I first heard of Monica on her amazing podcast, About Progress, when she interviewed a good friend of mine. I was impressed then with her thoughtful, caring, vulnerable style of questioning, and I am even more impressed with her now after getting to know her a bit in this week’s home tour interview.
Monica, her husband, and their four children, live in a 1200 sq. ft. home in a Bay Area suburb. Despite it being a tight space for a family of six, Monica has a great eye and has filled it with charm. I think you’ll love the attention to detail. On top of that, Monica’s wisdom about letting go of perfectionism is quite powerful.
It’s just the kind of empowering pick-me-up you might need on a hot summer day when your kitchen floor is covered with sticky, melted-popsicle foot prints (just me?), and you are counting the days until the kids go back to school. Welcome Monica to Living With Kids!
Living With Kids: Monica Packer
Hi, I’m Monica! I am 32 years old and live in the San Francisco East Bay Area. My husband (35) and I technically met while in college, but our moms were friends growing up and college roommates (my sister is named after his mom). Brad grew up in California, and I in Utah, and while I do have pictures of me with some of his siblings in Disneyland, we don’t remember ever crossing paths. I laugh that it’s close to an arranged marriage.
We moved to San Francisco right after we got married, and we’ve been here now for 10.5 years, much to the sadness of my six siblings and parents who all live in the same county — and I miss them every day! We lived in Alameda (a neighborhood across the bridge from San Francisco) for 5 years, where I was a middle school English/History teacher, and we have lived in Walnut Creek (a suburb a little further out) for almost 6 years now.
Brad has always worked in San Francisco in accounting, and is currently with a start-up hedge fund. His commute could be worse — it’s around 50 minutes. He leaves extra early and is now home for dinner, which has been life-changing! Brad rides his bike to the BART station, so we’re happily a one-car (well, minivan) family. I’m mostly a stay-at-home mama, but am also a podcaster and founder of a little community called About Progress. I loooooooove baking and interior design. Our home has been a reflection of my years of design experiments — and mistakes!
We have four kids, who go by nicknames on the internet. Bear is our 7 year old daughter who is seriously brilliant. She has been through a lot being the highly sensitive genius that she is, but I’m so proud of the progress she’s made in her life. She will talk to you for HOURS about koalas and marine life, but is also incredibly creative with art and writing. The cheapskate in me is so happy she’s not princess-obsessed : )
Her 5 year old brother Bus has been built-in exposure therapy. He is allllll about noise and pushing buttons. Bus also loves intensely and makes friends everywhere we go in about .2 seconds. His r’s are still rounded and I love them, as well as his freckles.
Bean just turned 3 and is happy to be wherever his big brother is. He has such a sensitive heart and is my little twin. He is fond of chewing out strangers and cuddling up on my lap to read anything Star Wars.
Belly is our 5 month old baby boy who is an absolute joy. He went through unexpected emergency surgery on his intestines at 9 days old, but is doing really well, although it was touch and go for a bit. He is attached to my hip and stares at my face all day long.
We are a family of PERSONALITIES, which largely comes from me, I guess — but people might be surprised just how much of Brad is in the kids. We absolutely love living in Walnut Creek. We live in a 1,280 sq feet rambler built in 1949, in a small neighborhood of homes that are similar enough in style that most people accidentally knock on our neighbor’s door when they mean to come to ours. We love that there is a lot of diversity where we live and acceptance of others. We are LDS, and I also thrive off of the more open LDS church culture we have in the Bay Area.
There are a TON of kids on our street — almost 40 — which is rare for where we live. We feel so lucky to have neighbors who love our kids and us theirs. There is a fantastic downtown with all the shopping you could imagine, but even better: running/biking trails that go every which way for miles and miles. You can go hiking in 10 minutes from our home. There’s so much to explore — from spending time outdoors, to making treks into nearby Berkeley and San Francisco.
For years, my brother constantly asked if we go to the beach all the time, but the answer is no. Only on reallllly hot days, and mostly to Alameda, which is a beach on the bay so its small waves are Perfect for kids. Northern California is totally my scene as it’s equal parts hippy, intellectual, family, and outdoors.
The only drag to living here is how expensive it is. Milk is almost $4 a gallon. Our grocery and preschool bills make my siblings’ jaws drop. Want to know the house prices? We got a STEAL almost 6 years ago for our little fixer upper at 475K. Yes, a steal. Doesn’t that make you a little sick? Right now, our home is worth almost 800K without even considering the improvements we’ve made.
