I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Catherine’s home tour since I first read the responses she sent in. Her words have so much grace and compassion and wisdom. Reading her interview is a reminder that life never, and I mean never, turns out the way we imagine it will.
But we know that it’s in the twists and turns and challenges that we find ourselves and grow and change. Catherine has some really wonderful things to share and I can’t wait for you to meet her. Welcome, Catherine!
Welcome to our neighbourhood: Garrison Woods. We are lucky to live in a charming Calgary, Alberta neighbourhood on the former site of a decommissioned military housing settlement. The Canadian Forces Base (CFB) “Currie Barracks” was redeveloped into a vibrant and desirable new-urbanism style community 15 years ago, which makes it a place rich with history, and a reverence for those who sacrificed and served Canada, with our peacekeeping values always on the forefront of any mission.
We purchased a renovated PMQ (Private Married Quarters) duplex shortly after moving back to Calgary from Portland, Oregon in 2005. Family critics thought perhaps we were nuts to spend just under $200K on a tiny, two bedroom refurbished “monopoly house”. Seven months pregnant and temporarily living in our in-laws basement we quickly put an offer in on the duplex when I saw it pop-up for sale online late one night.
We bought it based on the location — wooed by its walkability and attractive neighbourhood aesthetic. It fit all of our needs, except the house was admittedly way too small for us. It was however, so great to reestablish our ties with Calgary, with so many family-friendly amenities at our disposal. We were lucky because we found something akin to what we sadly left behind in Portland.
Even though Calgary was considerably colder and more conservative than Portland, we were delighted to finally be closer to a family support system we didn’t have in Oregon. Additionally, Calgary offered a number of well-funded, public school options for our growing family.
In 2007, real estate prices in our city were rapidly rising and sadly our tiny house started feeling smaller and smaller. Worried about the situation we were in, I was closely monitoring the real estate websites when I spotted a lovely 1860 sq. ft. Infill-style house for sale, located around the corner from us.
Acting fast again (which is an understatement), we bought it, listed the house we were in and took on a much larger mortgage to get into something more suited for a family of five. Knowing this was a risky endeavour, we had to ask our parents to co-sign the mortgage, which felt like a financial step backward. We also knew that vacations and any extras would not be possible for many years.
Completely accepting our new house-poor status, a cute front porch, and just the right amount of space for everyone, made the $670K price tag feel less daunting. I’ve always had a knack for quick real estate decisions, and this one didn’t disappoint.
The good news: we made a great (albeit risky) real estate decision, and the risk-taking paid off. Our little vibrant inner-city community is a great place to live, but it has become challenging for new homeowners to purchase or build a house of any size near here. New-built homes a few blocks away are listed close to $2 million (yup).
We didn’t have a long time to settle into our pretty new house when an absolutely unthinkable tragedy struck our family. My loving, creative husband of 12 years was killed, when the small plane he was traveling in, back from a trip to Oregon, crashed; all aboard were killed including his father.
That was October 2007, and I was not sure how we would go on, and there were days it seemed unlikely that we could. Even writing about this sad time is pain inducing, eleven years later. It’s also shocking to read — I hate telling strangers about how/when/why. It brings on all sorts of sighs and sad faces because no one wants to think about young fathers dying in crashing planes.
We are okay. We were not for a while, but we are okay now. So keep reading (please).
My kids were 8, 5 and 1 at the time so I had to figure out pretty quickly how to raise three rambunctious very young boys on my own. Finding a fantastic widowed community (called Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation & Camp Widow) early on helped lessen the pain by providing connection, hope, and understanding, when I needed it the most.
Grief work is challenging, mind-boggling, and painful. My kids attended Comfort Zone grief camps, and we always talk freely about their dad and how the loss affects us. I have made it a priority to take their lead on how we grieve as a family. This has been hard because I wanted to mourn and remember when I wanted, but I had to be careful and mindful of their emotions at all times, not prioritize mine.
Attending ‘Camp Widow’ several times as a participant, and then later as a presenter, created the desperately needed space for my own emotional processing away from the kids.
