I think you are going to love getting to know Bridget. She seems like the kind of smart and interesting person that you would want to invite to a dinner party, because you know she’s going to have some great stories to tell about her cool job (she works in publishing), and her interesting family, and her life in a very tiny (650 sq.ft) apartment in San Francisco.
Bridget is an artist, a writer, and a business owner as well, and she shares some helpful advice about raising a third grader while working on a career — and how to find that ever elusive balance. Plus you’ll love her apartment. It’s small but full of interesting details and personality. Welcome, Bridget.
We’re a family of three: Bridget, Bill, and Mabel Watson Payne. Bill and I met in 2001 when we were both in grad school studying English, moved in together in 2003, and have lived together in this same apartment ever since.
When Mabel came along, we made a cubby for her crib in one corner of the living room. But pretty soon she got bigger – funny how that happens! – and needed a bigger bed and her own room. Luckily, our apartment had quite a large living room with two different doors leading into it, so we were able to put up a partition and divide the space into two rooms – a smaller-than-before living room, and a little bedroom just for her.
Bill is a teacher, I’m an art book editor (as well as an author, artist, and business-owner), and Mabel is in third grade. We all three love art and color and especially books and reading a whole whole lot, as just a glance at our apartment probably tells you!
We live in downtown San Francisco, on the borderline between Nob Hill and the Tenderloin. It’s a very metropolitan-feeling neighborhood – like you’re really in the heart of the city. It reminds us a little bit of New York – at least, more than most neighborhoods in San Francisco do.
It was one of the first neighborhoods rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, and has mostly these large multi-story stone and brick apartment buildings, like ours, from the Nineteen-Teens and Twenties (rather than the more common Victorians broken up into flats on two or three floors, that you find more often for apartments in this town).
We love our neighborhood – it has a great character to it. There are lots of interesting small businesses around – shops, bakeries, art galleries – as well as a lot of art students who live here and add to the local color. The housing market in San Francisco is of course notoriously expensive, which is one of the reasons rent control is so important here. Having lived in a rent-controlled apartment for well over a decade, we’re paying a much more reasonable rent than we would be able to find today — about half of what we see nearby one-bedrooms renting for. Of course, that’s one of the reasons (although not the only reason) that we decided to stay here as a family of three.
When we decided to move in together, we sort of went shopping for neighborhoods. We went around and scoped out a bunch of different areas, and found ourselves really drawn to this neighborhood. It just felt like us, to us.
So, we were looking at a bunch of apartments right around here and fell in love with this one. Specifically, we fell in love with its windows. The apartment was under construction when we viewed it, with tarps and paint buckets and stuff all around, so we couldn’t really get a good look at everything about it, but we saw those windows and were smitten.
It had just become vacant so we were the first people to see it — we applied right away and got it. The day we moved in felt glorious — there was so much sunlight and, with all our stuff still in boxes, the place felt huge! Later we learned to contend with a few of the space’s eccentricities (most notably the fact that the kitchen is off the bedroom), but really, we’ve always loved it just as much as we did those first days.
Living in a small space isn’t without challenges. It helps that we really like each other. We’re the kind of family who love to all be hanging around in the living room together, or all piled in bed reading. We don’t mind being a bit on top of one another — in fact it’s our preference! Snuggles! — so the small space doesn’t feel like something that’s oppressing us. It just feels cozy.
We do also have the capacity to each be in our own space and have privacy when we want it — bedrooms, living room, someone cooking, someone taking a bath, etc. — so we can get out of one another’s hair when we want to.
Before we built Mabel’s room, we had to decide what we were going to do — move out to a bigger place, or find a way to stay. At first, we thought we’d for sure have to move in order to have someplace to put the kid, but when we figured out how to make it work, and so get to stay, we were delighted.
It’s not so much that we’re philosophically attached to the Tiny House lifestyle or anything like that. We just like where we are. And we want people to know this is doable. If this is what you want to do, you can find a way to do it. Don’t let furniture catalogs full of McMansions convince you it’s not possible.
When I graduated from grad school the main thing I knew was that I loved books, but did not want to be an English professor. I didn’t want to spend my career talking about books, I wanted to make books. And where do they make the books? Publishers!
Deciding I wanted to work in publishing was really that simple. But the thing was, I knew nothing about the industry. If a young person came to me now, I’d know to tell them to seek an internship — but I didn’t know that that’s how publishing typically works! I interviewed at tons of little Bay Area publishers for about six months, then finally got an entry level job answering phones at Chronicle Books.
It was a long slow process (I’ve been there 17 years now) but over time I worked my way up and now I edit the art book list. I get to work with some of the most amazing and talented authors, artists, and colleagues in the business and I get to make something new every day.
I run a co-working space called Open Studio. It started because I’m an author and artist living with two other people (one of them fast-growing) in a 650 square foot apartment.
