I think living with kids in Holland would be pretty wonderful. Traffic exams for children to make sure they’re safe bicycle riders, tulips on every table, a generous parental leave, and “Come on, Mom! Van Gogh, again?” Yes, I would say that Susanne van der Lee and her family are living very well together, and smiling a lot along the way. Just one look at their home shows us the family’s style: equal parts humor and good design.
Friends, please help me welcome the van der Lee family, all the way from Holland!
Q: Tell us all about this family living in Holland!
A: Hello everyone! My name is Susanne, and I am an interior designer (or interieurarchitect in Dutch). We live in Holland, in Nieuw-Vennep, a town in the middle of the Randstad, which is basically one big metropolitan area connecting Amsterdam, Haarlem, The Hague, and Rotterdam.
I am married to Hans, who has his own business as a creative writer, journalist, and interim publisher. Let’s just say he is good with words.
We have two sons: Ard, age 10, and Joost, who is seven. Ard plays field hockey and is the dreamer of the two, and Joost is crazy about soccer and playing outside, climbing trees, and much more of a wild child. They both love swimming, as well.
I work outside the home at a design studio in Zaandam four days a week, and my husband works partly from home and partly from an office.
Q: How did this house become yours?
A: When I met Hans, I lived in Rotterdam and was working in Amsterdam, and he was living and working in The Hague. We decided to move in together in my tiny studio apartment in Rotterdam and commute to our jobs. This worked well: we could work late when necessary, we would meet after work in the city to go to the theatre, or meet friends at a restaurant. Ah yes…Living Without Kids!
But after a while, I got pregnant – happy surprise! – and we wanted to buy a house closer to our jobs. Hans worked in Amsterdam as well by then, so that seemed the place to be for us. The problem with Amsterdam is that it is quite expensive (read: impossible) to buy a house that is big enough for a growing family and maybe have a garden and a parking space, etc.
Yes, we had quite a wish list! So, we decided to look for a house in Haarlem. One day we rented bikes there and rode around the town to see where the nice areas were. Well, buying a house with a garden in Haarlem proved to be impossible with our budget, too. We had just made the currency switch from Guilders to the Euro at that time, and all the prices seemed to have doubled!
After this humbling experience, we expanded our search area. By now I was six months into my pregnancy! We finally found a nice family home within our budget, with four bedrooms, a garden, and a school at the end of the street. Not our dream house, but it proved a perfect place for raising kids.
So, we were moving house two weeks after the birth of our first son, and I will say this: Don’t do that if not absolutely necessary! Fortunately we had a lot of help with painting walls and putting up shelves and stuff.
Q: What makes you love where you live?
A: Well, I love that we live in a safe village, where we can send our oldest son to field hockey practice on his bike with no real worries. They make the kids take traffic exams on their bikes here. Our house is very close to school so I can walk them, and on some days my oldest son can walk or bike home from school by himself.
I work outside the home for four days a week. Part-time jobs are common here, and usually there are no problems with the employer. I also took up something called parental leave, which means in certain situations a parent can take a leave of absence from their job if they have children under the age of eight. In my case, it means having two extra days off per month until the end of the year to take care of our family.
What I like about the area is that we live close to cities like Amsterdam, Haarlem, and The Hague, which are all great for visiting museums, going to restaurants, and shopping, but also we live close to the beach, where we go a lot in all seasons. And of course, in Spring we can enjoy all the flowers here in the Bollenstreek, which everyone knows as the tulip bulb area.
Other destinations are relatively close as well. We decided on a whim last December to drive to Paris the weekend before Christmas. There was a perfect spot in our agenda, so on Wednesday night we booked a family room close to the Jardin du Luxembourg. That Friday we had the day off from work, picked up the kids from school at 12.30, packed sandwiches and snacks, and drove off!
I found driving in Paris nerve-wrecking, but Hans was a cool customer and we made it to the parking garage without a scratch! We explored Paris with the kids, with all the Christmas decorations and lights. It was a magical time, and the boys loved it! You can fly there in an hour from here of course, but that requires another budget…
Also, living in Holland is rather comfortable for English-speaking people, because most Dutch people speak English, as is the case in most Northern European/Scandinavian countries.
Q: Your home definitely has a sense of humor. What are your favorite ways to let your playful side come out in your decor? How involved are the boys in creating their space?
A: I love designs and art and colour combinations that surprise you and put a smile on your face. The kids have a say in the choice of colour and furniture, and Joost is also really thinking about where to put what and what would work best.
Ard is not really interested in those kind of things. When I asked him what colour he would like on his bedroom walls, he shrugged and said, “Oh, I don’t know…maybe yellow.”
