Living With Kids: Lisa Fontaine

By Gabrielle. Photos by Michelle Drewes.

Lisa and her friend Nan started Ginger, a line of handmade caftans, because they wanted “a kickass dress that was flattering and simple.” So cool. Every time I see a woman strolling confidently in a caftan, I smile. I imagine she has a lot of events to attend, deadlines and dates she never breaks, a well-edited closet and pantry, probably, and a ticket to Corsica for the end of May. Maybe even a thriving garden and a lovely copper watering can. Right?!

I hope you enjoy Lisa’s words and beautiful space she’s sharing with us today. Welcome, Lisa!

Hi everyone! I’m so excited to show you around my life!

My husband and I met in San Francisco in 2001 and were married by the end of the following year. It was a bit of an opposites attract situation! As an economic consultant, he was very organized and methodical and craved routine. Myself, a designer, am more emotional, free spirited, outgoing, and artistic. I’m not so great at paying taxes, saving money, or keeping a clean car, but I love adventure, wild parties, and naughty little children.

However, our 12-year age gap makes us both land in the same Chinese astrological year, the year of the horse. Since horses are meant to race and travel, it wasn’t surprising that we shared the same vision for raising a global-minded family.

We both grew up in the Bay Area — San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Our households were quite different! Doug’s was strict and orderly which resulted in him skipping the third grade, learning to play the piano beautifully and to speak French. I grew up in a free-range creative household that involved lots of motorcycle riding in the Santa Cruz mountains, skateboarding, boogie boarding, and building stuff in my parent’s workshop.

We have decided to blend our upbringings with our own children. Bijou is ten, and enjoys swimming in lakes, horseback riding, traveling, and Taylor Swift. Eero is five, and our emotional wild child who loves music and basketball and building stuff out of things from our recycling bin. Wilder, also five, is mellow and kind and probably smarter than all of us. He likes chess and math and recently told me he likes the color mulberry. My husband Doug is an economic consultant in downtown Oakland, and enjoys cross fit in his free time. I teach art camps to kids in the summer, and design a caftan clothing line called Ginger with my friend Nan. In my free time, I love photography, taking craft classes, the farmer’s market, and treasure hunting at thrift stores.

We live in the Berkeley Hills just a ten-minute walk from Alice Water’s Chez Panisse and the original Peet’s coffee. Our mid-century home was built in 1955 as a two-bedroom bungalow and had three more rooms added in the 1970s. Our lot is shaded by two hundred-year-old oak trees and is on a quiet street where all the neighbors know each other.

Our street is particularly unique because several homes have been in the same family since they were built at the turn of the century. One neighbor even wrote a book called Tamalpais Tales, interviewing those who had stories to share dating all the way back to when the street was first developed. In recent years, some neighbors have passed away and young families have moved in. Others, who have become empty nesters, will rent out spare rooms to visiting international students and PhD students at Cal, also walkable from our house.

Our children love the neighborhood because we can walk to Codornices Park on a hidden stairwell that leads from our street directly into the park. They love the cement slide and creek. They also enjoy our community garden with chickens that a neighbor built a few years ago on a dilapidated tennis court. The high fences and sunny spot were perfect for building a garden and keeping the local deer out.

The homes in our neighborhood usually sell for over a million dollars. We were able to afford it from a smart real estate investment we had made a few years earlier in San Francisco. We bought a loft near AT&T Park at the end of 2002 when we got married and sold it a couple years later for 30% more than our purchase price. The San Francisco real estate market does have its perks!

We have lived in our home for ten years now and recently refinanced when rates were at an all time low, resulting in a monthly mortgage payment below what one needs to cough up today for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.

The only downside to our neighborhood is that it is on a hill so it isn’t great for bike riding. I have a confession: my 10-year-old still can’t ride a bike.

We decided to sell our house in the city before shopping for our next house. It sold in just one week, so then we had to scramble to find something. We were able to negotiate a 30-day rent back from the new owner to give us a bit more time, but I was seven months pregnant with Bijou so time was of the essence!

We decided on Berkeley for the great public schools, unique architecture, great restaurants, and tree-lined streets. We found our home rather quickly and although it wasn’t perfect, it had good bones and we had a vision for what it could be. I personally love a home project but after three years of remodeling, I hope I never have to do that again. We lived in the house during remodeling and worked in stages, which was made extra stressful by having a new baby. Luckily, we had a great crew who felt like family by the end.

