Living With Kids: Eleanor Mayrhofer

Eleanor has such a fun and unique story. She was born in California, moved to Munich, Germany on a whim in her 20s and ended up marrying a German, having a child, and spending the next 20 years there. She makes big city living in a smaller apartment seem not only totally doable, but enviable. Parks within walking distance, electric bikes, social safety nets! It sounds so amazing and you’re going to love peeking around her apartment. Welcome, Eleanor!

I live here with my husband, Armin and our five year old daughter, Emmie and a Corgi named Louie. Life is funny. About seven years into living in Germany, I  made the conscious decision to stay. I even bought a small studio-apartment as an investment property. I was single at the time, and pretty sick of it. 

Shortly after making the decision to stay in Munich and buying the apartment, I met my Armin. We worked at the same digital agency, but had never been on a project together. I was working in a user experience role and he was a project manager. We rode the same U-Bahn line home and got to know each other pretty well. He had spent a year as an exchange student in Michigan in high school, and then a junior year abroad in rural Georgia. We liked to chat a lot about America and Germany and the difference between and within the two countries.

A few months later our company had it’s Oktoberfest night (this is typical of most firms in Munich) and that’s when our friendship took a romantic turn. It’s probably an urban legend, but I’ve heard a statistic that something like 30% of relationships in Munich get started at Oktoberfest. We discovered that we lived right across the river (the Isar, the main river that runs through Munich) just about a 10 minute walk from one another. After a few months of ‘commuting’ to each others apartments, Armin moved in to my place. A couple of years later we got married.

We were both older when we got married, in our late thirties. Kids were kind of an open question. We weren’t a definite ’no’ but not a definite ‘yes’ either. We really enjoyed life as DINKS (Double Income No Kids – I’d now add no pets to that!) We traveled all over the world and pretty much did whatever we wanted. 

As time wore on and all of our friends started having kids, it became clear to me that I was ‘motherhood curious’. I was still kind of ambivalent — which is not great when you’re around 40, but we were letting nature take it’s course. Not surprisingly, nothing happened. There is nothing like a hard deadline to bring things into focus. My ambivalence faded and building a family became my singular focus in life. Thus began a four year infertility odyssey (one I swore I would never go on). This was hands down the most difficult experience I’ve ever gone through in my life.  

After one last ‘this-is it!’ moon-shot fertility treatment that I totally didn’t expect to work (we’d gone through several failed IVFs), I gave birth to our daughter, Emmie on New Year’s Day 2017.

In so many ways we feel like we hit the jackpot with Emmie. Not just that we were able to have a child, but that we got such an amazing kid. I know every parent feels this way, but still! She is funny, strong-willed and has a basically sunny temperament. She’s a real extrovert which is sometimes a challenge for me as an introvert, but it keeps us on our toes. Luckily my husband (also an extrovert) and I balance each other out in the parenting department.

We so much didn’t expect the last fertility treatment to work that we had started the process to get our dog, Louie. After Emmie was born, we went from having been just a couple for ten years, to a family of four overnight. It was a happy adjustment, but an adjustment!

We live right in the heart of Munich, just a few short minutes by foot from the Isar river, which runs through the city. Our neighborhood, the Au is a mix of ‘Altbau Haüser’ beautiful old buildings that weren’t destroyed by bombing in WWII, and newer buildings.

Our apartment complex is newer, built in the early 2000s. As much as I love the grandeur of the older buildings, there are some conveniences to living in a newer one. Many buildings built after 2000 were designed for modern city life. For example, our complex has an enormous bicycle garage and some newer buildings also have stroller parking garages and community rooms.

What I especially like about our complex is how it’s designed and laid out. It’s sort of Bauhaus-y and space is very smartly used. There are several detached buildings with 4-6 units and one larger building with about 5 sections with 6 units each. The complex is set behind another apartment building, so it’s removed from the street. There is a long courtyard with a playground in the back. I call it ‘poor mans co-housing’. Parking is decoupled from the living units (there is an underground garage) you see your neighbors a lot and it feels like a community.

