I think we all have moments as parents where we need to get away from all the noise and the chaos of raising kids. I have literally crawled under my bed with the dog (more than once) when I needed to take a break. Well, todays Living With Kids family offers such a great perspective on that. Meet Lora, her husband Andrew — and their 7 kids! Not only do Lora and her husband homeschool, but they both also work from home, which means there are a lot of people in the house all the time. Lora has some great perspective and wise words to offer on raising a big family, managing a house, and taking time for yourself.

I’m Lora and I married my husband Andrew nearly 18 years ago. We were young, 20 and 21. After I finished school, we went through two years of infertility before “the floodgates were opened” and our twins were born. Despite high risk pregnancies, we had three more children in quick succession before deciding to adopt our daughter from Uganda. Shortly after we came home with her, we were surprised by our “grand finale” baby, Finn (pun intended.) All told, we had seven kids in just over seven years! It was basically a full decade of incubation, gestation, and lactation. It was gloriously exhausting, but after the struggle of infertility, we received each blessing with joy (and only some trepidation).  ;-)

Early on in my parenting, my husband set me up with a blog so I could write out all the ridiculous that happens when you’re raising a small horde, and blogging and the online community that came with it kept me sane during those busy, exhausting years.

My husband works from home in the tech industry and once I emerged from the sleep-deprived days of babyhood, I began teaching online writing classes for bravewriter.com. This evolved into teaching writing to local homeschool co-ops, as well as schooling my own children at home.

One night, I couldn’t sleep and I wrote out a small scene with characters I made up. Andrew read it and asked me to write out the next scene, just so he could see what happened next. He kept inching me along, scene by scene, until, to my own surprise, I’d written 1/3 of a novel. Well, then I had no choice but to finish it, so somewhere in the minuscule margins of my days, I tapped out a bit of historical fiction.

I’ve got an agent now and we’re looking for a publisher. Nobody is more surprised than me and my days are a happy blur of teaching my own kids, teaching online, teaching students in co-op, and writing for my own pleasure on my website while working on the next story.

We live in a southeast suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. We feel like we live in the country, but we are a quick five minutes from a grocery store, my girls’ ballet studio, and most of our community. Another ten minutes gets us to all the big box stores, restaurants, and our church. It’s just the right distance.

Housing is pretty cheap in our area compared to the rest of the country. The median home price is about 200K. We bought a bigger home, but we went further outside the city to do it, so we think we got a pretty sweet deal. Our little town has basic grocery stores and a really fantastic antique store, but for everything else we head into the city (just a few minutes away). Birmingham is becoming a hot bed for foodies, so we suddenly have a plethora of great restaurants to choose from on date night. We love seeing our city have a resurgence and are enjoying the charm of the downtown area coming to life. I like that our kids are growing up in a rural area to give them space to run, but are close to good theater, good food, and great culture.

While we don’t have any horses, our neighbors’ pasture joins our back yard, so we have the pleasure of watching the horses from our front porch, without any of the work. (One morning, we woke up to a horse on our front lawn when they broke through the fence!) There’s a creek on the back of our property and lots of trees for making forts and exploring.

We also were delighted and surprised to learn there is a guest house on the property. It’s pretty basic, nothing fancy, but we recently spent several months renovating it so my sister and her husband could move in for a year. Now it feels like a special retreat and we love that we get to share it with family.

About five years ago, we had seven small children and lived in a cookie cutter suburban home. We’d bought it based on our needs for our life at that moment. After our seventh baby was born, we met a new babysitter who came from a family of seven kids and she showed us a picture of her siblings. My husband and I both went slack-jawed at the realization that our people would not stay small forever. We realized they’d turn into teen-agers, they’d get loud, need more space. Suddenly the home that was perfect for keeping an eye on my toddlers at all times felt like it would be terrible for lanky bodies and all their friends. Our yard was smallish and our trampoline wasn’t as entertaining as it once was. It was time to look for something that would suit our family in the long-term.

We made a very specific list of wishes and then prioritized them so we had set non-negotiables: at least an acre of land (probably no HOA fees), large bedrooms, and no more than 20 minutes from our church. This was tough for us to stick to, especially if there was something interesting just 25 minutes from church. But I’m so glad we stuck to our guns. We love the feeling of still being connected to our community, even though we live further south of town. We are “out” but not “too far out.”

