Lessons from a Borrowed House

Have you ever needed to borrow clothes or shoes from someone, maybe because you were caught in the rain or spilled something down the front of you, but it didn’t quite fit? You’re so thankful because someone was willing to loan you something in your hour of need, but at the same time you’re uncomfortable because it isn’t really right. It works in a pinch, but it just isn’t you. I can think of several times this has happened to me, including a few years ago when an airline lost our luggage for 11 days. Eleven. With zero compensation. But that’s another story for another time.

This summer we had a similar experience with a house. We were house-sitting for friends while they were on vacation. We took care of the house and yard: watered the plants, cut the grass, brought in the mail, and kept an eye on things. In return, we had a free place to live for about a month of our summer in Sweden. We were so thankful for the opportunity! They trusted us with their house and belongings and met our need for housing. And yet, it didn’t quite fit.

Confirmation

About 5-6 years ago, we rented a house in a town called Bjurholm, where Staffan’s first job placement out of seminary was. We assumed this was the next logical step in life. We had a 2 year old and were expecting our second baby. After living in an apartment for a while, a house with a back porch and a yard seemed perfect. We soon realized that maybe a house wasn’t the right lifestyle for us. More square footage sounded great, and shopping at IKEA to fill it with furniture was fun, but at some point it just felt like more work to clean. And more space is a little too easy to just fill with more stuff without realizing it. Outside, there was yard work and grass to cut during the warmer months and snow removal to take care of the rest of the year.

lawnmower

With Staffan working a pastor’s schedule (lots of evenings and weekends) and me taking care of a newborn and a toddler, it started feeling like days off and nap times were all spent on maintaining the house, inside and out. There were so many things we wanted to do together as a family that never seemed to fit. We realize that this is the way of normal life for a lot of people, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Many people enjoy caring for their homes, and even if they don’t they consider it a worthwhile sacrifice. But we were starting to question if it was necessary to follow this path we’d always expected to follow, because something just didn’t feel right to us. Living in an RV wasn’t on our radar yet at this point, but we assumed that we’d probably be an apartment/condo family going forward.

After 14 months we left that house and that town and found an apartment in a new city. It suited us much better. Fast forward even farther and we’ve downsized even more. We’re living happily in a 29 foot travel trailer.

Self-doubt can come creeping when you least expect it, especially when your life choices are a bit unorthodox. Sometimes questions from outside can work their way inside and bring uncertainty. Would our family be better off with a house and traditional jobs? Spending a month role-playing home owners seemed like a good way to explore that question.

Anticipation

Before the family left, we went over to tour the house and learn about what we should do. Each of their little girls gave a similar tour to Emelie and Peter who would be sleeping in their rooms. Everything was in order. All that remained was to wait until they left for their trip and then move ourselves in.

There was anticipation all around. The kids, who had been sleeping beside each other on air mattresses, were overjoyed at the thought of having their own rooms. They looked forward to the toys, the swing set in the backyard and the strawberry and raspberries that were just ripening and ready to be picked. Even we parents had things we looked forward to. A sauna in the basement, a piano in the living room and a dishwasher in the kitchen felt like the height of luxury. We packed up our things and prepared to spread out for a while.

Reality

We enjoyed the sauna, the piano, and the dishwasher exactly as much as we thought we would. We have never argued that living in a house doesn’t have its advantages. The piano in particular really added to our family time as we found ourselves spending time teaching the kids some basics in playing piano and understanding music theory. We also had an adapted bedtime routine during those weeks that included singing together around the piano. It was wonderful, and we are making plans to add a good keyboard to our RV.

The rest was a little more mixed. As expected, the kids loved having their own rooms – sometimes. At times they liked having their own space, but they were less enthusiastic about the other having his or her own space. I like that I can shut the door and keep you out, but I don’t like that you can shut the door and keep me out. The novelty of sleeping alone wore off quickly too, and they spent many evenings trying to negotiate moving beds so they could be together.

The price of having so much space is that all your stuff is so spread out. This might seem like a silly issue if you’re used to it, but we’re not. It seemed that the thing I was looking for was always on a different floor than where I was. And when something is lost, more space means more places to search to find the missing thing. People can spread themselves out too! With 3 kids and 3 floors it is actually possible to have kids calling you from all 3 floors at the same time. I felt like I spent all day running up and down stairs. At least it’s good exercise.

There was no question that we would take good care of the house and yard when it had been so generously entrusted to us. But we felt a strong confirmation of our decision not to own a house. Even the basic maintenance that we were doing took a lot of time and energy that we would rather spend on other things. Life is all about choices and we choose not to spend hours every week on cutting grass and vacuuming. We can clean our current home pretty thoroughly in about a half hour.

Intangibles

Some of the most important lessons we learned in that borrowed house were completely unexpected and harder to define. We hadn’t understood how living in a small space shapes our relationships and our family dynamic until it changed.

For example, we expected that having more space would mean less arguing and disagreements between siblings. They get along well most of the time, but all siblings have their squabbles and it made sense that there would be less of that when they had their own spaces to retreat to and take a break from each other. But the opposite turned out to be true. We saw a new form of selfishness creep in as “my space” and “my stuff” became something to be defended. Ironically, most of the stuff in question wasn’t even theirs but belonged in the rooms they were borrowing. It was a new type and level of fighting that we weren’t used to seeing.

We noticed changes in how we related to each other that are difficult to articulate but were nonetheless very real. Sharing small spaces can be challenging at times, but it forces us to cooperate and communicate in special ways. It was something we hadn’t even thought about until we noticed its absence. All families are different but this works for us!

I saw this recently on Facebook – it sums up our experience so nicely!

 

At times, those weeks spent in a borrowed house felt challenging. Running up and down the stairs dealing amidst slamming doors and screams of, “It’s MINE! MAAAAAMMMMMAAAA!” was not a stress-relieving form of exercise. At other times, like when our family was gathered around the piano together, it was just beautiful. Looking back with a few weeks perspective, we see that that month taught us a lot about what we want – and don’t want – our home to be like. We feel confirmation of our decision to live in a small space, but have ideas to make it even better. We are thankful to that house for the opportunity, and to our friends Johan and Josefin for entrusting us with it.

Swedish house

Thank you!

 

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