The kids can run around freely in the courtyard and the playground and there are a lot of spontaneous meetings with other families in the complex. You can stick your head out of the window and yell ‘dinner!’ and your kid can come running back home. 

Alas, like most cities, rent and the cost of living have absolutely exploded in Munich. When I bought the small apartment I mentioned in 2006, I was told to expect an increase of value of 2% a year. There is a 10 year speculation tax to prevent real estate bubbles. Now, even with the tax, people are flipping apartments. A 2-3 bedroom apartment in an unspectacular sixties building costs about 1 million EUR.

Munich has a lot of industry: BMW, Pharmaceuticals, Google, Apple is building a big complex here and it’s a very desirable place to live, so rents and the cost of living will get even more expensive. Munich is over 850 years old; keeping the historical feel of the city is important. Within the city limits buildings aren’t allowed to be more than four or five stories high, which means there is a constant housing shortage. 

We rent our home and it became ours the only way it’s really possible these days: we have a good network. Friends of ours were expecting their second child, and bought a larger apartment in one of the surrounding suburbs and were moving out. I had always liked the complex and their apartment. It met all of our requirements: In the city, close to the river, a large balcony, two bedrooms.

I was pregnant with Emmie when we told them we wanted their unit. As much as I’m a believer in living small I knew it was only a matter of time before we would outgrow our one bedroom apartment. 

Lucky for us, the owners of the apartment were ‘Sozial’. Sozial is a term which implies that people are community minded and consider the greater good. In our case our landlords valued keeping Munich affordable for families. They could have raised the rent (by a lot) but they didn’t. Our rent is far below market value for this area. We were lucky. A lot of families, especially ones with more than one kid, just can’t swing staying directly in the city anymore. 

We told them we wanted to stay for at least ten years so we actually invested a lot in the unit, even though it’s a rental. There was a cooking island and floor tiles that separated the open living area from the kitchen when we moved in. We took all of it out and had hardwood floors installed in the kitchen to make the main living space and kitchen one contiguous area.  We use the eating nook as a small work station. We installed a very long kitchen, the end of which is part of the ‘office’ space.

Since we knew we would be here a good long while, it was worth it to us to invest. I love this apartment. It’s small, but open and functional and works really well for our family. 

One last point about renting, the law is very much on the renters side here. You can feel more or less secure renting long term. The only way you can be evicted is if the owner wants to move in themselves, which does happen, but it’s not that common and long-term renting is not unusual here.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I moved to Northern California after high school and got my degree in graphic design in San Francisco in the mid-nineties. I was living in Oakland, California when I got bit by the travel bug. I had been freelancing at start-ups as a web designer in the bay area in between trips to India, Cuba and Central America. I was around 26 or 27 years old and I knew that I would fall into a life script something like: Solidify a career, settle down and have a family (or attempt to do so) and that if I ever wanted to really experience life in another country it was now or never. 

Through a variety of circumstances (I had some friends in Munich) I went to Munich on a whim. I came on a tourist visa, and through a series of twist and turns got a job at an American global digital agency that was setting up their Germany headquarters in Munich. These were the boom years of Web 1.0, looking back it was astonishingly easy and I was lucky. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay, but here I am, twenty years later!

One of the things I love about Munich, and never noticed until I had a family, is how much incredible public space there is for kids and families. There are amazing playgrounds everywhere. In the summer the open air swimming pools are my favorite. Most pools are within a garden or a park giving them a slightly paradise-like feel. One of my favorites is Maria Einsiedel Bad, which uses a special kind of algae as a natural chlorine and channels part of the Isar through it. I used to blog about life in Munich and wrote about it, and of course the Beer gardens are fabulous!

Munich has one of the biggest ratios of green space per person and you can get to the alps and be in a natural setting quickly by train, bike or even a really long walk. I never thought this was important to me until I lived here for awhile. 

