You’re going to giggle here and there throughout this tour, especially when Kathryn describes her family’s home, pre-remodel. She’s got a great sense of humor, a trait that carries over throughout her home design. On top of that, her authenticity is refreshing. If you’re already participating in her Instagram project called #myrealhouse, you knew this already!
Would you like one more reason to adore Kathryn? Okay, then. Just look at her kitchen, which looks like the absolute sparkliest place to make meals, doesn’t it? I thought so, too. Friends, please enjoy this lovely, lovely Chicago home!
Q: Please tell us about you and yours.
A: By day I’m the Director of Youth, Education & Community Programs for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. In the evening I move furniture around and plot home improvement projects. My husband and I have been married for 14 years and have two children: a daughter, age 11, and a son, age seven.
Emm is in traditional public middle school, and we home school Roan. They are both constantly creating new projects; Emm usually by writing, sewing, felting, and painting. Roan is a little engineer, building new robots all the time. He’s promised a house cleaning robot someday. I imagine by then my house will look much like the one in Wallace and Grommit. Neither of them ever uses materials or toys as expected, so it’s always interesting to see what they’ve decided to do with things they find in the house. They’re going downstairs right now with a sheet of aluminum foil, plastic baggies, and sunglasses…
Q: How did this house become your home? Was it love at first sight?
A: Did we love it at first sight? No. I actually ran out of our house the first time we saw it, or at least ran out of the upstairs. It was weird and creepy and run down. And, as it turns out, affordable and the only home in our price range that was structurally sound. So we bought it, naively thinking we could live with the ugly and slowly renovate. Turns out, living with ugly makes both of us cranky, but we managed.
When we bought the house every interior surface was covered in deep stucco texture. The stucco texture had glitter in it. It had been sprayed on all the walls, the trim, the outlets – everywhere. Any surface that had not received this treatment had been painted a deep rose pink. My daughter, who was 18 months old at the time, loved it. I did not. There were also some fancy chandeliers and exotic mirrored bifold doors scattered around to add to the atmosphere. Oh, and a hot tub. In the middle of the basement.
The only way to remove the texture was to knock down the old plaster walls, which were crumbling anyway. While we were gutting things, we also decided to get rid of the kitchen. It was tiny – about 6’ x 6’ with the fridge in the adjoining finished porch – and nothing in it worked. So we knocked out the wall between the porch and kitchen, had someone from Craigslist put in a header, leveled the floor, knocked the plaster and lathe off all the walls, and put up new drywall. By ourselves. With two full time jobs, a teeny budget, an 18 month old, and no idea what we were doing. That was dumb. But it worked.
Later on we removed the layers of asphalt and concrete that covered the entire backyard, and created a garden, removed the fake rock façade, insulated and covered the crumbling Pepto Pink stucco, reworked the attic space slightly to accommodate three bedrooms, and cleared the hot tub and bar from the basement to create a playroom and maker space. Both the attic and the basement have low ceilings, but ignoring that and thinking of how we could use the space anyway has made the house much more livable. There are only two very small bedrooms, the living room, and the kitchen downstairs; it would be quite crowded if we hadn’t found a way to use the space we had on hand.
We’ve had to do some hiring since to fix what we didn’t know or didn’t pay enough for to get quality, but overall, while I would never do it again knowing what we know now, that energy and naïveté got us where we are now. We’ve been here ten years and it took us six to get phase one of the house basics finished. We’ve been finishing the more decorative details (trim, paint, etc.) since then. There are still several spots that are unfinished, mostly because we want to make larger changes eventually, so we’re not investing a lot of money in making them perfect right now. They’ll have to wait a bit, because we have to fix the unsexy things next, like a new roof and furnace. And the 70” of snow we’ve had this winter has made me quite determined to figure out how to finally build a garage.
Q: What makes you love where you live?
A: Our community is a fabulous place to raise a family. There are kids everywhere here. We both grew up elsewhere in places that didn’t have the same sense of community, and really enjoy the fact that we know all our neighbors, have great schools (even if we’re not using them), and are so close to a major city. We’re ten minutes from downtown Chicago and all that it has to offer. Our kids think going to world-class museums, zoos, and performances is just what you do; they have no idea how lucky we are to have all these resources. There are so many great parks within walking distance and the Lake Michigan beaches are beautiful. It’s a lovely place to live.
So despite the fact that housing prices are challenging, we’re too far from family, and we’d like a larger yard, right now we’re very happy here.
Q: Tell us about the challenges of your older home, and the best ways you’ve solved them.
A: I like to think our home was built by drunken squirrels, but in truth it’s probably the result of years of DIY folks owning the place. We’re doing our best to correct crazy wiring, a complete lack of level and square, and too many random oddities to name. There’s no requirement in our Village that a home be brought up to code before it’s sold, so I’m quite sure ours never has been. So, slowly, with each project, we correct what we can.
There are some things, like the 10” of concrete we found under that bathroom that holds pipes running up instead of down, that are extremely challenging. Others, like the complete lack of closets, are an easier fix. We now know that everything will take longer and cost more than we originally thought, and that at some point in the project I will totally lose my mind and threaten to move out. And then it will all come together.