With these prices though, that means to get a home with even one more bathroom we are looking at at least a million, and that would be a major fixer upper too. So, we are either in this home for forever and we’ll add on if necessary, or we leave California altogether. Who knows, at this point! The homes in our neighborhood have been selling mostly in the 800-900Ks.
We bought this house just as home prices were beginning an upswing after the Recession. Our budget started in the mid 300s, but over the course of the year we searched, prices rose higher and higher. We were outbid by 100K several times, with all-cash offers. Luckily, Brad got a raise just in time for us to snag our house, which honestly we could NOT have gotten even a month later at the same price. It was not easy to buy a home then, but it’s even harder now. Most of our friends rent, and pay more for a 2 bedroom apartment, than we do for our three bedroom house.
We saved allllll our pennies for years and only just redid the kitchen, with half of the work DIYed by ourselves. We hadn’t had a dishwasher in the 10 years we were married, so bringing a fourth child in made us do desperate things to make our home more functional. Work in the bathroom is definitely still needed, as the 70+ year tile is cracking, and I’m sure hiding all sorts of things we don’t want to know about.
We started renovating our kitchen when I was 33 weeks pregnant and finished six months later. (I know…) I can’t even begin to expound all the drama that happened over those six months, including a hugely botched beam, plus plumbing, and electric we had done through a contractor that didn’t pass code. (He was vetted, but not licensed — lesson learned!) We lost so much money on that, it was heartbreaking. We almost didn’t have walls in place before Belly was born, but we got them done just in time.
With a newborn, I painted allllll the (Ikea and Semi-Handmade) cabinets, assembled them, tiled, installed hardware, and more that I can’t even remember right now. We were so glad we hired out what we did — beam, drywall, plumbing, electric, floors, and cabinet/trim installation. The hired out work included a saint of a contractor that fixed the botched things and worked solely on his own. He saved us, and it was seriously a miracle how we found him.
We finally got some running water in our kitchen sink when Belly was about 2 months old, and this was AFTER his emergency surgery.
We probably could have saved 20K doing on the total budget because of the work we did on our own (we also did all the demo and painting), if it hadn’t been for the money we paid for the stuff that had to be redone. So maybe we saved a little over 10K, but I can’t bare to crunch the numbers now.
Weirdly, while it was so stressful going through all of that (I was in labor for weeks, due to immense pressure), I felt stronger emotionally than I ever expected to. Through those testing moments, it proved the strength of our marriage, which is easy to take for granted when things are going well. And it was a reminder that kids are so resilient.
People sometimes ask us why we chose to live in such a small space with such a large family and the truth is, we didn’t really have a choice. Living in the Bay Area makes that choice for us. Many houses here have less square footage than where I grew up. In fact, I remember visiting my first California boyfriend’s house and looking all over for the basement. Hahaha! (I have never been inside of a home in California with a basement!)
However, I absolutely adore living in a small home. For starters, most of the world lives in MUCH smaller spaces, so I count us lucky. I love knowing where my kids are at all times and what they are up to — including the fighting. : ) I enjoy keeping our junk down to a minimum — I drop off things to Salvation Army at least once a month. The kids can clean up the entire house in ten minutes. I can deep clean it all in just an hour or two.
Beyond the practical side, I think it’s been very good for my kids to be forced into tolerating their differences. As I’ve mentioned, they are VERY opposite from each other. While this has been extremely challenging as a parent, it’s also helped their weaknesses in major ways. I believe our kids are closer than they could have been living in a bigger home, as I’m sure they would have taken every opportunity to spend time in separate spaces.
On that same note, it is HARD to never really have a place of your own. My daughter really needs that, so we moved her out of the bunk bed room and into the nursery a few months before her baby brother was born. She craves that space and cries pretty hard when she can’t have her own quiet time for hours, as she’d like (although she definitely gets it as often as possible).
Also, I’d like to not be so stressed about the older kids making noise while the younger ones nap. A sound machine helps for sure, but I’m definitely on edge during naps. Plus, it turns out my oldest boy is very fond of stomping all. over. the. house. All day long.
I’ve learned as I’ve grown older that *surprise, surprise* I’m actually an extroverted-introvert. I need a lot of time to myself to recharge, especially after a day in our little home full of noises and kids in my personal space. My husband typically works out at night, so that’s when I can have some time to myself.
The other thing about having a smaller house, is that storage is also always a running issue. We have to regularly manage what we are keeping and how to do so. But I secretly love that.
