We’re headed back to New York city this week to meet another incredible family. I’m excited to introduce you to Lizzie Heiselt, her husband Micah, and their 4 (soon to be 5!) kids. They live in Brooklyn, New York and have managed to thrive in a small space (they have a climbing wall in the kids bedroom!), as well as biking most places they need to go. Lizzie describes her bike as an “open-air, two-wheeled Mini Van” and after reading about how well she manages to get around on it, I’m tempted to go dust my bike off too. Welcome, Lizzie.
This little slice of Brooklyn (approximately 850 sq.ft.) belongs to my husband Micah and I and our 4 kids — Simon, Oliver, Elsa, and Felix, plus baby #5 (another boy!) scheduled to join us in July. (We are FOR SURE open to suggestions on names for a 4th boy.) Oh, and we have two seemingly immortal aquatic frogs named Fred and George. They have — thankfully, miraculously — survived some rather gross neglect on our part, for which we are very penitent.
Micah and I met in college, at the beginning of summer. I thought he was a teenager visiting his older brother and was thrilled to find out he was actually a 25-year-old graphic design student. Micah had been planning to move to New York at the end of the summer, and since I had two years of school left, we agreed to break up before he went off to New York. Two months later, the break up turned into an engagement and we got married 4 months later.
We deferred his New York plans for a 2 ½ year honeymoon in Hawaii, where he started his graphic design career at the Polynesian Cultural Center and I finished up my BA in American Studies. I also worked in the state legislature and at BYU-Hawaii before applying to graduate schools to study Journalism.
I was accepted to New York University just a few weeks after Simon was born. We packed up and moved our little family from one end of the country to the other when Simon was 3 months old and I started school when he was 4 months. It was a lot to take in to be a new mom and a full-time student in a new city, but I also felt that it helped me make the transition fairly smoothly. I was about 4 months pregnant with Oliver when I graduated.
Simon is 10 and was born an old soul. He loves rules, clear definitions, and taking things as literally as he can for effect. He has a need to understand things clearly and deeply and he works and studies until he gets there. Sometimes I wonder if he is really enjoying childhood because he spends so much time reading while all the other kids play, but then I see him watch a funny movie and I wonder no more. The way he laughs and bounces and jumps around when he watches a movie — it is often much more entertaining to me than the movie itself.
I can best describe 8-year-old Oliver by telling you about the stuffed animal he made at a birthday party one time. It is a butterfly named Poison Puffer. Or maybe the trip to Toys R Us in which he came out with a hot wheels track and a mechanical kitty. Or maybe the names of his cars when he was about 3: there was Amy, Lilly, Ella, and Ninja Warrior. He is sensitive, gentle, and drawn to all things soft and cute, but with an adventurous heart.
Elsa is 5 and pretty much the girl I wish I had been, but who also inspires me to be the woman and the mom I want to be. She insists on finding ways to help me in the kitchen, pulls out her yoga mat whenever I do, and has been known to take care of me when I’m sad. She was the only kid in her kindergarten class who dressed up as a 100 year old for the 100th day of school. She thought everyone else missed out on a great opportunity. She’s also strong in will and body with a legit 6-pack.
Felix . . . Felix! He just turned 2, and despite having only 12 teeth, a poor command of the English language, and being nowhere close to potty-trained, he is convinced he is grown. He refuses any “special treatment” like tantrum-proof dishes, spill-proof cups, or toddler beds. He was born after I had several miscarriages and after so much loss and sadness, he has been a pure delight — even when in full-tantrum mode. There’s just something amusing and endearing about getting so worked up about the “wrong” pair of shoes.
Both Micah and I are happiest when we are making things — whether that be babies, or furniture, or baked goods, or our elaborate, co-ordinated Halloween costumes (you can see some of our costumes at the #heilloween hashtag on Instagram). Micah still works as designer, though he does mostly user experience (UX) design now — at least for money.
For love, he is always working with his hands. He built the bookshelves above our bed, our headboard from reclaimed bed slats, and designed and built the loft beds in the kids’ bedroom, among other things. We recently acquired a laser cutter and he has been spending his evenings designing and cutting prototypes for games and toys and household things like chore charts and toothbrush holders. His current project is developing a mix-and-match tile game called Out of Sorts.
I spend most of my days managing the kids and the family and the details of our lives, but at night I take off my superhero cape and become a mild-mannered writer and podcaster. I have blogged personally and professionally and freelanced off and on since I graduated.
