Living With Kids: Mary Jo Fiorella

I laughed when I was reading today’s Living With Kids essay and read that Mary Jo’s daughter drew a picture of her with eight arms. It seems totally fitting. Mary Jo runs her own successful design business (you’ll understand why it’s so successful when you see the gorgeous photos of her home), and she is a single mom who decided that rather than wait to get married, she’d foster and adopt a child of her own. I think you’re going to love getting a peek of her world. Welcome, Mary Jo!

In my home we have my daughter Gabbi (15), my dog Sofi, a rescue little black Spaniel mix, my dog Gia, a rescue from the Korean dog meat industry, and myself.  I’m a single mom — never married, adopted everyone on my own.

I’m an interior designer with my own business, Fiorella Design. I’ve had my own firm since 2002. I’ve worked in NYC, San Francisco and now in Castro Valley, California. My office is near my home so I can run over and pick up my daughter from school or get her to soccer on time.

We live in Castro Valley, California on a hill near Lake Chabot park. It’s a neighborhood full of 1950’s homes and mixed families, some with children, some older couples. I love the area! In the San Francisco Bay area there are few places where the home prices are reasonable (reasonable in comparison to other homes in the Bay Area) and have good schools — Castro Valley is one of them. I also like the area because it’s small enough, but also has everything you’d need nearby. The weather is great (we avoid the cold San Francisco fog in summer), and my garden grows well here.  We have neighbors who look out for each other.

My home is more ‘affordable’ than other areas, and still fairly safe, and centrally located with access to many freeways. My home price has appreciated about $400k in the last 10 years — so that’s good! Castro Valley isn’t really a destination area with no real highlights for visitors aside from Lake Chabot which is a beautiful lake with trails in the hills. But like I mentioned, it’s centrally located and only abut 40 minutes from San Francisco and San Jose. Napa Valley is about 1 1/2 hours away.

It was a miracle that I got this home. I had needed to sell my little starter home so that my daughter could get into the Castro Valley Schools for kindergarten. I put my home up for sale and was lucky to get it sold with a 60-day rent back so I could look for a new home in Castro Valley. At the time there was very little on the market. I searched for 6 weeks and didn’t find anything. I was starting to panic. Because my office was in my home I really didn’t want to have to find a rental and then keep looking for a house, as that would have meant two big moves. One Saturday we were at my daughters soccer game and a friend introduced me to a mom who was going to be selling their home and was having an open house the next day. We went to the open house, wrote a touching, and slightly desperate letter and offered full list price. Needless to say, they accepted and we were able to move exactly on our last day of renting back. The previous owners truck pulled away and ours pulled up.

The crazy thing is that this home was exactly what I needed and wanted. I wanted the kitchen to face the backyard. It had all the bedrooms and baths I wanted, and most importantly, I wanted a separate space for my office.

The home is a split level with a family room down stairs, and a living room on the main level. I use the lower level for my office, which has it’s own side entry, so my employees can come and go and not go through the private parts of my home.

So it was really a miracle that it all came together. I always say “visualize it- and it will come” — I don’t know how many times this has rung true for me. But starting my business and adopting my daughter were two of the biggest that I visualized, focused on and worked toward.

I love the freedom of running my own business. I always knew I would have my own business and tried to set myself up, slowly but surely, as I was growing as a designer.

I find myself visualizing moving through the spaces I design, looking at details, feeling the surfaces, comparing the materials next to each other. This happens in the shower, or while I’m sleeping. It’s just always on my mind. When relaxing, or cutting roses from my garden, or potting or watering plants out back, or organizing books on my coffee table, or moving items on my bookshelves — I’m always searching for visual beauty!

I have been interested in design since I was about eight years old. In my neighborhood back in suburban Buffalo, New York, there was a new development being built behind our property. I got to walk though homes while they were being framed and could imagine where the furniture would go. From there I thought about interior design. I also loved art and color and was very good at drawing and painting. I felt interior design would put both of these interests together.

Being a single mom is very tricky. You have to be organized, and you have to plan ahead, every step of the way. You also have to ask for help, and get a good support system around you. We live at least 400 miles from the closest family down in Los Angeles. The rest of my family is in Buffalo, Phoenix, and Atlanta. So I have no family help. This is something I really regret. I grew up with a lot of extended (Italian/Sicilian) family around and I really miss this for my daughter — and myself.

