If you’ve ever wondered how often I get an email from a home tour host who calls himself a Design Dad, I now have the answer: once. Jason is witty and stylish, and loves being a husband and parent…oh, I could go on and on about Jason, but I don’t want to keep you too long from his words and unique home!

So here he is: Jason Caldeira, Design Dad. Enjoy this one so much, everyone!

Hello, readers! The Caldeira posse here sending you warm greetings from an atypically blustery Chicago. (Well, atypical for mid-March, anyway. Climate change, amIright?) Allow me to introduce my adorable wife Erin, our oldest son Emmit, and our lil’ guy Julian. (Oh…and I’m Jason, the Design Dad.) 

Together we live snug as bugs in rugs in the North Center neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, a neighborhood that’s about as centrally located as you’d want to be.

A five to ten minute walk in any direction lands you in a completely new neighborhood with its own set of quirks and eccentricities. Or you can end up in Target or Whole Foods if that’s your bag. We’re also a short jaunt from the home of the World Champion Chicago Cubs. Can I get a woot woot?

Eight years ago when my wife and I decided it was time to buy a home, this neighborhood stood out to us. I’ve lived in the general area for the better part of 20 years, but she was relatively new to Chicago at the time. We both love food, and we both love a good cocktail, and there’s certainly no shortage of either on virtually every block.

As major cities go, Chicago is pretty darn affordable. Buying a house or condo is very much within reach, as long as you’re willing to make some sacrifices. With our budget, for example, we could either buy a fixer-upper of a house, in an area just outside where we truly wanted to be, or we could buy a move-in-ready condo in the location we loved. But we knew we’d be giving up square footage, storage, and most likely any chance of having a yard. But seeing as we didn’t yet have kids, those compromises were worth it to us.

Our search for the perfect home ended on our very first day of looking.

In a sense I’d say it was serendipitous, as this condo didn’t meet any criteria on our bucket list and we almost didn’t even look at it. But the photo showed these bizzaro stairs that we wanted to see in person, so we humored our realtor with a visit. We walked up the front stairs, and my wife walked directly into the master bath as I continued into the living area. She walked out and, without even seeing the rest of the unit, said, “We’re buying it”.

There was a vibe here that I still struggle to put my finger on. It feels like living in a tree house built by Scandinavian architects who were sipping Manhattans while listening to Miles Davis. In all seriousness, the unit was originally an architecture studio where the architect who rehabbed the building worked with his staff. When he retired, he converted it to living space.

The building itself is an 1893 farm house that was restored and converted to a three-flat. Our unit used to be the low-ceiling crawlspace, so the architect literally raised the roof and lined the walls with windows.

The amount of natural light – between the windows and the multiple skylights – is truly something special. Honestly, it’s about the only thing preventing us from going stir crazy during the infamous Chicago winters, when it’s possible to literally not leave the house for days at a time.

The only downside: it was much smaller than we were used to. We had accumulated a decent amount of stuff, for better or worse, and the thought of downsizing was a tad stressful, if not liberating. We also had no idea how a space like this would work with children on board, but we figured we had plenty of time to work that out.

Two months later we moved in.

Our grand vision is to eventually get a summer home using the money we saved by not buying a larger house, in a location where that money stretches a lot further. That’ll give us the much-needed outdoor space, a much-needed respite from the city, and a much-needed place to just get away. And seeing as I work for myself and from home, there’d be very little preventing us from spending considerable time away.

People ask me frequently how I’m able to work from home…in a space the size of ours…with no doors on anything but the bathrooms…five feet away from my sons’ bedroom.

What I’ve determined is it’s not a whole lot different than working in an office. Interruptions are the norm in both environments, whether it’s a coworker asking if I saw last night’s episode of The Bachelor or if it’s my son asking me – again – to watch him watch him watch him as he attempts to hop on one foot.

You learn to work amidst chaos, and the chaos I get to witness first-hand is pretty spectacular.

Speaking of work, as you’ve probably ascertained, I’m a designer. I work with a branding and marketing agency called Nerve Collective which I founded a few years back with a long-time friend and colleague. We all work from home in our respective cities, and even manage to change out of pajamas from time to time.

My professional career has been a tad eccentric, designing for everyone from small agencies, web shops, and b2b ingredients conglomerates to independent bands, area boutiques, and Oprah Winfrey. But I found my sweet spot just over a decade ago when I decided to go on my own.

My wife is a designer-turned-cheesemonger who decided when our first son came along that she would fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a stay-at-home mom.

I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to be at home with my wife as both my sons grow up. It is, however, not without its challenges. It can be hard to find work/life balance when my life and my work take place in the same location.

And to an extent, my work is my life. I love being a designer. It’s my hobby and my job. It’s something I carry with me at all times, and always have. Design informs almost every decision I make, especially when living in a home that many would describe as minimalist.

