Putting together today’s home tour was a really lovely experience. I get to introduce you to Joy Thompson, an Los Angeles native raising her daughter with her husband, just outside of Pasadena. I get to show you her positively beautiful home, which is spacious and bright and charming. But mostly, I get to read her smart and thoughtful words about parenting, being intentional, slowing down and raising thoughtful kids. I found it genuinely inspiring and it gave me a lot to think about as I go about my normal business of planning meals, folding laundry and getting my kids through homework. Welcome, Joy!
We are a family of three — myself, my husband, Robert, and our 3-year-old daughter, Zadie. Oh, and our Bichon (a rescue from South Dakota named Asher Lev) makes four. Robert and I are both Los Angeles natives, growing up in different suburbs north of LA.
I am an editor working in higher education…I actually just changed jobs from a nearby university to the grad school where I received my master’s degree. It was a really good change — I love my school, what it stands for, and I love being part of their creative department. We crank out an award-winning magazine three times a year, as well as articles, podcasts, and videos online.
My dad likes to remind me that when I was four years old, I used to say I wanted to be an editor (what 4-year-old wants to be an editor?) and that now, I’m doing it! I took quite a circuitous route, earning a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies and then a master’s in theology. But while I was working on my master’s, I landed a work study position as an editorial assistant for the institution. I’d always had natural writing and editing ability, and in this job I had a supervisor who really took me under her wing and taught me a ton.
Those three years of part-time work were enough on my resume to get a job later at a magazine, then a university, and just a couple of months ago, that supervisor decided to retire early and recommended me as her replacement — almost exactly 10 years after I started working for her.
I’m still a little stunned by the turn of events but feel really grateful. Also, for fun, I write articles and essays for various websites, and send out a biweekly newsletter called “Midweek Joy.”
Robert is a structural engineer and pretty much the opposite of the stereotypical engineer. He’s extroverted and outdoorsy, was on the cycling team in college and continued riding for a long time, and is now training for a trail run to the top of nearby Mount Wilson. I will admit, though, it’s nice to rely on his engineering sensibilities whenever we order furniture that needs to be assembled!
Robert and I actually met a long time ago, when he was 16 and I was 19. I was helping out in the youth group at our church; he was one of the youth! Don’t worry, nothing happened. As a college student, I viewed him as a little boy. But we both continued to attend our church in Los Angeles, however sporadically, and crossed paths every few years in between school and travels.
When I was 26, I saw him for the first time in a while at church and he had a full beard and a little bit of a wild look about him. I went over to catch up and asked where he’d been. “Africa,” he replied, and I said, “You look like you’ve been in Africa!” We laughed, sparks flew, and suddenly he was a “man” to me. We both fell hard and quickly.
A couple of months after that conversation we had our first date (a hike in the Santa Monica mountains in perfect December weather; he packed a picnic!), then 364 days later, we got married under an oak tree, again in perfect December California weather.
Even though we’d known each other a long time, and had many mutual friends, we didn’t really know each other, and our first year of marriage was awful! Thankfully we chose to do the work, grow up (a lot) and we’ve come a long way. Seven years in, I’m happy to say that I am glad I chose him, and I’m thankful he’s my partner in life!
Zadie is our 3-year-old. The words that first come to mind when I think of Zadie: wild, hilarious, whip-smart, outgoing, spunky, expressive, confident. Oh, to have the self-esteem of a 3-year-old! One of her favorite activities is looking at herself in the mirror, making faces and striking poses or doing dances. The other day she was doing that, then said with satisfaction, “I’m pretty.” Yes, you are, sweet girl.
She looks a bit like me (that good ol’ square face I got from my mom!) but her personality is so much like my husband. She’s got so much energy, is very extroverted, stubborn yet charming, knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it (or get it herself), and very physical. She loves to just run around and try out different things with her body, like striking poses like Maui from Moana, walking “like a spider,” or doing ballerina leaps. Even as a child, I’ve been more comfortable in my head than in my body, so Zadie’s way of being in the world is fascinating (and delightful) to me.
There is one way she seems to take after me: from a very young age, she has been super verbal! Her language and conversation skills are pretty great for a 3-year-old, and she’s definitely in that “kids say the darndest things” age right now. It’s also really fun to see her sense of humor develop. The other day we were riding in the car with our dog and she asked, “Asher, do you want to come in the backseat with me?”. He made a funny noise, like a cross between a whine and a yawn, and she deadpanned: “Is that a yes?
