Living With Kids: Michelle Waters

Michelle is a total joy. I know you’re going to be moved by her words, her enthusiasm for her city, and even her love for a feature in her basement renovation. You’ve just got to adore someone who describes her basement-turned-kids-bedroom like this: “I figured that exposed brick is a thing nowadays, so now I’m trying to make exposed concrete a thing, too.” I enjoy people who make things a thing, don’t you?

And her memories of a bittersweet home project…oh, it made me swallow a gulp.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this one, Friends. Enjoy it, please. Welcome, Michelle!

Hello from Portland! I’m Michelle and I like to think of myself as a bit of a dabbler; there are so many things that interest me that it is hard to pick just one! My husband is Steve, and he’s the more dedicated one in our duo. He’s a thinker and a doer. He sees possibility everywhere and I love him for it.

We met in college our freshmen year at the University of Portland. We fell in love with each other and this city and have never left. We got married while still in college and had our first daughter at the beginning of our senior year – which wasn’t the way we planned for things to go, but we figured that since we’re in this kid thing, we might as well run with it! So now we have three: Ellie is five, Olivia is four, and Henry is two.

Ellie is definitely the big sister. She likes keeping the younger ones in order, sneaking chocolate chip cookies, practicing her math, and singing karaoke at the top of her lungs. Just 17 months younger is our whirlwind, Olivia. Her feet hardly ever touch the ground because she is so light-hearted and carefree. She’s the perfect middle child as she is interested in dolls and dress-ups as much as mud and cars. Henry is our boy and he adds a good balance with all his trucks and airplanes and dragons and monsters. His big sisters are always telling him what character he is playing in their games, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s a little love bug who is talking up a storm recently, and even though I love hearing all the thoughts in his head, I am sad that his babyhood is slipping away.

Just like all families with young kids, there are times when everyone is crying, but in the end we all really enjoy each other.

When my husband and I were ready to buy a house, we knew we wanted to be in North Portland because we love the feel of the community. It is almost like a small town: very laid back and safe, with lots of parks and easy access to good schools, grocery stores, and kid-friendly restaurants. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of other people must be wanting these perks, because the neighborhood was getting more and more expensive. So as we were looking, we couldn’t find anything in our price range that was a good fit.

Eventually we realized we would need to get a project house in order to live in this neighborhood, and we decided that was worth it. The house we have now was actually listed for several months, but we never even considered it because it only had two bedrooms. When we took a look at it, we saw there was plenty of potential to add bedrooms and make adjustments to make the house work, so we bought it.

I’m so glad that we chose this house based on location. I think if we had chosen another house somewhere we didn’t feel as comfortable, it never would have felt like home. This house is a 40s ranch style on a corner lot, right next to a park, on a quiet street with blue hydrangea and pink dogwood trees everywhere. And there are plenty of projects to be done to make it ours.

As we settle in and make our changes, I can’t help but love it here more and more. We have everything we need, and there’s still room for us to grow or to make changes or to fix things up just the way we want them to be.

We live in a beautiful part of Portland that overlooks downtown from across the Willamette River. On early morning bike rides I can watch the sun rise over the city and I feel so lucky to live where we do. Portland itself is wonderful because it has such a relaxed and casual feel. It’s easy to take our kids anywhere here, and people are very friendly. Our particular neighborhood is the best of the best, in my opinion, because we have that easy feeling of a small town, but with all the perks of a big city right outside our door – delicious food, good music, and fun community events like movies in the park or neighborhood-wide bike riding days.

We are extra fortunate to live equidistant between downtown Portland and neighboring Sauvie Island, which is beautiful farmland where we spend a good chunk of our summers and falls picking berries, peaches and apples. Since I feel like I oscillate dramatically between being a city girl and a country girl, this place is just right for me. I could choose either on any given day!

Besides the relaxed community feeling, the weather might be my favorite part of this city. I just adore the seasons here. The winter is perfect for wearing socks and snuggling up with hot chocolate and a movie. And then the spring comes and the pink trees look gorgeous paired with grey skies and everything feels so alive and fresh. And then I’m ready to go out exploring the city and the nearby Columbia River Gorge when it dries out in the summer, which is perfectly warm and rarely gets too hot. (Although I’m kind of a wimp now who thinks the rare days that it reaches 97 degrees are pretty close to unbearable. Ha!) And just when I can’t stand the heat any longer, the leaves change and lovely cool weather seeps in and it’s time for hot tea and boots and apple picking once again.