When we announced we were starting a family, we were constantly asked “So…are you going to stay in the city?” And we often got the good ol’ “Ya know, babies come with a lot of stuff!”

But really, they don’t. Babies come with nothing, and they’re happy with very little. We just buy them stuff to make our job as parents easier.

My wife and I found that we never needed a changing table – we used the floor. We didn’t need a diaper genie – we used cloth (for a while, anyway).

In a sense, being labeled as minimalist and living in a home with very little storage forced us to be incredibly mindful of everything we purchased. If it didn’t have a home or a purpose we couldn’t live without, we didn’t buy it. It continues to be a small sacrifice we’re willing to make in exchange for staying in the city.

Chicago is an absolutely fantastic place to raise kids. It really is. Don’t believe all the negative press.

It’s far from perfect, and there’s plenty of room for improvement on all fronts, but at the end of the day the people that live here are warm, kind, and active in their communities. It’s a city full of decent, hard-working people with Midwestern charm. I’ve lived near Chicago my whole life, and in Chicago for over 20 years, and it’s difficult to imagine being anywhere else.

When you become a parent you truly see Chicago shine. Activities for kids are everywhere, every weekend. The museums are world class, the parks are spectacular, and the walkable nature of the city makes getting from event to event relatively painless. Our sons particularly love the Peggy Noteabart Nature Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Art Institute…not to mention the Santa Train, which is a Christmastime must-do.

Emmit and Julian are also way into music. As a professional amateur musician I’d like to give myself credit, but I think their love of music comes naturally to them even without my genes. One of my proudest moments was when Emmit told me his favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald. (I mean…c’mon.)

They both take music classes, dance and sing all day long, and much to our dismay consider every surface in the house their own personal drum set. Sigh. But I’m certain there’s little I’ll miss more about their childhood than watching them belt out a Justin Roberts tune or improvise a song – at the top of their lungs of course – while banging on a painfully out-of-tune ukulele.

My cheeks hurt from smiling just thinking about it.

I love watching the kids develop their own sense of style. I have a pretty defined personal aesthetic, and my wife does as well, and we both work really hard at not forcing that on our kids. They need the freedom to make mistakes, to dress like kids, to wear what they feel expresses their moods, to figure out who they are, to listen to the music that speaks to them, and to play with the toys that get their creative juices flowing.

We guide them along the way, but try to be conscious of sitting back and letting them go where the wind takes them. Sometimes that’s playing with our couch cushions for hours. Other times it’s playing with our couch cushions for hours. But sometimes, when the mood strikes, they even play with our couch cushions.

Our home doesn’t have space for a dedicated play room, so most toys are relegated to the boys’ bedroom. But we make exceptions within reason throughout the entire house – after all, this is their home, too.

So it’s not uncommon to see a tiny tractor hiding out in our plants, or a Lego space shuttle flying over our glassware. Their Lego table moves about the house, tiny cars drive over every surface, construction paper piles up in the corners, and everything seems to end up taped to the walls at some point. And that’s ok.

I want my boys to remember their first home fondly as a place where they played, laughed, explored, and learned.

I’m not going to lie, though…I’m secretly hoping they never outgrow Legos, blocks, and creative and imaginative play so our place doesn’t get overridden with Ironman, cheaply made plastic whatevers, and Minecraft everything. But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

As much as I adore fatherhood, I wish someone had told me to do this parent thing sooner, because it’s exhausting being a 40-something dad with two kids six and under. (And my wife does the heavy lifting. I just work here.)

Young parents have energy that older parents just don’t have. But at the same time, I barely knew who I was in my 20s and 30s, so how could I have possibly been someone’s dad?

Besides…it took me over 30 years to meet the love of my life. And without her I can’t even imagine where I would’ve ended up. But I know it wouldn’t have been here, with two sons I love so much my heart hurts.

Sometimes life is about being patient until the stars finally align.

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So much I want to discuss! But first, a big thank you to you, Jason, for putting yourself out there! I appreciate your honesty and sense of humor. It made my day.

First, this: “I have a pretty defined personal aesthetic, and my wife does as well, and we both work really hard at not forcing that on our kids. They need the freedom to make mistakes, to dress like kids, to wear what they feel expresses their moods, to figure out who they are, to listen to the music that speaks to them, and to play with the toys that get their creative juices flowing.” What a refreshing and so hard-to-do philosophy. Especially when they want to leave the house in a mix of plaids and summer satin, with a side of dinosaur tail. And shoes on the wrong feet.

And then this: “We guide them along the way, but try to be conscious of sitting back and letting them go where the wind takes them. Sometimes that’s playing with our couch cushions for hours. Other times it’s playing with our couch cushions for hours. But sometimes, when the mood strikes, they even play with our couch cushions.”

I’m reminded of Donald Robertson’s Instagram hashtag #buythemnothing. So true, right? What are your kids playing with right this minute?

P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.