If there is a secret to making it work, I have to say it’s that I was already in business for myself and could create a flexible schedule — I was able to arrange for all my meetings around my daughters’ daycare schedule. I could also work at night after she went to bed. I’d cut the grass with her baby monitor on my belt, while she napped. I’d get my grocery shopping done while she was at daycare.

All of this allowed me to be more present when we were together. Dinner, bath time, playing with the dogs, reading bedtime stories, etc., were all about her and I connecting and being 100% present.

Parenting influenced my design work a lot because now I had a real point of reference for how families function with children — especially their needs for storage and durability. Designing kitchens so that kids could access their plastic cups and bowls or have access to the lower sections of a pantry. Making really usable mud rooms for sports equipment and a moms’ desk to keep everyone organized and to pay bills.

I found that all of my clients really respected and were supportive and understanding about my time schedule and that I couldn’t meet on nights and weekends. It was just not something I would compromise on.

Believe it or not, I was one of three single individuals in my network of design professionals who got the idea to adopt around the same time. So in the San Francisco design community I was not alone.

I think sometimes, successful women who’ve moved from city to city, end up in their late 30’s realizing that they haven’t met the right guy yet, and don’t want to wait any longer to achieve the family goals they have for themselves. That two family household with the white picket fence isn’t easy to achieve and I wasn’t about to let my life pass while stuffing my maternal feelings down any longer.

In my late 20’s / early 30’s I found out that I had Graves Disease and had to take medication. That thyroid condition basically burned out my ovaries, leaving me completely POST menopausal at the age of 38. So after mourning the loss of not being able to have my own biological child, I looked toward adoption.

I first worked toward going into business on my own, then bought my house, got my dog and after that, was ready to look into adoption. I had read about foster care in my county and went to an orientation the first summer I got my house. After hearing about the children in need, I signed up immediately to learn more. I was accepted into the classes and every week the feeling grew stronger that this was my path to a family. There are so many children in foster care, that I had to do my small part. (Related, I’m concerned that with the changing laws in many states, the number of children in foster care will only increase.)

What I don’t think people understand is that you can adopt a wonderful, beautiful child through foster care, the same way you can pay tens of thousands to birth or adopt a baby by other means.

The process from the first orientation to the day I took my daughter home was less than 6 months. Our formal ‘Adoption Day’ was the following November.

I realize everyone’s journey to parenthood is different, but I became personally invested in our foster child system, and asked myself how could I go through IVF, take the hormones, and spend the thousands to maybe get pregnant, or use a donor egg with donor sperm, when I know there are babies and young children all around us in desperate need of a stable forever home and someone to love them unconditionally?

Something that doesn’t get discussed, and that we need to understand, is that adoption, no matter how you adopt, brings trauma to the child. They are separated from their biological mother. They have to create new bonds and there is subconscious sense of loss. Loss that the child doesn’t even realize — but that often comes out later via feelings of being rejected, or forgotten or left.

Even though the act of putting a child up for adoption is a painful and selfless act, and requires an enormous amount of love for the child, the child doesn’t understand that. There are fears they might be left again, or rejected, or abandoned.

An adoptive parent’s sole purpose, like all parents, is to give love, attention and affection, to support, teach, and guide their child to become a good, caring, empathetic, successful, self-sufficient adult.

We all have challenges, so I don’t focus on the ‘adoption’ — but it is a part of my child’s life story. I just try to help her understand it’s only part of her, it’s not who she is. She’s so much more.

My daughter drew a picture of me once with about 8 arms doing everything by myself. So maybe she thinks I have a superpower, but I just feel exhausted!

I can tell you what I think my consistent goal is as a parent: to teach. I loved reading to my daughter, playing games, expanding her mind and imagination. I loved teaching her to brush her teeth, draw or eat an artichoke. Even at a young age I talked to her about life paths, and goals.  Now as a teen I do it more than ever — even though she gets annoyed and asks me to stop talking.

I still talk, because they do listen. They just won’t admit it. 