Living small has made me a smarter, more practical designer. Things need to be useful AND up to my aesthetic. I enjoy not having permission to store knick-knacks everywhere; most things have either a purpose or are extremely sentimental.
I’ve had to get really creative about where we store things (beyond being mindful of how much we actually keep around). I redid the fireplace to put in some Ikea cabinets on the side, and even a little extra storage goes a long way.
I’ve always designed on an extremely small budget and done most of the work myself — I’ve painted every square inch of my house, some areas up to three times! Up until six months ago, 95% of our home furnishing were from Ikea, Craigslist, free donations from family, or HomeGoods. Our new sofa almost made me puke when I purchased it, but I was able to find great deals on all of our other finds (lots of Black Friday purchases were had before the renovation!). I feel like we’re officially grown ups, now that we have furniture we truly love in the main area of the home.
In a perfect world, I would love an additional bathroom (or even one where the door actually fully closes), and a creative space for me to have a desk/craft zone/workout area. I have an old treadmill that we squeezed into the garage so I can walk there early in the morning with the baby monitor, since Brad leaves to work at 5:30 AM — I would adore having a space for that inside.
Maybe we’ll add on a Master Suite one day and be able to turn the nursery into Mom’s office — that’s the hope! But before that, I’d really like to see the washer and dryer as part of a mud/entrance off the backside of the garage. It hasn’t been terrible having it in the kitchen, but it’s more of a spacing issue. The laundry is opposite of the fridge and it can get tight when you constantly have loads of laundry right in front of where you also need to get to the fridge.
Finally, I would adore having more of a real space for our books. We are all readers. Our books are being stored in boxes in the kids’ rooms, in nightstand drawers in our Master, and in the living room cupboards. If I lived in a bigger home, I’d get a looooong stretch of shelves and fill them up with our books, instead of keeping them mostly out of view.
My podcast About Progress is meant to be a kick in the pants and a hug at the same time. My audience is made up of recovering perfectionists who are learning to navigate the balance of loving themselves WHILE pushing themselves. I was your stereotypical overachieving perfectionist for much of my life, but it caught up to me big time in college and I suffered intensely with eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.
I overcompensated for this for years, and became an underachieving perfectionist who was too afraid to try things, worried that I’d put myself into a dark place again. (I strongly believe that most perfectionists are underachieving perfectionists; both kinds are driven by fear and shame.)
But as a result, after my third child I felt incredibly lost. I didn’t recognize my soul anymore, as I had always been so driven before I started my recovery. I needed to push myself again. This began with me making a 30-before-I-turn-30 bucket list, including things like “Make 30 new recipes” and “Start a blog.”
So I started the blog I had thought about for the eight years prior, but never had the faith in myself to try, and it was all over the place — fashion, food, decorating, DIY, body positivity, heart-wrenching essays, long posts on my faith struggles, etc. — but all with progress, not perfection in mind. Somehow, it led to my podcast! It’s been almost 2 years, I’ve interviewed well over 100 people, and we’re approaching 400K downloads. That might not seem like a lot but I launched with barely 700 followers on Instagram and have done every single thing myself. It’s been a huge learning curve!
Doing this podcast saved me. It has been stressful, anxiety-ridden, and soul-stretching — and EXACTLY what I needed. Through the endless hours I’ve poured into it (all unpaid), I’ve found myself again. I interview people who have achieved in ways great and small; people who have 100K+ in followers and others who aren’t even on Instagram. We chat about all things self-improvement and self-love.
I doubt myself every day and often wonder why the heck I’ve put myself through this, but I keep doing it anyway. Failure could have defined it because growth has been all over the place, and heart-breakingly slow for me at times, but I think it matters to a beautiful community who in turn really matters to me. We learn from each other.
As a result, I’m me again. My passion is to help others find themselves again, too — by ditching perfectionism in all its forms, stepping into their gifts (we all have them!), and making real progress in their lives. A great perk? Adjusting to my fourth child — even though it has been the most challenging year circumstantially of my life — has been far easier of a transition than with my third. I am stable mentally BECAUSE I’ve pushed myself again.
One of my greatest lessons the past two years is that to love yourself is to challenge yourself. Our souls crave creativity and growth. If we deny that to ourselves, due to fear of not measuring up or comparing ourselves to others, we shrink.
People too often thumb up their noses to self-love thinking that it’s giving people permission to be sloppy couch potatoes. I think differently. If you love yourself, you see yourself for all that you are — the good and the bad — then you push yourself to grow so you can truly thrive in your special place in the world. Sometimes that means really owning that you have weaknesses you need to work on. Because you love yourself!