We have been mending our hearts slowly and steadily, but the pain will never go away. Grief is now woven into our lives, providing invisible threads tying our pain to other’s who share our considerable loss.
Moving back to Calgary did not work out as planned, which created a trajectory I wouldn’t have asked for. I didn’t get to realize all the dreams I had with my husband, and my kids had their world ripped apart. We had just started our journey here in this newish city, excited and once hopeful — and I now had to figure it all out on my own.
I had a minimal life insurance policy, so we were okay financially until I could get back on my feet. For this, I will always be grateful to the young me who prioritized a decision like that back when I couldn’t fathom needing it.
The kids and I eventually started to heal. Bravely, we started to travel by airplane to visit close friends in Portland. Taking these first critical steps towards a new future set the stage to start rebuilding our lives.
I remember how challenging it was to handle the soccer schedule for three kids, that first spring without their dad’s help. Even with the immense support from neighbours, helping with logistics of everyday life with kids — like driving to school — I found it very difficult to manage it all, shrouded in grief. It was the reliance upon, and instant closeness I gained from neighbours, who reached out so generously to help us, which transformed ‘acquaintances’ into ‘friendships’.
So many of these friendships truly deepened throughout the years. Now, I cannot imagine life without such beautiful, caring friends. These are people who created silver linings for our family out of rowdy, lingering potluck dinners, multiple heart-to-hearts, and laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.
So when I talk about my neighbourhood, I no longer think about the parks and schools. While those things are still important, it’s really the trust that has been established between all these random people I now call friends, which ties us to this place.
When I was mildly ready to start thinking about dating, I was ‘friended’ or “poked’ by an old Jr. High acquaintance on Facebook. This “new-old” guy came into our lives at the right time. We married within a year of that chance Facebook connection.
I always say that I knew great love, so I was able to recognize great love when it came to me again. My emotional availability allowed me to see what gifts were right in front of me when I met this new guy. My heart was broken because of loss, but it wasn’t closed off.
“New husband” is funny — he makes us all laugh, a lot. He doesn’t mind learning the rules to complicated board games or taking all of us “roughing-it” in a rented airstream because I’m much more of a glamper than a camper. New husband is great friends with my first mother-in-law, who I still share a close bond with. Being an awesome barbecuer and a technical wiz are just a couple of his great talents.
He’s truly a special guy because not only does he give me space to have all sorts of complicated feelings, he is always trying to be the best step-dad for my kids, while making me feel special and loved again.
As luck would have it, we added another boy to our brood — and that little guy is now almost eight years old.
Bursting at the seams (again), the house that once represented such square footage perfection didn’t fit our new normal. We started looking around for a home that would be suitable for a toddler, a teenager and two kids in between; sadly we kept coming up empty. We loved the connectedness of this neighbourhood, and couldn’t find anything that would work for us even remotely close to where we had established our lives.
It was by complete accident when I found out that our neighbours three doors down were contemplating selling their four bedroom house. Not even on the market yet, we didn’t think twice before putting in a private offer; praying it would be accepted. Knowing the sellers gave us an edge in a mini-buying war that ensued and our offer was accepted.
We were ecstatic with the home — we called it (and still call it) our “double-wide” because it was actually built on two city lots, resulting in a stunning number of south-facing windows letting all that Calgary sunshine in. We had fun renovating the master bath, painting the interior of the house, and making it ours.
New husband and I were able to merge households, finally helping us bond as a family. The only furniture we bought when we moved five years ago, was our new bed; otherwise, we walked all our possessions down the street to the new home, on dollies and wagons.
When you enter our traditional, Neo-Colonial house, you will find a random collection of nationalities. Two Canadians, one American, two dual citizens (US and Canada), and one multi-breed rescue dog. Living in this house is a lot of fun. It’s musical, it’s busy and there’s always something cooking or baking in our kitchen.
