If you’ve been reading Design Mom for a while, you might recognize Caryn. We featured her and her adorable NYC apartment on Living With Kids a couple of years ago. Caryn reached out about doing a revisit now that she is really settled into her life in the city, and her girls are a bit older. And I couldn’t help but want to take a peek at what raising 2 kids in less than 500 square feet of living space is like!
Caryn’s home is small but feels very livable with every inch utilized to the max. And her thoughts about why she loves city living have got me itching to pack my bags and find my own tiny apartment. Welcome, Caryn!
Hello again! I’m Caryn Schafer. I’m a wife, mom, illustrator, Instagram overloader, and picture book hoarder. I’m mildly obsessed with Kelly green, stripes, polka dots, and picture books. I grew up in the Midwest and then studied graphic design and illustration at a liberal arts school in the South where I also met my husband.
After three years of hanging out with the same group of friends, working together as designers in the music office, and even traveling to England on a student art trip, we discovered we kind of liked each other. Apparently it was obvious to everyone else as we frequently heard, “Finally!” when we announced we were dating. We finished school getting to know each other, planned our wedding in 3 months, and just celebrated 10 years of marriage in November.
Mark is my first and only boyfriend, my kindest critic, a fantastic designer, excellent question-asker, and all around nice guy. He is a product designer for a tech company — the job that moved us from Knoxville, Tennessee to NYC almost four years ago. He loves hot pink, riding his bike to work, classic Nintendo, well-designed things, and toys.
We have two daughters, now almost 4 and almost 6; that “almost” being incredibly important lately. They adore each other, as well as books, dresses, small figures, and every playground they can explore.
We live on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. We are close to Lincoln Center, half a block from Central Park, near 5 subway lines, a 7 minute walk to Trader Joe’s, around the corner from a favorite crepe restaurant and coffee shop, and a block from the post office and our bank.
I recently heard that most New Yorkers stereotypically stay within a 10 minute radius around their home. I’m not sure I completely agree as I walk all over the city, but NYC does make it fairly convenient to live near all your needs and wants.
We spend a lot of time exploring all of the neighborhoods and boroughs, but the Upper West Side is definitely home. NYC always has something going on and living so close to Lincoln Center where the opera, ballet, and symphony occur fills the neighborhood with events and other artists too.
Though I love to cook, it is always nice to know that if the day turns out rough, we can head to a restaurant nearby, grab food from my husband’s favorite street cart, or just settle for a big slice of pizza at the famous pizza place around the corner.
NYC spoils you, but also keeps you humble. You are constantly interacting with people, and days can get hectic very quickly. And then there are the days you plan too tightly and the subways are delayed or the streets are jammed and you just have to calm down and enjoy the walk, no matter how late you are going to be.
Those are the times I’m very thankful for street and subway musicians. Who doesn’t love live music in the background while they wait?
Our home is a one-bedroom, 430 square foot apartment in half of the fifth floor of a brownstone townhouse. The building is about 100 years old and would have originally been a one-family home. We often joke that we live in the servant quarters. The building is now 7 apartments total and can be quite charming.
We walk up four flights of stairs, or 77 steps according to my girls, to get home. Let’s just say we don’t really need a gym membership to stay in shape in NYC! We love all the light we get, the quieter feel thanks to being higher up, and the function we’ve squeezed out of a small space. Our daughters sleep in the bedroom and we have a wall bed in the main living space. My illustration studio is also now a tiny spot within their bedroom.
I love parts of apartment living, like seeing and hearing the goings on outside. We know everyone in the building and quite a few people on the block. We hang out for big block parties or just quick chats on the stoop or in the hall. And for the most part, apartment living has been great. I could definitely do without the smokers, but we’ve only had one dreadful experience with a neighbor who hated kids, was terribly rude, and expected way too much out of an old shared building.
Thankfully that was short-lived and our building management was amazing, but it makes me grateful for the pleasant and gracious neighbors when we do have them.
We occasionally hear that we are a rare NYC case in that we, so far, have stayed in our first apartment here. A lot of people move after the first year. The moving timeline when my husband accepted his current job was very short, partly for the job, but also because I was pregnant with our second daughter. He was offered the job in January, and we moved March 16; after selling our house, two cars, and the majority of what we owned.