Munich is regularly in the top ten, if not top five lists of cities with the highest quality of life. It’s not edgy and cool like Berlin, but it’s a spectacularly nice place to live. I like to joke that Berlin is your bad boy boyfriend and Munich is your solid, reliable husband.

The crime rate is absurdly low. It’s an extremely walkable city. At around 6 or 7 years old many kids go to school and get around on their own either by walking, on their kick-scooters, bikes, or public transportation. When I try to explain how different this is from growing up in L.A. I just get blank stares.

I also never knew how much I love living in a bicycle friendly city (another post about that). I never considered a bike as a primary means of transportation, but now we are a family of two cargo bikes and no car. Munich recently had an electro cargo bike subsidy program and they’ve exploded. At around 3 o’clock every day you see parents zipping around everywhere in their big cargo bikes carting around kids along with anything from groceries to dogs.

Speaking of dogs, it’s also a great place to own a dog, you can take your dog just about anywhere except for the grocery store and the bakery, and many of the parks and woods are all leash free.

This is difficult to say out loud, but I can never imagine moving back to the states. If we moved back to the America our life would immediately be about 1000x more difficult. We’d have to work a ton more, would have less income, spend more time in a car and have less time together as a family. 

You’ve heard it all before: child care is basically free, everyone gets 14 months paid family leave, every family gets a monthly child stipend, university is free, we have universal, quality health care. Yes the rent is expensive, but without the stress of expenses like saving for college, not needing to have a car (or two), a family can live here on one professional salary — my husband is even on a four day contract, he doesn’t work Fridays. Every time I hear about a school shooting my heart breaks and I just can’t imagine raising Emmie back home

I quit my corporate job over ten years ago and now run my own website design company, where I help small businesses launch a website in one day. I’m good at managing against deadlines. I suppose managing creative projects over the years has helped with my organizational skills, but to be honest, I don’t find a lot of overlap. In business everyone operates with at least a pretense of rationality. With kids, it’s chaos!

The things I find challenging parenting a small child require more soft skills: patience (not my strong suit), confronting my own shortcomings as a human being, trying to figure out what the right thing to do is when it isn’t at all obvious, and being consistent with limits and boundaries.

When I think about running my business, there are lot of factors I can anticipate and control. With kids, things are just flying at you every minute and you have to pull yourself together and respond as lovingly and appropriately as you can on the spot. It’s a lot harder than ‘work’ work, and I’m a lot less confident at it.

Living in a small space, it’s really easy to keep clean and orderly, which is important to me. At the beginning of the pandemic, when we had our first lockdown and everything was closed, even playgrounds, it was really hard, as it was for everyone. Like a lot of women, I found myself suddenly in an endless cycle of cooking, care taking and cleaning. Not having an extra room for an office, or to just get away, made it feel extremely cramped. Luckily I’ve gotten a shared office space since then.

If you want to downsize or simplify, get comfortable with getting rid of stuff and constantly decluttering. It helps if you aren’t very sentimental. I’ve received gifts that we don’t need or I don’t like. Later, I’ll pick up the gift, and Marie Kondo-style say ’thank you’ to whoever gave it to us and throw it right in the trash. You gotta be ruthless.

Germany, like most countries, has muddled through the last few years. One thing that initially wasn’t so great was the vaccine roll out. They wanted to prioritize who got vaccinated first (older folks and people at risk) which is fair, but it really slowed down the process. I think the way the U.S. did it was a lot better. A lot of my American friends here were flying back to the states so they could just get vaccinated. 

One thing Germany did quite well was make free and ubiquitous testing a center piece of their Covid management strategy. When we were finally able to visit California last summer I brought a bunch of rapid tests with me. You can get them everywhere here and they cost about 80 cents each. Everyone is constantly testing themselves, especially before gatherings. I was really surprised that no one was using them back home, but I understand they’re more common now. 

I think Germany is trying really hard to avoid more lockdowns. Now what is or isn’t allowed is influenced by hospital capacity, not infection rates.

