Living With Kids: Jessica Donovan

By Gabrielle.

When Jessica first reached out, she wasn’t even technically Living With Kids in her home. You see, Jessica and her family live in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, which is the oil capital of the country, and there was a massive wildfire in the early summer that displaced them all for a few weeks. Thankfully, despite a little smoke damage, their home is okay. But so many of their friends lost everything.

To tell you that the entire experience has shed a new light on Jessica’s meaning of home is probably an understatement.

Welcome, Jessica. I’m so happy to share you.

Hi, everyone! I’m Jessica. I live with my small family in northern Alberta, Canada. My husband, Nate, works as a power engineer and is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He’s been known to wake me in the middle of the night just to tell me a fun fact. He’s also really sweet and loves us so much. I probably don’t deserve him.

Our daughter, Isla, is a spunky little fifteen-month-old with a huge personality. When somebody asks me what she’s like, I usually laugh and talk about how funny she is. She has us cracking up every day. She also has a wicked temper. By the time she was one month old, we were well acquainted with her angry cry. I stay home to raise her and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nate and I grew up in the same small town on Canada’s east coast. We met in high school but never really connected until a couple of years later. By the time I graduated high school, our town’s only industry had shut down, forcing my father and hundreds of other workers to pack up and move west to find work.

I continued university on the east coast, but when I graduated both Nate and I decided to move out here where I began a job, and he started his trade at the local college. And that’s how we ended up here, in Fort McMurray, Alberta. It is a remote community, set amidst Canada’s boreal forest and a four-and-a-half hour’s drive from the nearest major city. It’s small, but has a dense population.

Our home backs onto the woods and when we lie in bed, on a good night, we can literally watch the northern lights dance outside our window. It’s a magical feeling.

But this city has been called a lot of things. A work town. An oil town. A boom town. Basically, it gets a bad rap. And I get it — I do. There are things I dislike about this place. The noisy, lifted trucks and their reckless drivers. The fact that I have to order almost everything online. And, of course, how desperately cold it is in the winter time.

I remember certain mornings, back when I worked, trudging through a foot of snow in minus 40 below at 5:00 am to get to my bus stop. Those winter days are dark and dreary, and people here really load up on their vitamin D supplements and sun lamps to get through them.

And as parents, specifically, there are challenges. We don’t have family nearby who we can call on. If there was ever an emergency and Nate or I had to go to the hospital, Isla would come, too. She comes to doctor’s appointments, bank appointments, and she tags along for date nights. It’s a reality for us and so many other parents who live here. You get used to it, but those early days when Isla was small, it killed me that I couldn’t call my mother to come over and give me a hand.

Having said that, there are things we like about this place too. A friend and I were talking a few years ago about how there’s a certain camaraderie among the people who live here. She said it’s like you get to wear a badge on your sleeve, and it’s true. Every other mother I’ve gotten to know here has had to deal with the same struggles I have, and it’s comforting to know you’re not alone.

We bought our little two bedroom, two bathroom condo when we were in our early twenties and in the midst of planning our wedding. The buildings were brand new and in this pricey city, we were scoring a good deal, so we jumped on it. We didn’t have any choice as far as cabinets or flooring or appliances, so we just picked the unit we thought had the best view! Truly, we were just so excited to have a place of our own.

That was four-and-a-half years ago, and since then, it’s gotten a little crowded. Two adults, a toddler, and a Lab make for close quarters. We added some personal touches with paint and new light fixtures, and for us, this is home. Home is a special place, but we never knew just how much it meant to us until the events of this past spring.

Wildfires are common in this region, and living here you just get used to a little smoke and haze during hot periods in the summer. The day Isla was born was particularly bad, and I remember walking into the hospital, in active labour, taking a mental note of the reddish-coloured sky. Typically, these fires are far away don’t pose an imminent threat. This year, however, that changed.