We ended up renting this apartment sight-unseen with the help of the broker his work provided. It was very nerve-wracking to put down a large security deposit for a place we had never seen, and needed to have it work out for at least a year, though preferably longer as moving a family of four would not be fun or cheap.
In NYC, even just to rent you usually need a broker. From the application fee, to the security deposit, to the broker fees on both sides, to the rent, to the moving fee and tips for the movers… it feels like you are just throwing money out the window. Our neighborhood also tends to be a slightly higher rent for less space as it is a popular, pretty, easily accessible, and safe area.
A one-bedroom in Lincoln Center area probably runs between $2500-$4000 a month depending on the building, how nice the apartment really is, and location. Main streets will be cheaper; long avenue streets with that You’ve Got Mail brownstone vibe are much quieter and you pay for it.
When we were looking and having many phone conversations with our broker, she found this place in the price range we needed simply because we were willing to take the walk-up which lowers the price by a couple hundred dollars! Being flexible in the city is huge. And you have to act fast. Apartments come and go quickly and the good ones will be gone within hours.
We heavily considered moving this past summer, during the troubles with our neighbor, but quickly realized how good this place is and the things that we would love to upgrade to just aren’t going to happen in our price range. I dream about having full-size appliances again someday, and a second bedroom would be nice, and we’d adore a small outdoor space of our own; but searching for another apartment made me reevaluate needs and wants, and seek out more flexibility and contentment in my heart.
It is so hard to pick what I love most about a big city! I love being able to walk just about anywhere. We take all forms of transportation for different things, but my favorite is always going to be walking. We moved here with a cheap umbrella stroller, planning on researching and finding a great city one once we got here.
We invested in the BabyZen YoYo stroller when it first came out and that thing is a rockstar. It is lightweight, can be folded and unfolded relatively one-handed, has a thin width so it fits in almost any tiny boutique aisles, and it folds up small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of a plane. I love the flexibility so that I can walk but easily fold it up to grab a cab, hop the bus, or get on the subway with no elevator.
Ironically, when we bought it 3.5 years ago, we rarely saw another in the city. This summer they started popping up everywhere! And they’ve been upgraded which makes me mildly jealous for that larger basket underneath and hidden back pocket. Ha! But we are almost through the stroller phase so I’ll keep my trusty original YoYo to the end.
I really do love the walking, especially if I can cut through Central Park. The city can get to you — the fast pace, grumpy people, tourists taking up the whole sidewalk, and all the trash bags — but the parks serve as a breather, feeding your need for green space, nature, and a change of scenery. And you really can’t beat autumn in Central Park and those first snowflakes either.
One of the first challenges of living in the city that comes to mind is that so much convenience also comes with a lot of inconvenience. Shops open and close frequently. Big box stores are few and far between which means you make many stops at different places to get everything you need, or you buy online and figure out shipping and delivery.
You also have the added thought process of buying what you can carry. When I go shopping to just about any store, I prefer to use a basket rather than a cart as I know I have to be able to carry it all home, often one-handed, while I maneuver the stroller, and then carry it all upstairs too! And there are so many lines! Some stores like Trader Joe’s you learn to shop in line (though New Yorkers call it being “on line”). If we run out of milk, you have to decide between braving the lines at the grocery store for just an item or two; or grabbing milk at the corner bodega and paying two or three times more for the convenience.
I feel like a lot of things about city living I take for granted now. There are so many options for shopping and restaurants. There’s never a lack of things to do. We enjoy so many playgrounds and Central Park is our backyard. Life in NYC can be simple and complicated, somehow. Some days we stay in, other days we pack the day to the brim and fall into bed at night. I love NYC and all its crazy moods.
I often wonder what kind of parent I would be in the suburbs. I don’t honestly know if it would be simpler, considering the world in general feels more and more complicated. Here we live and move among all kinds of people and situations. I know my kids are seeing things that I never thought about or encountered when I was a kid. We are constantly talking about big and little things, processing them together as a family.