MB is our almost 17-year-old son, he is studious, serious and very sensitive. MB loves watching classic Tarantino movies with dad, and meditating with me. FB our 13-year-old son is the adventure seeker, most outgoing, most social kid of the family. FB is artistic but is quite humble about his talent. The youngest, Mr. O. Is our 7-year-old who is very passionate about all things music — but you won’t find Mr. O on a stage. He performs for himself in the basement, dancing to his favourite Wii Dance song, Rasputin, or drumming for hours. Recently, he has become a mini-comic book creator. Hilarious to read, he totes them around in a in a large ziplock bag.
JB is our 20-year-old who lives nearby and has been successfully “adulting” for the last few years. You can find JB here many nights a week, cooking for us, doing laundry, or getting a snuggle from the dog. We have very slowly turned JB’s room into the guest room, and to be honest, that process was awful for me.
I’m okay with it now, but saying goodbye to my first child and packing up those memories was heartbreaking because it was another milestone I painfully recognized was missed by my late husband.
I birthed four boys, raised four boys, but now we are in the throws of learning about gender fluidity. My oldest child recently started taking hormones and hormone blockers to ease the gender dysphoria which had caused so much private, internal pain and confusion in adolescence.
Since this is not my story to write, I can only speak to my experience with a transgendered adult child as we navigate through these tricky times together. Shocked cannot even describe my reaction to the news that my child was questioning what I had believed to be true for 18 years. There had been no hints and no questions in my mind that I had raised a son.
Looking back though, I feel that if we hadn’t endured so much upheaval and tragedy, I might have been more available and open to recognize what was probably in front of me all along. I am merely a bystander to the changes my now adult child is going through, yet I am a supporter of the journey no matter what that looks like.
Our family was enriched in so many ways since adopting our rescue dog, Leia, from the Humane Society two years ago. She keeps us entertained and very busy. She is half blue heeler, half German shepherd, and 100% stubborn intelligence. We all take turns walking her and feeding her, and she fits very well into our unconventional blended household.
Just like our rescue dog, our “rescue family” has emotional scars endured from experiences that so many others might not understand. Prolific shedding and challenging behaviour aside, anyone who really gets to know and love our family (including the dog), will be rewarded with our loyal friendship and affection for life.
Living next door to a playground/green space for five years has been a fantastic experience for our family. It’s incredible to have all the mature greenery framing the spectacular western view through the windows.
Our little idyllic playground is the scene of Easter egg hunts, kid’s markets, and Halloween celebrations. I can still vividly picture the bike collision between two of my kids at that park when they were learning to pedal — resulting in a chipped tooth and a rushed visit to the dentist.
There are always welcoming adult companions at the park on a warm Friday afternoon, who may or may not offer me a glass of wine while we (don’t really) watch the kids play. We feel safe letting our kids free-range play because the small town atmosphere and close-knit neighbour relationships create an idyllic backdrop to raise kids.
I was adamant that my children have a predictable, nurturing, home-life experience post-trauma, and I’m happy to report that I think I’ve achieved that.
Living in Canada, we appreciate the free healthcare and the excellent public schools (I know I’ve mentioned this already). We’ve been able to raise our family and live in a place surrounded by close friends and family who have like-minded progressive values. The downside of my deep attachment to where we live, is I don’t want to uproot our lives to relocate to where my husband works.
When my new husband started commuting to and from the Bay Area, I was pregnant, we were newly married, and I was still grieving my first husband. Not to mention, my young boys were very challenging to parent. We don’t love it, but we’ve gotten used to the long distance and time away our family endures because of my husband’s work schedule.
Working in California where the tech jobs are more plentiful takes sacrifice from both of us. The company he consults for is willing to allow some remote work, but they still require substantial travel. He loves his job and is happy to maintain a connection to his sense of place in California.
We dream of permanently moving to California one day; it’s such a beautiful State. But for now we stay put managing sub-zero winter temperatures for 5 months out of the year.
Early on, we started writing down funny things that the kids were saying in a book called “My Quotable Kid.” New husband didn’t have considerable experience with kids and found the boys to be quite funny (and challenging) daily. We love browsing back through the written observations in that book to see the weird and wonderful statements of honesty and hilarity that have been recorded over the years since we started a new chapter of our lives. When the baby came along, the kids made an effort to write down funny things he was saying as he learned how to talk, so the book lived on.
