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Sharing your living space with a child, while staying sane, can require some ingenuity

June 11, 1995|SHERI ROSS GORDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Writer/editor Gordon is making room for baby in Culver City

When Lorena DeSoto feels the walls of her North Hollywood apartment closing in on her, she turns to the walk-in closet for escape.

"Sometimes I sneak in there just to get some space for myself," confided the 31-year-old middle-school teacher, who shares a two-bedroom unit with her husband and two children. "The baby's crib and dresser are in my room, the living room is filled with his toys, and my stepson stays in the other bedroom. Once the baby was born, the closet was the only space I could go that was just mine."

Not all new parents are forced to such drastic measures as DeSoto to find peace in the home, but learning to share your space with a new baby--without losing your sanity--can take much ingenuity. After all, a child's arrival ends the days of proudly displaying the Waterford crystal vases and Lladro figurines on the dining-room buffet. The delicate living-room fern gets banished to the back-yard patio. The glass coffee tables and Navajo-white sofas go into storage. Up comes the sophisticated Berber carpet, down goes the practical linoleum.

Lost also for many new parents is the concept of the "extra" bedroom. The computer and fax machine balance precariously on the bureau when the master bedroom doubles as the home office. And say goodby to the luxury of a guest room; junior's crib and changing table will make folding out the couch for out-of-town visitors a tight squeeze.

Overnight, baby swings, high chairs and play yards seem to take over the house. Cranberry juice stains the couch, sticky fingerprints obscure the mirrors and skid marks smudge the paint. The situation intensifies as babies grow: At about 1 year, children start to walk and carry objects with them, making each room a potential play area. And since every few months children outgrow their toys, clothes and equipment, the baby gear keeps multiplying.

"How can a person so small have so much stuff?" bemoaned one exasperated parent.

A baby affects more than the home's decor, of course. Many new parents say that the way they look at their space changes dramatically when the child comes home from the hospital. Before the infant, these couples viewed their homes as reflections of their tastes and preferences. Hence the fancy furniture and delicate accessories. But once the child arrives, parents often see the four walls mostly for their protective value--as shelter rather than showplace. Making sure the heat works and that a baby can't get his head stuck in the staircase banister become more important than wallpaper patterns.

Such a change of priorities, along with the crowding of space, can produce mixed feelings.

"Some parents are easygoing and they can share their space better," said Thomas Glennon, a psychologist at Coldwater Clinical Associates in Studio City. "But for those parents who are very meticulous about their house, learning to adapt to life with a child can be difficult."

Glennon says the acculturation process can elicit a range of feelings--everything from joy at the increased activity in the home to anger over the chaotic atmosphere. Those and other emotions can cause conflicts between partners:

The parent who works outside the home may feel left out when he or she returns to a house beset by toys; the parent who stays home with the child may feel guilty when the drop in earnings postpones a move to larger quarters. And try resuming a sex life with a fussy baby just inches from your covers. Throw in sleep deprivation and raging hormones, and the first months at home with baby can be dicey for any marriage.

Friendships, too, can be strained. One young mother recalls a friend who took her toddler to another friend's home. The child quickly smashed the surface of the crystal coffee table; before the mother could apologize for her child's behavior, the host whipped out a receipt. Five hundred dollars and a new table later, the two women no longer speak.

Lori Kessler-Lowenthal and Peter Lowenthal take a novel approach to balancing their needs and those of their 19-month-old son, Michael. Step inside their Studio City home and instead of glimpsing the usual living-room ensemble, you'll find yourself smack in the middle of Michael's playroom, complete with Fisher-Price trucks, a huge stuffed bear and colorful rubber floor tiles.

"My friend calls me the 'Kool-Aid mom' because this is the house where all the kids want to play," joked Lori, 33, who cares for her toddler full time.

But giving up their living room to make way for Michael's play area required sacrifice on the Lowenthals' part. For starters, they had to store the glass coffee table in the garage and give away their white sofa. Now the smaller family room must serve as their primary gathering place.

"Sometimes I visit another mom's home and she will have expensive, breakable knickknacks out. I wonder how she can do that and I can't," Lori admitted. "But then I tell myself that in five years I can have nice things too--maybe even nicer than before."

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