Living With Kids: Lauren Benninger

You’re going to love getting to know Lauren Benninger. She and her husband CJ live with their three kids in a suburb of Detroit. Lauren is a lawyer. CJ is a photographer. And because one of their children has a medical condition, they’ve really had to hunker down throughout this pandemic, and have had to rethink the ways they keep their family safe and healthy. Lauren’s home is a perfect mid-century treasure and they have styled it with thoughtful pieces, beautiful art (including stunning photos from CJ) and really charming touches that make it feel special. Welcome, Lauren!

Hello Design Mom Readers! My name is Lauren Benninger and I am a wife, special needs mom, lawyer, book lover, and home design enthusiast. My husband CJ and I live in a 1960’s mid-century ranch in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan with our three kids — nine-year-old twins, Luke and Grace, and six-year-old Rose.

My talented husband CJ is a professional photographer who specializes in editorial and commercial photography. He also sells his work on his website, PhotoPop Prints, and our home is filled with many of his incredible images.

CJ and I met through mutual friends in 2006. He likes to joke that when he first saw me all the lights suddenly went dim and romantic music started playing in his head — specifically the song “Dreamweaver”. Obviously I couldn’t resist his super romantic vibe and we started dating almost immediately. We got married at an old historic hotel in Detroit in September of 2010. Two short years later our family doubled when we welcomed our twins and then grew again with the birth of our daughter in 2016.

Grace Bridget is nine years old and a whole one minute older than her younger twin brother! She is a lover of all things music, from the Beatles to Olivia Rodrigo, and has never met a stuffed animal she didn’t love! Grace also has a medical condition called Stickler syndrome that interferes with her body’s collagen production and adversely affects her vision, joints, hearing, mobility, and metabolic function. Grace has been through so much in her short life and her bravery and perseverance in the face of it all is what keeps me going.

Luke Charles is technically our middle child. He is absolutely the sweetest boy and his creativity brings so much joy to our lives. His Lego creations, drawing, and stories give us such a glimpse into his incredible mind. Luke is completely obsessed with dogs, and I am not sure how much longer I can resist his increasingly charming requests for a “puppy.” Luke is autistic, which comes with its challenges, but his kind heart and soul are truly a gift. Experiencing the world with Luke is something we cherish every single day.

Our youngest is Rose Luella, who just turned six. Fun, sassy, and always up for a good time, Rose thinks she is the same age as the twins and some days we think so too! She is wise beyond her years and has the confidence to join in any conversation, insisting that she is the expert in whatever topic is being discussed (even when maybe she isn’t…). We always joke that she insisted on being born because she has been a force to be reckoned with since day one. We just love our sweet little wildflower.

I currently work as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Oakland County here in Michigan. I prosecute felony cases at the circuit court level. If you have ever seen an episode of Law & Order that would give you a pretty good idea of what my job entails, although its much less dramatic than the show. It is however extremely demanding work and can be very stressful. When things get intense it always helps me to remember that every day, no matter what happens at work, I have a wonderful family and home to come back to (even if my children are literally the LOUDEST people in America)! 

And I can’t really talk about my family without mentioning my mom Bridget, AKA Gram. Although she doesn’t technically live with us, she is only a five-minute drive away, and we force her to spend as much time with us as possible. After the twins were born, we depended on her so much, and early on she would regularly stay overnight at our house, curled up on our tiny couch, holding a baby until the morning. She’s been with us every step of the way, celebrating our victories and supporting us through our challenges. We are beyond lucky to have her in our lives.

We live in an absolute gem of a neighborhood and city. Bloomfield Hills is a suburb of Detroit, located about a 30-minute drive from the center of the Motor City. Great schools, lots of parks and pools, and about an hour and a half away from the stunningly gorgeous shores and beaches of Lake Huron. Our neighborhood is full of kids. On our street alone there are 15 kids between the ages of 5 to 12. Nice days, which we appreciate to the fullest here in Michigan, bring everyone outside. It truly is a community and we love being part of it!