Another thing I love about this city is that we’re big on the sharing economy here. Just a few months ago I discovered that each neighborhood has a free tool library. So we can borrow tools for our house and yard projects instead of having to fork over the cash to purchase or rent them. I’m telling you, this is a great feature. It makes house projects just that much more affordable – and therefore, doable.

We have done quite a bit of renovating! There’s a long list still to do, but when I think back at all that has happened, I realize we’ve accomplished a lot. Our house started out as a two-bedroom, single-level home with an unfinished basement. We have added two more bedrooms by digging out egress windows and finishing half of the basement.

And by we, I mean my husband and his father and brother, who cut the concrete of our foundation and then poured the concrete retaining walls around the egress windows – which are big enough to make the bedrooms legal and let in a lot of light.  Cutting the windows out of the concrete was no joke; it left a thick layer of dust over the entire house and yard. So if anyone ever asks me if I’ve ever cleaned my house from top to bottom, I can attest that at one point I actually did clean every square inch of this place. But it was worth it to have so much light down there and to create so much extra living space right where we are.

The concrete wall you see there is in the girls’ room and is one half of the basement renovation. The second room is not pictured as it is still a work in progress. I figured that exposed brick is a thing nowadays, so now I’m trying to make exposed concrete a thing, too.

It sounds like it would feel cold, but basement living is actually extremely practical! The rooms stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer because they are below ground. To cozy up the room a bit, we painted the cement floor white and laid down rugs.  We also hung long, sheer curtains from Ikea on one of the walls to add some softness and warmth without diminishing the precious light from the window. It’s definitely a little quirky, but I love that we could eventually almost double the living space of our home just by making the basement usable. I have big plans for the other half of the basement as time and finances allow.

Another kind of funny renovation we did was to finish our attached garage to make it a playroom and family room. We laid laminate flooring over the cement, covered up an outside entrance, and sheet-rocked the walls to make it a cozier space.

Perhaps one of my favorite features of this house is that the original door to the playroom from the kitchen is an external door, so it makes the room essentially sound proof from the rest of the house. I can have coffee with a friend in the living room while our kids blast karaoke in the playroom and everyone is having a nice time! As the kids grow, I envision the room growing with them and someday holding a ping-pong table and a movie projector screen for sleep-overs.

This renovation project in particular has a bittersweet connotation to it. When my sister passed away at only 21 two and a half years ago, we were in the middle of the garage redo. I was sanding down mud and tape on the sheet rock when I got the call that I needed to come home right away. A few weeks later, when we returned to the project amidst grief and blinding pain, it was good to have something to do to keep moving forward. A hands-on project that didn’t require much thought, but symbolized that life could move on, that it could get better, that her death wasn’t the end of the story.

I’ve done several mudding and taping projects since then, and oddly, they make me feel close to her. It’s like her touch in this house, even though she actually never came here; we had just moved in when she passed away. It’s a way she has left a permanent mark that is always there, even if it isn’t always visible. And now those sanding lines have been covered over by texture and paint and furnishings. The kids play in there with all their friends. We do art projects there. But time and change will never fully erase that mark that her life made. Even though it lies below the surface, it is a permanent fixture of my life, just as the sanding lines are a permanent fixture of this house. This physical project, this labor of love for my children, helped me put my own grief and confusion into a perspective that allows me to move on and still experience life fully, even with a scarred heart.

I think my decorating philosophy comes from three main ideas: First of all, I want everyone – both children and adults – who come into our home to feel comfortable. For me to be comfortable, it means I sometimes choose the practical over the beautiful and fragile for my own peace of mind. I want my kids and their friends to be just as happy here as I am, and I don’t want them to feel like they can’t be kids here because I have to keep everything just so.

We used earthquake safety kits to strap the shelves in the living room to the walls, so I don’t have to worry about anyone pulling them over. We chose couches that maybe aren’t my favorite aesthetically, but for this stage in our life, they’re perfect; they are comfortable and easy to clean and I don’t mind having my whole family of ten over to stay the night!

But I also want to be able to show our personality. I have several friends who have decorated their homes so well that when you walk in it is like entering a three-dimensional expression of their heart. And I love that. I feel so comfortable in their homes; it is so inviting when someone puts their heart into their home. I hope people feel the same way when they come to mine.

We also make do with what we have. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money for extra things like decorating, but my mother always kept a beautiful home. Even though she might not have had her dream furnishings, she put her personal touch into everything and she was resourceful with her space. So I keep extra prints in the back of each of the frames so that when I’m craving something new or seasonal, I can simply rotate back to another print and everything feels exciting again.

