Nora is joining us today from Queens, New York where she was born and raised. She and her husband both grew up there and they are now raising their two small kids in an apartment that they renovated together a few years back. Nora and her family are living in one of the hotspots of the current pandemic and, like most of us, have had to adapt to a new way of living. She shares some wonderful thoughts and advice about how to make things work with two small kids and two parents trying to get their jobs done in a smallish apartment. Welcome, Nora.
Hi there! I’m Nora Gomez-Strauss, a proud native and resident of Queens, New York, sharing my life with three adorable roommates/officemates/students, aka my husband, David, and our two children, Santiago (Santi, almost 6), and Marisol (Soli, almost 2).
David and I have been together for twelve years and married for almost eight. David is also from Queens and we met while we both worked at the Queens Museum (we are very enthusiastic about our borough). We worked together for four years, and three of those also saw us living together in a studio apartment. We figured that if we could survive that, we could survive anything.
For the past 9 years, I have been working at Public Art Fund, a nonprofit that presents free, mostly outdoor, exhibitions across New York City, where I am currently the Director of Digital Strategies. In my nonexistent free time, I’m also the Arts and Culture Editor of TheFoldMag.com, where I focus on highlighting women in the creative field.
David works on the arts team at Bloomberg Philanthropies, so there is always talk about art and culture in our home. Before COVID, we spent a lot of time as a family in museums, galleries, and concerts. Since it’s all they’ve ever known, the kids love it! They are my absolute favorite museum buddies.
Santi is a really sweet and funny little guy who loves playing his guitar, building elaborate Lego creations, and is currently very proud of his newfound reading skills. Soli is a cuddly, giggly toddler who loves to laugh, sing, dance, and is currently very obsessed with her brother. She also consumes more rice and beans than anyone ever, regardless of size or age.
Like their parents, they adore the ocean. Their names suit them both perfectly, as Santi is named after the fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea and Soli’s name translates to sea and sun. We knew our kids would have David’s last name so we wanted their first names to be in Spanish in order to reflect my half of their heritage (my family is Colombian). Both of their middle names (Jedidiah and Magnolia) come from Grateful Dead tunes — yes, we’re those people.
We live in Forest Hills, Queens, the same neighborhood where David grew up. I moved into David’s studio in 2009 and we quickly realized we needed more space (especially since we were also working together at the time!). A few years in, our next-door neighbor happened to be selling her apartment and we ended up combining the two.
It was a big project and we loved that apartment. It had some unique elements we still miss sometimes (like a 40-foot walk-in closet). It was perfect for two adults, but once Santi came into our lives, we knew it wasn’t the most kid-friendly space. His room was formerly the kitchen from the other apartment and really just fit a crib, and we would come to see that custom hinges, fast-moving pocket doors, and what I referred to as our “one-butt” kitchen was not ideal for a growing family.
We really did not want to leave our neighborhood — or even our building for that matter. Luckily for us, a three-bedroom down our hallway went up for sale. It was more than we imagined ever paying for an apartment, but compared to what other three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments cost in New York City, we knew we couldn’t let it get away.
Forest Hills is generally more affordable to buy than other places in the city, which is why we’ve had an influx of young families in recent years. That said, for what we paid for our apartment you could get a nice house in the suburbs or country, which is something that I try not to think about too much. Luckily we were able to sell our old pace for more than we expected so buying the new place wasn’t too painful (but it was still tough).
Forest Hills has always been the type of middle-class neighborhood where you raise a family, with good public schools, a short trip to Manhattan, and a diverse community. In general, that can be said for most of Queens.
It’s a magical place full of so many languages, foods, aromas, and people — and is the most ethnically diverse location in the world. That said, each neighborhood has its own makeup. What I love about Forest Hills is that it gets more genuinely diverse every day. It’s perfect for a biracial, interfaith, “Jewtino” family like ours.
When we were deciding on where to raise a family, we thought about leaving the city, but as public school-educated, city kids ourselves, we decided to stay. The pros: being able to walk to restaurants, bars, shops, the support system of having our families so close (David’s parents live in our building, my parents are a short drive away), a lot of playgrounds and parks in the area, wonderful schools, being a subway ride away from cultural destinations — seemed out to outweigh the cons: lack of outdoor space, and… lack of outdoor space.