When we bought our home in September of 2013, we paid $265,000, which was $5,000 over the asking price. The market was pretty hot then, but nothing compared to like it is right now. Currently homes in our neighborhood are going for at least double that, which is great for the value of our home. That being said, I really feel for people who are trying to buy a home now. If we were trying to buy in this market, we would be totally priced out of our neighborhood, and so would many of our neighbors.

We do miss living closer to downtown Detroit. Our previous home was in about half a mile from the city limits, just north of 8 Mile (for all you Eminem fans). If you’ve never visited Detroit, AKA the Paris of the Midwest I cannot encourage you enough to go. I guarantee that you will absolutely fall in love with it!

When we found out we were having twins in April 2012 we were living in an 800 square foot bungalow with one tiny bathroom. We knew then that finding a house with more space would need to happen ASAP — my husband kept repeating that famous line from Jaws “we’re gonna to need a bigger boat” whenever we starting talking about all the ways we needed to make room for two new humans in our life. However, we didn’t start seriously looking until I was about a month out from my due date, something I wholeheartedly do not recommend! 

We weren’t able to find a new home before the twins were born, so we continued looking, now with two infants in tow. We changed many a blown-out diaper in the back seat of our car going to and from open houses. We put offers on NINE other houses before we made the offer that was accepted on our house. The day we saw it, it wasn’t actually on the market yet but our (desperate by this point) realtor convinced the sellers agent to show the house a day early. My mom was with me, but CJ was at home with the twins and I put in an offer on the house that day, without him even seeing it! I was so frantic that I told my realtor “let’s make an offer now” before I had even finished touring the house. She was like “don’t you even want to see the basement first??”

Despite the difficult road to finding our house, I am beyond thankful that those nine other offers were rejected because lucky doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about being able to call this house our home. Built in 1962 it is a classic mid-century ranch with lots of lovely details that I stop and appreciate almost daily — the elegant coved ceilings, the large three panel door wall out to the backyard, the intricate parquet floor in our family room, the roomy three car garage. 

And there are other things I love about the house now that I didn’t initially. The bathrooms in this house are original, and I mean ORIGINAL. And in classic mid-century form, one bathroom is completely blue, and the other is wall to wall pink. And yes, they both feature color coordinated blue and pink toilets! When we moved in, I couldn’t wait to re-do them, envisioning both bathrooms as clean and modern spaces. And if I had had the money, I likely would have gutted them. But I am beyond thankful I didn’t. As we lived in the house, I started to fall in love with them and appreciate all the special details. The pink bathroom has the most charming Formica counter top, complete with gold sparkles and an abstract pink swirl design. The inset pink sink is bordered with shiny chrome and the floor of the shower is hand poured terrazzo flecked with pink and beige. The blue bathroom is also chock full of vintage touches, and both bathrooms feature custom medicine cabinets with beveled glass and wrapped chrome finishes. I truly appreciate the uniqueness of the bathrooms and how they are very much of the era that the house was built in. Now I wouldn’t change them for anything — though I did change one small thing. I bought brand new pink and blue toilet seats for both toilets because 60-year-old toilet seats? Um….no!

I also love that our home is filled with CJ’s incredible photos. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite piece of his, but there are a couple that stand out. The gummy bears in my son’s room. The sprinkle heart and ombre carnations that are part of the gallery wall in the girl’s room. And the donuts in our kitchen – they make me smile every morning when I see them. I am partial to his landscapes too, as many of them were taken during our vacations and bring back great memories. But we are running out of wall space for new stuff at this point! 

CJ works with a lot of artists, photographing their work for websites and their social media. Sometimes instead of payment, he will work out a trade. Our custom TV credenza in the family room is the result of a trade my husband did with furniture maker Richard Ganas, photographing furniture for his website in exchange for making the credenza. The orange floral painting in our living room was a collaboration between my husband and the painter as payment for photographing one of her gallery shows. It features my favorite flower, trillium, which grows right in our backyard. The large geometric piece over the couch in our family room is a custom painting by our friend and painter Dennis Hayes, created specifically for that spot. Two of Dennis’ painting also flank my grandmother’s china cabinet in our living room. We’re lucky to have many paintings in our home by friend and painter Serge Gay Jr. It’s tough to pick a favorite piece of Serge’s, but the one I’m partial to is his painting of my idol, the Notorious RBG, that CJ gave me for my birthday. It currently hangs in our living room as part of the gallery wall over the piano.