We live in the San Gabriel Valley, about 12 miles east of Pasadena, California. Our house is practically on the border of two small towns that are actually quite different. One is a mainly working-class, Latino community; the other is mainly white and affluent. We’re in a funny no-man’s land, situated next to a university and a large community college. We don’t have any real neighbors; we’re surrounded by schools and a mobile home park on the other side of a wall.
It’s fun living in a college town; there’s young people all over the place and a ton of energy. We live right at the base of the San Gabriel mountains and have beautiful views of the mountains, as well as easy access to hiking and mountain biking trails (which my husband takes advantage of much more than I do!).
The dining options are a bit weak, considering we are in the Los Angeles area. You can get great Mexican food, and of course there’s lots of chain restaurants, but we were spoiled in our last place in Highland Park (Los Angeles) where there were amazing restaurants, coffee shops, and bars within walking distance of our apartment.
Here, there’s a little mom-and-pop grocery store that has a wonderful deli counter and salad bars; it’s a bit of a local watering hole where you always run into someone you know, which I love! There’s also a “main street” type of area in both towns with a few good options, but nothing to write home about. And there is ONE craft coffee shop, which is simply not enough for us!
One of the best parts of our location is that we are walking distance to the Metro line, which goes straight into Pasadena, where we both work, and goes on into downtown LA. (Yes! People do take public transport in LA!) Robert and I switch off driving and taking our daughter to school, while the other gets to ride the train into work and have “me time” to listen to podcasts or read and not fight traffic. Even though we don’t live in the city, LA-area houses are crazy expensive. For a very modest house in our area, you’d have to spend at least $500-600k. Sadly, I don’t see us owning a home anytime soon…I mean, it’s pretty hard to save up the $100k you’d need for a decent down payment!
We were living in an apartment in Highland Park before we lived here. It was three bedrooms, and our good friend was our roommate. It was not ideal. Last winter, I started looking around at other apartments closer to Pasadena that we could afford without a roommate. Even though our lease wouldn’t be up for another 5 months, I thought it would be a good idea to get an idea of the rental market, so we’d know a good deal when we were ready and could jump on it (good stuff goes FAST around here, especially dog-friendly places).
On a whim, I decided to look in the area of my office (about a half hour drive from Pasadena) and found this house. It looked like a cute freestanding house, and it was only a mile from my office. I knew I’d driven past that area a million times, but couldn’t remember ever seeing a house there. Curious, I thought I’d see it on my lunch break. To my surprise, there was a beautiful, Spanish-style (my favorite!) house across the street from the university I worked for. Not only that, it had been vacant for two years while the owner renovated it, completely remodeling the kitchen and bathroom and installing new flooring.
The house was far bigger than it had looked in the photos, and it turned out it was sitting on half an acre of land! That’s simply unheard of in our area. I knew if I got my husband out to see it, he’d fall in love too. Of course he did, but we were leaving the next day for a week-long family cruise, and did I mention our lease wasn’t up for another 5 months? I think our landlord liked us (maybe because we’d oohed and aahed over his handiwork so much), and he was super gracious and basically let us push the move-in date until April, which was doable for us. It still feels like a bit of a dream that we get to live here!
When I walk in my home —or rather, when I pull into the driveway — I most often feel grateful. Going from a cramped apartment that we shared with a roommate; living on the third floor with a toddler (have you ever had to walk up and down three flights of stairs with a 2-year-old multiple times a day?); having no outdoor space to speak of (we literally played tag in the parking garage downstairs)…all of this made me so immensely grateful for a home of our own with a beautiful yard where we can play.
The space in my home is something that stands out to me almost every day. I love the way the walls curve up into high ceilings, I love the many windows in the living room and my daughter’s room, I love all of the white space on our walls.
When I thought of taking photos of the house for Living With Kids, I felt insecure about how we have many empty corners and empty walls, but then I realized that kind of white space is important to me and my mental health. I’m not a minimalist, but I’m certainly not a maximalist and I hate clutter! Gretchen Rubin asks, “Would you rather be empty or full?” and I’d certainly rather be empty, and rather be in an empty-feeling room than a full-feeling one. Also, our backyard is super peaceful. I love sitting out there (at my last job I was close enough to come home for lunch and eat in the backyard!) and just looking up at the eucalyptus trees.
All that to say, I do feel like it’s really hard for me to *truly* relax at home because there is always something to do! It’s just my personality, to see all the things that must get done and not want to play or rest until it’s all taken care of. (If my husband is out for the evening, I’ll put my daughter to bed, do the dishes, clean the kitchen, put on my pajamas and even get ready for bed before finally sitting down to eat my own dinner and relax!)
