Living With Kids: Kelly Benoit-Bird

By Gabrielle.

I have two favorite things to tell you about Kelly. One is that she’s an oceanography professor, which sounds all sorts of cool and exciting and rather frightening, if you ask me! And the other is that she lives next door to a Christmas tree farm.

Actually, there are three. Because I am really excited to share someone with you who possesses a parenting style I just want to hug. In her words, she measures her success as a parent by this simple idea: if her son skins a knee, he is just as likely to call for his dad as his mom. Brilliant.

Please read on to hear how she balances her careers inside and outside the home, and also manages the daily obstacle course through train sets and Lego creations! Parents of little builders, unite! Welcome, Kelly!

Hi everyone! I’m Kelly, an oceanography professor and a wife and mom. Being a professor at a major research university is an intense career, combining research driven by competitive external grants with teaching and mentoring of graduate students.

In my work, I study how animals in the ocean find food. At home, I am constantly reminded that I do not belong in the kitchen, for everyone’s health and safety!

My husband, Chad, is my research assistant, which means that he takes the crazy ideas I come up with and makes them happen: everything from building equipment, ordering supplies, and processing data, to going to sea and maintaining systems. We met when we started working together and I fell in love with his desire to work towards making everyone around him happy and successful, something that makes him excel at his job and as a dad. Chad is thoughtful, funny, and sensitive, traits I am grateful our four and a half year old (make sure you don’t forget the half!) son, Kaelan has inherited. He has also inherited the passion we both share for making things and loves to spend time in our garage/machine shop working alongside us, playing with Legos, building machines by combining every building material in the house, and designing complex train tracks.

Kaelan is a fiercely loyal friend and a wonderful sidekick whose careful approach to people masks a wicked sense of humor. Our family motto – All together, one, two, three! – exemplifies our approach to life as a family.

I bought this house when I first moved to Corvallis for my career before I met my husband. As a graduate student in Hawaii, I was forced to move yearly and I didn’t want to move again. Ever. So, while I didn’t have any idea where my life would take me or with who, I had visions of raising a family here. I looked at more than 20 homes in the five days I had to find a house, and was beginning to think I was going to have to settle for a home that clearly would be shorter term than I wanted.

Then, the ad for this house was posted online in advance of an open house for agents and I begged to see it. It wasn’t quite finished being built yet but the moment I walked in the front door, I knew it was perfect! The open spaces, the beautiful oak woodwork that reflected the farm oaks in the Christmas tree farm next door, and the sun filled rooms.

It was a bit above my budget so I had to scramble to figure out how to make it work and lived with almost no furniture for a few years.

When I met my husband, he also loved the house. Together, we slowly converted the very blank – and very white! – canvas into our home. We started our life together with two couches and a mattress on the floor, which was really a blessing since we got to make all the other design choices together. I was fortunate that I could prepare for a long-term dream so early and that I met the right person to share it with.

I didn’t really choose to live in Corvallis, a town of about 55,000 residents surrounding a university with an enrollment of 30,000; I chose my department and colleagues. The affordable, funky, and friendly town that receives awards for being brainy, healthy, and bike friendly came as part of the package.

I quickly came to love living here and it felt like home in short order. Most people in town are somehow connected to the university which makes the city have a strong sense of community. I appreciate that people here take both their work and their lives very seriously, supporting a culture of family that permeates everything from the urban growth plan to restaurants that are closed on Sundays. House prices are slightly over the national average, but much less expensive than most other college towns and are remarkably lower than other cities that host major oceanographic institutions. Of course, part of the reason for that is that we are an hour away from the ocean, something that I find challenging both personally and professionally.

However, we are surrounded by farmland that provides spectacular produce, wine, and pasture raised meat, all of which can be purchased directly from the farmer at the week’s most important social event, the Saturday market, which is hosted by the river in our lively downtown. Food prices there are typically lower than the grocery store! I love that we have seasons including spectacular autumns, but I also love that we have to drive 30 minutes to see snow and rarely see excessive heat. Being outdoors is comfortable here year round if you can handle light rain in the winter, which means it’s easy to find ways to appreciate the spectacular natural beauty around us. For our family, that means lots of biking, time in the parks that are built in each neighborhood, hikes in the mountains that overlook our home, and trips to the coast where we can breathe in the sea air.

Our design style reflects our home’s architecture and location. I would describe it as comfortable, practical, colorful, and simple. Adding a child to the mix both pushed us to simplify further and challenged that simplicity. Everything must really work for our needs and we’ve been challenged to find organizational solutions that our son can maintain himself while preserving the clean lines we like in this home.

Our son is reflected in our décor but family life been folded in rather than redefining things wholesale, reflecting our general view on parenthood. I think the only thing from our pre-kid days that I miss is not having to tiptoe around extravagant creations – train tracks, Legos, machines – on the living room floor.