We really had to impress on our realtor the understanding that we live in the house 24/7. We needed rooms that would hold all of us comfortably for long periods of time, space for a giant dining room table that we do school around, And the bedrooms — we didn’t need many because our kids can share, but the bedrooms needed to be large. I can’t tell you how many four and five bedroom homes we looked at that seemed perfect in the listing, but the bedrooms would barely hold two people. (This makes us sound like a fire hazard, I know.) (We kind of are.)

I remember driving up to see this house for the first time. The driveway is lined with trees, there’s a horse pasture next door, and the fall leaves were just changing color. My husband and I sat on the charming front porch swing to wait for the realtor while the kids explored the yard. I stared straight ahead and said, mostly to myself, “Do NOT get excited. There’s got to be something terribly wrong with this place. It’s too beautiful here.”

And the inside was pretty bad, aesthetically. There was some sort of awful pea green color in the main living room, the kitchen had fiesta tiles, the bedrooms were painted hideously strong colors. But the bedrooms… they were HUGE. It was clear this house had been built by a large family. There were only two bedrooms upstairs, but they were big enough to comfortably hold 3 to 4 twin beds each, plus, each room had a giant closet attached to it. There was a large, lofty basement we knew would give us space to expand if we needed it. And there were 4 beautiful acres, already landscaped or wooded, plenty of space for gardening and for our people to run wild.

The negotiations with the seller took some time and then we had it painted while we were moving in. So for two weeks, all of our furniture sat in the basement. We all got the flu while two painters worked their way through the house. We’re very bonded to those kind men who ignored all of our hacking and coughing while we basically camped in our new house.

We intended to do a massive kitchen reno, but we discovered a wall we wanted to remove was actually rather important, so we simplified. Over several months, we did all the work ourselves, tearing out tile and cabinets. It’s not the kitchen of my dreams, and it’s still not easy for all of us to squeeze into, but we’ve developed our own patterns and rhythms that make it work for us. And now that it’s beautiful, I enjoy it much more.

It took some time to find a way to use the living spaces to suit us. We end each evening together with some family reading and prayer and it was important that we could all squeeze onto our couches or around the same area. I rearranged the furniture multiple times in the living room before we came up with a way that allowed for maximum seating.

We still have a lot of things we’d like to do to the house. The bathrooms need attention and we’d like to create a hang-out space in the basement that is further away from the master bedroom, but I’m learning to just enjoy the living in the space that I’m in, just as it is. If I wait for us to have the time and money to make it “perfect,” nobody will be left here to live in it. Our kids are growing and changing quickly, and so do our needs for the house. Working with what we have seems like the best use of our resources right now!

I did have to learn to let myself make a room pretty, even if it wasn’t the way I wanted it. I don’t like to spend money on a room if I know I want to change it. Even buying a lamp is hard for me – I don’t want to regret it if we make changes in the future. But the changes aren’t coming quickly, so I decided to make it pretty right now, so we could enjoy it right now. And I’m so glad I did.

Our dining room table was made from the boards of a historic theater downtown. We eat dinner on boards from a stage that saw Buster Keaton and Mae West perform! I see the reclaimed wood shelves my husband and I hung in our kitchen, or the mantel over the fireplace made from wood taken from the church my grandparents’ were married in. There’s the cabinet I took out of my grandmother’s barn, the antique typewriter my husband refurbished for me, and the picture of William Shakespeare that came from the house I grew up in. Much of our furniture is thrifted or was given to us by dear friends. I still think of those loved ones when I sit in the chair that so-and-so gave us! I didn’t set out to fill our home with second-hand stuff, but these pieces found their way to our home, each bringing a story and their own little piece of beautiful with them. When I finally quit wishing for the brand new, the shiny, the perfect piece, and learned to embrace the already here, the Stuff with Story, I began to find the beautiful in our imperfect home.

Coming to this place of homeschooling and working from home has been a slow growth. It didn’t happen over night. My husband worked from home when the kids were little and it was a huge blessing when I was pregnant or when things went AWOL, he was just a yell away. As the children have gotten older, we interrupt him less, but the sense of his presence is just as important. When he’s in town, he can take short breaks for coffee with me or a game of HORSE with the boys around the basketball goal. We’ve had to learn how to leave him alone and to not always assume he’s available (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scheduled an appointment assuming he’d be home, only to have him need to attend a last minute meeting that has me hauling all 7 kids to my ob/gyn!)

The irony of our lives is that I’m an introvert — trapped in a house with 8 other people. All the time. Clearly, God has a sense of humor. Over the years, I have learned how to take breaks, to plan out our days in chunks of “now I will sit in the middle of the noise and meet all the needs” vs. “now I will put on my noise canceling headphones and plow through some work.”