Buying in our neighborhood can be very competitive so you need to be aggressive. Inventory is low, so most homes go for significantly over asking. It’s also common practice to write an emotional letter to the seller telling them how much you love their house and what it would mean to you to raise your own family there.

My favorite part of my home is the floor to ceiling glass in our living room that looks out onto our garden. Our yard is small but I cherish it greatly after living in San Francisco with only a deck for so many years.

I like to buy high quality furniture that works with the mid-century architecture of our home. I prefer to buy pieces that can last for decades. I’m pretty minimalist with my decorating, but the things I do choose to display are meaningful. An inherited piece from Doug’s grandmother, vacation photos, a weaving made from my daughter, something collected at a flea market from when we lived in France, etc.

Admittedly, I’m a bit controlling when it comes to the décor in my children’s rooms. My twin boys don’t have much of their own opinion when it comes to décor so they let me do my own thing. They don’t even know race car beds exist so don’t tell them!

My daughter, on the other hand, does have an opinion. Fortunately, her style is quite similar to mine as she’s gotten older. We recently bought a desk and new throw pillows and a plant for her room. I made a Pinterest board for her with options I liked and then let her choose from that.

If I’m paying for it, I need to like it, too.

My daughter started at a French immersion school when she was four. Now at ten she is fully fluent and even has a very authentic accent despite us not speaking any French at home. My husband speaks enough French to help with her homework but is not as fluent as her.

I studied French for a year using Rosetta Stone before we moved to France in 2013-14. I know some vocabulary and can read it okay but I am very far from speaking it with any fluency. It has been a real challenge for me to learn a second language as an adult which is why I wanted my children to learn when they are young. My twins got their first exposure to French when we moved to France and they attended the local Maternelle (preschool) when they were three. By the end of the year they could comprehend but were not speaking French. They now attend a public English speaking school and have a French-speaking babysitter one evening a week to help them retain some of their French.

Moving abroad is deeply rewarding but also a ton of work. Luckily, my husband was willing to research and take care of all the nitty gritty. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have trusted me to dot the i’s and cross the t’s!

It was amazing to see how flexible and adaptable our children were to living in a foreign country. Kids are kids no matter where you are in the world and they will learn how to interact and play despite language barriers.

My daughter attended the third grade in our small village, population 800. The school did not have any play equipment for recess but she did enjoy the hour long three course lunch every day that the school provides for a small fee. It always started with a vegetable, next a protein, and finished with dessert. After lunch, the girls would play marbles on the drain covers in the play yard.

My husband and I did not work while we were there. We saved up enough to take a sabbatical. One way we were able to afford it was by sending our three children to the public schools in France vs. three private school tuitions at home. We also rented our home in Berkeley for the market rate which covered our mortgage plus some of the rental expense of the home we rented in France.

We bought a used inexpensive car in France and sold it at the end of our year. For insurance, we only purchased catastrophic insurance and paid out of pocket for any small visit. A typical doctor’s visit is only 25 euros. Imagine that!

Due to the amount of work that is involved in enrolling in school, buying and selling a car and securing Visas, I would probably just do a summer abroad next time. You can stay for three months on your passport and still really get the experience of living in another place without all the work.  And you will avoid the rainy season.

My favorite part about our year abroad was developing a real understanding of French culture and having the experience of living in a rural place. It was amazing to raise our children in that setting for a year. It sometimes felt like a movie.

My children were excited to move and adjusted easily to living in France.  Bijou quickly made friends at school and really enjoyed the experience.  The fact that she already spoke French I’m sure contributed greatly. My twins were quite young so they were happy to go wherever their family was. We wanted to do this while they were young and flexible rather than when they were teenagers and maybe more reluctant to leaving their friends. The fact that our farmhouse had a pool didn’t hurt, either.

Within 12 hours of landing back in California, we had eaten at our favorite Mexican restaurant and were making plans for play dates. We missed our friends and family tremendously so it was a sweet reunion.

My caftan company, Ginger, was started in May 2015. We were playing dress up with my friend Nan’s amazing vintage collection and musing over “Why don’t they make clothes like this anymore?!” The next day, Nan called me and said, “We should start a fashion line together.”

