When Jennifer casually mentioned her home was an in-fill in Ottawa, I casually wondered “What is an in-fill?” And it happened again when she told me it had earned Platinum LEED certification. Oh, I just love when these tours give me new dinner party conversation starters!
Truly, this family’s life sounds very intentional. They think about the food they eat, the music that fills their rooms, and the health of their home materials. I loved reading about their life in Canada, and I hope you enjoy Jennifer’s words, as well. Welcome, Jennifer!
Q: Please tell us all about your family!
A: I met my husband, David, in 2006 via an online dating profile that a friend forced me to sign up for. I was about to delete my profile when I saw his, and we immediately started corresponding. I liked that he was a vegetarian (I’m vegan) and that he had two cats and two dogs (I had one cat and one dog) and that he made me laugh a lot, which he still does. We have very similar values, but very different ideas of what constitutes a good time. He has no interest in music, where as I like to collect records and go to see live bands. I have little patience for board games or computer games, but he loves them. Luckily we both like to read, so before our son was born we spent many weekends sitting in cafes together reading the newspapers or fiction or graphic novels. We got married in Las Vegas by an Elvis impersonator! David planned the whole thing as a surprise for me, which was perfect because I am not the wedding planning type.
Our son Milo was born in October 2012. He also loves books and animals and music, is generally very cheerful and fun to be around, and amazes us on a regular basis.
We also live with our close friend Meghan who has her own space in our basement. She is helpful and silly and creative.
We have four roommates of the furry variety: a sweet lab-shepherd mix named Sacha, a wiley husky-border collie mix named Catie, a very waggy border collie-terrier mix named Oreo, and an ancient tabby cat named Potter. All the animals were rescues, which is something we feel very passionate about. Unfortunately they are all senior citizens, and we are now dealing with the new challenges and heartbreaks that come with older animals.
Q: How did you end up in this home?
A: Two years into our relationship I moved into David’s house, which was over a hundred years old and really falling apart. It was entirely heated by a small gas fireplace in the living room, so living there through our Canadian winters felt a bit like rustic living in the middle of the city. He’d bought the house because it had a big back yard and was centrally located, but the house itself was a total mess. It had been renovated without much thought or skill at some point in the 1980s. Any charm had been taken out of it, but nothing practical or useful had been put back in. The floor were splintering, there was mold in the basement, the wiring was bad, and the kitchen was the worst designed kitchen I’d ever been in.
I knew David had some plans to either heavily renovate or build a new house, but I really had no concept of what that all would entail. We started meeting with architects and builders, and eventually moved out for a year so they could take down the existing house and build a whole new one on the same property. It’s what is often referred to as an “in-fill” and is happening more and more in Ottawa because people want to live downtown but don’t want to go through the stress of renovating an older home – especially one like ours that was in terrible condition.
The construction itself ended up going very smoothly…until it didn’t. Towards the end of the project, the contractors hired a millworker to do the cabinetry who had grossly overestimated his ability to get the job done well and on time. He stopped showing up, delaying many of the other sub-contractors. We were supposed to move in June, but ended up finally moving in late September. Milo was due in mid-October and I just hoped and hoped that he wouldn’t be early. As it was, there were workers in our home for almost every day of my entire eight-month maternity leave. It was not ideal. The delay also affected our mortgage significantly, so we’ve been operating on a very tight budget since then. It’s a good thing neither of us are big spenders in general.
Q: What does it mean to you to have your home earn Platinum LEED certification?
A: I was really excited initially about having a healthy home. I knew that traditional carpets and paints, etc. would potentially release harmful chemicals into my home. After living in a moldy house for a few years, I just wanted clean air to breathe indoors! I really wanted to make sure that the materials we used in our home were healthy ones. As we went through the process of designing the house with the certification in mind, I became more interested in the LEED criteria and how it relates not just to the materials used in a home but to how we live there. For example, we got LEED points for being within walking distance to things like grocery stores and libraries. I am an enthusiastic vegetable gardener, so our landscaping was done with that in mind and that got us LEED points, too. It was primarily the architect who kept track of how the home would be rated, so thankfully he was the one who paid attention to the tiny details. It was all very intricate.
Q: What do you love about where you live?
A: I find that Ottawa suits me very well. I’ve always found it easy to do whatever I was interested in, because in a smaller city the competition is not as big. Want to start a band? Sure, we’ll give you a gig! Feel like writing an article for the newspaper? They’ll probably publish it, and if they don’t you can start your own paper and people will probably read it!