If you’re vaccinated or have medical proof that you’ve had Covid you can go almost anywhere, sometimes you need to prove those things and also have an official test too. It’s all monitored through QR codes via an app on your phone, so you always have to make sure you have your phone, and it’s charged when you go out, along with your ID.

I hope my family always remembers the gatherings that we’ve had. We entertain a lot and despite the small size of our place we’re able to comfortably host Thanksgiving dinners and holiday gatherings. I want Emmie to remember our neighbors and how we were a part of a little community in the heart of a wonderful city. I hope she forgets the loud obnoxious fights the young couple upstairs sometimes get into!

I love that our house is always filled with life. I think it’s going to take some real adjusting to when we revert to being just a couple again one day.

I wish someone had told me that if you live outside of your home country for long enough you will kind of feel you don’t truly belong anywhere. I will never be German (even if I get dual citizenship) and even though I’ll always be American, and deeply identify as an American, I’m not really fully American anymore. When I return to the states I have a sense of detachment. I feel I’m a visitor observing. In about three years I’ll have lived in Germany as long as I’ve lived in America, which is really weird. 

It’s also just really hard living away from my family. Especially now that we have a child and I want her to feel connected to my side of the family and also have a sense of being American. I have a crisis every Christmas and sometimes ask myself why I made my life so complicated. Life has trade offs!

——

Thank you, Eleanor! I love taking a look around a smaller spaces and seeing how they feel so livable and bright and open. The white cabinets everywhere and the bright light from all the windows really opens everything up. The personal touches, from the art, to the toys, to the family heirlooms make everything feel homey and warm.

Eleanor sharing what she loves about living in Germany was so refreshing too. Even the idea of having a word, Sozial, to describe people who are community minded and consider the social good, is so wonderful. So often in the states when we talk about people like that the words have negative connotations. People wanting to make their community better because it is good for society is a good thing!

How do you try and stay community minded? What kinds of things are important to you to promote communal welfare and well-being? Do you think this is a value that exists in your community?

SOURCES

Kitchen cabinets are IKEA Kungsbacka

Original Art by Elizabeth Reagh (Eleanor’s Aunt)

‘Happy’ folding card (Made by Eleanor’s Dad!)


Photos by Sara Parsons. Living with Kids is Edited by Joshua 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 features@designmom.com.

27 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Eleanor Mayrhofer”

  1. My favorite Living with Kids yet! I love Eleanor’s style, boldness to live in another country, and her savoring of the incredible lifestyle she and her family have created. Eleanor, thank you for being so inspiring!

  2. What a beautiful life she has created! Unloved learning the term sozial as well–something I think of often but don’t have a word to articulate.

  3. I visited Munich 15 years ago as a young 20-something and was underwhelmed. The analogy about Berlin being the bad boy boyfriend precisely captures my sentiments back then. Eleanor’s tour and comments make me think I’d love it now, though, as a late 30’s, swimming, biking, parent of two. Beautiful home, thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Steph – I had to laugh! Yes, Munich isn’t exactly ‘edgy’. All the things all the things one would think of as a ‘bug’ in their 20s are a ‘feature’ as you get older and have a family.

  4. Such a great tour! I understand so completely that feeling of rootlessness. I’ve been out of the States for 13 years, living in Rome, East Africa and now Canada. Like you, I just can’t see myself ever going back, even though I don’t feel “at home” where I am. I told my daughter, some people have roots. We have wings.

  5. Beautiful, Eleanor! Really loved it all – especially your perspective. Your sweet Emmie is blessed to have such wonderful, thoughtful parents.

    Next week marks 20 years since my husband and I left the States. Four countries later, there’s no real going back. Our daughters have been to the U.S. over a dozen times and love it—but Asia is home.

  6. As someone who has lived in Germany for nearly 14 years, the sentiment about not feeling that you fully belong anywhere really hits home for me. While I don’t really have the desire to move back to the US (for all of the reasons Eleanor noted and then some) and have very much adapted to life here, there is still something at the heart of me that is definitively American and will always be there. Thank you, Eleanor, for sharing your home and your experience!