Needless to say, the pandemic has been a particularly challenging time for our family. We have had to take extreme measures to protect Grace, which has meant going nowhere except medical visits and the hospital for the last two years. Our home is quite literally the center of our universe and serves as a school, office, playground, art studio, movie theatre, library, gym — you name it! This will likely continue for the time being until Grace’s health becomes more stable. One of the bright spots for our family in all of this is that being home 24/7 for the last two years has radically altered our concept of home in the best way possible. Once we realized that Covid was here for the long haul, we did all that we could to make our space a happy, welcoming place. We focused on filling our home with things that bring us joy, things with color, light, and spirit. This has helped immensely in combating the day to day pandemic dread and turned our home into a place of refuge for our family. 

My big takeaway from our experience with COVID so far is that I truly loved being stuck in the house with my family. That’s not to say that there weren’t many moments where I felt like the walls were closing in on us, the kids bickering, the house a total mess. But for me the experience gave me the priceless gift of time with my family that I so desperately needed. Pre-pandemic, I was managing a stressful and demanding job while simultaneously trying to parent three kids, two of which have special needs. It was almost impossibly hard. But when COVID hit, suddenly an entire infrastructure sprung up that made a lot of things easier for me and my family. I was able to work from home, appearing in court via ZOOM. Instead of rushing around to various therapies for the twins late into the evenings they did (NOW DO?) speech therapy on FaceTime before school in their pajamas. Many of Grace’s medical appointments were held via telehealth, saving us hassle of long car rides and limiting her exposure to illness. COVID caused so much devastation but I did absolutely cherish all the extra moments I got to spend with my husband and kids. I often think of this lovely quote that perfectly and succinctly sums up how I feel about the last two years: “We were together. I forget the rest.”

Our lives are still very different than they were before the virus. We are slowly trying to get back to doing some of the things we used to do, but we still take a ton of precautions. We went to the zoo for the first time in over two years, and it was incredible, but only did the outside exhibits and went early to avoid crowds. All three of my children are still attending school virtually and we only socialize outside. I still haven’t eaten inside at a restaurant since I went out for my 40th birthday on March 2nd, 2020!

There are so many things I wish people knew about our situation it’s hard for me to even find the words. When I hear or read about the resistance to masking, or people being upset about some trivial restriction, it’s so frustrating. It makes me want to take them with me to every ER trip I’ve ever been on with my daughter. I want them to see her sweet little sad face try to muster up the last remaining shred of courage, as the nurse tries to get the IV in for the third time.

I don’t want to shame anyone or be confrontational but merely ask for a little more empathy and understanding. I had some hope that COVID would make people more sympathetic to people with health issues, and in some ways I think it has, but in other ways it has not. I do love that now there is such great access to high quality masks and that they are so widely available — that’s a big win in my book, and a great option for people like Grace who may need a little more protection in certain situations.

I think my mom superpower is advocating for my daughter Grace. Over the years, I have had to become an expert in her many medical needs to ensure that she is always getting the best possible care. Grace sees about nine specialists and there isn’t a lot of communication between them all, so that falls to me. In the beginning it was really overwhelming but as the years went by it became almost second nature to me. Doing everything I can to advocate for Grace also helps me channel some of my fear and anxiety about her conditions into something positive. It gives me a bit of control in a situation that sometimes feels very out of control. For example, I know I have no control over whether Grace’s is going to lose her vision, but I can make sure she is being seen by the best opthamologists in our state. I take comfort in the fact that no matter what happens, I’ll be by her side, demanding the best for her, even if that means occasionally channeling my inner Shirley McClain ala Terms of Endearment.