The fires started before the snow had even melted, and come May, one had grown to an enormous size and was encroaching close to our city. On this particular day, my mother-in-law was in town visiting us and Nate was at work. We knew the fire was bad, so I turned the radio on to hear any updates. Hour by hour, a new neighborhood was being evacuated, so I decided it was time to start packing a few bags, just in case. I went to work unloading our safe and grabbing some bottles and diapers for Isla. At this point Nate was sent home from work, but with the chaos our city was in, he was stuck in traffic for a long time.

The moment the radio stations went off the air was the moment it got real for me. The last thing the announcer said was that the entire city was now under a mandatory evacuation, and to go north. This place has one highway in and out, so 90,000 people trying to flee at the same time was a recipe for disaster. I made the decision that we couldn’t wait any longer, and it was time to go. With the help of my mother-in-law, I packed up my baby and my dog and we left. I didn’t know where we were going or when we’d be back.

Traffic moved at a crawl for a long time, and I remember looking in the rear-view mirror, seeing my city engulfed in a cloud of black smoke, and also my daughter’s face looking back at me. My only concern in that moment was getting her someplace safe.

It was scary to think that I had no idea where I was taking her, or when I’d be able to get another good meal into her, apart from the little fruit packets I threw into our bag. Cell reception was bad at this point too, and I hadn’t been able to touch base with Nate for a while, adding to the fear and frustration of those hours.

We ended up going to a work site 90 km north of the city, coincidentally the exact one my husband works for and had just left a few hours prior (face palm). These sites are big. They have camps for lodging workers and they have aerodromes with charter flights that go in and out each day. My mother-in-law stayed the night there with our dog, and Isla and I ended up on a plane bound for Calgary that night (where my parents live).

It was while we were waiting for the plane to take off, around midnight, with Isla now asleep in my arms, that I finally connected with Nate. He had gone home to grab a few things, but was forced to drive in the other direction, away from us. At that point he was stranded on the highway with no gas. He was a long way from danger though, and had thankfully thought to pack himself a sleeping bag. We didn’t know the state of our home, but we were all safe, and that was good enough. We landed in Calgary around 2:00 in the morning. I had no car seat for Isla, and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. We slept well that night though, and the next morning I had a real good cry. Nate finally made it to us that afternoon, as did his mother and our dog. That was a happy reunion, to say the least.

We gradually received updates about which areas of the city had been hit hardest, and were so grateful when we learned that our home was okay. With roughly 2,400 buildings having been burned to the ground, we knew we were lucky. I’ve never received (or sent) so many messages in my life as I did in those hours with the simple words, “Are you safe?”

The kindness we received during this time was something I’ll never forget.

A few days after being evacuated I went out to a Babies ‘R Us, in need of a few things for Isla. They offered me a discount, just for being an evacuee, and when the lady behind the till finished ringing up my things, she said she had one more thing she wanted to contribute. She came around the desk and gave me a hug. It was the most generous thing a stranger had ever given me, and something I really needed in that moment. The next two months were spent at my parent’s place, in a period of waiting. The air quality at home wasn’t safe for children right away and our place needed some restoration work due to minor smoke damage, but we were so fortunate to be able to stay with family, given that many others were forced to stay in evacuation centres.

Coming home wasn’t the relief I thought it would be. All our belongings were packed away within hundreds of boxes (as they had all been cleaned), and the walls and floors all needed to be scrubbed down. The work ahead of us seemed insurmountable. Getting us through it though, was the reminder of how lucky we were to still have these belongings, these walls, these floors. We know so many people who lost everything, and my heart was broken for them. We, along with so many others, made it a priority to donate food and clothing to our local charities.

The city was a different place — physically, yes, but also on a deeper level. We would go to the grocery store and see people crying. Drivers seemed kinder, more willing to slow down and let someone go ahead of them. There were benefit concerts and all kinds of wonderful events to help those in need. It really felt like the whole country had come together to help our community. It’s been a few months now, and our lives are mostly back to normal. I’ve never been more grateful for the slow and steady pace of an average day.

I’m a little old fashioned and have always preferred the term homemaker to stay-at-home-mom. Yes, mothering is the most important thing I do each day, but I also really enjoy keeping home. It might sound dorky, but I don’t mind washing dishes. My mind wanders the same way it does when I take a long walk. Sure, there are days when I feel like all I do is pick up toys and sweep up dog fur, but there’s something so satisfying about putting your feet up at the end of the day knowing you’ve put in a solid day’s work.

