Lessons From Life in a One-Bathroom House

Hunker may earn compensation through affiliate links in this story.
Image Credit: iStock

When I was 10 years old, my parents moved out of Manhattan, leaving what at the time seemed like an increasingly dangerous and difficult city, and taking their three children to the New Jersey suburbs. My father, at least, was susceptible to the idea of a house and a lawn (bad idea) and even a dog (worse idea, but never mind).


Video of the Day

My mother, who had grown up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, long before it was hip, and had never learned to drive, had more doubts about the whole project. Inevitably, she was the one who ended up walking the dog — in 1976 she wrote an essay about it for The Times. She was happy to make sport of the dog's bathroom habits, but I don't think it would ever have occurred to her to remark on our own.

We were a family of five with one bathroom, and that didn't seem particularly remarkable. Actually, the house did have a second "half-bathroom," with a toilet and a sink, which opened off the back of the kitchen, but nobody used it, except occasionally as a place to lock up the dog if he was trying to attack a guest. It had no heat, and the sliding door stuck, and the dog was kind of proprietary about it.

No, all five of us generally used the bathroom on the second floor, where there was a tub and a shower and an overflowing medicine chest and five toothbrushes and the family tube of Crest and a supply of paper cups, which had been instituted as a sanitary measure in some family flu epidemic. We shuttled through in the morning, our parents up early, and then the children, roused in turn, hustling to get ready for school.

My parents had both grown up poor in New York City in the 1930s, and my mother, in particular, was inclined to get highly moral about anything she regarded as luxury; she would jump quickly to remarks about spoiled children who had always had a warm house (except for that half bathroom) and new shoes that didn't pinch their feet. We teased her often, just to provoke her standard responses ("Who do you think you are, Nelson Rockefeller?") But I don't remember anyone ever asking for another bathroom.

I certainly must have known that other people had more than one bathroom, but I suppose I knew it in a sort of vague way, the way I knew that other people had more than one car. But I don't remember ever being particularly concerned about it, and I don't remember that shared bathroom looming large in the complexities of puberty. I mean, in due course, I got acne and I got my period, and I must have managed it all in that shared bathroom. I kept my Clearasil in the family medicine cabinet and my Tampax in the cabinet under the sink.


And in due course I found myself living in a house near Boston with two children of my own and a third on the way, and sure enough, there was only one bathroom. In fact, things had gotten, if anything, less convenient, because we lived on the second and third floors of a two-family house, and the bedrooms were up on the third floor, but the bathroom was down on the second.

At one point, we got all ambitious and thought we would remodel the kitchen, which was someone's masterpiece of 1960s do-it-yourself Formica — and of course, at the same time, we would put in another bathroom on the third floor. We got as far as having a contractor come and look at the house and start explaining what would be involved in extending the plumbing up one floor higher, but somehow it just seemed like too much trouble. Like my own parents, I just wasn't up to renovating. We were all in the habit of going down to use the bathroom. We never remodeled the kitchen either.

I remember lumbering down the back stairs, at the end of pregnancy, when the bladder just doesn't have much room to expand, gripping the banister tightly and thinking with envy about the house I grew up in, where the bathroom was at least on the same level as the bedrooms.

When our third child was growing up, we did take over the apartment on the first floor of the house, where we set up two parental studies. That introduced a second bathroom into the mix, but it was two floors away from the bedrooms, and it was really only convenient for someone using one of the studies; no one went down for morning or evening ablutions.

Upstairs on the second floor, the toothbrushes jostled for space in the toothbrush holder as their owners jostled for space and time in front of the mirror. All five of us went right on taking our showers in the single second floor bathroom.

Slowly, I have come to realize that five people sharing one bathroom is seen by many — and not unreasonably — as a complication. Yes, I know, first-world problems. But the number of bathrooms per home — or apartment — has been steadily climbing in the United States, and not just for luxury homes. According to the Census Bureau's survey on Characteristics of New Housing, 30,000 single-family houses completed in 2017 had 1.5 bathrooms or less, and 296,000 had three or more.


I'm not prepared to claim bathroom-sharing as a virtue of simple living, and I try on principle not to claim that anything I did for my children was done on principle to build their characters. Did sharing a bathroom with two brothers demystify boys for my daughter, who went to an all-girls school? Did sharing a bathroom through my third pregnancy make parenthood less appealing or more appealing for the older two?

Frankly, I'm not sure anyone was paying that much attention to any of this, though I do wonder whether all three children enjoyed dorm life more, once they got to college, because the bathroom access was markedly better, rather than worse, than it had been at home — certainly, I felt that way about the shared bathrooms in my dormitory when I went away to college — multiple toilets, sinks and showers, just down the hall! It has never occurred to me to speculate that a single bathroom enhances family bonding, though there's no question it keeps everyone fully aware of everyone else's biological human realities.

I did ask my daughter if she had any particularly vivid memories of that family bathroom, and she wrote back, "If you're going to only have one maybe get one with a door that actually closes/locks?" (She has a point: It was an old house and the door did not close securely.)

Naturally, I am now older and more spoiled, and I live in an apartment with two bathrooms for only two people. When traveling, I still take a certain pride — as my parents did — in cheerfully staying in hostels or dorm settings with the bathroom down the hall. But given the choice, I unhesitatingly pay a little more to have my own bathroom — though I know my mother would have had some choice comments to make about her lineage going soft.