But Joost really loves helping out painting his room, picking colours at the home store, and helping with DIY stuff. Funny how different they all are.
Q: You work outside the home. Can you describe your job and what it adds to your life as a mom?
A: I work as an interior designer. Mostly I design office spaces and work environments, but also sometimes restaurants and school interiors.
I advise companies about how to implement the economic and sociological developments that are transforming the way people work and live: the mix of office and home, new technologies, and mobile information that makes for flexible work hours. The combination of all those things requires a new kind of workspace. More meeting place, less office.
How that affects me as a mom, I can’t really say. I do know that work, school, and fun are really mixed up in our home in a good way, I think. Other than that, I have a certain style/signature as a designer and that style is definitely reflected in our home. But I do not make big decisions on my own.
Q: How do you balance work and home life? Do you have any electronics rules at home? How do you stay connected to each other?
A: Balancing home life and work is different every week. Hans works at home on Mondays and Fridays, so he can be there for the kids after school is out to take them to hockey practice and swimming lessons. I am home on Wednesdays and also some Fridays, so I can be there for school stuff and soccer practice. In all, we are around pretty much. The other days, they go to an after-school childcare center.
With all the laptops and smartphones, it also means we answer some e-mails and take some phone calls from colleagues during our days off. I have no problems with that. I am strict about television and gameboys on school days: Never TV before school, and an hour maximum at night on school days only after homework.
Weekends are mostly purely family and we do lots of different stuff. On Saturday morning there are field hockey and soccer games. Hans coaches Ard’s team. Sometimes we go to the Amsterdam Zoo where we have membership cards, some days I drag the kids to see Van Gogh’s paintings to try to expose them to culture (ha ha), or we stay at home on Sundays in our sweatpants and play games, listen to music and, yes, the kids play on their iPad or Wii.
Q: When does your home work best? What does it still need to be absolutely perfect?
A: For me, my home works best on Saturday late afternoons, when all the grocery shopping is done, field hockey and soccer matches are played, and there is time to relax with a board game. Joost is crazy about Monopoly right now. We enjoy listening to music, having friends over with their kids, eating homemade snacks, and having a glass of wine…it’s what we call borrelen here in Holland.
To make the house perfect, I would love to have a playroom for the kids to goof around in with a swing and lots of cushions, all their Lego and Playmobil. And of course a TV for movies and Wii. But for now, the living room will have to do. They still want to be around the grown-ups!
Q: What traditions have you made in this home? What do you hope your boys will remember most about their childhood…and most about you?
A: I am a strong believer in making new traditions as a family. Mostly they are simple rituals, but for children that’s really okay.
On birthdays, the family member whose birthday it is gets breakfast in bed and may choose what we have for dinner. There is no skipping that!
We also have a strong tradition with breakfast at Christmas. (Presents are given at Saint-Nicholas, December 5th.) It’s really my mother’s parents’ family tradition. As long as I can remember, we eat a special dish at breakfast – kind of a Christmas roast – and without it, it’s just not Christmas. Everyone that is introduced into our family has to try it, but eventually they grow to love it just as much and look forward to it. We used to eat it at Opa and Oma’s house. Sadly, my parents passed away a few years back, so now I am the one who keeps the tradition alive. I love doing that.
I remember my childhood as a happy and loving time, with endless summers, camping trips in France, playing outside with my friends, and ice skating in winter. Life without a care in the world is what I hope to give my children, as well.
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What has surprised you about being a mom?
A: My favourite part of living with my kids is that they amaze and surprise me every day with things they make, things they say, or things they ask! I love that.
What surprises me is that you also are crisis manager, police officer, catering person, party planner, half nurse, cleaning lady, friend, and wife all in one day! Talk about multitasking!
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: Well, it has been said before and it’s such a cliché, but I wish someone had told me how fast it all goes…
Every stage has its own lovely moments. But life happens and you enter the next stage in the blink of an eye. I just try to take lots of pictures and – better still – make movies. The voices of our loved ones are so precious!
But really, these things were told to me by my mom and dad, brothers, friends, you name it, about being a mom and having kids, and now I wish sometimes I listened more carefully. But that’s just it…you just have to find out for yourself and experience it.
Susanne, you really brightened up the day with your home. Designing a space where you’re able to live well together is hard enough, but you’ve managed to do so while adding hefty doses of humor and happiness. Thank you for showing us around!
Friends, weren’t you inspired by Susanne’s last-minute Christmas trip to Paris? No matter where you live, there’s probably somewhere super interesting and unique within driving distance. If you feel like playing the wanderlust game, tell us all where you’d drive on a last-minute trip. Maybe for Spring Break?