I think there are ways that we could choose to cushion our kids more, but we have been very intentional to be open with our girls and challenging our own comfort. I know I don’t understand what’s going on in the world sometimes, and especially where other people are coming from. We talk a lot about taking the posture of listening. I want to teach my kids to listen. Listen to the sounds of the city and the sounds of the parks. Listen to your friends and to those you want to ignore. The city gives us a big picture and a broader worldview, but only if we are paying attention to more than ourselves.
I’ve wanted to be a picture book illustrator since I was at least 5. I made a lot of books when I was a kid, and I still have a few of them. I’ve always loved to draw and positively adored those old tracing paper coloring books that seemed more prevalent when I was a kid. I have very specific memories of telling people I wanted to be an artist.
I took a lot of art classes through school and knew I wanted an art major when I went to college. I attended a very small, liberal arts college. I originally started out with a fine art major, and added a graphic design double major to give me marketability. I worked as a graphic designer out of school for about 5 years, when I quit to fully pursue illustration. I’ve always been less confident in my illustration skills and it took me a while to be ready to pursue it full time. And we also needed that second paycheck, which is less dependable as an illustrator.
I’m actually very grateful for the design experience though. I love design and I’m a big nerd about it. But the skills I learned and used in design work aid my illustrations greatly. I don’t just love to draw, I love the whole process of brainstorming an idea, sketching out all the pages and making strong layouts for individual spreads.
The company I was working for as a graphic designer was moving more and more to web design from print and I wanted to do the opposite. I had begun to acquire my huge collection of picture books during those design years and I felt ready to prep my illustration portfolio to see what happened.
Ironically, at the time, I was pregnant already with our first which I discovered a few weeks later. Illustration went on hold while I handled morning sickness and preparing for a baby. We always hoped I would be able to stay home with our kids when we had them, so that happily came first.
When our daughter was about 4 months old, we were living in the suburbs of Tennessee and I was lonely. I also needed to talk about books. So I started my book blog. No one wants to listen to me talk about books as much as I want and need to, so it was a great outlet for me. I started reading librarian and review blogs. I followed anything I could read to know what was going on in the children’s book market. Through those things I feel like I honed my taste for books and figured out what is good and why. I still keep my blog going as I can, but these past few years in NYC have kicked my illustration aspirations into full gear.
Even though we had our second daughter four weeks after we moved to NYC, I knew I couldn’t just wait out this time in NYC. This city is a picture book Mecca. There are so many resources, inspiration, and connections; I knew I had to give it my best shot for as long as we are here. I started attending conferences, talks, shows, author appearances… anything I could get to, even with kids in tow. Through that, I pushed my portfolio to be tighter and my confidence continues to grow. I’m not where I want to be yet, but my first picture book illustrations were published in September!
Being a full-time mom and an illustrator feels impossible most of the time. I still feel very strongly about being at home while my kids are, and I’m incredibly grateful that we can work it out to happen that way. But it is stressful. Deadlines loom, kids get sick, meals have to be made, laundry has to be done, paintings are drying… something always has to give. I don’t have it figured out at all. But there is grace, something I constantly have to give myself and always have to remind myself to give to my kids.
There is a constant battle in my head about if this is the right thing to do. I’m not always the best mom when I’m really into an illustration project and meeting deadlines. And I’m not the best illustrator either while I’m multi-tasking and being a mom and housewife. I occasionally have a crisis and call up a friend to discuss and pray about if I should be pursuing my career while having a family. They often feel like oil and water together. But I also know that when I try to drop the illustration side, I’m not fully me.
And I know that there are stages. I’m past the newborn stage that was physically exhausting. Diapers are gone and sleep is not completely elusive anymore. I never thought I’d see these days when I was going through the thick of those early, and precious days. It isn’t exactly easy now. Being 3 is tough! And school schedules mess with everything. But I can see the light and I’m able to do more and more. And I cannot fully describe how amazing it is to watch my five year old’s pride in my work. She loves that I’m a mom and I create books.
If nothing else, I will struggle through this pseudo identity struggle just to show my girls that they can be both too.
Now back to my first official picture book illustrations: Not So Scary Jerry was written by Shelley Kinder and published by Clear Fork Publishing this fall. While I was attending conferences and starting to piece together my portfolio, I created an illustration website. Somehow Shelley found that and contacted me.
