Living With Kids: Amy Van Zee

By Gabrielle.

Oftentimes, the first batch of photographs I receive for a home tour are what I call realtor photos: pristine glimpses of a perfectly kept home in shades of spotless and sunlight, and I usually want to buy it right then and there! But then the homeowner and I chat a little more, and gradually a stream of shots showing exactly how the family is living with their children starts to make its way into the tour.

With Amy, there was no such hesitation or getting-to-know-you period! Nope! She lives and decorates happily among the Cozy Coupe and toys and hustle and bustle of two little girls, and her photos show it. Happily.

You’ll love the story of when exactly she discovered her design preferences, and maybe you’ll even gain some encouragement from the DIY projects featured on her blog! Either way, I know you’re going to smile through this one. Welcome, Amy!

Hi everyone! My name is Amy, and I live in this house with my husband, Ben, and our two young girls. Ben is as wonderful and hardworking as they come. He runs his own business and is one of the most responsible and levelheaded people you could ever imagine. He is a very faithful and loyal man. He also loves technology and serves as unofficial tech support for our family and friends.

My work background is in publishing, and my favorite fiction writer is F. Scott Fitzgerald. I could (and do) read his stories over and over. Now, I get to stay home with my girls and do the occasional bit of freelance publishing work from home.

Our older daughter, Jane, is three. When she was younger, people used to comment on her dark, expressive eyebrows and her many words. Oh, her words! It seems like she was talking from the day she was born. Jane has an incredible memory and a very creative mind for make-believe. She will stop in her tracks to listen if a book is being read in her vicinity.

Kate is 18 months and learning new words every day! In some curious ways, she shows her independence. When we read, she squirms out of my lap because she prefers to sit next to me. Kate’s hair has a beautiful tinge of red to it, which people comment on but I’m not so sure from where it comes. It seems to match her personality, though — she’s got some big feelings, and I do know where those come from. (Hint: It’s not Ben!)

Ben and I were married in 2007, and we started house hunting in 2008. We looked for many months, but nothing was quite right. It was hard to wait, but I’m so glad we didn’t settle. We expanded our search and finally found this house, a foreclosure in very rough condition. We first saw it on a cold January day in 2009, and the house was winterized, so it wasn’t exactly a warm welcome. But it is a good-sized house, and a quirky house. In a good way. I really liked it. Yet, it was at the top of our price range and needed a lot of work.

A few days later, I checked the listing again and saw that the price had dropped about $55,000. Ben and I quickly put in our offer.

We started renovations right away and have been working on projects ever since. The house needed a new roof, siding, and windows. We did a thorough teardown and remodel of the kitchen and living room. We turned the formal dining room into a mudroom and half bath, and cut a door to the adjoining garage so we could have access to the house without having to go outside in the cold Minnesota winters. We transformed two main-level bedrooms and a bathroom into a true master suite.

All of that took us about a year and a half. Ben and I lived mostly upstairs while we worked on the main level rooms.

Then Ben and I moved down to the main level and worked on the upstairs bedrooms and guest bath all through my first pregnancy! I remember installing the bathtub at about seven months pregnant with Jane. These are the rooms where our girls now sleep.

Moving into a house that was being renovated meant that at first, none of our things went where they were supposed to go, so our house was a mess for a long time. It took us years to get everything untangled. In reality, we are not done, because our basement and attic are still a bit of a disaster!

We live in a suburb outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. What I love about the neighborhood we live in is that it isn’t a particularly fancy neighborhood. As I get older, I find myself increasingly into practical and beautiful — and reasonably priced!

And the unfancy-ness of our neighborhood helps us live simply. Keeping up with the Joneses is a real thing! We live simple lives and therefore live in a simple neighborhood, and that helps us keep living simple lives.

It’s a circle. I’m glad for it.

We live in a neighborhood that was built up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. On the streets around us, there are spots with literally three or four of the same house right in a row. When we house hunted, we saw a lot of the same layouts. But I was very drawn to the quirkiness of this house.