My kids laugh at the things we may have said over the years as well. One of the most memorable, and embarrassing things I have shouted at them (in public) is “could you just be normal?”. I was trying to take a photo of the four kids and the dog, they were all laughing and making faces, and not one of them would look at my camera. They now shout at me, “just be normal” sometimes when I start to act a bit weird myself.
Not that normal is the goal — I don’t even know what that means — but occasionally normal feels like it could be a sense of calm and happy for me. Needless to say, a typical family photo hasn’t been captured in some time.
I look around my home, and more often than not, I see clutter and mess. I try not to compare my decor and furniture to the images I see in magazines and on Instagram. It took me months to take the photos for this home tour because unfortunately, my home isn’t always staged and tidy.
It was fun to shoot and edit the images, and it was nice to see what my home might look like if I could keep it like this. No matter how much I purge, donate, or implement magic tidying methods for my drawers and possessions, I like having everything out, all at once. Right now there is a puzzle on the coffee table, my oak kitchen table is in the process of being re-finished, and the counters are a jumble with after school snack prep, stain samples and random materials I’m evaluating to use at my summer Kids Maker Camp.
My kids are not the culprit of all this disorder, I am. I move from project to project, and sometimes l leave my supplies out, forgotten and disorganized, until I tidy it all up, and start all over again. Our home presents often like an informal maker space to learn, inquire and enjoy.
I’ve never prioritized the home budget for original art; instead, I’ve used my own attempts at art, in addition to my kid’s artistry, to decorate the house. I feel proud when I see how it all fits together. My favourite piece of original art we own is the painting of our dog Leia that my son FB painted at school.
My second favourite is the black and white silhouette of my children’s profiles I bought on a family trip to Disneyland. The baby was only 7 months old at the time, and we were at the end of a VERY long day — so I HONESTLY couldn’t believe my four children sat there for what seemed like an eternity while the silhouette artist created it for us.
To round out the decor in this house, throughout the years I have acquired an assortment of baskets, which hopefully hide ugly, mismatched plant pots while adding texture and warmth to our home.
When my parents passed away, it was a labour of love to decide which of their many possessions to keep. When I was young, our family moved all over the globe, but mom always made our house feel like our home using decor chosen from the places we traveled to.
I love the sense of family history we get by now owning a piece of furniture or an artifact my parents once had in their house. So many of their possessions now seamlessly integrate with ours. I am thrilled that plants are back in style as they’ve always been my style. I meditate as I water and care for them, just as my mom did. I inherited so many of her plants, and there’s a tangible feeling of peace and closeness I get being surrounded by these living reminders of her.
I am a maker at heart — I’ve always believed that if I could tie my creative pursuits into intentionally practical handmade goods, we could save for a rainy day, or perhaps treat ourselves to a trip, or luxury item.
The other day I was searching for some Armor-all to shine up bike tires on a bicycle I was selling, I couldn’t find any, so I looked up a recipe using baby oil and vinegar mixed with a bit of dish soap to make a sustainable homemade version.
I have fond memories of sewing my young kids’ clothes, handcrafting toys and gifts instead of buying new. I’ve always been an up-cycler and a maker. It makes me very happy to know I’ve contributed often and always to our family, using my own creative forces. I didn’t realize what I started as a lifestyle choice in urban homesteading was going to drive how I manage my home.
FYI, I’ve rarely tried to make money “making” what I love because I find all the joy in the creative learning process. What I make is solely for personal use, and I’m not sure I could handle the criticism that might go along with marketing or selling my wares. I do aspire to teach or consult around my experiences and techniques, but that would take some immense focus and confidence, knowing that I am my worst critic.
When I’m not making homemade toothpaste, a hemp lampshade, or a big mess around here, I am a consultant grant-writer for non-profits. I work from home so I can be present when the kids are home. Having a flexible occupation works for my own sanity as well, so I can be my own boss.