I have a really close, really supportive group of friends here and I wouldn’t want to be without them. I love the music scene, which caters well to my interest in punk and garage rock, and I also love how many things there are for families to do in the city. Within walking distance from our home is the Museum of Nature which is where the dinosaur bones are (major excitement for Milo) and numerous parks, playgrounds, walking paths, and restaurants. In the summer there are outdoor festivals happening constantly, and I am really excited to nurture Milo’s interest in music by taking him to see as many live bands as possible this year.
The economy in Ottawa is fairly stable because it is the capital of Canada and, therefore, a huge portion of the population works for the government. Those jobs have become less stable in recent years, but I wouldn’t say we’re at a point yet where unemployment is rampant. Houses aren’t cheap, but it’s not impossible to find something downtown if you are patient. Most people I know own their own homes at this point. We never would have been able to afford to build a house like we did in a larger city.
Ottawa also seems to be enjoying an explosion of locally owned small businesses that are making the city much more interesting than it has even been before. These range from clothing shops to florists to bakeries to restaurants. It gives the city a lot of character and people seem very supportive of each other, even when they may be competing for local dollars.
Q: Conversely, what do you wish could be a little different?
A: I love Ottawa, but David does not. He moved here from his beloved city of San Francisco when he was offered a job after he finished his PhD at Stanford. He can’t help but compare it to San Francisco and often talks about how much easier it was was to be a vegetarian there, how many more things to do there were, and how much more interesting the city itself was. Ottawa is a tightly knit, smaller community, and I think he misses the easy anonymity of a larger place. He is fairly self-sufficient and likes to be left alone to do his own thing.
My social life takes place in kind of a bubble of like-minded people who live in the downtown core, so I tend to forget that a lot of the city is populated by people with conservative views. Every so often I end up in a conversation with someone in my office who lets me know how weird it is that I don’t eat meat or watch hockey games and then I remember, oh yeah, not everyone spends their weekends cooking tofu for their kid while dancing to Blondie records.
Q: How intentional are you in making sure each space in your home works for your entire family? Any house rules or areas specifically set up for a certain activity?
A: We were lucky to have designed the house specifically for our own needs. I was pregnant while the house was being built, so we were clearly thinking of having a young child in the home. Milo has the run of the ground floor, which is very open concept. His toys are kept in large baskets in a custom built shelf in our living room, and he can access them and his giant book collection as he sees fit. He also has a play kitchen and a very beloved vintage Sesame Street playhouse that stay in our dining room/kitchen area. This is the space where we all spend most of our time, and I like the independence Milo has been able to foster as he plays close enough to be supervised but far enough to be on his own a bit.
I was very adamant about keeping the TV out of our main living room, so that room is more about playing, listening to records, and relaxing in front of the fire. We have a TV in a cosy basement media room where we sometimes watch movies or TV after Milo is in bed.
The second floor of the house is almost completely open, with Milo’s bedroom and bathroom being the only closed rooms. There is a sewing space on that floor and a long built-in desk where David’s computer and papers are kept. There’s also a chair on the landing by a big window which is a good place to sit and read. If we have another child, we can close off the sewing room easily to create another bedroom, but for now it’s nice that everything is open.
Our bedroom takes up the whole top floor of the house and I was fairly intent on keeping it as serene as possible. There is virtually no clutter in there, just our comfortable bed, night stands stacked with books, and a bed on the floor for our dogs. It is such an easy room to be in. We have a good sized closet to one side and a really beautiful en suite bathroom to the other, plus a long bank of windows overlooking the park across the street.
I can see the sunrise from bed in the morning if I’m lucky enough to get to stay there that long! We also have a deck off the bedroom that is currently underused, but there are grand plans to have leisurely breakfasts out there when we have children old enough to entertain themselves on weekend mornings.
Q: You have a friend living in your home, too. Does she have a separate area or is there overlap? Is that ever a challenge?
A: When we designed our home, we put in a basement “suite” with a bedroom, kitchenette, and bathroom. We were thinking that it would mostly be used for David’s parents who were living in Australia at the time, and would come for long visits and appreciate having their own space. But before the house was built they moved back to Ontario, so we started thinking of taking in a long-term boarder instead. Our friend Meghan was moving back to Ottawa from some time away, and we decided she’d move in and we’d try it out for six months. That was a year and a half ago, and the arrangement is still working really well for all concerned.