It is a one-and-a-half story home, but not in a typical way. From the front, it looks like a rambler. From the back, it looks like a two story. People are surprised to find that not only is there an upstairs, but that it has two very large bedrooms with walk-in closets and a full bath!

One day a few years ago, a man stopped by our house. He saw that we were doing renovations and asked if he could come see what we were doing. He had grown up in the house; his dad had designed and built it! And that was really telling as to why our house is so different.

And I love that our house is a little weird. I love that it has unexpected spaces and little nooks and crannies that make it different from every other house on the block.

My favorite, I think, is the little nook under the window in Kate’s room where an extra bed fits perfectly. I think these unique spaces present the most satisfying design opportunities because you have the chance to make a little quirk really shine instead of seeing it as a limitation. If we ever build a house, which I dream of doing, I would love to design in some of those little quirks.

Our house has one living room, so it is our everything space: puzzles, TV, computer, books, toys, and a Cozy Coupe all live happily together. And so do we.

When we first renovated, I didn’t have a strong sense of direction in terms of style. I saw things I liked online or in magazines and followed suit, but they weren’t really my design perspective. The resulting outcome is that most of the rooms we renovated have been painted again or thoroughly rearranged because they weren’t right the first time.

I made a lot of mistakes.

Now that I think about it, I fell into my design style while decorating Jane’s nursery in 2012. How amazing! That was the first room in our house that I really decorated from my gut. It is now Kate’s room. And I haven’t changed much in it because it really feels right to me! That clear design sense carried me through as I reworked the rest of the rooms that weren’t feeling quite right to me.

Decorating that nursery helped me realize that my style is not formal or elegant. In fact, it is kind of the opposite: youthful and perhaps even playful. I certainly don’t take it too seriously.

Therefore, I am super happy with the merge of my girls’ things with our adult things. I can see myself using the colorful baskets and bins that hold their toys long after the toys are gone. And party decorations have become permanent design features in our home. They make me happy so I keep them up!

There isn’t really an off-limits space in our house. Almost every room, including our bedroom, has a basket of toys for the girls, because the reality is that they just want to be where we are at this stage in their lives. And so I embrace that as they follow me around in the morning as I get ready for the day. There are always toys and books within easy reach.

Renovating was hard but incredibly rewarding. I spent a lot of time researching style and finishes, but not as much time thinking about the layout. I wish I had. When we bought the house, we didn’t yet have children. So I didn’t think about how useful an open layout might be.

If I could add one room to our house, I would add a big family room open to the dining area and kitchen.

Last winter, I wanted that open layout so badly that it was just poisoning me. It’s all I could think about. God did a radical work in my heart to take away my discontent and help me be thankful for where He has us for this season of our lives. In many ways, that is my heart for my blog: to encourage people toward contentment where they are currently living, even while working to make it beautiful. Because a content heart is a wonderful thing!

My blog has had two different lives. I first started in 2009 when we bought our house to document the renovations, but I also used it as a creative outlet to share sewing projects, photography, and a few DIYs. It was fun, but rather unfocused. Life got busy, and in 2013 the blog fell by the wayside.

But my husband always loved me blogging and really encouraged me to pick it back up. He saw that my interest in interior design was not waning, so he told me to go for it! This past summer, he put his tech savvy to work and helped me set up my own domain.

My blog’s sweet spot is the intersection between home design and encouragement. I have an increasing interest in interior design, but I am certainly not the world’s best decorator. Yet, I do feel that I was made to encourage.

I absolutely delight in helping other people decorate their homes with beauty and creativity. And I am honored to be part of that process with them.

Some of my readers might have a strong sense of their own style, so for them, I will be an encourager to push them toward making their own ideas reality in their homes. They might just need someone to say, “Great idea! Go for it!”

But perhaps other readers don’t know their own style so well – I’ve been there! – so for them, I might be giving them ideas as well as encouraging. But either way, I am here to encourage!

