Personal space

published May 2, 2012 - MST page A5

My kids and I left our two-bedroom apartment earlier this year and settled into a three-bedroom townhouse in the same city. The primary consideration for the transfer was space.

In our previous home, there was one big room and one small room. The bigger room was where everyone stayed. It contained one single bed and one double bed, put right next to each other.

Also in the room were four wooden study desks, one for each of the four children, as well as the family desktop and the speakers that were connected to the computer. There was always a clutter of papers, books, bags, coffee mugs and a crazy jungle of electrical wires.

There was also always a cacophony of sounds. My older son plays bass and classical guitar, my younger son plays the violin, my girls sing and act and write. Everybody is a chatterbox.

My home office was downstairs, adjacent to the living room. I had no problems staying there at night—I do my best work when everybody else is asleep —except when it’s insanely hot. Or when there are cockroaches.

Now this new crib is bigger. The best part is having three bedrooms. The biggest, the one that spans the entire width of the house and that has its own bathroom, I gave to the girls Bea, 18 and Sophie, 11. They can now invite all the friends they wanted, stay up late talking, playing music, watching movies.

The smallest room, I gave to my 16-year-old son Josh. It is just big enough for his mattress, a built-in closet, his desk, a chest of drawers and his guitars.

I took the middle room, adjacent to both the bigger and smaller ones. (Okay, my ten-year-old son Elmo rooms with me, but he’s a kid and the “bunso” so it’s okay.) The aircon is in my room, with only exhaust fans for the two other rooms.

It was the first time I ever had a room of my own. I was overjoyed that I could freely move about fixing, cleaning, writing, planning, making lists. If one is more organized, one is more productive.

But that was in January.

Fast forward to one of the most scorching summers we have ever known. I wake up and I find everybody sprawled sleeping in the room with me. I think it began when Josh’s exhaust fan broke down. He found an excuse to drag his mattress into my room every night so he could sleep there. Lately, however, I noticed he does not anymore drag it out in the morning. He has found a place for it under my bed—a pullout!

Of course, Elmo is my roommate, but his robots scattered about are not part of the deal! He also encroaches into my laptop because the PC downstairs hangs when he plays games there. And of course you cannot tell him to stop when he does his violin exercises. How else is he going to come closer to the 10,000 hours (according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers) he is supposed to put in to become really good?

And because the boys are with me, the girls decide they want to join the party, as well. One of them climbs into my single bed, and the other sleeps on the floor beside my desk (yet another mattress would not fit.) These summer nights, when the young ones have no school and the older ones’ summer schedules are not that tight, the chatter is endless. We tell each other what we did, and did not do. They talk about the most popular videos on the Internet. We elevate knock-knock jokes to an art form.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and lament that my room still looks like the old one we left behind. I then transfer downstairs, but find am not able to do much, or read much, or watch much, because it is just so hot. I often crawl back to bed cranky, disoriented and less ready for the day ahead—just because I have not had my me-time fix.

And then I remember that I may not have this “problem” for long. Kids grow up and become less available for their parents as they age. Ten, twenty years from now, I may be that old lady awaiting their Sunday visit or the sound of their voices on the phone.

A cramped, cluttered bedroom is a small price to pay to freeze these happy moments.

Personal space is priceless. It enables us to reflect on the past day, organize our many concerns, plan, reward ourselves for working hard. It is respite from the crazy schedules, the myriad of concerns, the up-to-the-neck responsibilities, the many hats we wear.

Personal space, however, is more important for what it enables us to do. It is going up for air. We then become better parents, professionals, students, partners, friends. Personal space should thus not be sought out for its own sake, but for what it makes of us—for ourselves and the people around us.