It wasn’t completely out of left field since we have both owned small businesses and sew, and Nan has attended fashion school. A year later, business is good and growing. We still work out of our respective home studios, but it’s easy to collaborate since her vintage cabin home is just a short distance up the hill from me in Berkeley.

Our two-piece collection may seem a bit unconventional, but deciding to make a perfectly constructed dress that flattered a range of body types was far more important than variety. Our caftan is currently offered as a knee length dress and as an ankle length caftan. The fabrics we use are sourced in America and sewn locally and ethically in Oakland which is very important to both of us.

The best part about Ginger is hearing the feedback from our customers. It is so rewarding to pour your heart and soul into a creative project and have it be received well. We completely sold out at our very first trunk show which encouraged us to keep moving forward. For our one year anniversary recently, we participated in Renegade Craft Fair in San Francisco and picked up some new wholesale accounts in addition to spreading the caftan love to our new retail customers.

My favorite thing about living with my kids has to be the morning snuggles. My husband wakes up at 4:00 am and heads to the gym, so when I get up around seven he is not likely in the mood to be crawling back in bed to snuggle! Lucky for me, my kids now fill the void. Some kids like it more than others but I can always count on a good ten-minute snuggle session with Wilder before starting my day.

My youngest are now five, and I can honestly say I don’t miss the baby years. I’m much more of an older kid kind of person and even now when I have a rough day with them I fantasize about our relationships and friendships we will have when they are adults.

I hope my kids remember this home as a safe creative haven. We try to keep the rules to a minimum and let them be free to make muddy “soup” concoctions in the yard, have friends over, run around, and get messy. I hope they remember Doug as the dad always willing to play ball, and me as the cuddly creative mama who will make owies better, dry tears, bake cookies, and do an art project with them.

I hope someday they see their bedrooms as a fun play space and not as the place they had to take a timeout when they hit their brother.

I truly don’t mind making mistakes and learning the hard way. I try to see the silver lining of even the most difficult situations. With that said, having twins has been my life’s biggest challenge.

I wish someone had taught me to be better at accepting and asking for help. Those first two years I cried almost daily out of pure exhaustion.

One trick that would help me a lot during that first year after my twins were born was to wear ear plugs.  Now hear me out, I realize this might come off as sounding very neglectful! The truth is that I like to be a very attentive and nurturing parent, but I just never had enough hands to keep both babies satisfied at all times. This resulted in a lot more crying — mostly from Eero, my twin who had reflux — than I was comfortable with. Wearing ear plugs would take the edge off so I could calm my body down a bit more and feel like the relaxed parent I wanted to be.

Having survived the most difficult period of having twins, I now feel super comfortable and confident around larger groups of children. It has made teaching the art camp an easy and natural transition.

–-

Thank you, Lisa! I loved hearing about how you and your family managed your year abroad, and figure you’ve just persuaded a family or two to head off on a summer adventure. I also appreciated your honesty about ear plugs. Twins are hard, I’m sure, and you’re right about never having enough hands to do it all. If canceling out the crying took your edge off, bravo! Whatever works, right?

Also, this: “If I’m paying for it, I need to like it, too.” Anyone else subscribe to this decorating school of thought?

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.

32 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Lisa Fontaine”

  1. Lisa, my 10-year-old also does not know how to ride a bike, and we don’t even have a giant neighborhood hill to use as a solid excuse! :) My husband and I joke that it’s one of our “parenting fails,” but our daughter just doesn’t have any interest in learning.

    Your home is lovely, as are your caftans, and I appreciated your transparency about affording a home in a very pricey area. I know many of us wonder how on earth the families featured in so many home tours around the interwebs manage to live where and how they do, so it’s interesting to see behind the curtain sometimes. (Even though it’s really none of our business, curiosity gets the better of all of us, sometimes. :) )

    1. Sarah,
      I’m glad I’m not alone in this ‘parenting fail’! My 9-year old daughter, Ellison, can’t ride a bike and has zero interest in learning. We’re hoping it will happen this summer but I’ve said that for years now :)

      Lisa,
      Thank you so much for being so open in this interview. I definitely agree with the ‘if I’m paying for it, I better like it’ mentality. Your home is so lovely and I loved hearing the pros and cons about your time in France!

    2. Thanks Sarah for your note! I’m so glad we have a community of bike -less big girls out there who will surely conquer the world regardless :-) Gabby has a way of pulling the most intimate information out of us which makes this community here on Design Mom so strong.