This time around with my blog, I did more research on how to blog. I knew I wanted to focus on home design, but I also learned to focus on truly solving a problem for my readers. So I wrote a guide to help my readers work specifically on the tricky spots in their homes. I have been so encouraged as people reach out to me for help with their homes, because that is what I really want to be doing!

And that is the loveliest thing to come out of my blog, I think: the personal connections. I was so shy to put myself out there as someone who can help decorate a home, even though it was what I wanted to be doing. But once I did, people started coming to me for help, just like I hoped they would.

I just had to take that first step!

A couple from church recently invited me into their home to talk through the work they’d like to do and get my opinions. I was floored and humbled. An Instagram connection — whose blog is way bigger than mine — asked me to coffee when we realized we live close to each other. These sweet personal connections encourage me and remind me that although I love helping people furnish their homes with beautiful things that inspire them, ultimately, the people matter way more than the things.

Part of my blog reboot came about as I realized that most likely, someday, my children will be in school. I wondered if I would go back to work then? If I do, will I go back to a job in publishing? What I am really passionate about is interior design. I thought I would just figure it out when my kids are in school and go from there. And this is where my husband came swooping in with his practical wisdom and encouragement.

He told me to go for it. Now. Why wait until our kids are in school to start moving toward my dream? If I start now, by the time our kids are in school, perhaps I will have some momentum in interior design or even a more clear vision of what I’d like to do in that field.

And that is where I am today. I want my blog to turn into a job for me, whether it is the blog itself or a business I would launch from the blog. Maybe I’ll go back to school for a degree. But I do see my future work as being home-based. In publishing, I have worked freelance from home since before our first daughter was born, so I have been rather spoiled!

Being at home with the girls is wonderful and challenging just like you’d expect it to be. Ben and I are both homebodies, but we are on the verge of a new stage of life with our girls: activities. I heard someone say that my life will never be less complicated than it is right now. I am feeling the truth of that.

Something I read a long time ago in a Living With Kids interview — with Leah Stapleton — has really stuck with me. She talked about how she wants her girls to have time to just be. Nowhere to go right this moment, no pressing appointments. Just time to be kids.

I have thought about that often as I stay home with my girls. There are a million wonderful things to do, places to go, people to see, but I don’t want to rush through this unique season of life where we are able to be home a lot.

School, sports, lessons, clubs…all these good things are on the horizon and will really change our lives. They are coming but are not here just yet. So I want to savor where we are as much as I can.

And that desire to be at home meshes well with where we live, because Minnesota winters are brutal and we end up spending a lot of time indoors! But honestly, to be at home in the morning after a heavy snowfall, cup after cup of coffee, music on, toys and books everywhere, cozy jammies and slippers – it can be bliss.

I love the kitchen and dining nook. Some nights, we let Jane stay up coloring at the kitchen table while Ben sits next to her doing work for his business and I clean up the kitchen. Every once in a while, Jane asks to help me with the dishes and pulls over a stool. These quiet, working-together moments pull on my heartstrings.

A lot of life is work, and I want the girls to learn the value of hard work, but also the joy of doing that work together!

I also value creativity. I want our home to be a place that inspires creativity, a place where the girls can make things with their hands and then see those creations proudly and prominently displayed. And since my decorating style isn’t too serious, there are plenty of places to put up the girls’ paintings and colorings. I embrace them joyfully.

And can I be honest here? I do value hospitality, but I am not naturally good at it. I long to be good at it!

I have to remind myself that we get better at things by practicing, so I try to push myself to be intentional to invite people into our home for meals and such. I hope that my girls see that – both that hospitality is a joyful privilege and that if we aren’t naturally good at something, we don’t throw up our hands and give up, but we keep trying.

At this moment in their lives, it is really sweet to witness the girls growing in their relationship with each other day by day. These days, Kate runs to Jane’s door in the mornings to see her big sister. I hear them giggling together as one pushes the other down the hall on a riding toy. These moments make my heart melt.