My self-care involves my side hustle. But it also includes being outside every day, listening to a TON of podcasts, intuitive eating, and lots of baking and fiddling with my house. Self-care is feeding your natural interests! Mine are a plenty, and I know it blesses my family to have a mom who is fully alive, even if it involves less laundry being put away and dirty dishes in the sink.
My favorite bit of advice? Own that you — yes, YOU — truly have gifts. I hate that some women struggle with thinking they are the only human born on earth without special gifts of their own. I can be a little bold on this topic, because I think that this is just another way we buy into being a victim. If we are convinced we don’t have gifts, it’s likely that we’re giving ourselves permission to not work to find them or develop them. Also, because of social media, we fall into the trap that our gifts have to be “important” by some worldly definition.
But I believe that if you know you are inherently important, by extension, whatever you do is important. So whether that’s leading a fortune 500 company, or being really good at listening to a 3-year-old’s story, it’s important. In my workshops, I help women reallllly get into what they’re gifted in, and push them to actually develop those gifts. No more excuses!
I hope my kids remember love, love, love. You can read a book to your kids out of resentment, and you can read it out of love. I hope they feel that love, more than anything else. Motherhood did not come naturally to me, much to my surprise. I’ve really had to grow into my role as a mother and I feel that after 7 years I am *finally* just getting it. I might not be good at getting on the ground and playing with my children, but I am SUPER good at reading with them, looking them in the eye, and encouraging the interests they seem to gravitate to. I want to be their greatest cheerleader and always see the good in them.
I hope they forget my many blunders, including my mom tantrums when I mistakenly made the kids responsible for my happiness. I hope they forget the time I threw away all the bubbles because someone poured out bottles of them twice within five minutes on our new rug, and that spilled milk literally made Mom cry a few times. I have chilled out SO much as a parent, and I am proud of that. (Let’s hope they forget when I was my former self.)
I have LOVED seeing what they are naturally into and nourishing that. From praising the art my daughter creates, watching Chopped Jr. and cooking with my five year old, to reading anything Star Wars with the three year old — I absolutely adore encouraging what makes their spirits soar. Alongside that, I enjoy sharing my interests with them. I burst with pride when they ask Alexa to play a musical, when they pull up a stool to bake with me, or when I see them wanting to create things.
I already miss their little voices and little bodies. Children are so innocent and moldable! I know I will miss being able to encompass their whole bodies with a hug, kiss their very soft cheeks, and stare down on their long lashes. The baby-stage has surprised me — I love it more each time, and I mourn them getting older. But as an old middle school teacher, I’m trying to remind myself how fun and weird that phase will be, too. I know I rocked that age, so I hope to find what is beautiful about that stage too, before they leave the nest.
I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to not know what the heck you’re doing. Parenthood doesn’t come with a manual. People say that, but I wish they really pressed that into new parents before they’re allowed to take their newborn home. I mistakenly thought that just because I had given birth to a beautiful human that I would inherently HAVE to understand immediately what it takes to be a good mother, have endless patience, and pure intuition on the exact right thing to do. I have messed up so much as a mom, and I dug into my self-worth as a result each time.
But learning that I have had to grow into this role, and giving myself the grace to do so, has actually made me a far better parent. I’m finally seeing myself as Mom, and feel more empowerment in that position, versus pressure. I know that I can rise up now.
For a long time, all I could see was how I was not measuring up. Now, I know I can do it, and I know being a good mother also means being someone who is willing to apologize and try again, and in new ways, over and over again.
Thank you, Monica! I’d never guess from the photos that this house is 1200 square feet. It feels light and bright and spacious. Monica really has managed to put her stylish spin on every corner of this house.
And reading Monica’s thoughts about perfectionism and our personal gifts was like a big deep sigh after a long day. I think we so often get trapped in the idea that the things we are doing are common and easy, and the things that other people are doing are really spectacular — when probably, those people are thinking the same things about you! I love the idea that we all have gifts, and we all can make our families lives, and the world, more beautiful by sharing those gifts.
What do you think your special gifts are? Are you a perfectionist? Recovering perfectionist? How do you help yourself let go of the things that worry you?
LIVING WITH KIDS SOURCES
Shelves in kitchen
Prints are from Jenny’s Print Shop
Long photo ledge was made by a friend from this tutorial
Storage bookshelf in the Bunk Bed Room
Photo credit to Baley VanWagoner. You can find Monica’s podcast on her website here. You can also follow her on Instagram or Facebook. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. 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.