We’re fortunate to have a really great sleeper on our hands, so our day typically starts around 7:00 am, when Isla wakes up. She has her bottle, I make her porridge, and get a load of laundry going. That’s probably my most important chore of the day. If I go a day without doing laundry, suddenly the basket looks like it’s been piled up for a week! I don’t get it! And we’re only a family of three!

Isla and I like to run errands in the morning, or maybe head to the library. When Nate is off work we’ll take her swimming or go out for a nice walk together. She’s getting to an age now where she lights up when he walks through the door, and it’s the sweetest thing to witness. I usually tackle the housework while Isla naps so that when she’s in bed for the night, it’s adult time. We’ll crack open a couple of beers, relax on the couch, and probably binge-watch The Office for a few hours.

I hope Isla remembers the quirky little things that make this family ours. Growing up, my older brother and I got used to some weird traditions. Like some nights how we’d all pile onto the same bed and have these big family wrestling matches. Or on Christmas morning when we always ate cherry cheesecake for breakfast.

We’re so excited to start little traditions like this with Isla. We’re not sure what they’ll be yet, but I think they’ll happen naturally and they’ll be things that she can chuckle about when she’s older.

Isla has made me a far more selfless person. Not that I think I was selfish before her, necessarily, but it’s satisfying to be able to pour your heart and soul into someone who isn’t yourself. To watch this little person grow and flourish, and to know in your heart that you are doing a good job. It’s silly, but the day I asked her where her nose was, and she pointed to it, was one of my proudest moments. I was like, “I taught her that! I birthed this human who knows where her nose is!” Ha. But really, she’s growing and learning and that just fills us up to the brim. It’s happiness on a whole new level.

I wish someone had told me about the pain involved with being a parent. Truly, it hurts to love someone as much as parents love their children. We want to give them everything, yet we want them to be humble. We want them to be safe, yet we want them to experience life. I didn’t know the emotional complexities that would come along with motherhood, but maybe nobody told me because I never could have understood it until I felt it for myself. This quote by Debra Ginsberg touched me very deeply the moment I read it:

“Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did – that everything involving our children was painful in some way. The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain. The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that — a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.”


Oh, Jessica. I can’t even imagine the devastation your sweet city has endured. Our thoughts are so with you. The hug you got at Babies ‘R Us just about melted me. Thank you for sharing your home and your courageous spirit with us.

I have to tell you, I felt a chill with these words: “Our home backs onto the woods and when we lie in bed, on a good night, we can literally watch the northern lights dance outside our window. It’s a magical feeling.” Anyone else enjoy an enviable backyard view? I’d love to hear about it.

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! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.

13 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Jessica Donovan”

  1. Such an interesting story. I was once evacuated for a brush fire although we were allowed back later that night and it was nothing like what happened in Alberta. But it sure makes you think about what “things” are important in your life.

  2. Also from the east coast of Canada. There are alot of local people who’ve gone west to Fort Mac and we followed the wildfire stories with horror. Watching dash cam videos of the evacuation was terrifying. I’m so happy your family is safe and you still have a home. Your story gave me the chills. I wish peace and healing to everyone in Fort Mac.

  3. So glad to hear your family made it through the fire with little loss Jessica! I have a cousin in Fort Mac, and his family was also lucky to not lose everything. I just can’t imagine what you all went through!

    Love the quote by Debra Ginsberg – it’s so spot on!

  4. We live in in Ontario and I remember watching dash cam videos of the evacuation and it was insanity! So happy you and your family are safe. Your home is lovely and very serene!

  5. I’m from the south shore of NS and have childhood friends now out working in fort MacMurray. Brrr… I ended up in US down south and I’m thankful every day for the heat and sunshine. No sun lamps needed.

    Loved your story.

  6. This is such a touching story Jessica and your house is lovely. Also you reminded me I have jeans in the washer that need to be hung up. Always the laundry…haha.

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