After years of squeezing five people into a one-bedroom apartment, Celia Barbour's family moved to a sprawling old house with as many bathrooms as inhabitants. Somehow, though, things are still cozy.
The nicest thing I ever did for my single self was to buy an apartment in the West Village. I'd been slumming it for seven years, living in a fifth-floor walk-up tenement, and one day I decided that a proper home was no longer a self-indulgence. I was as real a grown-up as I'd ever be, and deserved a real place.

My lovely one-bedroom apartment had a park out front, trees out back, a working fireplace, and, at 575 square feet, was just big enough for me and my cat, and the occasional dinner party with friends. No sooner had I settled in than I met my husband, Peter, and he moved in. We felt cozy; life was sweet. Sometimes at night, we'd sit on the stoop with two jelly jar glasses of Scotch and watch the people passing by. A year and a half later, George was born, and I dusted off an old baby basket and placed it on the floor beside our bed. When Henry came along 16 months after that, he laid claim to the basket and George was reassigned to our walk-in closet, which Peter, a proficient carpenter, had transformed into a nursery. Then Sidonie was born. Switch-switch-switch: George to a trundle bed (built by Peter) that rolled under our bed, Henry into the closet, the baby girl in the basket. And so we lived, snug as mice, for a very happy little while.

Last year we moved into a house. Built in 1900, it has three stories, eight rooms, and five bathrooms, plus an attic that smells like heat and a basement that smells like mold. It has doors that close and hallways separating one room from another, places to talk privately on the phone and to do yoga in the morning without having my torso straddled by a kid who has suddenly perceived my untapped potential as a hobbyhorse. Our house is not big, at least by contemporary standards, because it has no superfluous rooms devoted to leisure or grandeur—no family room, for example, and no great room cowering beneath a cathedral ceiling. We have just the basic LR, DR, BR, K, study. Which is fine, despite the fact that the kids are growing like corn, because all our rooms are living rooms, by which I mean we live in them all. The only time I find myself wishing for more square footage is when I am overwhelmed by stuff—books, vases, wrapping paper, hand-me-downs waiting to be grown into, chairs—and daydream about building an addition where the flotsam could comfortably reside. Then I think: "Don't be crazy, Celia." A home is a place to do things, not store things. It's not meant to house your possessions, but your life.

And it turns out that our lives together are quite compact. Yes, during the day we each might spiral off into the wide, wild world—the kids at school studying China or peninsulas, bicycling around the neighborhood or sledding down the hill, Peter and I doggedly pursuing our careers. But back at home, we draw close, this habit of being in each other's presence ingrained. Unconsciously, we collect in the same room, even if we are each doing our own things—the boys building Lego speedboats, Peter replying to e-mails, me reading, Sidonie communicating quietly to her stuffed animals. We may not be interacting with each other at all. But having started out like pieces of a single puzzle nestled together so neatly, we still return to that familiar configuration. As individuals we may be big, but as a family, we are really very small.

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