  7. What a cozy home! I loved seeing your living spaces & reading about life in Munich. I live in California, but have spent time living in places where you walk everywhere, use public transit or bike. Our oldest daughter & two little girls live in Arlington, VA….. & walk everywhere (rain, snow, slush or humidity). Initially, it took time getting used to, but I love the freedom of not having a car. Oh, and, I visited your blog…. Reading all your wonderful posts about adjusting to life in another country. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Too funny. I was reading the description of living in Munich (which I’ve only visited once), and thought to myself, wow, that sounds a lot like Arlington, even down to the bike paths…that’s where I live! :)

  8. Beautiful home tour! I lived in Berlin for nearly 5 years and definitely understand her comparison of Munich and Berlin. Bavaria is so gorgeous though and I’d imagine a great place to be with a child. I always used to say that living in Germany is like living in the U.S. in the 1980s….so much freedom for kids

  9. Following Design Mom and reading this post both make me want to move out of the US. We won’t, because we have married children and (more importantly 😉) grandkids in the US. But people who think the US is the best thing there is are not understanding what else is out there, at least that’s how it seems to me.

  10. So cool to read this! I too grew up in LA, moved later to the Bay Area for my masters and then to teach middle school in Oakland, and now live in Switzerland. It is nice to read someone’s journey who is a few years ahead of me. We have only lived abroad for 4 years but we are making a permanent move to the Netherlands this year, so I will learn even more this feeling of not really belonging. Thank you for sharing your story and beautifully simple home!

  11. Danielle McClellan

    Wow! Do I relate to this. My husband and I left Washington state to travel with our nine-year old to southern Spain for one year—now almost six years later we are still here, have built a wonderful life for ourselves, and are fully committed to staying for the foreseeable future. Like Eleanor, I love the community-minded, family friendly life in Europe even while missing relatives back home. I too feel a bit betwixt and between. Your home is beautiful, Eleanor. Thank you for sharing it and your thoughts on life in Germany.

  12. What a great apartment and great article. I love visiting Germany and especially Munich. This article made me love Munich even more. Thanks for sharing.

  13. One of my favorite Living with Kids features to date! Chiming in along with other expats about the ‘in between’ feeling when living overseas. I’ve been back in the US nearly 20 years and only lived in France for 4, but there are some pop cultural nuances and references that I still don’t quite get because I lived away. Our friend group here is a mix of Americans and foreigners, and we’re often called a “mini United Nations.” I feel an affinity with foreigners. We’ve travelled back to Europe several times (and still have friends there), and I get my “fix’ of living the European lifestyle. I don’t think I would ever live away from the U.S. again because I’m close to my family and friends here, but I enjoy our visits there so much!

  14. As a former US expat, I relate to so much! Thank you for sharing, Gabrielle and Eleanor!

    Also, riding ebikes for all your errands sounds like the dream!!!

  15. This tour was one of my favorites. So enjoyable, the pictures but especially the writing content–thanks for sharing your life with us, Eleanor! :)

  16. This was almost painful to read because it opened the door to the little dream in my heart of living in Europe again. I spent a few months in Germany in my 20s (mostly Berlin) and fell in love completely (and it was WINTER!). I’m also from Los Angeles and have made my home here with my husband and our young daughter. But yeah, there are so many systemic forces that make family life just so difficult in the US. I often fantasize about living in Germany but I can’t seem to be able to stomach the trade off of being so far from family. :(

    Thank you for the interview though…I loved reading about your life in Munich!

  17. Love this! Im Canadian but we moved to Munich when I was 10. I spent many years abroad (Canada, the Netherlands, Austria and infamously Berlin…) but when it came to raising my kids, Munich won, hands down. We are a cargo biking multi cultural family of 5, also living in the Au! Love this feature so much because living in the smallest area of Munich, it was just such a surprise!

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