Living With Kids: Nell O’Leary

By Gabrielle.

Never before have I asked a Living With Kids tour guide about her family and received a response like Nell‘s. It’s beyond lovely and lucky and all those words we use when someone is exactly where they should be in life!

And this house! Oh, what a house. In my imagination, Nell’s family home is just like the one in the game of Clue, come to life. (My best guess is James in the Music Room with a cello!) All of it is so interesting to me, from the family input into decor to the incredible sense of deja vu that must happen on a daily basis. Please, please enjoy this tour and help me welcome this sweet – and growing – family!

Q: Please tell us about you and yours!

A: My whole family includes this clan of our parents, beloved four siblings, their partners, and their kiddos. We’re Irish Catholic and were raised to be fiercely loyal, and very much involved in one another’s lives. My parents have been together for 40 years this year! Both are doctors – dad a gastrointerologist and mom a psychologist. My eldest sister and her partner live in Minneapolis and are true urban farmers. My second eldest sister is a social worker who specializes in older adults and little kiddos, her nieces and nephews benefitting from her proximity of living in the Twin Cities as well; she’s the auntie who teaches them about the periodic table and splatter paint! The sister right above me is our New York star, a graphic designer turned herbalist whose organic skincare line is fabulous. Her husband has opened two successful bar/gastro-pubs in Manhattan and is burgeoning on his third. Their toddler daughter and baby girl are perpetually on our FaceTime feed chatting it up with my kiddos. Our little brother is an officer in the Army, though he’s a world traveler and adventurer (and still our baby brother) behind all that ordered life. He and his wonderful wife have a nine month old whom we all wish we could gobble up, but can’t as they live in Tennessee.

There’s me, the fourth, the creative writing major-turned-lawyer who married her law school love, and we have James who is almost four, Maureen who is two, and a little baby boy due to join us in early May. I’m haphazard about cleaning but love to tidy, my husband is a poet who’s an insurance coverage lawyer, and our children are obsessed with all things church and baseball related. We eat as healthfully as possible but also indulge on my mom’s homemade and certainly unhealthy caramels. Despite our children’s screen-free life, my husband and I love to curl up with fatty fatty ice cream and watch Netflix once the kids have gone down for the night!

Q: You’re living in your childhood home! Tell us about why you wanted to buy it from your parents, and any difficulties or second-guesses along the way.

A: All of us siblings had agreed growing up: somebody had to buy the house someday. I feel so lucky it ended up being us! We were the first to get married and have children, and once our careers had lined up so that it was financially feasible, we made the leap. The house has so much character and personality. It’s roomy but intimate, majestic but practical, stunning but humble. It had never really occurred to me that another family could raise their children in it, unless that family were one of ours.

It’s a strange phenomena, to have your first home be your forever home, and many of our peers thought we were a little insane for taking on such a big bite for the first go at the home hunting. But it always felt right and made complete sense.

Every day something strikes me as a deja vu. Watching my children eat in our Dining Room, in the same chairs I used to squirm in. Watching my husband stoke the fire in the Library, the same fire my dad stoked for years. Playing hide and go seek with the kids in the Music Room and seeing them squirrel under the silk taffeta curtains just as my siblings and I did! Amazing.

Q: It’s 100 years old, which seems like a design challenge in itself, but there’s also the whole dilemma about making changes to your family home. How do you handle this? is there ever resistance from your siblings or parents about making changes? Do you feel hindered by your past in the home? Or is it all positive and inspiring to you?

A: Yes, the age of the house makes it a design challenge in that rooms are who they are, and beyond a facelift, on the first floor at least, there’s very little wiggle room for redesign. My mom redid the kitchen about 17 years ago and completely gutted it to the studs. She’s a designer at heart, and it worked flawlessly to have a modern kitchen in an old home. The rest of the front of the house, the Music Room, Library, Entrance Hall, Breeze Way, Dining Room, and even the little guest bath off the first floor called the Powder Room, needs furnishings, window treatments, and paint colors that are symbiotic to the room itself and the era of the house. The wooden paneling in most of those rooms leaves only artwork as an option for the walls.

Recently we purchased a Stickly Brothers coffee table and a chair for the library. I literally texted the pictures of the options to my siblings and asked “Are these okay for the Library?” We do feel that any significant changes to the house would need to go through the group as it’s still a family house, and always will be. That being said, no one has ever criticized or been crazy attached to a wall hanging or whatnot.

The second floor has gone through several facelifts with wallpaper up and down, paint on and over, and bath appliances swapping out. Those rooms I don’t feel as protective of as they morph with the needs of the family. We needed to refurnish and paint the guest room, making it a place for any of my siblings to come and be comfortable. The kids rooms we redid, as well as the Main Bathroom, which is primarily theirs but also used by us, too.

