Living With Kids: Hillary Pember

When Hillary reached out about sharing her family’s story I loved that it wasn’t one we hear all the time. She and her husband had just started figuring out being empty nesters, with their 3 kids all in college and out of the home. Then, the pandemic hit and two of the kids had to move back home. Which meant schedules, expectations and routines had to be adjusted. But their comfy, New England style home was just what the needed to weather the storm. Welcome, Hillary!

Houses have always had intense meaning to me. When I grew up, my family situation was such that the brick and mortar of our home became a very comforting force when things were challenging. For a while my childhood home was my link to a family. I have carried that feeling with me into adulthood. It is heart wrenching for me to leave a place I have lived. I think this is a contributing factor to how long we have lived in our current home and why it will be extremely challenging to leave. This house has been the backdrop to everything meaningful to my family. I have raised all my children here, had countless celebrations, holidays and sorrows within these cracked walls.

My husband Joe and I moved into this 170 year old Queen Anne Victorian when my oldest was almost one. We have been married now for close to 30 years and are in that awkward stage of life where we are not quiet empty nesters but not a full house either. Joe is a software engineer and I was in management consulting until my third child came, which is when I switched to a job I found far more challenging: being a full-time stay at home mom. Recently I have retired from that gig and am now doing marketing/market research for a science museum in the Boston area.

In addition to my husband, my family consists of our three children; Jake, Collin, and Rachael. Two out of our three children are in college and our oldest has graduated and lives and works in Boston. Jake is two years out of school and in that scary exciting place of the unknown, working and trying to figure out what life is all about. Collin graduates from college in the spring and is dealing with all the emotions that come with preparing to say goodbye to a place and people he loves. Spring term senior year is such a hard and special time. Rachael our youngest is a sophomore and attempting to navigate a “normal” college experience in this odd pandemic age. Socially and academically everything for her right now is upside down.  

All three of my children have ever only known this house as their home, which is very special to them and me. Our house is located in a small town in Massachusetts. We are about an hour from Boston and right on the New Hampshire boarder. The town is challenging to describe. It is not suburban or rural but a mix of both, leaning more towards rural. Many people have horses around us. We frequently have horseback riders passing by the house and occasionally horse drawn carriages — it is adorable. There are several apple orchards and berry farms around us. We are ridiculously spoiled come spring, summer and fall, with fresh produce and fruit picking. We have really enjoyed the hiking trails and conservation land that also surround us.

It sounds completely heavenly but there are things that detract from living here. Namely everything is a drive away; nothing seems to be close by. Additionally I would have preferred for our home to be located in a neighborhood but we live on a double yellow line road.

I was also very attached to my home town growing up. My current town is nothing like my childhood town. I did not realize until we moved here how important it was for me to have a vibrant town center with sidewalks and stores and coffee shops. It is odd how we fall back on strong childhood foundations and either push towards repeating them or pull away from them. I keep finding I push towards the structural aspects I was once familiar with and want to see repeated.  

Prior to purchasing our house I envisioned it would be a blast to go house hunting. That fantasy faded fast. Joe and I started off looking at towns close to Boston and then quickly realized that would be financially unrealistic. The end game was always my strong desire to stay at home when we had children. There are always tradeoffs in life and one was moving further away from the city and into a more rural setting in order to make that desire happen. When we first started looking we were only shown new construction. Joe and I both had grown up in older homes and new construction just did not feel right to either of us (once again pushing towards the once familiar).

We kept passing this beautiful old house on our way to see new construction and had to beg and scream to get our agent to give us a walk through. When we walked in we both fell in love. Sometimes that is how it works, like finding your life partner you just know this is it…this is the one. We both looked at each other and pointed to where the Christmas tree would go. That’s the kind of moment when you know the house needs to be yours.

Bringing up children in this house has been such a treat. It really was built to have kids running around and playing inside and out. The house in photos looks so stiff and formal but it is far from that.

We were fortunate to have had a substantial amount of furniture given to us from our parents. The style fits well with the house and the fact that it all is old and used (others might call the furniture antique) made it all the more palatable for the kids to jump and play on without my caring too much. We have purchased new pieces here and there as well — a nice mix of old and new. Ikea has additionally been a godsend when the kids’ rooms needed to be updated and modernized.