I hope my kids remember the love in this house, the joy, the lightness, and all the homemade pizza. When I look back on the last nine plus years of living with my sweet kids my heart just overflows. There have been tough times, with Grace’s health issues and Luke’s autism diagnosis, but there has been so much fun and laughter too. I hope they remember the extravagant decorations were always put up while they are sleeping the night before their birthdays. Our trips to Lake Huron, swimming and eating too much ice cream. Always sitting down to dinner together every night and breakfast every morning. Most of all I want them to always remember my face and my husband’s face reflecting their happiness back to them as we watched them play, dance, and grow. The one thing I hope they can forget is how often my job has interrupted their lives. It is hard sometimes to think about the fun I’ve had to miss with them in order to meet a deadline or deal with an emergency, but such is the life of a working mom. And I also I hope they don’t remember how many times in a row we had not homemade pizza for dinner…!

My absolute favorite thing about living with kids? Well, kind of everything, or at least almost everything. I could certainly do without all the colds and stomach bugs, and maybe the constant discussion of all things bathroom related — the words “poop” and “fart” are still what passes for humor at our house. But I am just so obsessed with every single part of them it’s hard to even narrow it down. Waking up early with Luke and listening to him talk about trains as we snuggle in bed together. Watching Grace dance to her favorite Beatles song. Filling all the glasses in our kitchen with dandelions to accommodate Rose’s wish to pick every flower in the whole world. I do miss things about their younger selves already, like their chubby baby faces, but as of this moment they all claim that they are going to live with us forever. So for now I am just going to pretend that is true, and try not to think about how much I will miss them when they are out in the big wild world on their own.

I wish someone would have told me that, when you have a child, especially one born with a rare disability like my daughter Grace, the world changes in an instant. With the birth of that child comes a death, of sorts, of the old “you.”  Your heart is now walking around outside your body and the world that was once — for me at least — a safe, kind, fair place cracked and shattered. I miss that safer, more predictable world every day.  

As my daughter grew, and the complexity of her diagnosis and health challenges unfolded, our new reality also emerged. It was not one catastrophic thing, but many. A series of events, emergencies, surgeries, and discoveries about her condition that forever altered our day-to-day lives. As we managed my daughter’s ongoing, complex issues, her twin brother’s autism symptoms began to slowly emerge in bits and pieces as well. To say our world shifted again is putting it mildly. 

I wish I could say that I have found a way to manage all the fear and anxiety of my motherhood journey, that I have reached a place of acceptance and peace, but I’m not there yet. I’m still angry, and sad, and really, really scared. But not all the time. One thing being a mom has taught me is no feeling is final, and that most days are shaded with both pleasure and pain, that those feelings can and do coexist. And, despite the radical shift, the cracking and shattering of self that becoming a parent presented for me, I am hopeful — forever hopeful. I am so very thankful for my children, my family and all the wonderful parts of my life. I’ve learned the cracks truly are where the light gets in.

——

Thank you, Lauren! I love a home that feels lived in and welcoming but still stylish at the same time. Nothing feels intimidating but everything feels inspiring. And Lauren and CJ clearly have a great eye for art. So many amazing pieces! Not to mention CJ’s amazing prints around the house. What a talent!

It’s so great to hear from someone too who really had to buckle down during COVID to stay safe. Even though the pandemic rages on, I think for many people, life has returned to “normal” now. But it’s important to remember that not everyone can safely do so. It must be incredibly stressful when you know that other peoples complacency could mean your child getting sick or being in danger.

Where are you at in your COVID journey? Do things feel safer where you are? Or are you still taking precautions? How do you balance being safe and moving forward?

SOURCES

Many of the photos in our home can be found at PhotoPop Prints, including the donutsgummy bearscoffee cupssprinkle heartombre carnationsrubber duckylegoscrayonsbooksstereo, and silhouetted palm trees.

Pink and Blue toilet seats

Living Room Coffee Table

Together We Will See It Through banner

Custom Credenza


You can follow Lauren on Instagram here or her husband CJ here. Living with Kids is Edited by Joshua Bingham. You can follow him on Instagram.

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.

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