Now with COVID, all of those pros are gone and we are, like a lot of other people, questioning the way we live. It is such a strange feeling to be homesick for your neighborhood and city while you are there.
We knew the previous owner of our current home, as she lived two doors down from us. When she unfortunately passed away, we contacted her family, expressed our condolences, and in true NYC fashion, politely expressed our interest in the apartment if/when they were ready.
Pretty much sight unseen, we wound up with our dream apartment. But it needed a lot of work. When we underwent the huge renovation in our former apartment we said to ourselves, “Let’s never do that again,” but David loves a good project. So what did we do with this apartment? A complete gut renovation, of course.
We tore down every single wall in the living/dining/kitchen area, ripped out the kitchen and bathrooms, completely redid the closets, and removed the dropped ceiling where we could. It was a big undertaking but worth it. I actually shared here on Design Mom what our life at that time was like, with a small child and a renovation taking much longer than the expected at six months.
Pretty much everything in our life has changed since the pandemic. David and I are both working from home, Santi is doing remote schooling, Soli is trying to go with the flow, and we are really missing our families (I can’t wait until the day I can hug my parents again!). Being stuck in your home has been challenging for everyone experiencing this, and there is definitely an added challenge when you have two young children in an apartment. That said, getting to spend so much time together is a real blessing and we’ll never have this opportunity again.
Since I’m not commuting to the office, I wake up slightly later than I used to (that 5:30am alarm might be the only thing I don’t miss). I use that time before the kids wake up to get in 15 minutes of yoga alone, listen to NPR, and get breakfast ready. We try to go for a walk every day in the morning before the school and work day begins, so that we’re outside of the apartment at least once a day. We stick to the residential area by us where we barely see anyone else, and if we do, they’re also wearing masks and stay at a distance.
David and Soli extend their walk so Santi and I can head upstairs and begin the school day. For the first few weeks, we were doing most of the remote schooling at the desk in his room, but recently moved ourselves to the kitchen counter. Not having the distraction of his toys has helped improve the school portion of the day.
Now that we’re home all the time, we’ve tried to make some changes to better suit the way we are living. Soli’s room was never built as a real bedroom since she arrived on the scene post-renovation. It had an open entryway to the living room with no door. We had always planned to one day put up a wall but didn’t get around to it. In order to not disturb her naptime, and to allow us to spend some evening time in the living room, our current quick fix is putting up soundproof curtains we keep closed when she’s sleeping. It’s turned out to be pretty convenient because when the curtains are open the kids are able to run laps through her room and the rest of the apartment to burn some energy. Santi’s personal record is 32 laps.
Even though we’ve been in the apartment for a few years, our never-ending project is framing and putting up artwork. We still have some spots needing something, we just have to find the time to go through our flat-file and make some choices.
Even though we are home all of the time, spare time is something that’s gone out the window! David’s current project is fixing up the terrace. While we’re envious of people in houses with outdoor space, we are so grateful for this sanctuary where we can get some fresh air. It’s definitely getting a lot of usage as it gets warmer, and luckily David has a very green thumb.
That green thumb is also evident in the many, many houseplants we have throughout the apartment! He’s admitted he may have a plant problem.
I used to lament that we were such “stuff” people. We are obviously not minimalists! We have a lot of stuff, every single item has a story, and it all “sparks joy,” so there’s no getting rid of anything.
Lately all of our stuff has led to fun conversations with the kids. “Why do we have a napkin in a frame?” and we can tell them about the time we met Mick Jagger and got his autograph. “Who is Victori and why is there a painting of him on the wall?” and we go into a long story about our honeymoon in Cuba. “Why do you have a big Pepsi sign in your room?” and we show them videos of a wild public art performance we were a part of.
Our stuff is also a way to keep connected to friends and family. Many of the weavings we have were made by my mom, there are paintings by David’s mom, and there is a lot of artwork by friends we also miss so much.
We are still finding the balance between working from home, remote school, and toddler education. We have a schedule we try to stick to, but it doesn’t always work out. Every day is both different and the same. Some days go smoothly and some days don’t.