A few years ago, just when I felt like my writing career was gaining momentum, I had my most devastating miscarriage. For months I couldn’t write and I felt like I was losing a lot more than my baby. I really started to wonder: how do people do this? I knew so many women who had suffered devastating losses or struggled through years of infertility, and they were all still standing and moving forward. I felt like I was, at best, crawling into a hole. So I decided to ask them.
I started a podcast called Cocoon Stories, where we talk about gestation. We (my co-host is Valerie Best) share stories of what people became and how they changed, when they were becoming (or not becoming) parents — for the first time, the second time, anytime. We’ve covered infertility, having 15 children, adoption, and stillbirth, among other stories. It can be heavy, but we always try to provide a horizon and a light. There has not been one interview in which I haven’t felt awestruck and strengthened by the wisdom people so generously share. Our most recent episode is a love story about a woman who is reunited with the twin daughters she placed for adoption 20 years ago.
We live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We’ve lived in and around this neighborhood for the past 10 years, and we are currently in our 4th apartment in the area. It has been amazing to watch how it has changed since we moved here in 2007. When we moved here and I was in grad school, I covered the neighborhood as my “beat.”
I remember reading on neighborhood forums at the time that Franklin Avenue was the edge of civilization and it was best not to go east of there at night. We lived over a mile east of Franklin at the time and I just laughed—but I was also very grateful for Simon, who I wore in a carrier just about everywhere I went. I felt like he was kind of my guardian angel. We now live half a block from Franklin and it is where all the hipsters hang out, the center of the neighborhood.
For many years it was known as a hotspot of racial tension. Crown Heights is home to both a large Caribbean population (the West Indian Caribbean American Parade runs down Eastern Parkway on Labor Day and turns the neighborhood into a carnival) and the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish community. There has been violence between the two groups, but also a lot of outreach to bridge the gap between them. Now, however, the neighborhood is, sigh, gentrifying. And that adds another level of diversity, but also some complex feelings of resentment as rent prices increase, and appreciation as better services become available as well.
We moved to this neighborhood because it was affordable. Ten years ago we paid $1100/month for a one bedroom apartment in a sketchy part of the neighborhood. Our family is now twice as big and we are paying twice as much for twice as much space—but only because our building is rent stabilized. If not for that, we could easily be paying $3000 for a 2-bedroom 1-bathroom apartment.
But even though we were drawn by the affordability, what we really love is what I like to refer to as the “golden strip” on Eastern Parkway: Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the central library. And really, those — especially proximity to Prospect Park — are what is most important to us. We don’t go out to eat a lot (though the restaurant scene on Franklin is destination-worthy), but we love picnics in the park, riding our bikes there and spending the day playing in Long Meadow or Nethermead. Both Micah and I are runners and we’ve run thousands of miles around the park loop with each other, with friends, or with our kids in the stroller or on bikes as we train for relays and marathons and half marathons.
Living in New York City is amazing — so many inspiring people and places and access to opportunities. But we are kind of quiet people and living in Brooklyn, especially in a neighborhood like Crown Heights that has been under the radar, has given us the opportunity to be part of the action without getting too close to it.
So, like I said, this is our 4th apartment in Brooklyn. We were priced out of our previous apartment, which we were getting a great rate on because of its “undesirable location.” But suddenly it was desirable and our rent was going to double. We started looking close by because we like our neighborhood — we feel like it is a good balance between proximity to Manhattan (my kids go to school on the Lower East Side) and price. But looking for an apartment in New York City can be so discouraging and shocking. Like: You call this a bedroom? I don’t think you could fit a bed in here! Or: yes, I see the bedrooms, but where is the living room?? That kind of thing. And forget kitchens. It’s like they don’t think anyone actually cooks. But I do!
We eventually came across a broker who really liked us and our family and decided to take our case. He showed us several apartments that were both in our price range and large enough for our family — and open to housing families in the first place. We felt best about one that was less than a mile from Prospect Park. Bonus: it has elevators that are big enough to fit in our family bike. And there is a balcony (which we share with neighbors) on which we store our bike collection.
One of the features we like best about the apartment was how open it is. It gives us plenty of space to make it whatever we need it to be. Depending on the day, it can be a recording studio, a bike repair shop, a woodworking shop, a sewing studio, or a gym. Sometimes all of the above. It also gives us leeway to add storage and furniture, and since Micah is pretty handy with tools, he did almost all of the work on it. I mentioned that kitchens are basically an afterthought in most rentals. Micah improved ours by building a kitchen “peninsula” using two IKEA countertops that he bonded together and then “painted” with concrete to give the illusion of a concrete counter. Underneath is IKEA cupboards and drawers for more storage. I love that we have a good space where I can make dinner and help the kids with their homework at the same time.