As the girls grow up in their relationships with each other, me, and Ben, and even extended family and friends, they learn that they are not the center of the universe but fit into a bigger whole. Every day is full of precious teaching moments. And that is a particularly sweet thing about living together right now.

When they are launched out into the world as adults, I won’t be able to see that everyday growth like I do today.

I hope my girls remember the together memories from this house: hiding and then surprising Daddy when he comes home from work, swinging in the backyard and chalk on the patio, indoor picnics in the living room. I hope they remember me praying for them, praying for Daddy, praying for myself, praying for our friends.

I wish someone had told me that parenting brings some seriously high highs and seriously low lows — and that these highs and lows are often within two minutes of each other!

I have been horrified at my own pride to think that I ever had it together. Because I definitely don’t. Just this morning at the grocery store, I was so humbled as strangers literally swarmed to help me pick up the strewn berries my girls had dropped everywhere. A store employee fetched me new ones. A woman in the parking lot returned my cart for me and told me with so much kindness that she had been where I am.

I know people told me how hard parenting would be. I think I listened, but I don’t think I understood.

I am understanding more each day that it is the hardest thing I have ever done and ever will do, I think. Caring for children is plenty challenging, but on top of that, I am completely incapable of changing my children’s hearts. And that makes me all the more thankful to belong to Jesus, who does change hearts, and to earnestly pray that he would do that for my children.


Contentment is a wonderful thing, Amy! With the holidays heading our way, we’re probably all wishing for an open floor plan or even a few extra feet in the dining room — to accommodate the few extra feet invited to dinner! You’ve gently reminded us for which feet we are most grateful. I know I’d take a one-size-too-small but overflowing-with-love table any day of the week!

I also think it’s interesting that Amy found her design groove when faced with her daughter’s nursery. Funny, right? Did the same thing happen to any of you? Which room helped you break a décor block and run free with your inspiration? I always love to hear your stories!

P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me knowWe love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.

25 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Amy Van Zee”

  1. What a gorgeous home with whimsy and a wonderful interview. The part that struck me was the description of not living in a fancy neighborhood but that allowing them to live a simpler life. I am currently looking at houses and there is a fabulous old home that is quirky as well and it has a barrel ceiling in the living room! The elementary school is known for being not great, but there is a free public Montessori charter school with room for my kids in the area though. I waver back and forth between the big beautiful home in the “not as great” area or the cookie cutter smaller house. I am almost to the tipping point of “Why try to fit in? It’s not in you! Embrace the quirky!” Thank you for sharing your home.

  2. Love, love, love! I so appreciate the mention of struggling with hospitality. I, too, struggle in this area (still coming down from the anxiety of hosting 20 family members this past weekend for my son’s baptism). And thank you for the inspiration on this rainy day in Wisconsin as I attempt to keep sane & hopeful amidst the chaos that my two littles create throughout the day. You have a beautiful heart & home.

    1. I really relate to the hospitality struggle as well. I love when I go to a great dinner party at someone else’s house – not great fancy, but great people and just a nice potluck of fun food people brought together. I went to one recently where we talked for 4 hours. I wish I could do that for others and it’s a goal for the new year, but it stresses me out!

  3. Also, I just loved this home tour!! The story about the strewn berries and all the loving kindness that followed–such a lovely bit of life when those things happen. Thanks for the reminder to be simple in our living. What freedom that creates!

  4. Gratitude really is everything. We’ve been in a rental for four years and all the little things I can’t change drive me crazy until I step back and ponder how truly rich I am. An old refrigerator full of food? Carpet in the bathroom where I have running water? My three boys sharing a bedroom (I unexpectedly fell in love with this arrangement!)

    It works.