Milo was born on October 17th and Meghan moved in November 1st, so she has been around for his entire life. Early on we joked that a 3:1 ratio of adults to infant was really ideal. She helped me out all the time when I was on maternity leave and really became part of our family. She eats a lot of meals with us (she’s vegetarian, too) and takes care of Milo a lot as well. She shares our kitchen space and the sewing room a lot, and also spends time occasionally in the TV room or living room. I think it helps that she has her very own space that she can shut herself away in whenever the chaos of our little family gets to be too much.
There have been occasional challenges, but I think we’ve weathered them well. Meghan is a hairdresser and for a while when she was between salons she did all of her haircuts in our kitchen or in our yard. That was a challenge for my slightly anti-social husband who was on parental leave at home with Milo at the time and was not used to all these new people coming through his house!
Meghan also has celiac disease, which means that I have to try not to poison her when I’m making a mess in the kitchen with flour or breadcrumbs. But it’s meant we eat a lot of gluten-free meals all together, which I think has been good for us all.
Q: What memories do you hope with all your heart that your son takes from this home and from his childhood? What do you hope he remembers specifically about the kind of mom you’re trying to be for him?
A: I hope he remembers his home as a place full of wonderful people and animals. Our doors are always open to friends and family, so we have a lot of guests for meals and socializing and I feel like that will show him what a kind and caring community he was born into. I know that he already feels lots of freedom within our home. He climbs on everything and delights in opening our heavy kitchen pantry doors with all his strength. I try not to cut off his explorations unless he’s about to do something dangerous. If he is making a mess, so what? I’ll clean it up later.
I think he’ll remember me as a mom who was always either cooking or listening to music or reading. Those are my favourite activities and I involve him in them at every oppourtunity. I think a lot about how he’ll feel about food as he grows up especially, since cooking is a major passion of mine and we think a lot about what we eat. He already has his own play kitchen and serves us lots of pretend dishes every evening.
Q: What has been your favorite part of living with your son? What has surprised you the most about being a mom? What do you already miss as he gets older?
A: My favourite part of living with Milo is how he adds a huge new dimension to our life as a family. David and I are a loving, happy pair, and it is so surreal and lovely to have a third person who we both adore added to the mix. I love the look of Milo’s toys all over our home; they bring a sense of whimsy that might be missing otherwise in our fairly minimalist, cleanly styled space.
What has surprised me about being a mom is the community I’ve found among other mothers in Ottawa. When I was pregnant I felt like I hardly knew anyone who was going to have a baby at the same time as me, but suddenly I was absorbed into this amazing group of women who I actually came to love as friends, not just as people to lean on as we all navigated sleep deprivation and diaper explosions.
I honestly don’t miss much about Milo’s infancy, I love the stage he’s at now where he can communicate and show his personality in bigger ways. But I do sometimes think wistfully about how portable he was when he was a tiny baby. We could just wear him in a carrier and he’d fall asleep anywhere, so we were able to go out to eat or see friends without worrying about what he’ll have to eat or how we’ll get home in time for his nap.
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: You just have to surrender. I spent a lot of my early motherhood stressing about what was going to happen. Would he sleep well? Would I get time to relax? Would he be okay at home with my husband while I went to run an errand? None of that worrying helped me in the slightest.
I slowly came around to realizing that parenting often doesn’t feel fair. You look forward to a few quiet hours to yourself and then your baby gets sick and can’t go to daycare. You have a big work presentation one day and your baby grabs your dress with oatmeal-covered hands before you even leave the house. You stay out late at a concert one night and your baby decides to rise at 5 AM the next day.
There’s no use getting frustrated, you just have to surrender and try to enjoy it. Or drink a lot of tea and text your mom friends in all caps.
Thank you, Jennifer. I giggled at how overjoyed you are to have added such a likable third member to your family! I distinctly remember feeling the same way back in the days of me, Ben Blair, and Ralph. It is surprising when babies merge so seamlessly when, as new parents, you’re worried that they won’t! Thank you for that sweet reminder and for your thoughtful home. (Also! Congratulations on your baby news! Friends, the Whitefords are welcoming another baby in November!)
Friends, do you think about the health of your home? To what lengths do you go to ensure that your space is taking the best care of you? I’m interested in hearing all your tricks, from big to small!