Micah also built the shelves above our bed using the Elfa shelving system and hollow-core doors. The “fauxdenza” under the TV is an IKEA hack. He built the laser cutter table using scraps from other projects. And then there is the loft bed/rock climbing wall, which I’ll get into later.
On top of Micah’s furniture, so much of the decor is really “ours.” Most of the artwork is original illustrations Micah’s late father did as a designer and illustrator for the New Era and Friend magazines — magazines our church publishes for youth and children. I made the quilts on the kids’ beds. The rocking chair and a bookcase are inherited from Micah’s grandparents. There are several little knick-knacks from my grandparents home around our apartment as well. I feel like having so many things from our family in our home connects us to them when they are either dead or live several states away.
The thing about living in a small space is that we are constantly re-evaluating our space, our possessions, our priorities. It does not let us become complacent about our life. We are constantly looking for ways to do things better. And that mindset applies not only to our space, but to our lives in general.
One thing I love about living in small spaces is the eternal purge. We are always going through our things and deciding whether we really need it or want it. I tend to be pretty sentimental and I have a hard time letting go of my kids artwork or their cutest baby outfits, and I do allow myself to hold onto some of that. But I also try to give myself time and space to let go.
There was one time in the year of miscarriages that I went through the baby clothes and tried to thin things out. Every item of clothing was a memory and a hope and I spent a couple of hours near tears before giving up and taking a nap. A few months later I was in a much different place—not pregnant, but more at peace—and I went through the clothes again and was able to see it all so much differently.
Being able to evaluate my life, and not just my possessions, on that level pretty regularly has helped me minimize the weight I am carrying at any given time. Like, I can handle this responsibility for the next couple of weeks, but then I’m going to let it go.
When we first moved to our current apartment we had 3 kids. Our sons were in bunk beds and our daughter was in a toddler bed. When I finally got pregnant with our 4th, we realized we were going to need to re-think the kids’ bedroom. We knew the baby would be in our room for his first year, but after that, we were going to need more space in the kids’ room. So we sat down with the kids and everyone drew up a plan for the bedroom. Most of the plans involved lofting 3 beds (thankfully we have high ceilings!) and some of them included fanciful ideas from the kids like connecting to the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridges. Things like slides and monkey bars and rock climbing walls also came up. We took all the plans and came up with what is there now: three lofted beds with monkey bars running between them. There’s a rock climbing wall in a corner as well.
Right now, living in a small space with fairly small kids feels good. I like the closeness, and they are at ages where they mostly want to be close to us and to each other, too. But I can see that we are not going to be able to keep this up forever. For example, we can technically all fit on the couch, but it is not the most comfortable thing. And while having a lofted bed to himself is enough privacy right now, I know that in a couple of years Simon is going to want more space.
It is hard for me to think about leaving Brooklyn because we have what I feel is a really good thing going: we’re in a rent stabilized apartment, our kids are in a really great school, we are living what feels like an adventurous life. But I do think that sometimes you have to give up something good for something better.
Right now our plan when we leave Brooklyn is to move abroad for a few years. We have our hearts set on Japan, where my husband served a mission for our church and where we have both felt drawn. We visited there a few years ago and felt like it would be a great opportunity to give our kids the experience of being immersed in a culture that is more co-operative, where the focus is on society as a whole and less on individual needs.
I love the idea that my kids could go to school and part of their education would be making and serving lunch to each other and then cleaning up afterward. There is a lot of things that we need to figure out, but that is what we are planning and working towards for the future.
When we moved to New York, it was from rural Hawaii and not only on the other side of the country but on the other side of the spectrum of “laid-back-to-high-strung.” I had grown up in Utah and my husband in Ohio (both in the suburbs), so we have experienced a pretty broad range of communities. And I have to say that I like urban best.
Or maybe it is just that Hawaii was such a strong culture shock to me (it is so far away from the continental US and in many ways still feels like a different country) that moving to New York felt almost like coming home. Things that were strange — like riding the subway or schlepping groceries and laundry around the neighborhood and up the stairs — quickly became manageable and even enjoyable.