I think it’s very human and appropriate to have multidimensional feelings about the situation. We have a newfound appreciation for our apartment while at the same time we are jealous of people with a yard. We are extremely thankful for the privilege of working from home, while sometimes struggling with trying to get everything done successfully. We feel really fortunate to both have jobs right now, a comfortable home, food, our health, and be able to be with our kids.
We’ve experienced unemployment in recent years and it’s a stress I do not wish upon anyone, which makes us extra thankful. It horrifies me to know that millions of people are experiencing that anguish combined with this COVID stress.
That said, it’s still a challenging experience. Everyone’s own version of reality has been rocked and everyone is going through their own struggle. There are so many feelings!
Public Art Fund is in the unique position of having exhibitions on view outdoors and being “open,” unlike many cultural institutions at the moment, and we have new shows planned in the coming months. That combined with so much emphasis on the digital realm right now makes it a very busy time, sometimes even more so than usual.
It’s been heartwarming to know we are providing some sort of solace for the public, whether they see our work while on a social distance stroll or experience us online. We have such a wonderful, dedicated staff keeping so many things going. It’s a certain kind of person that decides to work at a nonprofit making art accessible to all, and I really miss my talented, kind coworkers.
The hardest part of it all is remote schooling (<- emphasis here), while also entertaining a toddler who doesn’t understand why we’re all home but can’t play all day, while also getting our own jobs done. It’s incredibly challenging and nothing could have prepared me for this, but I wish I had accepted early on that it wouldn’t all be smooth sailing.
Beyond the juggle of playing so many roles at once, another challenging aspect is moderating the emotions of four people at four different stages in life experiencing this in four different ways in a manner that is both empathetic and keeps all of our relationships healthy. David and I are adults who can express our feelings, but Santi and Soli don’t have that emotional vocabulary yet, and their frustrations come out in different ways. It’s really hard for them to understand why David and I are home all day but can’t play with them all day, and certainly that fills us with guilt too.
As hard as some moments are, it’s also because we’re with our two little ones 24/7 that we’ve been able to experience some pure joy in all of this. There are big laughs and big hugs to be had and I feel so lucky to have that.
It’s also been a chance to see some of their milestones first hand. As a working mom, sometimes you feel like you are missing out on so much. During this time, I’ve seen Soli’s language skills soar, she’s switched from a crib to toddler bed, and has turned into an enthusiastic painter. Santi has turned into a voracious reader and master of board games who now continually beats me at Connect Four.
We get to listen to a lot of records together (even more so than we did already). It is rarely silent in the apartment, not just because we have two energetic children, but because we usually have a record on or music video playing. Our dance parties are pretty epic, we even threw David a “psychedelic balloon party” for his birthday.
When coming from work pre-COVID, I would walk-sprint home from our subway stop and giddily say, “I’m so happy to see you” when I saw my loves, and now I say it to them as they awake and we begin our days.
I certainly appreciate things in a different way, including our city. I can’t believe that one day we may hear the sound of a bustling restaurant or a subway busker.
New York is a tough place full of tough people who have been through a lot. We’re resilient, opinionated, and found ways to come back after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy in my adult life alone. Even in “normal” times, the city can find ways to kick you when you’re down. Then there’s a magical NYC moment that makes you forget all of that. What makes those magical moments are the people, and that’s what’s missing right now.
Fortunately, we get a few minutes of magic every evening at 7pm when we go out onto the terrace and clap, scream, blow whistles, and shake bells with our neighbors. It’s the highlight of our day and will be one of the best memories when we come out of this one day. From a parenting standpoint, that 7pm tribute is a way for us to explain to the kids that everyone has a role and a contribution to make to society, and that we’re clapping for the bus drivers, and delivery people, and supermarket employees who are too often overlooked.
Aside from our city, we are also missing nature. We usually spend a lot of time exploring beaches to the east and mountains to the north. We would love to be able to find more of a balance of all of that in our lives if this eventually settles down
Like other moms have recently said here, I hope we as a society become more empathetic and attuned to other people’s struggles, needs, and dreams, and realize it’s to everyone’s benefit to lift each other up.