As any mother can relate, there always seemed to be a mess when the kids were young. The amount of clutter would actually make me dizzy. I came to a peaceful place with the untidiness by embracing “contained messes”. If I could throw stuff in a basket, bin or wooden box I was good to go. I really had to be inventive as Victorians have limited storage or closet space. Name a container and I have probably spray-painted it and put it to use. Painted plastic garbage cans were a great solution for blocks and trucks, as were Moses baskets for stuffed animals, and old bureau drawers painted with wheels attached to go under beds. Any inexpensive organizational project I have an odd love for.

I pride myself on being a fairly organized mom and love the white board I had made for the kitchen closet. It has a space for the weekly schedule and meals. Even when the kids are away I still use it. I painted the lower kitchen cabinets in chalkboard paint so the kids could draw while I made dinner and put up sound board in the upper cabinets in place of more expensive cork board. Putting up sound board and then painting it the color of the room has been one of my best finds as far as an inexpensive practical solution. When Jake wanted a dart board in his room, sound board was the compromising answer.  

I reflect on my time as a stay at home mom as one of the things I am most grateful for in my life. It is and always will be hands down the hardest job I ever had…no pay, huge responsibility, coworkers that can be extremely grumpy, irrational and blame you for everything. But the worst part is I will not get my job evaluation until the kids turn 30 and I see what damage I have done! Being a stay at home mom was hard but in all honestly I would not trade a second of it. My parenting life revolved around trips to explore Boston, museums, hikes and endless trips to go fruit picking.

I never thought of myself as a helicopter mom but I now kind of fear I might have been. I was always the mom to volunteer to go on field trips and be the room parent. I loved that stuff. I think my kids now appreciated how much I treasured being with them but looking back I am sure they probably wished I would take an enormous step back! Someone once told me the days with young children are like years but the years like days. There was never a truer statement and I just always wanted to savor that time with them. However I wish I had known then to not just spend time with them but to really pause in the day and relish the moments. Just be still, smile and take in the chaos.

Similar to when I became a parent, I felt a great anticipatory anxiety about letting go of the intense phase of parenting and becoming quasi empty nesters. But because of the pandemic we honestly have only experienced about 6 months being on our own. Getting reoriented with “us” as a couple verses “us” as a family unit was scary. Both my husband and I had been so focused on the kids that we were sadly unsure what we would do with our time together once they all left. That sounds awful but it is true.

At first the house was uncomfortably quiet but soon the new normal was established. We started doing funny things I always envisioned my grandparents doing — like puzzles, board games and we even did a book club just the two of us. It was hysterical but really fun. As an added bonus there was rarely a mess! I really liked that aspect. We were going for hikes and long weekends away and really getting to know us as a couple again. And then just when we were getting our groove back, Covid struck.

When the virus first came to everyone’s attention Collin had been in Italy on a semester abroad. He had been looking forward to this experience for as long as I can remember and was having a truly amazing time. Very abruptly all the students on the program were told they needed to go home. He safely arrived back and although he understood the situation, the last place he wanted to be was at home. Likewise Rachael who had a rough start to her freshman year at college was finally feeling comfortable and enjoying college and was yanked back to living with her mom and dad. Our house became an unpleasant place that they both had reluctantly been sent back to.

Neither had any desire to be home. Routines were off with everyone trying to find corners to work and study in and figure out how to live together when no one was really home out of choice. Honestly all problems of the privileged. Things took a turn when my wonderful mother-in-law got sick with the virus one Thursday evening in April and died three days later. Jake came home from Boston for an extended stay and very quickly the house became a safe haven and retreat we all needed. The familiarity of being together in this old house, which has been like a family member, was just what we needed to heal after the death of someone so incredible and precious to us all.

That feeling of the house being a safe haven has continued as the months have pressed on. The house became the epicenter of our lives. I think like many people went into a frenzied mode when the lockdown took effect. It felt almost like nesting in preparation for a baby except in reverse. I cleaned out every room including our attic which was really just one large junk drawer. The purging process was replaced with a fixing phase. Every minuscule fix-it job that I had put off for years was being completed. This has been replaced with “let’s paint everything” phase. I currently am residing in this space as well as contemplating learning to build bookshelves, tapping trees to make maple syrup and thinking about getting some bee hives.

