By Gabrielle. Photos by Lesley Colvin.
Maureen seems like she would be a great instant friend. You know the one: she invites your kids over for a crafter-noon just when you’re on the verge of a “I can’t glue one more thing to one more thing” moment, delivers a meatloaf just because she made two, and shares all her secrets for making her life easier just in case you need one. She is someone I love sharing with you today, and you’ll soon understand why.
Oh, and her London space isn’t too shabby either! Welcome, Maureen!
Q: Please introduce us to your family!
A: We are a family of five, and are expecting to round our numbers out to six any day now with the arrival of another little girl. Nathan works in finance and has the most impressive design eye of any banker you’ll ever meet. I am a graphic designer and recently launched my own business.
Nathan and I met 12 years ago at my brother’s wedding. My brother was his boss and I was the younger sister, just graduated from college and in town for the wedding. I hate to sound cheesy, but we had a magical connection. We spent the whole reception dancing, and then we talked on the hotel lobby sofa until morning. Though he claims that was it for him, I felt like the world was my oyster and wanted to experience some adulthood before settling down. Four years (and quite a long story) later, we got back in touch just before he was transferred to London. I was in San Francisco, he was in Minneapolis. After spending two months on the phone every night and meeting each other in Chicago for a weekend, he asked me to move to London. And I did! My parents always said “When you know, you KNOW” and I realized – when I was finally ready – I had ALWAYS known. Four years later, and five years ago, Atticus was born.
Atticus is Nathan’s clone: they look alike, they act alike, they sit the same way. He is fearlessly social and happily unaffected when people don’t respond. He is matter of fact and likes rules and directions. He loves legos and craft projects – provided there are instructions to be followed. He loves listening to stories on his radio and quizzing us with facts that he’s learned. He is very curious; when I was pregnant with his little brother two years ago, he asked me whether the baby had used a key to get into my belly.
Eleanor is 16 months younger than Atticus, and reminds us on a regular basis these days that she’ll be four soon. She is funny and dramatic, with a will of steel and the ability to melt your heart. She is an ace negotiator, and moved from the role of little sister to big sister with amazing ease and grace. When she’s in motion, she’s more like me than Nathan. She needs to be doing something most of the time – outside for a walk, baking, drawing, creating. Unlike me, she may be president one day.
And then there’s Ike. At 20 months, he’s right in the middle of things, instigating the dog pile, joining the conversation (pronunciation be damned), and loving everyone with abandon. He’s beloved by all of us, and has absolutely no idea what’s about to come.
Q: How did your house become your home?
A: We live in what used to be an old furniture factory in North London. The owner is an art history professor and created this amazing space after gutting it 15 years ago.
We were transferred to London with Nathan’s company over the summer, and came on a house hunt for four days the month before the move. After seeing lots of other places, ranging from two bedroom flats in central London to houses with grass out back and long commutes, we saw this one. From the outside, it’s just a innocuous garage door on the street. Once inside, however, it leads to a courtyard that feels transplanted from Italy. It is a secret sanctuary. We were gobsmacked the moment we saw it.
It is far bigger than any place we’ve ever lived – so much so that I initially didn’t think we could make it our home. The space has enormous windows, wide open spaces, and details that sing. I thought it was too much – too nice, too big, too MUCH. Everyone told me I was insane; of course it was the perfect place. This was the chance of a lifetime. We are zealous about great design and we would have been crazy not to take advantage of the opportunity.
We signed the lease. Even now, every time we walk through that garage door we do a little dance.
Q: You moved from NYC to London. How would you compare and contrast the two cities in terms of livability and raising a family?
A: We moved to London for Nathan’s job last June. He and I had already lived in London for five years and moved to NYC when Atticus was a baby. Knowing the area made an international move with three kids (while pregnant) less intimidating, but we adored living in New York and missed it fiercely for a few months once we got here.
We lived in SoHo, where people literally stopped to take a picture of me walking down the street with three kids. Virtually nobody has more than two children in Manhattan, and there’s a reason for it. With kids, everything is difficult – a real schlep – hauling groceries and Christmas trees on top of the double stroller. So, in order to live there happily with a family, you have to LOVE it, which we did. Things that seem a challenge to others are just things you deal with in order to reap the family benefits of New York City living: exposure to different kinds of people; the best food in the world (delivered to your door); fantastic play grounds (and a community of people without backyards who forge friendships at their local swing set); and nonstop energy.
Much of that great city life is here in London, too. And, after being here for a while, there’s something to be said for its slower pace. It’s nice not to have to hold the kids’ hands everywhere for fear they’ll be hit by a car or run over by a quick paced pedestrian, and for them to be able to play more freely outside. London is much more spread out, but the tube system is child friendly, and double decker buses are pretty much THE BEST THING EVER to three and five year olds.
New York may be anything you want RIGHT NOW, but London is everything you want in due course.
Q: What makes you love the place you live?