The country’s inequities are on display in this pandemic. The Black community is suffering from COVID at terrifyingly disproportionate rates, Latinos make up 34% of NYC’s COVID deaths, the Navajo nation has the third-highest per capita rate of COVID-19, Anti-Asian descrimination is on the rise, children are falling behind in their education because they cannot learn remotely due to lack of access to internet and devices, the pandemic is being used as an excuse to deport children, the list goes on.
The question going forward is whether we as a society look at ourselves in the mirror and take action to change our reflection, or if we will continue to look the other way. I really hope it’s the former. “Normal” was not great for everyone, and this is our chance to work together towards a just future.
Something special that has happened during this time at home is that Santiago and Marisol have formed an even stronger bond. They’re able to play together, they have someone to chase around when I’m tired, Santi can read to her, and they are an adorably mischievous twosome. They were a little too quiet the other day and I thought “Oh no, what has happened?!” But I then found them huddled in their blanket fort and “reading” together with their stuffed animals.
Being with the kids every day has taught me and David just how much they absorb (spoiler: it’s A LOT). Hearing us on work calls all the time, even Soli has started to speak like us, and she is barely two! We’ll ask her something she’ll reply with “Of course. No problem.”
They’re also absorbing our approach to the pandemic. If Santi sees someone not wearing a mask he’ll tell us, “They should really care about other people. That’s not kind.” Like most parents, we think our kids are super smart and wonderful. And that’s great, but more than anything, I hope we are forming two empathic, kind, caring, curious people.
I hope they remember our home as a place to explore curiosities and creativity. That this is a place of warmth, silliness, and trust. From this sheltering in place, I hope they remember the time we threw Santi’s friend Ernie (a stuffed animal sea otter) a birthday party and lit a candle on a fishstick as we sang Happy Birthday, when we ended the days dancing to “Groove is in the Heart,” and made more sun prints than we thought possible.
I hope they forget the frustration of being stuck inside and asked to be quiet while mom or dad is on a conference call. But I do hope they remember our colleagues’ smiling faces when they did drop in on a Zoom call.
My absolute favorite thing about living with my kids is living with my kids. They make everything better and I believe being in this parenting journey makes me a better person as well.
I cherish their cuddles and giggles. David and I used to wonder how we could get them to stop getting into bed with us, but we now adore it as we realize nothing lasts forever. Now that there is no line between home, school, and work, we are more grateful than ever for the weekends, when it’s 100% just the four of us enjoying each other’s company. Watching cartoons in bed Saturday mornings with our little loves is one of my great pleasures in life and I’m sometimes nostalgic for it as it happens.
I wish someone had told me “Nobody told me there’d be days like these,” but wait, John Lennon said that a while back! He even followed up with “Strange days indeed.”
But in all seriousness, I wish someone had told me, “Sometimes there are no answers, but you will find your way.” This came to me when Santi recently asked me, “ When will Coronavirus be over?” As a parent, you want to have all of the answers for your children, and right now, we don’t (do you ever, though?). In answering that question, we ended up having a big heart to heart and his demeanor shows it was some sort of relief. We will not always have the answers, but what we can do is love each other fiercely and try to put all of that fierce love out into the world
Thank you, Nora! Doesn’t Nora seem like your cool NYC friend who is smart and artsy and always knows the best restaurants and places to go in town? What I love most about Nora’s home is that there is art everywhere you look and she talks about how one of their quarantine projects was to get more art framed. Amazing! I love the idea that everything in this house sparks joy and that the kids are asking questions about where it came from and what it means. That’s exactly how I want my house to be — full of interesting things that I love.
Nora described her house as a place of “warmth, silliness and trust.” I love that. I love that our homes can be the place where I kids feel totally free to be goofy and silly and learn to feel comfortable in their own skin. That way when they go out into the world they can be themselves and know that they’ve got a safe place to land.
What kind of things do you do to help your kids be safe and silly? What strategies help them know they have a safe place to land at home?
Kid’s Eames Style chairs
Heller Design dishes
Bob Dylan art
A Tribe Called Quest Lyric prints
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