While we love our space, one thing there really wasn’t room for was my own fast-growing creative practice. So I was looking for office space or studio space to rent. Instead, I found a storefront with office space above it. Way more space than I needed, but something about the place just caught my attention and wouldn’t let it go.
What if, I kept thinking? What if I rented it, and had a store downstairs, and we could also teach workshops, and then upstairs there could be a co-working space where people like me, who need workspace outside their homes, could rent desks to do their own creative work.
The idea snow-balled and, next thing you know, I’d rented the space and started making that hare-brained dream a reality. Of course, it’s a whole lot of work for what is, essentially, a side hustle. But what I’ve found is that all the work is energizing and exciting. I feel like, in some small way, I’m helping nurture community and creativity and the arts in San Francisco and that is immensely inspiring.
I think being a working parent in any field forces you to prioritize. You’re less likely to waste time either at work or at home on stuff that’s not important. You bring the most important things — be that the biggest, best, creative work at work, or the time you spend with your child at home — to the forefront and let the distractions or needless busywork fall away. Because you have to — there are only so many hours in the day!
Working in a creative field, specifically, helps me remember to prioritize creativity at home. And hanging around with a fresh, creative, eight-year-old brain at home helps keep me on my toes — and I think makes me less likely to fall into a middle-aged brain rut at work.
As a parent, and as a woman, I think it’s important for Mabel to know that she is always my priority — that I will always be there fore her when she needs me — but that she’s not my only priority. I want her to understand I’m a full living, breathing, passionate adult person with my own inner life and work and interests and concerns outside of our family — and that she will be too, one day!
If there is one thing I want Mabel to remember from growing up here it is this: Love. Love love love. I say it in my book The Secret Art of Being a Parent — the most important thing of all is for children to know they are unconditionally loved, that they are worthy of all the love in the world just the way they are. Everything else is just frosting.
I hope she looks back on her childhood home and remembers all the time we spent together here as a family — the weekend pancake breakfasts her dad made, and boardgames we played around the table, and us reading to her before bed every night, and lounging around the living room on Sunday morning reading the comics, and family dinners, and dance parties, and pillow fights, and early morning snuggles — all of it remembered as fun, of course, but also remembered as expressions of our love for one another.
Just at the moment, the thing I hope she entirely forgets are our endless wranglings about who is going to comb the tangles out of her hair.
I love listening to Mabel’s conversations — watching the way her mind works, and the way she’s thinking and growing and learning and evolving every minute. Getting to share favorite books with her, and hearing her theories about things, and the unembarrassed way she’ll talk and ask about anything that interests her. Having a front row seat to watch a mind come into itself, a person come into herself, is a true marvel.
But I already miss the baby. Where did the baby go? It seems like we just had a baby around here the other day — a tiny warm snuggly lump that you could hold and carry with you wherever you went — and now we have a giant child with enormously long arms and legs.
I wish someone had told me (and I had listened) about how fast it would go. I know! I know! Such a cliché! “Oh, they grow up so fast! Blah blah blah!” Aren’t we all so tired of hearing that? But the thing is, there’s a reason it’s a cliché! It’s a cliché because people say it all the time. And people say it all the time because it’s TRUE.
When you have a baby or small child, time seems like it’s moving so slowly –—somewhat boring afternoon at the park can last an eternity, paying for preschool feels like it’s lasting forever! But then you blink and somehow eight years have gone by. Eight years! What?! How?! And those eight years will never come back. The baby and the toddler and the preschooler will never come back. You had your chance to enjoy them and now that chance is gone.
I have never felt so nostalgic for anything as I do for Mabel’s tiny days. And, I mean, let’s be honest and clear here — while they were going on, sometimes those days were a pain in the ass. It wasn’t all skipping around in a field full of daisies. There were tantrums and illnesses and misbehavior and all kinds of junk.
But there was also a small small person I loved who will never come again. Not like that. The young woman she’s growing to be is going to be absolutely phenomenal, I can already tell, but the sprite she was is gone. And I would never have believed, until I lived it, how breathtakingly fast, and how heartbreaking, that is.
Thank you, Bridget. Reading this has me rethinking my living situation and wondering if I could fit my family of 4 into a smaller space. I love that Bridget says that it encourages them to spend time on the couch or in the bed together snuggling. There is something lovely about always being aware of where other people in the house are, instead of kids disappearing off into their own rooms for hours at a time and not seeing them.
I really love when Bridget said “the most important thing of all is for children to know they are unconditionally loved, that they are worthy of all the love in the world just the way they are.” Isn’t that the truth? And how different the world we live in would be if everyone remembered that. I think a lot of us didn’t always grow up knowing that — or we forgot it somewhere along the way. What a gift it is for us as parents to help our kids feel that every day.
Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at [email protected]