When redesigning I’ll think “What did I want in my room when I was a child in here?” Or “Can I strip this wallpaper and be okay with losing these memories?” Luckily I don’t feel like changing the bedrooms is replacing those memories I had with my own siblings, but rather carving space for my children to make their own with theirs.

Q: What makes you love where you live?

A: Saint Paul, Minnesota always ranks highly on livability and beauty and in one recent article, romance! Tucked into the hills of Saint Paul are many neighborhoods with old houses that range in affordability from $200,000 to $2,000,000. The beauty of the city is that you can have a mansion next to a modest home, and both enjoy large yards and are a hop, skip, and jump from local farmer’s markets, retail, and delightful eats. It boasts a range of charter schools, private schools, solid public schools, and a bustling homeschooling/unschooling community if that’s your bend. Taxes are higher than other cities because you enjoy so many great amenities and wonderful programs for those in need.

We’re literally touching Minneapolis, hence the term “Twin Cities,” and between the two of them there’s a ton of culture, art, nature, music, food, and genuine diversity. I can’t encourage people enough to give this wonderful Midwest town a try.

Q: You’re taking time off from your career as an attorney, and running a Whole Parenting Family blog as well as other Etsy projects. Tell us about it all.

A: Even though I’m a lawyer, I’ve been on hiatus since our second and I’m loving this time at home with the kiddos. I never knew how busy and full life could be as an at-home mom. My blog, Whole Parenting Family, sprung from my love of writing, sharing, community, and all that I was discovering along this journey of family building. Somedays I write from my gut about challenges, other days I share recipes or point to interesting happenings online. I’m connected with the birth and parenting community here, and many of those wonderful organizations are sponsors and muses for me!

I write about how I handle parenting and partnering challenges often. It’s a trope I return to: exhibit A is my dilemma, exhibit B is my solution. What works for other moms? It’s a linear and logical approach to our struggles, but without a dogmatic “this is the only right way” approach. Parenting small children feels like trial and error. All the time.

My little Etsy shop, Whole Parenting Goods, was a surprise for me as well. Loving sewing and knitting as a little girl, I revisited it as a new mother. Suddenly a whole world of design and fabric and creativity erupted! I hand craft everything in my home studio, and sell to retailers and online on Etsy. It’s been a blessing for my creative side, for gifts to give to friends and family, and for that little extra to spend on my children and godchildren. My shop has a number of bandana bibs, contoured burp cloths, large crib blankets, little girl skirts, and flaxseed heating/cooling packs, all with an emphasis on sourcing locally and organically as much as possible.

Q: What was your inspiration in starting Whole Parenting, and what has it given back to you professionally and personally?

A: My inspiration in starting Whole Parenting was to connect with other women encountering the same challenges and joys as me. New motherhood is incredibly isolating and fortifying, all at once. To write about it, to create hand sewn items to make it a little easier to clean up spit up, both gave me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

I’m an extrovert! The blog gives me a chance to interact with small business owner sponsors I know and love, promote and support educational experiences for my readership, and the joy of knowing my writing might make one mom’s day a little easier. Yes, because my child too pitched the world’s biggest tantrum at the playdate I hosted!

Q: When does your home work best for your family?

A: We are all at our best in the morning. Breakfast is a humming, dancing, oatmeal affair followed by lots of creative play or out and about in the world with friends or activities. I cherish our mornings at home with the sun bursting through the windows, the music up, the kids choosing their own adventure whether it is water coloring with our hands, building sky scrapers, or curling up in the Library reading.

The house functions best when it’s slightly disheveled, teeming with voices, and has something in the oven. That’s how I remember my childhood in the house – all the kids running around, finding hiding and reading spots, my mom calling, “All hands on deck!” when it was time to snack or eat. The kitchen has always been the heart of the home.

Predictably, these bopping mornings are followed by his mid-morn quiet time in his room and her morning nap which is when order is restored to the chaos and I step into my own world for a little peace time. So mornings contain the best of all worlds!

Q: What has been the absolute best thing about living with your kids? What do you already miss as they get older?

A: The best thing about living with my kids is all that they teach me. Their vision of the world is more interesting, real, and flush with vitality than anyone else I know! Their observations about people, nature, food, you name it, refreshes me and my own tired adult eyes on a daily basis.

I already miss the snuggly baby stage! The more independent they become, the more they engage with the world, the more interested and interesting they become. But they also need their mama in a new and less physical way, which makes me so glad we’re having more babies!

Q: What do you hope your kids remember about this home? Their childhood? And you as their mom?