Writing is such a solitary hobby, and I have so many lives to pour into. I struggled with how to include my kids in the thing my introvert soul delighted in. My husband encouraged me to block out little chunks of time where I would write — no matter what. If a child came to me and said, “What can we do fun with you now?” I would tell them a bit of the story and ask them to draw what they think happens next. They would sit beside me, maybe ask a question or two, and it let them be part of my writing. We made some pretty special memories together that way.

I’m certainly not above putting myself in time out when it’s needed. My husband can often look at my face after dinner and know that I’m tapped out. He and the kids will handle clean up while I slip out onto the porch and breathe deeply. If he is out of town, the kids and I know each other well enough that I can say — “Mama is going to take a quick break, I’ll be available again in 20 minutes.” Unless someone is bleeding, they respect that now. I think the key is to manage expectations. It’s important to verbalize what I need from them and to follow through on my promises. If I say I’m coming back in 20 minutes, I need to stick to it.

I hope that I’m mirroring for them healthy ways to take care of the personality God gave me without punishing the souls I’ve been entrusted with. In other words, self-care for mom is good for the whole family.

I love that there’s literally a crowd of people to “have your back.” Each of my children will walk into the world with the full-hearted support of 8 other people. That’s quite a posse! I love how each unique personality adds to our whole. If one child is gone for some reason, we all feel the difference in our dynamic. My kids have their siblings to look out for them when they are somewhere I am not. Sometimes their siblings serve as a reminder that “someone is always watching” and sometimes their siblings are their ally in making a right choice, but either way, they aren’t alone.

I think one of the things about a big family that makes me sad is that there are some experiences people think are “normal” these days that we just can’t provide for our brood. We watch other families take vacations regularly that we just can’t make happen. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve been blessed to manage some super fun adventures for our brood, but there’s always somebody going to Disney World more times than you, right? As our kids get older, I think we feel the stretch more in terms of “extras.”

That’s why having a home we can Live in is so important to us. We don’t just sleep here. We eat 3 meals a day here. We school, work, play, read, vacation, and grow here — all of us in one big jumble. And one day, when they’re ready, we’ll launch our people out to go have big adventures and soak them up to the fullest and then come home and tell us all about it!

One of the secret perks of a large family: Nine people can knock out a stack of chores in a hurry! We assign chores, but we’re also working to train our kids to see what needs to be done and serve willingly. So at breakfast and lunch, each child has an assigned chore: wiping the table, putting up food, loading the dishwasher, etc. But at dinner, it’s an All Hands On Deck situation — help where you see the need. This means that no one can say, “Well, I did my job so I’m off to read a magazine while you guys finish up.” We all work until the job is done. This gives us a balance so that they learn to take responsibility for their job and for the house they live in.

The kids also have daily household chores and “zone chores,” which are jobs in certain areas of the house that they do about once a week, just to keep things tidy. The whole family uses Saturday mornings for cleaning our rooms and doing it together definitely holds us all accountable for getting it done!

One of my favorite things about having a big family is our dinner times. A few years ago, I read Gabby’s post about “being French,” staying at the table until everyone was done. It made sense to us, so we implemented the rule immediately. What it means is that we all linger and we take time to just let the conversation wander. Sometimes my husband and I come to the table with a topic we want to discuss, or we bring up some piece of news we want to ponder with the kids. Sometimes we discuss a decision we would usually discuss alone so the kids can see how we work through decision-making. Other times, we let the kids tell us their “best” and “worst” of the day and we follow whatever rabbit trail that leads us down.

Sure, some nights we feel like we’re stuck at the middle school cafeteria table, but other nights, it’s fun to raise the level of conversation and get to have those big “world view” discussions that you always think you’ll have as a parent, but the time runs out. My little people now rush to finish their dinner quickly so they can crawl into our laps for snuggles while we finish talking. It’s a nice way to end our day together and I think it helps unite us after a day of running our separate directions.

In all honesty, for several years, we were a “paper plate at every meal” kind of family just because our dishwasher couldn’t keep up with the demand and I was one tired mama. But as the kids are older and more helpful, I’m learning to add in the pretty table cloths (and not fear the spills and stains) or light some candles. We use real plates (mismatched, so it doesn’t matter if we break something) and cloth napkins every night, just so the kids know the value we place on that meal and the time together.

(And we developed a schedule for the dishwasher so it’s always empty at dinner time and ready for action! Live and learn!)