Despite our generally clean style, I love seeing photographs of our life’s moments so our walls are peppered with them. I take a lot of pictures so we’ve added a large digital picture frame in the kitchen/family room. The pictures revolve so I constantly find myself being surprised by a happy memory. Unexpected glimpses of those photos often end in family story time as our son asks about what was happening or recalls an event. Somehow, the active nature of these pictures makes them more of a feature in our life than regular prints.

The architecture of this house really worked for us from the start but many of the finishes did not. It’s taken us most of the last ten years to make the house ours. We changed out the tile kitchen counters to a much easier to clean, solid stone, removed the carpet in the master bathroom, replacing it with cork, and changed out the laundry room sink to a more durable one after a baby bathing mishap.

We’ve made a lot of aesthetic changes that have completely changed the way it feels to live in the house, for example, adding color with paint, changing out the kitchen backsplash from the boring cream to a custom DIY glass and slate creation, and adding homemade book rails and train racks in the family room. The biggest challenge was figuring out where to start and stop paint colors with such an open floor plan and rounded corners on the walls. Ultimately, we embraced it, choosing different paint colors for walls in the same space, masking off a rectangle in the middle of a wall for color in the kitchen, and adding stripes, horizontal in our son’s room, vertical in the guest space.

One of the spaces that works best for us is our open kitchen/family room. We love to be together even when we’re all doing different things so this large space in which we’ve defined different zones is perfect. When one of us needs a bit more space, our dining/living room is just on the other side of the kitchen, still accessible but a little more tucked away. Unless we’re sleeping, you’ll find all of us downstairs in some configuration.

We’ve chosen not to have a play room which facilitates all of us working and playing in the same space but requires thoughtful use of the always visible common space and creative storage. While there is typically at least one project taking up a table or floor somewhere, to keep the crazy under control, something we’ve discovered that we all need, we have dedicated the large closet under our stairwell to kid stuff and part of our coat closet to art supplies.

The toy closet works a bit like a library with only a few things checked out at a time, requiring returns before new things are taken out. We try to keep everything accessible, attractive, and easy to put away. Though I’ve never seen something like this, I wish that the downstairs had a large walk in closet that we could use to store all of the games, toys, and supplies for projects in one place – and wouldn’t require my 6’4” husband to crawl on his knees to get to the train track!

I do my best to be fully present in whatever I’m doing. Working fulfills me, making me more patient and engaged with the often repetitive duties of motherhood…while being a mom makes me more efficient, empathetic, and observant in my work. That doesn’t mean that I don’t work at home or deal with home things during the work day, but whatever I’m doing, I try to focus fully and realize that some things just won’t get done.

I just try to be the one to decide what those are instead of having them fall off the edge of the desk.

To do that, I think carefully about every request, assessing if it the task is something I’d enjoy doing, if I’m the best person to do it, and if the return is worth the investment. I don’t always succeed, of course, but having a strategy in advance is really helpful.

I have repeatedly heard the advice that a woman’s success in her career is most affected by her choice of a spouse. I absolutely agree and I know I hit the jackpot. When I was pregnant with my son, a collaborator of mine said that one of her greatest successes as a parent was that when one of her boys skinned a knee, he was just as likely to call for dad as mom. I now know exactly what she meant – she was trying to tell me that you have to be willing to let go. Your partner may not do things the same way you do but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong and if you want him to be able to do the job of parenting fully, you have to let him do it the way that works for him, no matter how hard it is to keep your mouth shut.

I was forced by a challenging first week of parenthood to learn this, as I simply couldn’t do many of the things that needed to be done. I couldn’t even pick up my babe by myself which set us up in a good pattern for co-parenting. As one example, we alternate who gets to do bedtime as part of sharing all the duties and joys of life equally. That isn’t to say that we split things 50/50 on a given day. One of us might have a stress at work that requires extra effort by the other at home, but over the long term, we carry the weight and experience the laughter together. I think it helps that we both work and live life side by side, working for the same goals with the same pot of resources as it minimizes potential conflicts. It also means that many days we’re together for more than 23 hours!

We live far away from family and have intense jobs so we are not afraid to outsource. Though, as a perfectionist, getting there wasn’t easy! Every few weeks, we come home to a totally clean house thanks to a dependable and efficient housecleaner, and each week our lawn is mowed and leaves cleaned up by a family yard care service.