A: I hope they remember feeling enveloped in love and support in the walls of this beautiful old house. I hope they remember their childhood as filled with beauty, but not the fragile kind you can only admire…the real kind you can embrace in a bear hug. I hope they remember the joy of sharing space with a space that has its own flaws and foibles. And I hope they remember me as attentive without helicoptering, present without smothering, and always a listening ear.

Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…

A: That some days you just don’t want to parent. And that’s normal! And what family & friends are for: to give you a breather so you can plunge back in!


Nell, this was one of my favorite reads. I am a big fan of families who support each other wholeheartedly in every endeavor and daily moment, and yours is one of the loveliest to meet. Thank you for sharing yourself today!

Friends, I was totally charmed by Nell’s description of her entire family in her introduction, especially as she identifies herself as the fourth! Do you ever still view yourself as you once were in your original family? Has your childhood role stuck with you and shaped your path?  (I have a friend who explains away her carefree attitude – “Oh, I’m the youngest in my family.” – even though she’s a grown woman with kids of her own!)

P.S. – Are you interested in sharing your own home with us? Just send me a note! It’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.

35 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Nell O’Leary”

    1. Some things stayed with us, but many went with my parents to their new home. It’s a good blend! Thank you–my mom has excellent taste!

  1. This was so fun to read as a fellow Twin Citian–I’m sure I’ve driven by your beautiful home at some point! My dad is the oldest of a big, Irish-Catholic brood, so I’m very familiar with the tight-knit, clannish dynamic. :)

    And I understand how the siblings felt about keeping the family home in the family. That’s how my mother’s family feels about my grandparents’ home, which Grandpa built back in the 1950s. Happily, my grandparents are still alive and kicking, but when they’re gone I know the house will stay in the family. None of us can imagine anyone else living there!

    Thanks for sharing your home with us, and I’ll be sure to check out your blog!

    1. You know how we crazies are in these big clans! Love that you’re a Twin Citian as well :) Glad you still have your grandparents (what a blessing!) and glad too that you will capture all those memories even after they pass.

  2. Beautiful home! I would love to raise kids in a house like that, full of history, beauty, family stories, it’s heavenly. That play room is the BEST! And, of course, gorgeous, gorgeous rugs! My greatest weakness.

    1. We are SO blessed. The playroom is a three-season porch so I mourn the loss of all that space in the 6 month winter (and actually have to do a little toy rotation which is probably a great thing!). Rugs–I know! My dad’s an expert and so we all inherited this weakness for them too.

  3. I think I want to live in each and every home tour because of the warmth of the family living in them just as much as the beauty of the homes. This is such a wonderful tour and a wonderful family – and I love that they bought her childhood home. My family had a similar home that belonged to my grandmother – and all of us grandchildren are always checking in with eachother, “so, who’s going to buy the ranch? come on! someone has to buy it!” This is such a wonderful testament to legacies and love – thanks so much for this tour!

    1. It’s so special to live inside memories while making memories! I love her house tours too. I hope the ranch stays in your family!

  4. Beautiful, beautiful home with so many interesting architectural details. I have to admit, though, I noticed the “screen-free life” comment. In my experience kids who never get to see TV, eat sweets or chips or sugared cereals (or whatever is “forbidden”) make up for lost time the minute they are exposed to those things. Nell, do you find that to be true for your kids, or have you found that the “screen-free life” is working for you?

    1. Great point, Beth. Deprivation can lead to totally insane teens, right? We will FaceTime with family out of town, watch a short youtube video on lions in the zoo, and they certainly see me on my iPhone. The choice has been more about not plugging into commercial kids shows or using the screen as a babysitter–which most of my friends do, so it’s no judgment on them, just what works better for my kids’ temperaments.

      They’re also 4 & 2, so as they age, some screen time will be more appropriate for fun & learning.

    1. Such a joy to share, Jen! And how delighted I’ve been to learn more about your wonderful family & journey through your great book.

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    1. Isn’t it wonderful to have artwork that’s also inspirational? Both kids have icon walls in their rooms and not only is it calming and pleasing to the spirit, but yes, I sometimes remind my 4 year old that his saint friends would NOT be impressed with his behavior :)

  6. I constantly say some version of: “It’s because I’m the oldest of a big family!” I think your place in the pecking order growing up can really shape who you are.

    Such a special thing to be able to raise your kids in the home you grew up in! And such a beautiful home at that. I hear that the Twin Cities is a fantastic place — I’d love to visit some day.

  7. Fabulous home, generous warm writing and wow do I love your Etsy goods Nell! Those kids are pretty lucky to have a mother like you! And the lace…all the lace curtains…sigh… :)

    1. You’re so kind, Molly. And “all the lace”–doesn’t that remind you of Mr. Bennett asking Mrs. Bennett to not share any more about the lace in Pride & Prejudice? We grew up wanting our wedding dresses to be made out of those curtains!