Most of the gallery walls around here are made up of postcards from our travels – seriously the least expensive and most compact souvenirs ever! – and I decorate a lot with art made and gifted to us by talented friends. My brother is especially artistic and sometimes if I ask really nicely, he will make me custom art for my home. I think it’s extra special to have something made by someone you love.

I also think it’s fun to mix unexpected details, like sparkling chandeliers in a garage-turned-playroom, or tea towels as curtains in the kitchen. I take each piece on it’s own merit and wind up with a bit of an eclectic mix of ideas and colors and themes. And maps. Always maps.

For a long time I thought that this was our starter home. That someday we’d move on to something bigger and better. Isn’t that the American Dream? But recently I’ve let go of that. Maybe we will move someday, maybe we won’t. The point is that what is here now is good and there’s no reason to be pining away for something better.

One of the main things I’ve learned throughout this house renovation is that it doesn’t have be be perfect to be beautiful. There are lots of unusual things about this house, and it’s nothing extraordinary – in fact, it’s rather plain – and I could have let that keep me from making it feel like home. I could have been so frustrated with the to-dos that I never really let myself just enjoy the space for what it is, imperfections and all. But I’ve realized that if you have a cool piece of artwork or an unusual paint color or you tape Instagram pictures to your wall, nobody notices the imperfections. Nobody is looking at your DIY, somewhat imperfect flooring if you have a beautiful painting to look at instead.

I started blogging when my first daughter was a newborn as a way to stay creative and keep doing things. It has morphed in different ways over the years. I love that I have catalogued my kids’ childhoods there and that all our favorite recipes get posted. I have even tracked down family recipes and I add them there so we’ll always have them. Someday I envision having it bound in some form for my children as a graduation or wedding gift: the ultimate scrapbook that includes a family cookbook! And I like to practice photography and talk about my favorite things to do in Portland with kids. I think this is great city to explore with kids, and I love to show our favorite places. I hope it encourages other Portlanders to explore our beautiful city.

And I hope to tell a real story about living with kids. I want to tell the happy stories because those are the ones I want to remember. But I also want to be honest about what it’s like to be a mother. It can be hard to do that, to be vulnerable, but I love the connections I have made through that vulnerability.

There are so many blogs that inspire me to be a better mother, a better friend, a better person, to think differently about the world. I can’t even count the number of times a blog by a complete stranger has changed my perspective on something, or has lifted my spirits on a hard day, or has made me really grateful for an experience I was taking for granted.

As someone who has always been a big fan of the sisterhood of womankind, I love that the world of blogging can be a place where we all share our stories. We all learn a little, we all teach a little. We give a piece of our hearts and we get a piece of someone else’s. I think that is just splendid. I love blogging. Although it sometimes slips low on my priority list, I always come back.

I hope they remember playing with each other and staying up until way-too-late talking and laughing. I hope they remember that we were only pretend mad at them for not going to sleep, and secretly we loved it that they couldn’t get enough of each other, even after bedtime. I hope the girls remember pushing their beds together in what they call their “two bed stick” because being even a few feet apart was much too far.

I hope they remember staging Frozen re-enactments complete with all the songs and almost all the lines and how Henry liked to say, “I’m Olaf. I’m melting.” I hope they remember dance parties and inflatable pool parties and eating cherry tomatoes out of the garden. I hope they remember always getting to lick the beaters and hiding in the closet to tell ghost stories.

And I also hope they remember that I taught them to be givers and teachers by my example. Maya Angelou said, “If you get, give. If you learn, teach.” I hope that this is our time of both learning and teaching, getting and giving.

I hope that my kids remember that I lost my temper sometimes, but I said I was sorry. That I taught them to make the world a better place in whatever way they can. I can teach them to be content with fewer toys and gadgets by being content myself. I can be conscientious about my consumption and make do with the things I already have instead of getting new ones. I can reuse and repurpose as much as possible. I can make good food for people and talk about important things and how we can make the world better with our actions, however small they may seem. I can make my children feel safe and loved here, so they always know that this place is a refuge from whatever storms may come.

I’ve always thought of our home as a trampoline – it’s where you always land. And if it’s a good trampoline, it propels you into wherever you want to go.

I hope my kids remember that this was a good place to be. We loved each other. We made mistakes and we forgave each other. We laughed a lot. We were very grateful just to have one another.

