"Tiny Homes in a Room of One's Own"
By Dr. Nikki Usher (College of Media, Communications/Political Science)
For the holidays, I bought my wife a tiny tiny house kit.
It sits, a promise of leisure time, a promise of personal space in a miniature box, and it is being built slowly...very slowly, with the spare moments carved out from parenting, research, teaching, and exercise (a genuine, if not enthusiastic, effort at self-care).
The joke is that we’re Victorian ladies, trapped inside our homes and unable to leave.
She would have been the type to deal with her hysteria by building those tiny rooms you can find in museums.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, the genre is best exemplified by the Thorne rooms that are decorated for the holidays. [Thorne herself was a 1930s artist with her own workshop, so these are more mythically Victorian rooms of feminist sublimination than actual ones, but bear with me for the case of reference]
These elaborate miniature rooms are built matchstick by matchstick, handcrafted porcelain dish by woven tiny persian rug, but there are also no people inside these homes -- it is what separates them from children’s doll houses. In my much mythologized understanding of these miniatures, this makes the pain that inspired the labor so evident: these are not for play, but one of the few sanctioned expressions of creativity and expression these women had.
Empty, perfect spaces that women trapped inside their gilded castles could call their own --all that they were allowed to dream of as free and under their control in a diorama-sized perspective-- the literal instantiation of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
This is not a joke, of course. That our present capitalist landscape has produced the context for a market for pre-built tiny houses so people can pass pandemic time building tiny houses. And that they are being micro-targeted to me, on my Instagram feed, during this pandemic, seems to be a particularly postmodern turn of events, given the origins of these tiny houses as a way to deal with tedium, depression, and a felt lack of actual personal space. [Again, this is more my own a-historical retelling, although you can see the feminist renarration of this act for the 21st century here.]
Unlike Thorne or any of the other women in the US and the UK (and elsewhere) who built these miniature rooms, we do not have time to actually build the homes. That’s the amusing bit of it - there is no time left to build brick by brick because the machinery of obligations that we owe to our institutions, our students, and ourselves. Trapped in our privilege, the way to deal is to buy a prefabbed version of the Victorian tiny house, a fantasy of some space we can call our own. But even that space (my wife’s is a greenhouse) is a copy of a copy, and I hear Adorno and Horkheimer shouting at me, judging the tiny tiny house version of a Yale lock.
But it is that craving for space - I would like to think I’d have been the sad, poetic-Bloomsbury type of woman - that has me coming back to the one thing I miss so much, the one thing that is just so basic, the yearning of having a room of my own. I keep returning to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, though only conceptually - it sits on a shelf outside my office, a floor below - there’s nothing for me in there in my “real” life as a scholar of elite media and evil tech platforms. I haven’t opened the book, just thumbed its back, and remembered its contents. It is laughable to me that the reason I own this book is because it was on Harvard’s prefrosh summer reading list. That’s everything, isn’t it? That it is still applicable is a reminder of that continued and now accumulated privilege I carry with me.
That said, still, even having an office in pandemic life, one from which to do at-home work, the epitome of pandemic privilege, that space is not my own.
This week, my child decided to take over my desk. He has colonized my office, just as he has every space in the house, but this was the week where he sat down at my desk and took to typing on my computer (he cannot read, so “typing”). Most afternoons, I am primary parenting, but at some point I do need a Thursday, just a few hours on a Thursday, for an afternoon to be a professor, just one weekday afternoon.
I have kept him off of Zoom. He wishes his other mom had “ten-year” so she could play more. He thinks I have “thirteen-year.”
So he sat, in my space, sucked in by ABC Mouse, a software program heavily marketed to parents and children as a learning tool. Some schools have even purchased bulk subscriptions for stay-at-home learning.
The chatter was endless, the software is designed to be addicting, and he happily spent two hours narrating the quest for 150 tickets to buy an ABC Mouse dog. He has a real dog, sitting in a crate. That’s another trapped animal in a room, another source of guilt, but there’s only so much she can be left unsupervised without a puppy’s reign of terror unleashed on an unwitting couch, now bleeding its foam.
His best way of playing in our space is to model our labor, working on a computer, typing something -- for what? And then the guilt, the constant guilt of not doing enough, not being enough, making bad decisions - it all hits, my wanting him to leave my stuff, my space, alone. Space for work? Why?
This morning that I write this, I have space because we have broken the moral code and have hired a babysitter (half-vaccinated, like me, tested within twelve hours, like us, masked)...the office space now mine, his “pseudo” i-pad, “leap pad” case splayed on the floor while the hand-me-down device rests charging. This is free writing - for me, unpaid. Am I wasting my time? Am I not using my time that I am paying someone else to give to me? Am I filling my space the wrong way?
The guilt hits again like a wave, his voice outside my door, narrating a story of teddy bears and a stuffed giraffe. They all play parenting roles in his ongoing imaginary story: a large bear is a designated uncle, while the giraffe (Charlotte, a large FAO-Schwarz-inspired, Melissa and Doug-knockoff provided by the grandparents) cooks for the rest of the animals.
Why does the giraffe have to go on a survival mission to feed the stuffies, who have run out of food? More guilt, am I not a good parent? What is he not getting from me that he is asking of his stuffed animals to parent him?
And all he wants is to play, play at being a grownup, playing at work, playing at being in this grown up space, and as he does, this room of my own I crave slowly fills with love, no longer mine, and while spoiled by traces of guilt, is undeniably better than being alone.