Because of my book blog, I actually receive random comments occasionally about people wanting illustrations for their story. Everyone wants to write a picture book, but unfortunately people think it is easier than it is. I responded to Shelley, not really thinking anything would come of it. But a couple weeks later, the publisher contacted me. She shared the manuscript Shelley wrote and I was hooked. I fell in love with Jerry pretty fast.
It was a terrifying and exhilarating experience to get to work on my first book project. A typical picture book is supposed to take about 2 years to create, but I only had about 10 months. My husband and I rearranged the bedroom of our apartment to fit a 36 inch desk space so I could have a dedicated work area during the day; though I spent a lot of nights pulling all my work out onto our dining table and working by terrible lighting.
When I signed the book contract, my older daughter had just started Pre-K so I only had my younger daughter at home most of the day. We worked out a decent rhythm and somehow, the book came together.
We are still in major celebration mode about Not So Scary Jerry, trying to get him out in the world so more kids can love him; but I’m also in high-gear getting ready for the next conference. I don’t want to be one and done with picture books. I’m still in the uphill struggle to get my portfolio tighter and hopefully find an agent or art director who want to support me and bring more work my way.
I also have my younger daughter still at home for another year, so I’m trying to take things as they come. I’m constantly drawing, thinking up new pieces, and making dummies of some book ideas of my own. Hopefully you’ll be seeing more of my work very soon!
I hope my kids remember that they were loved here and that we learned to be kind together. NYC isn’t always a kid-friendly place. And our physical home isn’t always what we want it to be. But we love them, even when our expectations get too high sometimes. And we can make any place home.
While I would love for them to forget all the times I lose my patience, raise my voice, and have to take a mama-time-out; I also hope they remember me learning to be kind, hearing me apologize, and watching me become stronger by learning from my own mistakes. I will never be perfect, and neither will they. So we can learn together how to love, be loved, and always be kind.
I love getting to do life like a kid. I forget that sometimes actually. But I get to be outside a lot at playgrounds and parks. I get to see all the kid exhibits and dance crazy because I’m with my kids. I get to race down the sidewalk just to see who wins. I can take a rest every day because I make them take a break to read or nap. I can climb the big rocks we pass, because kids always climb. I get to play with Legos and do coloring books and dress up dolls every day. I know I’m going to miss the kid-life.
I currently miss the baby stage. It was so hard to go through at the time, but I miss those sleepy, needy babies. I miss carrying my youngest in the wrap all the time. I miss feeling delighted over the first smile, the first roll, the first everything. The days are long but the years really are short.
I wish someone had told me how great my body is. Body image has always been a struggle for me, but I feel like I look back on photos and videos now that I’m post-two babies and I just can’t believe that I was so frustrated with my body then. My perception of the mirror really doesn’t reflect reality and I wish I had realized that sooner. My husband and my kids are so much more important for me to listen to and see myself through. They really see me and they really love me. That’s what truly matters about my reflection.
Thank you, Caryn! What a beautiful and honest portrait of what living in the city feels like for one family. The great things and the challenging things. It’s so much living in such a small space. And when she said they rearranged things while she was working on her book to fit in a 36 inch desk, I couldn’t believe it! Where did that extra 36 inches come from? Ha!
And I really loved what Caryn says about living like a kid because she is with her kids all day. Isn’t that so true? When your kids are small, you are always tapped into what is going on in the “kid world.” I know more about Pokemon, for example, than I thought I ever would. And part of doing life like a kid is slowing down and living their schedule. Pausing to play at a playground, being in early at the end of the night, being stuck at home when they are napping. It’s not always easy but it forces you to reflect.
One more thing that stood out to me was this line: “but searching for another apartment made me reevaluate needs and wants, and seek out more flexibility and contentment in my heart.” So good!
Where are you at in your parenting? Do you love living life in “kid world?” Are your kids older and you’re getting to interact with them more as adults?
Shelving system throughout the house
You can see more of Caryn’s work on her website or her Instagram page. Her book is also available on her website! Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. 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, gay parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Reach out at email@example.com.