It might sound weird, but my other favorite part of this house right now is the noise. The playing and singing and laughing and dancing and pretending. I already know I couldn’t bear to live here when my little ones are all grown up and off to college; it would feel too lonely and too quiet. Not that I don’t relish a little alone time here every once in a while, but after a few hours I want everyone to come back home so we can be together.

I love the feeling of home here. It’s nice to be a grownup and get to decide things about your house, don’t you think? I didn’t know it would be something I would enjoy so much. And I love how cozy and intimate it is here. I have always loved to travel and to escape, and it’s only now that I love coming back just as much. I love bringing home reminders of our adventures, but I am also just as content to make memories in our home. Some of my most magical memories and most treasured traditions have taken place right here.

I wish someone had told me earlier to fill in the gaps with good. My husband says this to me, and it’s such a good reminder to give myself, my children, my friends, even perfect strangers the benefit of the doubt. I wish I had learned earlier to give myself grace…to think that if the house is a mess it’s not because I’m a failure at housekeeping, it is because we’re having too much fun cooking together or playing games. I wish I had learned earlier that every parent has doubts about what they’re doing and if it’s working and that if they say something that hurts me, they probably didn’t mean to; we all love our children and we are all trying our best.

It’s so easy to be critical, or to feel criticized. It’s so easy to feel lacking. But it’s so much better to be grateful. I am realizing that I have the choice of what kind of person I am going to be. Because encouraging or discouraging, I am changing the world around me. My outlook, whether positive or negative, and the actions that stem from it, affect my home, my children, and my community. It changes everything when I choose to find the beauty and the joy in the mundane, to find the good in the imperfect.


Fill in the gaps with good. Yes, Michelle, I think you just did. Thank you so much for sharing your joy for your life as it is.

And I think we all probably took something away from this thought: “For a long time I thought that this was our starter home. That someday we’d move on to something bigger and better. Isn’t that the American Dream? But recently I’ve let go of that. Maybe we will move someday, maybe we won’t. The point is that what is here now is good and there’s no reason to be pining away for something better.”

Who’s looking at their starter home with a little more love right now?

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.

44 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Michelle Waters”

  1. What a lovely post! As a newish mom of 2 living in a rental home, I am impatient to start my family tradition an create memories in our forever home. But I have to remind myself it’s the people not the place that makes a home. I love how you describe your home as a trampoline, great metaphor! It’s a welcoming place for kids and full of creative corners. Love the gallery walls, esp. The Instagram one!

    XX Analog House

  2. This was definitely my favorite tour ever. Michelle! YOu are so, so genuine and lovely. “Fill in the gaps with good” is going to be my new mantra. What a life-changing philosophy! I laughed to myself when you said your house was “plain”. Every corner is filled with beauty–definitely a three dimensional view of your heart. I absolutely love the way you combine colors and shapes so, so well–you have nailed all forms of the ‘gallery wall’! Your instagram pictures–how fantastic! I love that. And the prints you’ve hung above your stove–so, so delightful. THe maps and other prints on your son’s walls are also awesome. And the name banners across your girl’s beds: perfect! ok, i’m ranting now. WAIT! the paper flowers in the girl’s room: SO fun. keep doing what you’re doing. i love that you have found such soulful depth in the painting and taping and drywalling of your garage. i never thought that the process of changing a house can change hearts too. too often i focus on the end result instead of how it feels to get there. big hugs to you!

    1. Nora! You are too kind. I have loved putting this home together, and it just tickles me that someone like you could like it, too! I hope you have a lovely, lovely day! xoxo, Michelle

    1. Hi Tamara!
      I don’t mount them on anything – I just print on photo paper and tape up with four pieces of masking tape. They don’t tend to curl too much, but when a random one does, I just tape it down again. Easy!

      xoxo, Michelle

  3. What a beautiful tour and a lovely person. I cried reading about her sisters death. My two little girls relationship fills my heart with joy daily and I just felt such sadness if they lost one another. It made what she said about her sister hit home and I just had to weep for her loss. I love the little beds for her daughters and the playroom! Where did you get your doll house? And the beds from? I love her perspective of life. What a wonderful tour. Thank you for sharing your home and life with us.

  4. Michelle, you are amazing, beautiful inside and out! You bless me every time I read your blog! You’re always in my heart! Just so you know!

    1. Hi Valerie! It is fun to think that this has come a bit full circle since spending so much time in your home growing up has really stuck with me. Thank you for reading, and for always being a part of my life! xoxo, Michelle

  5. We just left St. johns at the beginning of the summer and this tugged at my heart. We are in our starter home and I’m so grateful to be a homeowner but I really appreciate her gentle reminder to enjoy it now and not be eager to upgrade. Love this series!