I hope they remember reciting Shakespeare from the front porch, dance parties in the dining room, and the nerf gun wars they had in their rooms. I want them to remember typing silly stories to each other on the typewriter and cramming as many people as they can on one trampoline (nope, not safe at all.)

I hope they forget all the times I stood at the stairs and bellowed their names out.

I hope they remember even the slightly “off” things about our house — the “pool” we got them that only comes up to their knees, the ping-pong table with a broken net, or the tiny bathroom they share with the light switch on the outside of the door so they can torture each other endlessly by flipping the lights on and off for a showering sibling. I guess I Hope that some day even those things that are wrong or broken or “less than” become memories that make them smile.

I love watching my kids turn into people. I love it when the 8 year old brings us to tears of laughter with her sense of comedic timing. I love watching the unique bond that my twins have — how they tease and cajole each other in ways that only their twin can get away with. I love seeing our youngest daughter trust our love and reach out for our hugs. Her belly laugh stops me in my tracks every time. I love dinner time — as much as it exhausts me sometimes — those moments are so full up to the brim with good intentions and important conversations. I treasure that giant table and the words that have swirled around it.

It’s funny, I don’t miss the baby years like I thought I would. Maybe that will come later. I look at the pictures and smile over the memories, yes, but I don’t ache for that time to come back. But I think I will miss the people those babies are growing into. I feel the absence of their presence already in tiny ways as my boys turn into teens. As they pull away and get ready to launch themselves into the world, I am their biggest cheerleader, but I also see the happy little hive we live in changing with their exit.

I wish someone had told me we really can’t do it all. Nobody is super-human, super-dad, super-mom, super-kid.

I wish someone had told me we have emotional limits  — after that seventh baby, panic attacks and insomnia sent me to a counselor. He told me that a lot of women have an “early thirties breakdown” — when their body forces them to work through the mental and emotional stuff they’ve shoved aside while they did the physically demanding work of motherhood. It helped to know my experience was normal and I am so grateful my husband and my family supported me while I worked to be an emotionally strong and healthy version of myself.

As parents, we need to take the time to face our hurts, to reach for healing, and to let the hard stuff make us stronger, not weaker. Taking time to respect my emotional health has given me a stronger connection to the emotional health of my kids. They get anxious, they get tired, they get overwhelmed, they discover they have limits, just like me! I can’t protect them from all the emotional baggage life brings, but I hope they see in me some healthy ways for how to face the hurts in life.

I wish someone had told me we have physical limits. Doing it all is a myth. When I hit my limit, when day after day is filled with tears or a sense of dread, that’s a sign to take a step back and look at where all of my time is going. My husband and I have learned to prioritize what really matters to us and outsource or let go of the stuff that doesn’t. I know that Instagram makes it look like everybody is doing All The Things, when really they’re just doing the stuff that’s most important to them. We can be a parent, and a spouse, and a creator/creative all at the same time. It doesn’t mean we “do it all” or “have it all.” It means we know who we are, we know our limits, we know what to outsource and what to cling to, and we know how to thrive within our given limitations.

In the same way, as our kids grow and mature, each year, there are new responsibilities and challenges. Their priorities and to-dos increase, and my job is to help them adjust to each new expectation and demand with grace and finesse. The pressure for kids to “do it all” is a real thing. By modeling how we prioritize our lives, hopefully, they’re learning how to decide what is important to them and how to manage their time.

I hope our kids feel that we respect them as humans. The more awareness of my own humanity and limitations I have, the more grace and understanding I have for the same thing in the people I live with.

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Wow. Thank you, Lora! Reading about Lora’s family and seeing the lovely photos, you really get a sense of the “organized chaos” of their lives. So many people who love and support one another doing their best day by day to make it all work. And so many great ideas to borrow from here; the difference between individual chores and those “all hands on deck” jobs, the importance of family meal time, and communicating with your kids when you need some alone time.

As a parent, are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Do you thrive being in the middle of the chaos of it all? Or do you need to break away and recharge throughout the day? What strategies do you employee to “get away from it all” when you physically can’t leave the home and need to be there to take care of the kids? How do you stay engaged with your kids but still find time for yourself?

SOURCES

(Lora said she laughed when I asked for sources since so much of the home, as she said, has been vintage pieces or thrifted but she came up with a couple of lovely pieces to share.)

“Let’s Stay Home” Poster

Purple and Green Kitchen Glasses

 


You can follow Lora on Instagram or on her own website to keep tabs on when her novel is coming out! Photography by Cari Griffith Photography. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on InstagramWould you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! Reach out at features@designmom.com.