I know that one of the things that takes people off-guard when they move to New York is how physical it is. So much walking, so many staircases. If you have a car, you still may have to park several blocks away and walk. There is the challenge of getting groceries and laundry (for 6 people!) home and up however many flights of stairs. It can be really surprising to people, and really wearing.
But one of the things we discovered when we moved to New York is that we like the physicality of it. We like the challenge of figuring out how to get us and our kids and our stuff from one place to the next. It’s an almost-daily challenge that makes every day feel like an adventure.
The other thing that I really love about city living is the closeness of humanity. We share so many things with strangers because we only have 850 sq. ft. that is really our own private space. Our “backyard” is the park and we share it with thousands. We ride buses and trains and get to share those experiences with dozens of our closest strangers. When we ride our bikes, we are on the road with cars and other cyclists who are free to share their thoughts on our lifestyle (good or bad) as we ride on by.
It sometimes feels as though we are living our lives pretty publicly, especially since we have a larger family than most and attract more attention. (Though I will say that having kids who read on the train is a life-saver, both for our sanity and for the goodwill of our fellow travellers.)
I love that as we are walking down the street people will tell me how blessed they think I am. I love seeing 20-something guys with tattoos playing peekaboo on the train with my baby. I love noticing people taking pictures of me pedaling 4 kids on my bike up the Williamsburg Bridge. It really makes me feel seen and cared for and part of the community. So I guess my advice would be to embrace the physicality of the city and really learn to love people. Check the weather, get a good pair of walking shoes, and open your heart.
We sold our car when we left Hawaii and never looked back, but it wasn’t until Elsa was born that we started looking into bikes. Public transit and our stroller had been doing pretty well for us, but as bike lanes started becoming more of a priority around the city, we started looking into family bikes as something closer to a car, but without the headache of having to park it.
We looked into box bikes, but didn’t like the idea of having to lock it up outside our building. I was uncomfortable with putting the kids in a trailer. We even test-drove a three-seated tandem bike, but it wasn’t practical. Eventually, we came across the longtail bike which has an extra-long cargo rack that is really well-suited to seating children. We test drove a couple of brands and settled on the Yuba Mundo.
It took me a couple of weeks of riding with Simon and Oliver on the cargo rack and Elsa in a child seat in front of me before I felt comfortable, but since then it has been one of my favorite things, ever. It appeals to my sense of adventure and my love of a physical challenge, but I also think that it is just kind of a magical way to get around the city.
There are practical benefits as well: easy parking, no parking tickets, being able to take more direct routes than public transit allows and get places more quickly than walking. There are obviously some limitations, but it is faster to bike the 5 miles to our kids’ school than to take the train. I can haul home hundreds of dollars worth of groceries from Costco on it. It’s like an open-air, two-wheeled minivan. Or a clown-car bike. And on top of that, biking keeps us pretty fit and strong.
Now that our kids are getting older, they ride a lot too. Simon is able to ride his own bike to and from school alongside the family bike, which lightens the load quite a bit. And we have done a few more adventurous rides as well — like riding 30 miles roundtrip from our place to the Little Red Lighthouse by the George Washington Bridge and back. My daughter had just turned 5 when we did that last summer and she rode her own bike the whole way just because she was determined to do it. I love that my kids have the opportunity to be actively involved in that kind of adventure, and not just be passengers.
As a mom, I like to think of myself as unruffled or unflappable. I am pretty even-keeled and not really affected by whatever chaos is happening around me — whether that be a chaotic schedule or the chaos of 4 children crying in an elevator (which makes an otherworldly kind of music, in case you were wondering). And in recent years I feel like I’ve even learned to enjoy a lot of the chaos — to laugh at it and to cherish the absurdity of it — because it is usually absurd, “But I wanted the purple cup!” kinds of things. It’s almost like I’m watching my life from a distance and identifying the key moments as they are happening. It is those kinds of moments that I really treasure and love to write about.
I think this includes an ability to manage a lot of things simultaneously and not feel completely overwhelmed. I have been amazed at how my life has been able to open up and include so many things that are important to me. When I just had Simon and Oliver, I would often wonder how long I could keep up my interests in running and baking and writing, but somehow even as we have added more children to our family, I’ve also been able to start a podcast, learn to quilt, serve in my church, and develop some really great friendships. I think that pursuing my own interests and skills even while I’m pouring myself into my family balances things out and makes it sustainable. But still, I sometimes look at my life and think: How is this happening?