Throughout the week you can find me volunteering on field trips, walking our dog, buying A LOT of groceries, meal prepping, planning, and implementing multiple projects at once, while still finding time to work and write.
I have had attention deficit disorder since I was a little girl, but was recently diagnosed formally. I now am starting to understand the reasons why I struggle with chronic lateness (sorry everyone, EVER), and why, for instance, I cannot make a lasagna recipe even if my life depended on it (too many steps, too many dishes, and mess).
Taking medication for this disorder has been life-changing. First of all, I’ve been forthright with my kids about my struggles. Demystifying our family problems creates an openness that I didn’t grow up with. They can see me trying to improve by building organizational systems, setting various alarms as reminders, and making sure I’m gentle on myself if I mess up.
My busy brain still swirls with constant ideas and plans, getting in the way of unloading a boring dishwasher. The good news is: I’ve been staying more organized on the home front, while still maintaining my creative juices — which is a big confidence booster.
I hope my kids forgive me for the times that I promised to take them somewhere and I got busy or distracted and we had to reschedule because we ran out of time. And for all the times we were late for pretty much everything we went to.
I do hope my kids remember my positive, glass-half-full, make-it-work attitude, and all the crazy fun projects we started and mostly finished.
I wish someone would have told me and I would have listened, that my life would have dramatic ups and downs. I was not prepared for such trauma to come my way at 38 years old. To have suffered so much family loss through death, in such a short time, has made my life feel so fragile and fleeting at times. I hope to spread the message to others who have suffered loss, that you don’t have to be defined by tragedy.
My kids would tell you that I’ve been too strict over the years. I wish someone would have told me early on in my parenting journey that if I relaxed the atmosphere and rules around here, just a little, the kids would turn out just fine. I have been parenting for 20 years now, and I’m finally becoming the mama I want to be, not the one I think I have to be.
I love living with kids because I do like the bursts of chaos and creativity that they bring to our environment. One minute I’m monitoring my 16-year-old as he grills hamburgers for his friends (no E.Coli. please), and the next second I’m saying yes to four 13-year-olds who want to have a sleep-over, outside all night on the trampoline.
There’s Earth Wind and Fire blasting over the speakers and I see the 8 year old dancing with some intense disco fever. The music is so loud you might not hear the dog barking at the urban chickens in our backyard.
I’m challenged constantly by the newness of each situation, and the quick decisions I have to make to keep everyone happy. I’m not sure I would like it any other way. Raising four kids with a partner I love and cherish has given me the privilege of nurturing four different personalities and learning styles. Add in a jumpy rescue dog, and a commuting husband, and it sums up what you will find when you peek inside our double wide.
Thank you, Catherine! What a real and honest look inside your family’s life.
I love the descriptions of the messes left out because someone (Catherine) is mid-project. I really connected to the perfectly imperfect way that this family lives their lives. Aren’t most of our lives that way? Full of chaos and laughing and crying and yelling and everything else.
I also loved when Catherine mentions talking openly with her kids about her ADD and “demystifying…family problems.” Maybe that level of frankness comes from a family having to deal with grief so early on. Wherever it comes from, I think there is something really powerful in being vulnerable with our kids — talking about our struggles, admitting when we don’t know what we are doing and asking for forgiveness when we mess up. I’m sure Catherine’s kids are growing up to be well-adjusted and healthy people.
How do you remain emotionally vulnerable for you kids? Is it easy for you or difficult? How do you find the balance between not oversharing, but also being open about what you are going through?
Catherine can be found here or guest blogging at Urban Mamas. 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 email@example.com
30 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Catherine Wood-Connolly”
This one. This one moved me in so many ways. It’s not about the house. It’s about her outlook and her really open and honest approach with readers. Thank you for this post.
You made my day with this comment. Thank you it was very hard to be so honest.
Best Design Mom tour ever – and I didn’t even look at the photos!
Same. I honestly didn’t even pay attention to her house-her words are so compelling. What a beautiful outlook.