A: I often joke that I could never move to a place where I’m not within a half mile of an authentically French croissant. I’m about 50 yards from them now. New York and London spoil you with these amazing little things that are so accessible. And now, if that pastry isn’t quite up to par, we are only two hours away from Paris on the Eurostar. Everyone travels, with or without kids. You can rent a villa on the Amalfi Coast, a family apartment in Copenhagen, or, ahem, a REAL CASTLE in the English countryside.
The weight of history in London is nowhere to be found in the states. Two blocks away from us, there is a church built a few hundred years ago. Back home, this would be a national treasure. Here in London, someone bought it and turned it into a paint shop.
The attitude toward lifestyle and family here is also completely different. People create separation between their jobs and family life. Families spend Saturdays in the parks when it’s not too rainy, and have leisurely roast lunches at the pub on Sunday. Sometimes the pace – especially in terms of efficiency and customer service – drives us Americans crazy, but there are benefits if you choose to embrace them.
Q: What’s your best advice for making friends – for both you and your kids – straight away in a new environment. Any tricks you’ve learned along the move?
A: Living in large cities means you meet a lot of people who often end up moving far away. Over the years, you develop a network of friends around the world. That’s great, but as a mom at home it’s essential to find support close by – even just one real friend – who will laugh, cry, and pour you a cup of tea or glass of wine when you need it.
My advice? Be fearless. It’s kind of like dating – you have to put yourself out there. Smiling and online mother forums went a long way in NYC. London is a bit tricky in that the English tend to avoid eye contact or smiling at strangers, which makes for very dull bus rides! It’s even hard to engage fellow moms in small talk.
People here usually wait for a mutual acquaintance to introduce them, and it’s not a given that you will strike up a conversation with someone just because you’re both waiting to pick your kids up from the same class. However, as an American in London, I take license and reject these social norms. I find that once I’ve broken the ice, women are eager to connect.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a phone number after a good five minute conversation with someone at the park, on the bus, or in the grocery store line. It’s just a phone number. Kids are a great excuse in the whole making new friends game, so use them.
Our kids seem to follow my lead and then some; they make new friends everywhere we go. Luckily, because of their American accent, their outgoing nature is not frowned upon by the average Brit, however they definitely catch people off guard with their liberal salutations, direct questions, and overuse of the phrase “I love you” to people they’ve just met.
Q: Your New York space was much smaller. Tell us your best tips for turning a smaller space into a big enough home.
A: Every place we’ve lived before has been much smaller, and as our family has grown, we’ve had to make the spaces work in order to stay in the cities we love. First, we cull our belongings regularly. This has been natural with so many moves. We buy what we love, and what we can hand down to the next child.
Smaller spaces can be more efficient. Even in our larger kitchen here, we still hang everything within an arm’s reach of the stove. I’ll never go back to knives in a drawer or pots in a cupboard.
Kids are adaptable and can sleep anywhere. People have the idea that babies need total darkness and quiet to sleep. While these things help, no doubt, they can be achieved with a bassinet or travel crib in a bathroom or a walk in closet.
All three of our kids share a bedroom. In NYC it was a necessity, and though we have the space now to separate them, we wouldn’t think of it. They quickly learn to sleep through the others’ coughing, night terrors, and early waking. It teaches them to be considerate of one another and cements their relationships.
It’s also sweet to overhear their bedtime conversations, efforts to console each other when one of them is upset, and excitement in the morning when their clock turns green and they are allowed to get out of bed!
Small spaces aren’t a problem to be overcome; they are an invitation to create intimate spaces and close relationships. Trying to make a small space big makes it cramped. Don’t try to change the nature of the space; embrace it and make it do what you need it do.
Q: Tell us about Pipsticks, and the story behind it! How do you carve out time to devote to your career?
A: About a year and a half ago, we were invited to join one of those sticker club chain letters. Like all chain letters, it was a bust: loads of time and energy spent to find friends, write letters, enclose stickers, address envelopes, and find stamps. My kids received one measly response. Though maddening for me, they went absolutely bananas crazy over that one sheet of stickers waiting in our mailbox.
As a formerly sticker-obsessed girl of the 80s, I saw an opportunity to combine the simple joy of stickers, my background in design, and the lost art of receiving mail to start a company that could inspire not only sticker lovers and crafters but parents, too.
Motherhood and design inspire this business. Though every sticker pack appeals to all ages, each is designed to be child-friendly. Kids can open it up by themselves and get started on their own without parent involvement. They’re great when you just need to keep the kids happy, occupied, and quiet.
That said, the stickers are fun and cool, which means many of our subscribers are adults who use them for crafting, snail mail, and scrapbooking. I love connecting with other makers, artists, and crafters, finding new and exciting suppliers, and designing each month’s sticker pack.
Part-time childcare and school schedules allow me to work three partial days a week and still spend lots of time with my kids. Being totally pumped about my work (I mean who wouldn’t be ecstatic over a huge box of puffy robot stickers!) is consolation for the challenge of balancing work and family. Both require immense mental energy.
I let my mind wander to new designs and business issues when I’m folding laundry and picking up legos, but when I’m with my kids I’m WITH MY KIDS. I do work most nights after the kids go to bed. Luckily, my awesome and insightful husband is happy to help me washi tape my keyboard for a photo shoot or discuss the merits of Korean sticker design over dinner. I am lucky.