I hope she’ll remember all the nights of her and I and the two dogs all in bed, squished together, comfy cozy! Or when we did our kitchen remodel, how we were basically camping in our lower level of our house with a microwave, TV, sofa and refrigerator in the garage. Boy was I glad when that was over! 

I hope she remembers making Christmas cookies together, or entertaining friends at holiday time. I hope we can both one day forget about all the fights about chores, about getting off her phone to do homework, or about to putting dishes in the dishwasher. Ugh!

My daughter has always been my little travel companion. Even at a year old, she knew there was no messing around when we needed to catch a flight — she would be helpful and on her best behavior. So now, when we traveled to London and Paris in 2013, or this last year when we went to Italy, we still hold hands or walk arm in arm exploring beautiful places. (I miss being able to pick up my little peanut and spin her around, or have her on my lap. I miss her little girl goofy smiles and giggles.)

When I was younger I settled when choosing the guys I dated. I should have listened to myself, to my gut, and realized they weren’t worthy. I wasted precious time. I didn’t value myself enough. I made excuses for bad behavior or I trusted too blindly. I put up with too much crap.

I always knew I was a good designer, a model employee, attentive with clients, great with friends and family. But somehow, for some reason I just didn’t think I deserved to be loved and taken care of. I always did the caring for others, but never expected or demanded it for myself. When I have the time again, if someone comes along, I’ll be sure to know my value.


Thank you, Mary Jo!

What an inspiring story and a gorgeous home. How much do you want to spend the summer hanging out in that yard? I love that Mary Jo chose to reach her family goals by making the decision to foster and adopt a child. When life doesn’t necessarily turn out the way you expect, it’s okay to shift gears.

I also really loved what Mary Jo said in the last paragraph, about not settling. Isn’t it interesting that in life we can be so successful and confident in certain areas of life, and so challenged and unconfident in others? It’s so wonderful that Mary Jo can see now that selling herself short wasn’t worth it.

Do you struggle to believe in yourself in certain areas of your life? Are you a “fake it till you make it” kind of person? What lessons have you learned along the way that you wish you could tell your younger self?


Dining room chairs

Kitchen backsplash tile

Daughter’s bedroom art

Green print in family room

Photo Credit to Joy Golding.You can see Mary Jo’s design site here and shop her retail site too! 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

13 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Mary Jo Fiorella”

  1. Wow, I think she really is a superhero though! I can’t imagine how much energy it takes to run a business or be a single mother, let alone both!

    Her relationship with her daughter sounds wonderful (I mean, teenage years are no joke. Also, totally got Gilmore Girl vibes, anyone else?) and I loooove her house – the decor, color, all the plants! Is that a hanging cactus thing-y by the door?! It’s stunning!

  2. Mary Jo, I think we need to be friends! I live in San Leandro, right off the lower Lake Chabot Park. I love all the hiking! I’m a first generation Italian-American and love design as well! And when my kids are older I hope to get in design some way. My husband also grew up in CV! Small world. Your home is beautiful and thanks for sharing your story!

  3. I love this! MaryJo designed our Danville remodel. We love her!! Her work is amazing and she is a beautiful person.

  4. I loved reading this! Thank you for taking the time to write it, Mary Jo! I’m still getting used to the single mum life again – but with only my youngest teenager at home … and also working from home – so it’s brilliant to read this. Thanks again! V inspiring!

  5. I love what you have done with your house and garden. The funny thing is that when I saw the first picture of your house, I immediately thought–I wonder if this house is in or near CV. I grew up there and I didn’t think those houses had a distinct style, but I guess they do. You have done a great job with the remodel. It’s beautiful, light-filled and calming. It looks like a wonderful space to live in.

  6. Gorgeous home! I love the fireplace, the colors, the plants and her unique, personal style. What talent! I really admire anyone who fosters. We need more people like that in the world.

  7. Hi Mary Jo! Thankyou so much for sharing your gorgeous house. I love your use of colour, I love the beautiful plants and flowers that you have inside and out, and i love that you have made a home with the things that are special and cherished! I found your story quite inspiring, and it sounds like you manage a pretty good balance. Best wishes to you and your daughter!

  8. Lovely reading! I’ve adopted myself & shared the same thoughts regarding going down the IVF route. Morally I couldn’t reconcile spending that much money when there are so many children in need.

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