Jude, thank you it took me quite a while to compose the “tour”. The photos span autumn, winter and a bit of spring..all good things take time though. The narrative was very personal so I appreciate your comment.
I absolutely loved this post!
Jan D. Thank you I hope writing it all down will help my children understand the journey we’ve all been on one day (if they choose to read it)
This is beautiful. I forgot to look at the pictures as I was so loving what Catherine was saying. I guess I should go back and take a look. Thank you for sharing Catherine! Ha, just noticed that the commenter above me forgot to look at the photos too.
Kristin, please go look at the photos and look for a picture that has a white “cast” looking object displayed. Try to figure out what that is…
So so lovely. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you Barb I appreciate you saying that
Absolutely loved this. Thank you for being so frank and vulnerable and sharing your wonderful advice.
Jeanne, your welcome. I’m so surprised at all the lovely comments it’s really warming my heart.
Oh this was beautiful. Thank you for sharing your life with us Catherine.
Loved this and loved her sharing her ADD. My son has it and I worry about him as a functional adult on his own without all my reminders. She is a beautiful writer.
Ann, I know your worries. Sometimes the ones we love are on such a different path than the world around them requires. I wish you & him luck – I know it’s not easy.
ADD/ADHD has a big presence in our house, too and it’s so helpful to acknowledge the part that it plays so everyone can adjust their expectations. Dealing with loss and gender/LGBQT issues can throw anyone for a loop as well. I admire how Catherine has been able to carry on and thrive.
Melissa, it plays a big part in the entire family and not just with me, just didn’t want to talk too much about too much. I already over-shared :) adjusting expectations but also letting the light shine in when you see it is key for us. And taking medications on time dilligently.
Oh, Catherine– how real! I love your portrait at the end. I also love the green piece of art on the left side of what might be your front door.
Thank you Katethegreat, the kids and I created that art pice at a local art studio for the 5th anniversary of my husband’s death. I wanted a collaborative reminder of his beautiful creative soul to show visually our resilience as a family.
Beautiful soul. Her words speak truth.
Carmi, my soul is the way it is because of people like you.
Hi neighbour! I used to live in Garrison Green in the same “monopoly house” you owned, then moved to Lakeview, and am now moving to Currie with our 4 kids. I hope we can build a community there like the one you have in Garrison woods. Also excited to be close the Marda loop :). Thank you for sharing your story. Heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time!
RBC – small world! I just drove through Currie yesterday. It’s really coming along over there. I remember when it was fields and old buildings and we had that big farmers market in the old airforce airplane hangar. Calgary really is a special place.
Yes the old farmers market! Does Marda loop have an outdoor one in the summer? I need to look that up. And re:Calgary – though I grew up in NYC and spent years in Montreal (and one magical year in Edinburgh) I am excited to move back to Calgary after this last year spent in Toronto. I’m looking forward to minimal traffic, bike paths, speedy ethics board at UofC (we are researchers and the Reb is painfully slow here! Haha) weekends in the mountains, sunny skies, and grandpa in Glamorgan to babysit :) If only it had Cuban food, haitian food, and proximity to my parents in NY. :D
This was just the most beautiful post ~ full of pain, truth and reality. I love that string of green leaves but really didn’t notice much beyond that other than the fact that your house is a true home. Thanks for sharing ~
Oh goodness. This one. I am crying and loving every word. Catherine, thank you for sharing your wisdom and story with us. Your courage and strength are inspiring. And I feel a little better about the ongoing mess on my countertops, too.
Fantastic, heartfelt words my dear friend. Life is beautiful…. and so are you …..clutter and all
Wow! Catherine- like many others, I didn’t even notice your house because your story was so intriguing! You’re doing an amazing job mama! I’m so sorry for your loss. You’re children are so blessed to have you as a mom..and they sound amazing. You’re such an inspiration..thank you for honesty.
Shannon, thank you for the positive words. Writing this blog post for DesignMom gives me such a confidence boost toward some of my writing goals. I’ve realized that honesty creates the connection I’m always looking for.