That, and I’ve only locked myself out of my apartment once.
I hope my kids remember everything — some things more clearly than others, but still, everything. I can’t wish that they would forget anything (though I certainly hope that any memories of me yelling or losing it are few and rather faded) because it is all part of our life. Even the failures and the low times are part of the package, and if they didn’t see us picking up the pieces and moving forward, or searching for any scrap of light and joy in the dark times, then they wouldn’t have a complete picture of what life really is — with all its imperfections.
I hope they remember that we made an adventure out of our lives. I hope they see that we were up to the challenges of raising 5 kids in a small apartment with no car. I hope they understand that they can do things differently if they want to — that what works for some people and families does not work for others. I hope they see Micah and me creating things and they think, “I can do that too.” I hope they see us making mistakes and think, “I don’t have to do that too.”
I hope they see us as parents who were strong and firm, who had clear boundaries, but who celebrated just about every chance we got. That we were serious about what we did, and always worked hard and did our best, but didn’t take ourselves too seriously or miss out on opportunities to have a good time.
I also hope they grow to have a deeply ingrained memory of how to help. We spend a lot of time teaching our kids to be helpers. We have a token system at our house. At the end of the day we ask the kids what they did to help that day, at home or at school. If they can tell us something they did to help, they get a token — which they can then use to buy screen time on the weekends. We want them to learn to reach out and help reflexively because it is part of their muscle memory.
When I was in college, I took a class called “Living with Plants.” Early in the semester the professor reminded us that there would actually be no living without plants. I think of that whenever I see the “Living With Kids” heading on Design Mom. Is there really any living without kids? I don’t know that, for me, there would be.
I don’t remember learning to walk or talk myself, but I can experience the joy and wonder of it again and again as each of my kids learns. I do remember my first crush, and many of the stresses and disappointments of growing up, but I experience it with my kids with a better perspective — and more power to help and comfort.
I’m sure I will miss a lot of things when my kids are grown but one thing I really love is the stage that Felix is in right now. He speaks, but it is in a language only his family can understand. I love being able to translate the gibberish of a two-year-old. I don’t know any other languages, but I know Felix-ese. I miss the year or so of Elsa’s life when “Frozen” was still new and being Elsa was special and exciting and she wanted me to sing “Let It Go” to her every night when she went to bed. And will miss checking in on the kids when they sleep and seeing how the soldiers have fallen.
Sleeping children is one of my favorite things and I have dozens of photos of my sleeping kids to remind me that I still love them after a hard day, or of how crazy it is that anyone could sleep like that, or that there is peace and hope beauty in this world.
I wish someone had told me that no matter how hard I work or want, I can’t make everything happen the way I want it to. One of my big challenges is letting go of the expectations that I had — especially regarding my family — and embracing what actually happened. I definitely expected that I would be raising boys and girls—that my daughter would have a sister. But I don’t know if that is going to happen now, and it is something I struggle with a lot. I also thought my kids would be more closely spaced, but either by choice or by chance, that didn’t happen and I still find myself surprised by it every now and then.
And of course I’m never going to get that year of my life back when I miscarried again and again. Sometimes I think if I can have a couple of more babies, it will all be fine, I’ll make up for lost time, the scar will disappear. But things are never going to be just the way I wanted them and I am (slowly) learning to love and live with the unpredictability of it—and to see what kind of beauty the scars can bring.
Wow. Thank you, Lizzie! So many smart and beautiful things in this interview. When Lizzie said “It’s almost like I’m watching my life from a distance and identifying the key moments as they are happening” I could really see that. There is such a powerful and beautiful wisdom in being able to see your life with a bit of distance as it is happening and not always being sucked up in the chaos of it all. When you can truly be in a moment, but also have the perspective to understand that that one moment doesn’t define your life. That is a powerful place to be.
And I am so impressed by the family’s commitment to biking around. What a fun way to see the world, stay healthy and have less of an impact on the environment. I’m sure there are cold and rainy days where the bikes seem less appealing, but I really admire their ability to make things work.
How do you and your family get around? Do you live in a place where biking would be practical and would make sense? Are you in a walkable neighborhood? Do you regularly have to pile all the kids in the mini van? Do you like the arrangement you have, or would you like to make some changes?
Doll from Roving Ovine
Family photo credit to Madison Ellingson. You can follow both Lizzie and Micah on Instagram. Lizzie’s podcast, Cocoon Stories can be found here. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.