Open-Concept Curmudgeon

Rachel Beanland essays

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Three. The number of children I have. One billion. The approximate number of times I have heard someone on an HGTV show marvel, “We just love the open concept.”

I have come to believe I am the only human being alive who hates open-concept living. For those of you whose DVR isn’t full of nothing but reruns of “Property Brothers,” I’ll explain. The popular open-concept floor plan calls for one large room that’s part kitchen, part dining room and part living room. It’s all-in-one living at its finest.

I have a theory that open-concept living is enjoying its heyday—the way avocado appliances, split levels and parquet floors had theirs—but that one day, perhaps even soon, we’ll all be furiously framing new walls faster than you can say two-by-four. We’re going to wake up from our current DIY daydream and realize that open-concept living is responsible for a large number of divorces and more than a few adult children who never, ever call their mothers.

We watch scores of home reno shows, we buy fix-er-up houses and we pin photos of ‘open-concept’ spaces that combine cooking, dining and living into one giant space that offers up ‘great sight lines’ at the expense of these things called walls. I have a fetish for decorating magazines and every single spread features a young family—never with children older than five—raving about how when they took their old farmhouse or mid-century ranch down to the studs and removed every wall in the joint it really ‘opened things up.’

Sometimes I want to throw these magazines across the room but most of the time I want to take the homeowners to coffee, sit across from them all friendly-like and ask in an open, inviting tone, “What is your family doing that is so much better than what my family is doing? Because we would kill each other if we lived in your house.”

We recently renovated our kitchen and the first words out of our contractor’s mouth went a little something like, “And if you tear down this wall, it’ll really open things up.” We live in a ranch, built in 1960—a glorious time period when houses had walls and parents didn’t watch their children.  The house is a little over 1400 square feet and, with three kids, we need every square inch of it. Tearing down the wall between our kitchen and living room would have given me a living space out of a magazine. But I put the kibosh on it quickly—how would we live without walls?

In our world, my son plays his video games too loud. My daughter watches “13 Going on 30” on repeat (I know, mother of the year, right here). All the toys in my toddler’s arsenal play a musical number when nudged. My husband listens to Rachel Maddow’s podcast every single night while he washes the dishes. Love ya Rachel, but it’s every single night. Occasionally, I pull out my laptop and try to write. How would all these things happen in the same space? They wouldn’t.

One of my favorite television shows is HGTV’s “Love It Or List It.” A couple provides the show’s hosts—a designer and a realtor—with a budget and a list of problems they’d like fixed in their current home. The designer gets to work coming up with ‘innovative’ design solutions to fix the couple’s quandaries, and the realtor searches for a new home that will meet all the couple’s needs. I’ve got nothing but love for the show—it got me through many a nighttime feeding in my youngest daughter’s early months—but I put innovative in air quotes because the solutions always revolve around opening the place up. Always.

In the show, after the big reveal, the couple must decide whether they’ll list their home or remain in it and love it. What makes the show a nail biter (my husband will smirk at this, no doubt) is that the couple gives up complete control over the design process. Sometimes things come off the list because of budget or time constraints and there’s nothing the couple can do about it. Want to see a couple go berserk? Send in Hillary the designer to tell them they’re not getting their open-concept floor plan. Women have wept.

It’s understandable that a mother of an 18-month old would like to watch her daughter play while cooking dinner. Our mothers wanted the same thing—that’s why they invented letting children beat on pots and pans with wooden spoons. Or how about stacking pieces of Tupperware? If you must, bring a couple of toys into the kitchen. But before you remodel your home to make it easier to parent small children, consider how long your children will be small.

In the decorating magazines I read, where are all the parents of teenagers? Do they still crave sight lines to their pubescent offspring? My son is nine and, already, he has figured out clever ways to out-maneuver the bathtub and has adopted the oh-so-thrilling habit of casually watching television with a hand down his pants. I, for one, could stand to see a little less of that.

Remodeling a house isn’t something most of us do on an annual basis. We don’t re-evaluate the ages of our kids, like we would our investments, and make adjustments accordingly. It’s a house. Walls, once removed, don’t magically reinsert themselves into our lives.

What’s wrong with creating some spaces for families to get away from each other? For parents to get away from their children and for children to get away from their parents. It’s good for adults and it’s good for kids. The London Times reported recently that British parents manage less than one hour of free time away from their children each week. But 60 percent wish they had more time.

I have a very unscientific hypothesis that, somewhere in all this, there’s a relationship between our desire to see our children at all times and other helicopter parent tendencies that have been much more eloquently jabbed elsewhere. I love my children dearly but why must I see them all the time? My nine year old has recently started talking back in this smarmy way that totally rattles me because it sounds soooo much like the way I used to talk to my own mother. My six-year-old finds me every time she senses an injustice in the distribution of snack, if she needs a bandage for an imaginary wound, if her brother slighted her, if she imagines that her brother slighted her, if her brother was nowhere near her but might have slighted her had he been in the vicinity. And even my toddler gives a hearty cry when she can’t find her bunny or wedges herself under the ottoman. I guess what I’m saying is that my children need me a lot, and I’m there for them when they do, but does the very architecture of my house have to reinforce the fact that I am there every single second?

Peggy Drexler, a professor of psychology at Cornell University warned parents in a Huffington Post article, “It's also important to remember that alone time is a crucial, and too often forgotten, part of development. The real world is not a constant party, or a day at camp. Real world includes downtime, and it includes alone time.”

How does anyone get alone time in a house with no walls?

So were I to take this very happy mother in the magazine to coffee, I’d want to ask her if—before she tore down all the interior walls of her home—she considered the fact that her children might grow. I for one am already daydreaming about finishing our basement, so that one day I can stash my prepubescent son and the Lego swamp formerly referred to as his bedroom out of sight. Love him, mean it.

I know my stance against sight lines isn’t popular. But come on by our house on a Wednesday evening after work—when kids are ornery, piano practice has commenced, dinner is in progress and my husband has just cranked up a little Mumford and Sons—and see if I can’t convert you. Need directions? We’re the house on the hill, the one with all the walls.

 

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About the Author

Rachel Beanland

Rachel Beanland lives in Lexington, Virginia with her husband and three children. Her writing has appeared on Brain, Child, in the monthlies Adoption Today and PRSA Tactics, and in several anthologies. You can find her .

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