The problem is, once I had a child, the list of things that needs to get done never ends! So sometimes my own expectations of what I need to accomplish or clean or put away ends up feeling like the walls are closing in on me. I think that’s why I often have wanderlust and want to start planning a trip — being away from home is the only way I can really escape my inner to-do list and rest and play like I want to! We recently spent a night at a resort in Laguna Beach, about an hour south of us, and I felt more present in those 24 hours than I had in a long time.
We have always been renters, as we are renting our home now. As I mentioned, it feels like a pipe dream to think of owning something in L.A. Of course, I have some friends who own their homes, but a lot of us still rent. The majority of friends I have who are homeowners received substantial help from their parents. We were so discouraged by this several years ago that we decided to move from L.A. to Denver, hoping life in Colorado would have a slower pace and be more sustainable financially.
It was so crazy to see couples in their young twenties, or single friends in their thirties, buying their first homes! It was just what you did. But we weren’t crazy about the culture in Denver and realized we are true Californians at heart. Also, I became pregnant after our first year there and had Zadie in Denver, then realized that being near family now that we had a little one was more important than anything else to us. It’s just too bad that our families live in one of the most expensive places in the U.S.!
Honestly, though, I kind of like renting. If I don’t let myself get too anxious about our financial future (I mean, it would so nice to have a paid-off house once we are retired!), I actually feel like renting is so much less stressful, as long as you have a good landlord, which we do! Sure, we can’t build an extra bathroom onto our house (which would be AMAZING), but if something breaks, he walks over to take a look that same day, and then makes whatever calls necessary to fix it. Also, landscaping is included in our rent, so we don’t have to worry our pretty little heads about keeping up our huge yard! Of course it’s scary to think he might raise the rent on us, etc., but we just try to be good tenants and hopefully he’ll keep being good to us.
Going from an apartment (did I mention that we had a roommate?!) in the city to a house in the suburbs is a pretty shocking change. I actually wrote about it (for a site called No Sidebar) last year, because even though in some ways the move was a no-brainer, we still had to work through moving from a vibrant, interesting, cool neighborhood to a pretty uncool suburb! But having space and privacy and a yard when you have a toddler and a dog kind of trumps everything else.
I really miss being super close to neighbors like you are in an apartment building. It makes me feel safe, like someone will hear me scream if something terrible happens, or if there’s an earthquake we can all help take care of each other. We had some great neighbors that we really got to know at our last apartment and it was fun that they were watching Zadie grow up. But I’d much rather have the space like we do now to entertain friends and have barbecues and parties.
Since we moved to this house we’ve become more of the default location for family gatherings (on my husband’s side) and dinners with friends, which works great for me because then we don’t have to mess with my daughter’s bedtime!
I’m not going to lie, being a working mom is so tough. But I stayed home with my daughter until she was 14 months old, and for my personality, staying home with a child is even tougher than the juggling act of working motherhood!
When I was agonizing over the decision of whether to return to the workforce, my sister (who is a physician’s assistant with three young kids) said, “Would you rather be at home all day, wishing you could escape from your kid? Or at work all day, missing your kid?” That might seem like a negative way of putting it, but it really helped me.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was dealing with some pretty bad postpartum depression, and I truly did want to escape most of the time. In the late afternoons, I’d often meet up with a friend who had a baby the same age as mine, and we’d “run out the clock” together till my husband came home to take over.
Now, as a working mom, I’m excited to see my daughter at the end of the day and to spend time with her on weekends. I think being a working mom has made me a very present parent. I don’t want to be on my phone when I’m with my daughter; I want to make the most of our time together.
Also, it’s helped me have a different picture of motherhood. When I was staying at home with Zadie and we were together all the time, I didn’t know that motherhood could look like something different than constant care and togetherness.
People say weird things about putting kids in daycare, like, “I don’t want strangers raising my child,” and things like that, which used to scare me, because honestly, Zadie’s preschool teachers are with her for more waking hours a week than I am! But now I know that my role as Zadie’s mother is more than just the act of caregiving. I’m her safe space and her advocate, the person who knows her best and will literally do anything for her (I heard one mom say, “There is no call too embarrassing or awkward that I wouldn’t make for my son”). I’m her home.
My mom superpower is intentionality. I have an intentional, introspective personality and I’m really research driven. I feel like I use those things to make thought-out choices about everything from sleep training methods to choosing a school to discipline techniques. With Zadie only being 3 years old, we are still very much in the “care and feeding of” phase of parenting, but I think my intentional approach will serve us well as she gets older, too.