When our son was very small – and occasionally now during pre-school breaks – he spent the day with another little boy and his mom, a professional caregiver we consider family. Now, he spends the day at an excellent pre-school in which we very much feel part of a community. He is thriving there are we are grateful that we could build our village around him with intention. We eat a lot of mostly healthy convenience foods, but we do so as a family each night. We are fortunate that with two careers, we can afford to use money to fix time problems and afford great, consistent care for our son. We are also lucky that both of us have very flexible hours so we can stay home with a sick kid, attend school concerts, and visit our son’s classroom.

My husband and I regularly discuss our priorities for life, both daily and long-term, to make sure that the systems we’ve set up are still working and are never afraid to renegotiate or try something new.

My husband and I are both oceanographers which requires spending time at sea. This year, we had a research expedition – which we call a cruise, but is nothing like a vacation! – that was very much a repeat of a prior project in a different location. So, for the sake of our son, we made the difficult decision that I wouldn’t go to sea this time and my husband would lead our team instead of both of us going, in part because I’ve had a lot of other travel this year.

However, in my role as the lead scientist on the project, it was important for me to meet with the research team when everyone is focused on the work, right before the ship sails. So, our whole family flew to the east coast so Chad and I could prepare our equipment aboard the ship while our son played at the beach and the park with a sitter. Then the three of us flew to the Bahamas to wait for the now loaded ship and our collaborators to arrive. I led the pre-cruise meeting before flying back. Kaelan and I extended a necessary layover on the east coast to spend a long weekend visiting family before heading home.

Kaelan is an excellent traveler but I prepared a lot for all of that time in airports, airplanes, and cars with special projects, stories, new toys, and snacks. In turn, Kaelan was great company, singing me songs, telling me stories, and pointing out interesting sights along the way. We had a wonderful time together. The two weeks home with just the two of us passed pretty quickly, except for the weekends which always seem longer when someone is missing. At the end, I have a renewed appreciation for the partnership my husband and I share – and a pretty big sleep deficit!

I hope my son remembers that he matters. Unless he’s a parent himself someday, he may not appreciate how we agonized over the big decisions like what school to send him to or how to instill values, but I hope he remembers that we listened (repeatedly) to his stories in the car on the way home, laughed at his silly jokes while working on a project, stopped every day on the way home to check out which trains were parked near our house, asked for his opinions and ideas as we traipsed through the neighbor’s tree farm, respected his boundaries while snuggling on the couch on family movie nights, listened curiously to his explanations of the machines he built throughout the house, answered all of his questions honestly, even at bedtime, and looked him in the eyes as he told us about his day while sharing a snack at the kitchen counter.

I hope he forgets the times he had to remind me that I could work on my patience, though I do hope he remembers that he always had something to teach me and that each day, I strove to be better than the day better.

You asked what has been my very, very, very favorite part about living with your son, and when I first read this question, a million wonderful moments flashed in front of me and memories of laughter filled my ears. However, after some thought, I realize that my favorite parts are quiet moments that cause me to think deeply: when my son asked me why his divorced grandparents aren’t friends anymore, when he wanted to know what things I love about his dad, or asked “If you can’t eat or move after death…can you feel?”

Seeing the world through Kaelan’s eyes and trying to answer the questions that will become his foundation for life challenge me to be a better person every day. I never imagined that someone so small could teach me more about life in a few years than I managed to acquire in all the 34 years before he made his slow and careful arrival.

I already miss the adorable, verbal kid-isms that are almost completely a thing of the past. But, what comes along with these incredible developments in speech and awareness is the ability to intentionally express love and gratitude. It fills me with such joy when my son whispers in my ear that he loves me because it means that he has internalized what love is how it feels to share it. My throat catches every time he shows love by standing up for a friend at school when someone says that they can’t play. or offering to close the blinds when his dad is not feeling well. An understanding of love in action is the most important thing I hoped we would to teach him.

I wish someone had told me that there are as many right ways to parent as there are parent-child relationships. I have been inspired and reassured by many models of motherhood, taking lessons from my aunts, friends, and colleagues as well as my mother. For me, being a good mom to the child I have been gifted doesn’t come from intuition or from modeling my perception of my childhood. It comes from hard work and careful listening, and is greatly influenced by my own happiness.

–-

So good, Kelly! I’m especially in love with this thought: “Whatever I’m doing, I try to focus fully and realize that some things just won’t get done. I just try to be the one to decide what those are instead of having them fall off the edge of the desk.”

I also like her toy closet philosophy, don’t you? How it works a bit like a library, where Kaelan can check out a limited number of toys or crafts at a time, is a solid solution to the kid-preferred drag everything out of the toy closet at once method! Oh, if we could all design our houses over again, we’d probably turn half our homes into closet space!

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.

19 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Kelly Benoit-Bird”

  1. Hi Kelly, thanks for sharing your life with us. Your toy library idea is such a curious & wonderful idea to me. Also, I love your use of wall storage for books and cars. Can you tell me what materials you used? Thank you!