  8. Amen to “some days you just don’t want to parent”! It doesn’t happen often, but I do need a breather every now and again.

    1. It was a little tricky, Misty. I sewed two loops about two inches by 6 inches and after seaming them, turned them right-side in so the stitches weren’t so obvious. Then I tacked it by hand to the back like big bunny ears, and tapped longer nails into the wall so the loops could catch on the nails.

  9. They don’t make ’em like that anymore! (Which is a terrible shame.) I’m so glad your family home has stayed in your family. What a wonderful gift. Enjoy all the beauty!

  10. Gabby, it was such a joy to share with you. And yes, it was James with the cello in the Music Room ;) Thank you for your wonderful questions, patience, and a place to share about our unique family’s ancestral home.

    Thank you for your writing–you’re an inspiration to us all!

  11. Beautiful home and such a pretty life they are constructing. I have often thought about what it would be like to live in the home we grew up in. I laughed Gabby when you asked about birth order. We have three people in our home & all three are first-born children. I see the reflection of that in all of us so strongly and sometimes it becomes rather comical with three leader/go-getters all bouncing off each other at the same time. It’s stunning how much our birth order affects who we become, how we see things and how we live our lives.

  12. Beautiful home, thanks for sharing.

    However I must admit that I am getting tired of this series. Not because I don´t like to peek into other peoples homes, but because there are hardly any surprises in this series.

    Most families you show are middle or upper class. 95% white, with the odd black kid (adopted). Of all families you feature 95% seem to be christian and pretty religious. Money never seems to be an issue. There usually is a traditional set-up with a husband and a wife. All this is fine, i could be one of them, my familiy is similar. But why not show something else?!

    Where are the single parents? Where are families with just one kid? Families with financial struggles? Parents who don´t have creative jobs or an academic background? People of colour? Where are they?

    America is, after all, a multi-racial society. Why don´t you represent this? I would LOVE to be inspired or learn about homes that are much different to my own!


    1. Hi Rebecca. A couple of things. First, your comment is inappropriate on this blog post. Why is it inappropriate? Because the families who share their homes and lives in these posts work really hard to do so. They take significant emotional risks (will readers like what they share? will anyone comment? will there be rude comments?) and put in a significant amount of hours taking photos, processing photos, and responding to questions. Have you ever participated in a house tour interview on any blog? Though I try hard to make them fun, they are also a lot of work for participants!

      Though your comment isn’t aimed particularly at Nell, including it on this blog post brings a negative response that will make her feel unwelcome here and give her the message that you wish she hadn’t participated, that she hadn’t shared. Why would you do that? Why is giving public feedback about this series so important to you that you would dismiss Nell’s feelings, and everyone else’s feelings that have participated in the series?

      Am I saying that I don’t allow negative comments on Design Mom? Nope, if you read regularly, you know I take opposing views daily. I ask for them. I welcome them. As long as the comment is respectful, I’m on board. But, I make an exception for my home tour posts. I don’t allow negative comments on home tour posts because I consider these families guests in my home, and my hosting duties include providing them with a safe place to share. So if there are negative comments on home tour posts, I take them down and send a nice email to the commenter explaining why.

      There was another negative comment on this post a couple of days ago and I took it down. In an email, I explained the same thing to that commenter as I’m explaining to you now. Why am I leaving your comment up? Because apparently it’s time for a reminder that I don’t allow negative comments on home tour posts. (Nell, my apologies to you for leaving Rebecca’s comment up as an example. I realize it’s not fair to you.)

      So how should you give negative feedback about a home tour? Well, the easiest way is probably email. My email address is very accessible and considering the amount of email I receive, I do a remarkable job of responding to those emails.

      Second, as for your questions: “Where are the single parents? Where are families with just one kid? Families with financial struggles? Parents who don´t have creative jobs or an academic background? People of colour? Where are they?” I invite you to take some responsibility here. Why aren’t you recommending specific families to feature who are single parents? Who have just one kid? Who have financial struggles? Do you have friends like this? Have you encouraged them to share their homes with me? How do you expect me to find them?

      Honestly, I work hard to show variety in the home tours I share. And I think if you search the home tour archives you’ll discover a broader range than your comment suggests. But I am very open to sharing all varieties of family. Is there a family you think I should feature? I’m all ears.

      I post the house tours I receive. Not everyone is comfortable sharing their home, and obviously I can’t force someone who would rather not participate. But I invite you, or any reader, to suggest a family we might be able to learn from.

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