I read a lot of parenting books and while some parents might be turned off by gleaning advice, or it might make them feel more anxious than just going with their gut, I feel a lot of confidence from gathering a ton of information and then making my own decisions based on that. It’s not like I subscribe to one philosophy and just blindly follow it. But having thought through a lot of my parenting choices makes me feel confident in them, rather than anxious.
I’m also intentional in building my relationship with Zadie. One of the things I want her to know, always, is how much I like her. How much I delight in her presence, just as she is. I make a point to show that to her and to tell her often how much I love just being around her, how I feel lucky to be her mom.
I’ve also been thinking about how I want to be a safe, listening ear for her always. If she makes a huge mistake, I hope she feels like she can come to me and talk about it. So now is the time to start building the foundation for a relationship like that. (Example: the other night after her bath, she snuck into the kitchen and grabbed a handful brownie straight from the pan, then ran to hide and eat it! We made sure to tell her that, although we didn’t want her to eat a brownie right after she brushed her teeth, she never had to hide what she eats from us!)
I love that Zadie is such a naturally strong and independent girl; I intend to encourage that in her as much as possible. We’ve been reading and talking lately about private parts and about how she is the boss of her body. One of her favorite things is quoting a line from one of those books, at the top of her lungs: “THIS IS MY BODY, AND WHAT I SAY GOES!” It’s a bit annoying when we have to help her get into a carseat and are met with that line, but it’s totally worth it to see my little girl already developing such strong body autonomy!
I also think we’re pretty intentional about family culture. I’m trying to think through this even now, about how we will spend family vacations (we just signed up for our first family camp this summer!), what our weekends will feel like, how we might want to celebrate birthdays and holidays. Of course everything can change and flux as Zadie gets older and all of our needs and preferences change. But I love the idea of a family culture and that we get to create one that works for us.
For instance, it’s important to my husband and me that we aren’t always running around, or that our schedule isn’t packed to the gills. If we have something on Saturday afternoon, we’re not going to make plans for the evening. We like to have downtime at home, especially since we are all at work and school during the week.
Also, recently, we’ve started talking about our “Thompson Family Motto,” which is “We are brave, kind, and creative!” It’s been really fun to watch Zadie memorize that and also start working the “brave” and “creative” parts into her vocabulary and choices. Kindness seems to be bringing up the rear. ;) It’s cute because Zadie is at the age where she’s really into the sense of family.
A year ago we went on a trip to Florida, and in preparation she watched Daniel Tiger’s “Family Trip” special, where the family keeps singing a little jingle: Tiger family trip! Naturally, we sang “Thompson family trip!” a million times that week, but now it’s morphed to be everything from “Thompson family dinner!” to “Thompson family taking-the-trash-out!” It’s pretty cute.
Selfishly, I hope my daughter forgets the times I’ve yelled and lost my patience with her. But honestly, how would that help her when she becomes a mom and feels like a monster for yelling at her kids, if she can’t remember me messing up and figuring out how to make things right?
I have a friend who is a therapist and she said that it’s been proven kids remember the repair more than the blowup, fight, etc. So hopefully if I keep making a point to apologize, ask forgiveness, and work things out after they’ve gone off the rails, that’s what she’ll remember most.
However, I do hope she forgets the time, a couple of months ago, I accidentally locked her in the car! (Thank God it was a Sunday morning and we have AAA!)
I hope she remembers this house, and our home/family, as a place where she felt secure in every single way. Where she knew she was loved, knew what was expected of her, knew she could mess up and fail and try new things. I hope she remembers the way the sun looked setting behind the eucalyptus trees, and the way our dog, Asher, did the “Bichon Buzz” around the living room.
I hope she remembers going across the street to run freely on the university lawn, and the million times we ate dinner outside together, and the many times we spread a blanket on the living room floor next to the window and had a family picnic breakfast on a Saturday morning, looking out at the San Gabriel mountains.
I hope she remembers doing wild somersaults off the couch and making up crazy dances to no music. I hope she remembers squatting in the dirt and digging through the mud without a care in the world, and what it felt like to have the house full of friends or family.
In some ways, what I love about living with my child is what I hate about living with my child: the narrowness or smallness of my life right now. A small child really limits your options of what you can do in a day, what with their nap schedule, attention span, and penchant for tantrums if the schedule is filled with too many errands and not enough playgrounds.
But that’s also helped us slow down and simplify. It’s OK to have no plans on a Saturday; between a grocery run in the morning and maybe a trip to the park in the afternoon, your toddler’s needs and playful whims somehow magically fill in the gaps.