    1. Linda – I made the book rails with some simple 1 by lumber – there are lots of tutorials online which I loosely followed. Two of the train racks were made by Todd DePue who sells them through Etsy. The third I made to fit an awkward space using some hobby lumber, premade track I purchased on Amazon, a piece of backer board, and some construction adhesive. It really does make clean up a breeze though our trains are very rarely not in use.

  2. Oh, and the ‘truck garage’ in our toy closet is two interconnected shoe storage racks! They are inexpensive and well sized.

  3. What a lovely family home you have Kelly! You have really created a warm and happy place! I love all the pictures on the walls! You have captured some special memories. Your home seems to focus on the joy you have as a family. I love that it is not super-trendy or “pinterest-perfect pristine” but looks welcoming, comforting and fun in addition to being well-organized and beautiful. The truck garage is awesome.
    You have a very thoughtful approach to parenting. Thanks for your deep thoughts!

    1. Thanks, Heidi! It is really hard not to second guess yourself as a parent through the daily chaos. Working with Gabrielle through this process was a great way to take a step back and revisit the important things.

  4. I loved this thought, “Your partner may not do things the same way you do but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong and if you want him to be able to do the job of parenting fully, you have to let him do it the way that works for him, no matter how hard it is to keep your mouth shut.” I am 6 months pregnant and thinking about parenting, this seems like such helpful advice! Thanks for sharing your home and life.

  5. Hi Kelly – I really enjoyed your piece because it is so similar to my life with my husband and son. We both work and do not have family nearby. Although it is tough at times, you just figure it out. You cannot do everything yourself and time is valuable, so if that means hiring people to clean and mow, then do it!

  6. Hi Kelly, I was so happy and excited to see your post today. I grew up in Corvallis, and my parents still live there. It was really fun to hear someone else’s take on a town most people haven’t heard of. I love that small city. It was a great place to be a kid, and in such a beautiful state. Wishing your family the best during the time you live there! (And say hi to Nearly Normal’s for me—I miss eating there!)

    1. Lauren – So glad you enjoyed seeing a glimpse of ‘home’. It is a wonderful place to live and we are so grateful for our time here. I went to Normal’s yesterday. Yum!

    2. Lauren – So glad you enjoyed seeing a glimpse of ‘home’. It is a wonderful place to live and we are so grateful for our time here. I ate at Normal’s together. Yum!

    3. Lauren – So glad you enjoyed seeing a glimpse of ‘home’. It is a wonderful town we are so grateful to call home.

      P.s. I ate at Normal’s yesterday. Yum!

  7. Kelly, I love how clear-eyed and honest you are about having outside help (housekeeper, landscaper, childcare). I also love how your story demonstrates how having help-especially with kids-can enrich the entire family’s life. You are so thoughtful and deliberates about your choices–I find it very inspiring.

    1. Sara – Thanks for your comments. It’s hard for a perfectionist like me to admit I can’t do everything so it was definitely deliberate (and liberating). The people who support our family so we can be better to each other are a gift!

      1. I agree, thank you for sharing your beautiful home and how you make it work for your family with a demanding job. There is no need for us working moms to feel guilty when we “outsource”. Frankly, I’d rather have a job I love (which I do) and be able to afford outsourcing some things, and to spend my free time with my family than logging long hours on the weekends and at night ironing my laundry and cleaning my house. My mom does not understand this and tries to make me feel guilty for having a career, and paying other people to support us rather than being at home and taking care of the home.

  8. Your home is beautiful! I love that you’ve made it exactly how YOU want it rather than trying to keep up with trends that you may or may not truly care for. I have a hard time doing that because it’s actually hard for me to decide what I really like. And once a room is set up a certain way it’s hard for me to envision changes or what I could do to make things better. It’s a skill I’m working on… ;)

    One of my favorite furniture pieces that you showed is the round kids table with the chairs (in one photo it has the felt “road” on top). Would you mind sharing where you found that, or if you know of a similar one for sale anywhere? I CAN picture something like that in our home solving a host of current issues! ;)

    Thanks again for taking the time to share and write. I learned a lot and have a lot to think on now :)

    1. Diana – the round table is this one from Ikea
      http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/00136678/
      We modified it to make the shelf closer to the table top so little legs could fit under it. The chairs were also from Ikea though have sadly been discontinued. Anatex brand kids sitting stools look great with the table. We use them as chairs with the table and as play tables, foot stools, and end tables as needed.

  9. For big toys in our house, we have a similar ‘library’ philosophy: only so many can be out at a time. If the kids want to take another one out (we have them tucked away in a storage area in our basement) they have to put something back. It works pretty well, and keeps the main play area from getting too crowded.

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