  5. I always enjoy the images of all the lovely homes shared here, but I have to say I rarely finish reading a Living With Kids post without a tear in my eye about something. Today it was the grocery store scene & the kindness of strangers. No one welcomes life challenges but I have learned that by having gone through those challenges it makes it very easy for me to stop & care for others who are in places and pains I have been myself. Those hard life experiences do allow us to deeply connect with others and love them in a very beautiful way. And on another topic, yes to the strivings for simplicity. <3

  6. Wonderful read and a beautiful home. I’m happy I was able to squeeze in a few moments during quiet time to read. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I love that a man who grew up in the house came to check on it. I recently moved close to the house I grew up in (ages 4-17) and run by it on my running route every week. The house has an extremely special place in my heart – and almost obsessive place that I am sort of embarrassed to admit to. Anyway, the current owners have done renovations that I would love to see, and really I would just love to be back inside the house again. Every time I run by I hope one of them is outside so I can introduce myself, but it hasn’t happened yet. And I am too shy to knock on the door, I’ve just thought it would be an invasion of privacy. Anyway, sorry for the long comment, it just encouraged me that someone else has gone back to their childhood home to check it out :)

    1. Caitlin, I don’t know if you have ever heard of the Canadian radio show called the Vinyl Cafe. But if you have heard of it (or even if you haven’t) the recent episode entitled Remembrance was exactly about them meeting a man who used to live in their house and a really great story that goes along with it regarding the war. Powerful fiction. I’d encourage you to listen to it! and scroll down to November 7.

  8. I adored this home! I think the colors and whimsy all around are full of energy! I especially appreciated how open you were with sharing the desire for something so specific about your house, and allowing God to change the perspective and really show you what you already have. Having just moved from a home I loved to a new place there is so much of a learning curve in remodeling and getting to know the house, but I am trying let go and remember thankfulness in the process. Thankful for a home. Thankful for new opportunities. Thank you for sharing!

  9. AMY: I’m so glad I found your blog! I’m a Minnesotan, too! I’m starting a househunt (with my husband and 2 kids) and I’m wondering if you don’t mind saying what suburb you’re in. Or, if you went N, S, E or W. I think we’re end up in Seward because I like being in the city and then pretending I’m not. But I’m still open to close suburbs.

    1. Anna! Yay for Minnesota! How exciting to be on the hunt for a home. I am happy to chat Minneapolis and suburbs with you. Why don’t you send me an email…on my blog, you can click on the envelope icon (in the sidebar) to get in touch! Looking forward to it!

  10. “Last winter, I wanted that open layout so badly that it was just poisoning me. It’s all I could think about. God did a radical work in my heart to take away my discontent.” This happened to me too, but it was dining room curtains! Finding curtains for my dining room consumed me. When I stepped back and realized what I had shoved onto the back burner just to find something as frivilous as dining room curtains, I was shocked and a bit scared. I thought of this quote, “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives.” Now when I walk past my curtainless dining room I am thankful that I am in a season where I have more important things to do with my time than find the perfect curtains for my dining room. Thanks for this beautiful tour and the important reminder.

  11. I’d like to know your sources. Speciifically, your bathroom sink stool and how you get rugs to stay flat on carpet. At least one curiosities wants to know. Thank you for working hard to show us your favorite spaces.

  12. Wow. Every time you post a home tour it’s my new favorite, but this one takes the cake! I relate to soooo much of what Amy said. I too discovered my decorating style while doing the nursery. And while I realized how enjoyable it was, I didn’t realize how “me” it was until people complimented the nursery more than the rest of our house. 10 years and a second kid later and I am still figuring it out. Constant work in progress! I love Amy’s home & words and cannot wait to spend hours reading her blog.

  13. A lovely, happy home tour :) And I spotted the bookcase in your living room right away, recognizing it from your blog which I found while googling diy bookcase ideas this past summer! We built the same one but painted the whole thing white.

  14. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Living with Kids tour where the design aesthetic so closely matched my own. I love all of it! Every little bit, down to the art on the walls! So I’m going to focus on Amy’s story about learning to be content instead of letting lust for a different space eat at her. (Will not covet. Will not covet.)

    Thanks for sharing, Amy. So beautifully done!

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