I take a nap every day, which is my secret to success. I’ve been doing it since Atticus was born. Though it’s really difficult to choose sleep over the other thousand things on your to-do list (especially as that time is usually when the kids at home are also asleep), I find that napping lets me roll with the inevitable punches at the end of the day. If I’m happy, everyone else is happier.
Nathan and I love spending time together and we never get enough. We work hard to get one on one time with each child, but I don’t beat myself up when I don’t get everything done. My mother always said “You can do anything you want in your life, but you may not be able to do it all at once.” She’s the best, and she was right.
Q: Speaking of Nathan, any lessons you’ve learned in keeping your relationship a priority through pregnancies, huge move, and career?
A: Though this is quite personal (sorry if you’re reading this, Dad!), it’s particularly relevant as we are expecting another newborn any day now. I wish someone had told me that after you have a baby, your hormones shift, and sometimes your libido disappears. As a society, we grow up with the age-old understanding and assumption that marriage and kids take a progressive toll on a romantic relationship. It’s the subject of sitcom after sitcom. And it can be true – family responsibilities, combined with lack of sleep, definitely change a relationship.
What I didn’t expect was that after I’d had my second baby, and was breastfeeding, I would have absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. It had nothing to do with being exhausted and emotionally drained (though obviously those things would have taken their toll too). I didn’t care if I ever had sex again. And that was scary. Sleep deprivation, busy schedules, and the other obstacles to intimacy can be overcome. But the disappearance of your libido entirely? Frightening.
The good news is that Nathan was amazingly matter-of-fact, understanding, and supportive about it. I think I actually had a harder time with it – consumed by the “what if” scenarios, and imagining myself a frigid, uninterested partner forevermore. The better news was that about two weeks after weaning Ella, I was back to my old self! The hormones behind it are a mystery, as I’m one for three on this post delivery experience. We’ll see how the coin lands this time around.
The lesson: immediate and open communication – with your partner – is key to getting through a dry spell.
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What has surprised you the most about being a mom? Is there a development stage that’s long gone that you miss?
A: The degree to which you love your own children so much more than any other child you’ve ever known is unreal. The way they fascinate and entertain you (when they’re doing pretty much the same thing all kids do) is astounding.
Watching our kids interact as siblings is a joy. The things that I remember as a kid growing up with brothers and sisters are so different when I see them from a parent’s perspective. The way they cheer each other on, knock each other down, and just get goofy together is priceless.
We’ve also found that our perspective changed with subsequent children. At first, we took everything about our child personally – the good and the bad. Life experience helped us get a grip. Each child goes through the inevitable ups and downs of development. We aren’t there to fix them all or take them personally. Our job is to stay consistent and help them not get arrested.
As for missed stages, I can’t answer – as soon as I start to notice something is over, I find out I’m pregnant. Get back to me in a few years.
Q: If they could remember just one memory from this childhood home – and you as their mom – what do you hope it would be?
A: The arrival of their new sister!
Nathan and I work hard to foster the relationships between our kids. We try to strike a balance between letting them work things out on their own and having zero tolerance for nastiness toward each other. Our household mantra is: “Your brother/sister is your best friend.”
Because this attitude takes the decision out of their hands, they quickly fall back into being thick as thieves after confrontations and disagreements. I hope that they will remember all the adventures they create together in this house: jumping from “ice berg to ice berg” on our mountain of couch cushions, doing collaborative arts and crafts, and making waffles together every weekend.
As a mom, I think I’m strict but fun. I am no nonsense when it comes to manners, schedules, and sleep. But I do my best to balance that with spontaneous donut runs (selfishly, who am I kidding!) and glow stick baths. I hope they’ll remember me as a consistent and loving mom who always had a goofy side to her.
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: In exercising a bit of poetic license, I’ll rephrase the sentence: I wish I could go back and tell my younger self…that as a mom, sometimes all you really want is a nap and a good cup of coffee in peace and quiet. I am ten years younger than my sister, who also happens to be my best friend. She had her first baby when I was 16 and while I did my best to be a great aunt, I was clueless. After college, I lived with her and her husband for the summer to help her with their two young children and baby girl, and make a bit of money as their nanny. I thought I was supportive and sympathetic, but in retrospect, I wish I had understood what only someone who has been through it themselves can.
Had I been able to better relate to her during those first years of motherhood, I would have watched the kids while she took naps, forced her to enjoy long showers, and made her and her husband go out at night. A lot. She does all of those things for me whenever we’re in town – I definitely drew the long straw.
Okay. Who laughed at this one? “Each child goes through the inevitable ups and downs of development. We aren’t there to fix them all or take them personally. Our job is to stay consistent and help them not get arrested.” Yes, a million times over! Thank you for that and all your other gems, Maureen!
On a personal note, I LOVE that your went there about your sex life after kids. I have so much respect and love for women who share their struggles with the rest of us in the hopes that we all do better. Who’s with me?