  2. What a beautiful story. I love the blend of smart planning and going with the flow. It has resulted in an incredible life experience and home.

    Know what will be fun? To read what your children have to write, someday, about their lives.

  3. We live on enough of a hill too (although not as crazy as the hills in that part of Berkeley!) and on a very busy thoroughfare and take our kids to ride bikes at Mills College! It is beautiful, quiet, and an oasis in East Oakland. We picnic there, run there (it’s about a mile from our house) and best of all, our kids can ride bikes all over on a flat surface without worrying about cars! :) It’s our solution to not really being able to bike in our neighborhood.

  4. Also- I am dying to know the color of your front (or back?) door! i love that acid chartreuse color and the body/trim of our house looks identical to yours.

    1. Oh, thank you so much Heather! I really appreciated Gabrielle’s interview questions. I’m glad I had the opportunity to jot down my story so I can share it with my children when they are older.

    1. Ha! I bet I could find a diaper, some goldfish crackers, wipes and hand sanitizer in there too. I am so amazed by you and all the other mamas of world who care for so many. I was absolutely at my max with 3. Thanks for reading Tiffany!

  5. Currently a mom of 3 month old twins and a 3 yr old!! Lord help me! I sleep with earplugs at night but never thought about doing it during the day! Thanks for tip! It’s so hard thanks for reminding me I’m not alone! Gorgeous home, of course!

    1. T. IT GETS SO MUCH EASIER!!! I promise. Big hugs from another twin mama. I should also note, my house DID NOT look like this when I had twin 3-month olds. This just goes to show how much easier it gets. My house did not look like this within an hour of the children returning from school the day of the shoot either ;-)

  6. Hello from down the hill in Berkeley!

    I love your boys’ beds. Where did you get them? My boys (not twins) have a similar set-up of side by side beds (thus far mattresses on the floor so they can jump on them – I call them our indoor trampoline).

    A friend with 9-year-old twins recently said, “I can now say all children should be twins.” He definitely wouldn’t have said that 6 or 7 years ago!

  7. Lisa:
    I am a mom of 21 month old twin boys, and I feel you. It is the most challenging and remarkable and sweetly beautiful experience I have ever been blessed with. You are so amazing and inspiring for moving to France with your family during those early years. My husband and I both are lifelong students of French but haven’t gotten the nerve to attempt something like this, but its so cool to hear it can be done. Thanks for sharing your home and story with us.

  8. Lisa – Beautiful home and wonderful, frank interview. :) Thank you for your honesty about the difficulties of raising twins. I have 2 kids, but they are 5 years apart, and I cannot imagine how hard it would have been to care for multiple infants at the same time.

    Your confession about the earplugs was refreshing. I also used earplugs during baby #2 – our long-desired daughter. She had an amazingly shrill and piercing cry that lasted a long time no matter how she was comforted. The sound of it simply gouged into the nether reaches of my brain late at night and made me feel less than sane. Having the earplugs let me care for her without feeling out-of-my-mind that I couldn’t resolve her cries as quickly as she needed. Sleep deprived people are not completely sane; sleep deprived people taking care of high-pitched screaming babies are to be hugged and appreciated! :)

  9. Yay! Wolfie the Bunny! And Leonardo the Terrible Monster! Great picture books I spotted on your shelves. Have you read Shh! We Have A Plan by Chris Haughton? I class that one in the same category (hilarious+great art). And of course I spotted Magic Tree House. I always love seeing the bookshelves in the Living With Kids posts.

  10. Kate the Great

    Lisa, I’m with you on the “If I buy it, I need to like it” thing. I’m so glad I’m not alone. I intentionally don’t use Pinterest, but I subscribe to catalogs of specific companies. If my kid wants to pick out stuff for a wishlist, I feel confident handing him a catalog of stuff that’s all stuff I like. If we’re at a clothing store, I shop first and pick out options for them to choose from. It makes it easier for them, as well; too many options can overwhelm a child just learning how to shop.

  11. Lovely! Gabby, this series is my favorite. It really feels like you capture a genuine and not-just-superficial peek into a diverse group of women’s lives. I look forward to every new post!

  12. As a mom to 4 kids 5 and under who sleeps with earplugs in, I appreciated the candor :) Also, both my parents are Cal Berkeley grads, and I had a sweet childhood flashback when I googled “codornices park” while reading your beautiful home tour.

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