Q: If you could do it all over again, would you choose an older home or go more modern?
A: I wouldn’t mind having an older home that had been more taken care of, but I think my husband is much more interested in just building our own and knowing exactly what went into everything. We certainly are much more knowledgeable about what to look for if we did buy an older home.
Q: Tell us about your Instagram theme of showing the real moments around your home. What has been the response? Why do you think a true look is important?
A: The #myrealhouse project gathered a lot of interest when it was announced, but I think ultimately people find the idea intimidating. It’s hard to put everything out there and even more difficult to find beauty in what we often consider mess.
I created the project for two reasons. First, because I think there is a perception that the photographs I (and any other blog) show are how a home looks all the time, which we all know isn’t true. And secondly, I was finding myself irritated when my home didn’t look good…when it looked like we lived there! I wanted to find a way to document and find beauty in this phase of our life; the one where there are Legos everywhere and art projects taking up the dining table and laundry on the floor. It’s a way for me to see my home in new ways. And while I hope others participate, because it’s nice to feel community, I’m really just publicly documenting our memories.
Q: When does your home work best?
A: How our home works best completely depends on the day. We’ve tried to create communal spaces with zones we can escape to as needed, which feeds my need for organization. Some days having created that school room makes everything easier. On others, having a large basement play area means that the kids can be loud and crazy while we cook or entertain with everyone having enough space. And some days nothing seems to work and we’re all on top of each other.
I like that we don’t have a lot of doors or walls, most of the time. It creates a sense of togetherness.
Q: What traditions do you hope your kids remember from this home? What do you hope they remember about their time with you?
A: I’m horrible with traditions, although I try. I hope they remember smashing gingerbread houses in the backyard for boxing day. I hope they remember reading together. I hope they remember how much they played. I hope they remember how we encouraged creativity (even though just yesterday Emm told me I ruin all her best ideas after I think I told her we didn’t have enough duct tape on hand for a project), and that they were given space and time to find themselves.
We purposely don’t fill their time with structured activities, giving them as much time as possible for independent play. We’re entering a new stage with our oldest, though, so we’ll see where that takes us.
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? How is motherhood different than what you once imagined it would be? What do you already miss about this time in your family’s life?
A: I love seeing their personalities and interests develop. They are so very much themselves, in ways that I have to remember to make space for because they bring things that never would occur to me.
Motherhood…well…I have two special needs children, each in different ways: one relatively high functioning on the spectrum, and one who is gifted. No one predicts that, and it has changed me profoundly. I loathe conflict, but have learned to actively advocate for my children.
I think before children, we all have a tendency to judge others’ parenting, and even after, as well. When we meet other parents, there is that tendency to see how your child compares to peers. Being the parent whose child has unpredictable, uncontrollable public meltdowns has been humbling. Having a child who is both ahead of and behind his peers in ways no one understands is educational. Knowing my children are on their own path makes it both easier and more difficult when looking at their peers. Setting ourselves outside the system by homeschooling creates both opportunities and challenges. Learning with them how to navigate each of their gifts and challenges, watching my eldest’s amazing confidence and bravery grow as she deals with hers, brings me to tears. Knowing that while they stand out sometimes now, as adults they will be interesting and quirky and so very much themselves. Qualities that are challenging to parent – strong will, independent thinking, and sensitivity – are all qualities that create amazing adults.
I will miss our togetherness as they inevitably grow into themselves. I will miss the constant projects. I will miss the chaos, maybe. But I know it will all be replaced with something equally amazing, and possibly more peaceful.
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: That it will be okay. That they will be okay. Better than okay, they’re going to be amazing. And isn’t that what every parent wants to know?
It wasn’t something anyone could really tell us for a long time, or at least tell us in a way that made sense. It might actually all work out. We’ve made some unconventional decisions for our children – “weird” private school, home school, low activities, therapies, etc. – and we, of course, questioned every decision. Still do. So far, though, listening to the idea that we know these children and what they need seems to be working out. Progress is being made. Progress we couldn’t have dreamed up even two years ago.
Kathryn, thank you so much for your honesty about your parenting challenges. It’s amazing how our children and all they come with have the ability to impact us and change us completely…but always for the better. And then this: “Knowing that while they stand out sometimes now, as adults they will be interesting and quirky and so very much themselves. Qualities that are challenging to parent – strong will, independent thinking, and sensitivity – are all qualities that create amazing adults.” True, true, true. I loved walking through your life and home.
Friends, have you ever been guilty of that whole judging other parents scenario? What opened your eyes and showed you how we’re all in this together, erasing your judgement once and for all? (I remember seeing a mom with a toddler and baby in the doctor’s office, and the baby was wearing only a diaper. Inside, I remember thinking “Oh, goodness. I don’t think I’d ever bring my baby out without clothes!” And then I overheard her telling the receptionist that the baby had just gone through two outfits on the drive to the office. I immediately felt awful for even judging her a little! She was so together that she had an extra change of clothes, something that I’ve forgotten to pack along a million times! Ha!)