  6. I really liked the analogy of home as a trampoline. “I’ve always thought of our home as a trampoline – it’s where you always land. And if it’s a good trampoline, it propels you into wherever you want to go.”
    I’m adding that to our next family letter on this coming Sunday.

  7. I admit it, I am a skimmer. Usually I just look at the pictures in the house tour but today I read every word. I love the way you write and share your open, honest thoughts with us. Even sharing your grief is such a help to others. Thank you for such a wonderful tour of your life and your home.

    OK one question. Where did you get those darling towels you are using in your kitchen for curtains?

  8. I loved this post so much! It was exactly what I needed to read today. My husband and I are at that stage with young children, fresh out of college and are looking into buying our first home, and it’s so easy to be discouraged about the things you can’t have and can’t afford, but she has shown that you can make a small home beautiful, you can take what you have and make more from it. She is an inspiration, and a beautiful person!


    1. Hi Paige! I just checked out your blog – what a lovely life you have in Georgia. As crazy as it is being young with kids, there is so much to enjoy, and I can see that you do. Good luck getting little Em to sleep! :-)

  9. Oh, Michelle, I loved this. I am visiting my hometown of Portland from Germany right now and have spent a lot of time in the NoPo ‘hood, catching up with fellow UP alums at the T-Room, the St. John’s food carts, and even a women’s soccer game (Go Pilots!). It’s been so great to see that beautiful campus again, and it was such a lovely surprise to read your wonderful piece in Design Mom. You are doing everything right: now I wish I had stayed in Portland, too! I am eager to read your blog and to have more of Portland back in my daily life in Bavaria. Thanks so much for this!

    1. Hi Dorf –
      So fun to meet a fellow admirer of NoPo from this little corner of the web. I hope you enjoy your visit here! It is a great place to be.
      Coincidentally, I will be visiting Germany in October. We will be primarily in Berlin, and if you have any tips on places to go/see/eat, I would love some ideas!

      xoxo, Michelle

  10. That photo wall! Love it! Little touches so great in this house – the kitchen curtains (I have your exact color of mixer, though :) – the paint colors in the rooms – the neat but cozy presentation of toys….

  11. Michelle~
    I am so proud to be your friend. You (and your family, and your home) are beautiful and I feel so lucky to know you. Your home is always filled with love; I personally feel like I have so many happy memories from within it, from the home that you and your family have created. When I saw your photos on here I thought, “I’ve had many an afternoon chat over hot chocolate and piece of cake on that couch!” This post is a beautiful attestation to loving what you have, where you are, those around you and, of course, yourself. I’m printing this and saving it forever :-) LOVE YOU!

    1. Brynn, You are such a lovely and encouraging friend – and a great treasure hunter as well. I owe many lovely things in my home and life to you. Let’s have more hot chocolate soon… with vanilla bean salt and homemade marshmallows, of course! You’re the best… really! Love you!!

  12. Love your house and this tour! Thanks you for sharing the color of the nursery – I’ve loved that color for a room for so long, but have been scared to take the plunge. I know you mentioned that you just use masking tape for your pictures, but is that for all your picture galleries – the maps and the others where you don’t see the tape? I always think I need a frame for everything, but this looks so great that I think I’m going to have to try it!

    1. Hi Carrie-
      It is such a great color! I was scared about it at first, too, but now I love it so much I kind of want to paint my whole house that color. It’s perfectly tranquil without being oppressive.
      And… masking tape is pretty much my secret for everything. Every gallery wall that’s not framed is adhered with masking tape for the most part. If something is heavier than paper (like the paper flowers in the girls’ room), I do use Command Strips. And every once in a while, masking tape fails me and I have to add more tape or redo some of the pieces if they’ve lost their stickiness… but this isn’t very often. And it’s so worth it to not have to fork over all the cash for frames. Not having frames kept me from putting up art for a long time… and then I just thought heck! The thing is pretty without a frame, so masking tape it is!

  13. I so appreciate how humble you are in your writing and love how you really made your house your own over time. I also live in the Northern VA area and am curious what area you bought in. We’re in a condo now and will need to expand to a house soon but it all seems too overwhelming and built-up.

    1. Well you can tell what kind of day I’m having as I posted this on the wrong page! I clicked on this post because of the beautiful pictures I saw of your front door on the bottom of the other post. Sorry for the mishap but it’s lovely!

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