While mothering an infant was incredibly hard for me, I sometimes find myself missing the single-focus aspect of being a nursing, stay-at-home mother. My job was clear: keep my baby alive, fed, loved. If I was at a coffee shop, at a friend’s house, at Target, with my baby strapped to me, everyone could see I had a clear purpose. It was an interesting season.
And of course I love the hits of joy and oxytocin I get all the time from my sweet girl. The squishyness of her cheeks and her little tushie, her hilarious facial expressions and super weird dance moves, the way she loves to snuggle up while watching Moana or reading books at bedtime, saying super sweet things; like the other morning when I went into her room, she immediately sat up in her crib and said, “I had a good dream!” I asked, “What did you dream about?” and she said, “Hugging.”
There was a great article out a couple of months ago that I linked to in my newsletter, “To All the Moms I’ve Ignored Before” by Meaghan O’Connell for The Cut. She so perfectly articulated how impossible it is for a woman, pre-motherhood, to really grasp how hard it is to be a new mom.
Mothers who have gone before you try to warn, give advice, offer their war stories and hacks, but you just can’t hear it. O’Connell said, “You will tweet something along the lines of ‘Having a baby is hard, guys. No one talks about this,’ and one of us will say, not to you but to each other, ‘IN FACT WE TALK ABOUT THIS PRETTY MUCH CONSTANTLY AND HAVE BEEN FOR YEARS.’
My sisters had babies before me, and sisters don’t mince words. One sister had her baby almost exactly a year before me, and she had the works: emergency c-section, colicky baby, postpartum depression and anxiety. But I hoped against hope I’d have the natural birth I’d been training for like one trains for a marathon. I hoped I’d have an easy baby (to be honest, I kind of did), and that maybe I’d actually love being a mother, that the shift from adult life with no kids that I’d been living for a decade would be seamless, a joy.
No such luck.
My other sister said, “Becoming a mother is like having every single cell of your body change,” and it’s true. I believed her when she said it, but I could only really experience it after it happened to me.
Now, we discuss friends who are about to have a baby, wondering how they’ll take to motherhood, how they’ll manage the transition, and my sister said that to her, a woman pregnant with her first child is like a person standing on railroad tracks with a train rushing toward them. There’s no escaping the way motherhood blows up your life.
I guess I wish someone would have told me that, yes, having a baby is really hard and your life feels like it will never be the same, and it might be the very hardest thing you’ve ever done. But that the grieving for your old life does end, and the feeling that you lost yourself can dissipate, if you do the work, and that, in some cases (like mine), antidepressants are your friend, so get thee to a therapist.
There’s also something that people try to tell you about motherhood that’s impossible to articulate: just how special it is. I didn’t think I’d like being a mother because I don’t like feeling needed. I’ve never liked babies or small children. Yet, it’s so much more than being needed. It’s about being someone’s center. Their fulcrum.
I didn’t know it was possible to have my heart swell with love and joy as many times a day as it does now. I didn’t know it was possible to love a child so much that I lie awake thinking about her, feeling almost the same rush as you do when you’re falling in love with somebody.
I didn’t know how mothering a daughter would feel like a sacred, almost primal, privilege, a duty to pass on what I know about being a woman to the next generation, that even the things I’m learning about mothering at this moment can one day be a gift to her if she becomes a mother.
One of the most amazing parts of being a parent is being a witness to a person’s becoming. Knowing a child from their larvae-like state at the beginning and watching every part of their being come slowly into the picture, like watching a Polaroid develop over years; it’s astounding.
Thank you, Joy! What a beautiful home and family. Can you imagine trying to raise a toddler and share a home with a roommate? I know Joy’s is not the first family to have to do that, but it must be very challenging. I’m so happy for them to have the space to spread out and a yard to run around in. And I love that the home has so much light. It must make a huge difference.
I was so struck by so many of the things that Joy said about parenting too. The joys and struggles and challenges and how we’re sort of all in this together but we don’t always see the other parents and what they might be going through. There is a really beautiful brilliance in embracing and enjoying the smallness and narrowness of how your life feels while raising a child. And I loved what she said about being an intentional parent. Parenting is so exhausting and all consuming it can be really easy to go through the motions. Being reminded to be intentional and present is so helpful.
What do you do to be an intentional parent? How do you stay in the moment and stay present with your kids? Do you think it is Ok to sometimes NOT be present and intentional? How do you make the distinction?
Woven chairs (similar)
Photo credit to Justus Milhon (home) and Shyla Photography (family.) You can follow Joy on IG, her blog or sign up for her newsletter. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.
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