It is inevitable that the pandemic experience will fundamentally change us all as individuals, as families and as a society. My thoughts change almost daily from this experience. I have always felt that how an individual approaches life in general will give the best indication as to how they will interpret tough situations. I try (I stress the word “try”) to learn from experiences – good and bad. Personally this past year has proven to be one of the hardest yet most impactful and growth enhancing ones of my life. I have learned to be far more patient, to go with the flow, to soak in the moments in the day, and be grateful for everything and everyone in my life. I know my family has expressed similar feelings. I cannot imagine that the homes we live in will not take on a different meaning to people — we’ve all spent so much time in them at this point. I have always felt a connection to my home but now even more so. This old house has proven to be my haven, a place to keep my children safe and a shelter from this pandemic storm.

——

Thank you, Hillary. This home feels relaxed and casual and comfortable in the best way. I love the white board schedule, the chalk-board paint cabinets and the sound board bedrooms. Nothing feels too precious. And it is refreshing to recognize that furniture (especially when kids are small) will never stay pristine or perfect. So if it is a vintage piece that has already taken some bumps and bruises, all the better.

It is astonishing to me that we are here, a year later, and we are still telling tales of how COVID has changed our lives. I thought last March when things started shutting down how I would have to temporarily adapt the interview format with a couple questions about staying at home; that it would just be for a month or two. And here we are a full year later and it’s still impacting our lives. So many of us have lost family and friends to COVID like Hillary and her family did. It is a uniquely awful time to lose a loved one. 

How are you are yours muddling through the pandemic? Are you cautiously optimistic with vaccines rolling out? Or are you keeping your enthusiasm in check so you won’t be disappointed?

SOURCES

Living room Sofa

Floor Lamp

Sound Board for walls 


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.

9 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Hillary Pember”

  1. My husband and I both received our first shots last week. Our daughter (1st grade) returned to school in person after a year at home. We’re planning vacations for the summer (domestic) and it’s all starting to feel more normal. Cautiously optimistic! New president, new appreciation for friends and our community, learning the lessons of the last year that I don’t think we’ll forget.

  2. What a lovely home. Thank you to Hillary for sharing your family story. I could relate to it some as my kids are in their 20s so we’re “mostly” empty nesters as well. I’m so sorry for the sudden loss of your mother-in-law to the virus. I wish you all peace.

  3. This was one of my favorites ever! So deeply relatable on so many levels, I love that it’s such a welcoming space that feels like it could belong to any of my friends, warm, lovely, lived in. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I am in a totally different season of life and place in the country (I have a seven month old; I live in New Orleans; my house is new construction), but I loved this post so much! I recently did a mini-renovation, purge, and rearranged my entire home. What I thought about the entire time was what I wanted my child to think about when he remembers his family home. My interest in West Elm has been swapped for cozy rugs and long-lasting linens and a spot for board games. I want to create the family feeling this lovely home has. Thank you for sharing!!

  5. Hillary, I love your home and reading your story. I’ve lived the flip side of the trade-off you mention — settling for a much smaller house with in-town conveniences but less of the charm, and sometimes pining for the more rural aspects you enjoy. Love the radiators and the grandfather clocks, and the various furniture with keyholes, which always make me imagine treasures hidden within. Enjoyed hearing about your brief empty nest experiences. Sorry about your mother in law’s sudden passing.

  6. Oh, this is a home! I just love it! Thank you for sharing it, Hillary.

    We lived in an old Victorian in NJ about 20 years ago and this house reminds me so much of it. Thank you for reminding me of that lovely time in my life.

  7. I really loved reading this being a older parent of pandemic high schooler and college age students.
    The vertical whiteboard is brilliant!

  8. My husband grew up in Dunstable (in-laws are still there), and we lived for 9 wonderful years in Shirley, right next to Groton. We moved there almost three years ago (we’re Navy) to the PNW, and, while there is much to love here (the nature!) I so miss New England. They just don’t have that grounded, historical sense of place this side of the country. I was reading this thinking, hmm, an hour from Boston, right on the NH border….that sounds an awful lot like Pepperell. I love the houses in that town. So I’m guessing (given the sports jersey picture) that this house is either in Pepperell or Townsend.

    I miss that whole area. Can’t wait to return home someday, post-Navy. I too, would love to live in Boston, or in one of the old suburbs right outside it (Arlington, Melrose, etc), but yeah, the prices are insane now.

    New England is special. It really is a region unlike any other in this country.

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