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Essay

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me About Design and Control

by Kelli Kehler

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me about Design & Control, Design*Sponge The day before my daughter was born in July 2014, my house was in the greatest state of disarray… ever. There was clean laundry weighing down a bulky drying rack in the living room and dirty laundry in piles and on bedroom surfaces upstairs — hoping for the next load to the washer. Dishes were piled high in the sink, pots and pans sat on the stovetop. The bathrooms were a mess. Small nesting projects to prepare for the baby (due in 5 weeks on that day) were left unfinished and abandoned everywhere you looked. Clutter abounded.

I was in too much pain to do anything, let alone tidy up. At the time I had no idea I had a rare and fatal pregnancy complication called HELLP Syndrome and that my body was shutting down. I didn’t know that day was probably my last on this earth had my husband not rushed home from work, called my OB, and taken me to the hospital. You see, I’m a Type A personality, and I am a lover of control. I’m stubborn, yes, but as I sat in the labor and delivery wing of the hospital trying to understand the gravity of my health, I was still saying “but the house is a MESS! We don’t have a car seat yet. This baby can’t be born now.” I begrudgingly relinquished my control to my Mom, sister and brother who stayed up into the wee hours of the morning cleaning the house to prepare for the baby. There were people in my completely blown-up home, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was a baby coming five weeks early, and there was nothing I could do about it. The eve of my child’s birth was when I started to learn to let go of control, and that moment forward changed the way I structured both my life and home.

When people become parents, these changes to your surroundings are often adjustments to having a tiny person crawling — and soon climbing — over everything. You learn as they grow how to “baby-proof,” or make a space work better for a little one. But the greater philosophical and emotional changes you endure are reflected in those home tweaks, too. The transition to parenthood is monumental, even earth-altering, for those who experience it. We’re suddenly responsible for another who is not us, and how could that growth not trickle down to the spaces in which we live?

Since that day in July and over the past almost three years, there’s a lot I’ve learned and changed about my design aesthetic and need for control — and I believe those two things are wholly connected. As I prepare to welcome my second child this summer, my new philosophies on home design are even more solidified. Here are some key methods and mantras I’ve picked up along the path of parenthood. —Kelli

We parents learn a lot from each other, so if you have any tips you’ve picked up for your own home, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me about Design & Control, Design*Sponge

A home is not a fixed state to aspire to, or a completed project. It ebbs and flows with the growth of your family. I love interior design, but how boring would it be if we “finished” a room and then were done with it? It seems as though I am changing something about my home’s spaces almost daily. I am constantly editing a room to help it perform to its highest function for our family — and you know what? Aspiring for function and organization is not a sacrifice of design or aesthetic. If anything, streamlining my home more and installing systems that help it function better only keep my home looking more beautiful, tidier, and more “us.” When I pare back the unnecessary to make room for what we truly need to live in our spaces, I can more clearly see the picture of what makes our family who we are. And when I redefine a room or an item’s purpose — which may not be something you’d see in a glossy design magazine — that’s okay, too. Is my soon-to-be-born-baby’s crib in our master bedroom? Yes. Is my work desk now a changing table? Yep. And eventually those things will change and move, but for now it’s exactly what my family needs.

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me about Design & Control, Design*Sponge

Giving yourself grace is absolutely essential. Just as a room or home is never really finished in my eyes, we must give ourselves some slack when it comes to projects. Maybe your powder room has holes in the wall from a gallery installation you took down (mine does) — and you still haven’t spackled those nail marks yet. Maybe you have a stack of mail and other papers that never seems to whittle down, sitting on the kitchen table (I do). Maybe no matter where you look, you still see a kid’s or dog’s toy strewn here or there (or maybe several). Chances are, no one from Architectural Digest is about to bust down your door and photograph your home as-is. HGTV doesn’t have a camera crew on their way to your home. Take a deep breath; you’re raising a child, you’re doing your best, and you’re rocking it.

For me, less is more. Before we became parents, we had a ton of stuff. In classic packrat fashion, I held onto everything. Surfaces brimmed with decorative items because I felt like they all needed to be on display. Storage systems suffered from trying to contain unneeded things — like that playbill from a performance years ago. But once you become a parent and see the shear amount of STUFF a child needs — and once they start school, all the projects and mementos they bring home — you do that quick math and realize just how much you’ll likely accumulate over their lifetime. I have since made it a habit to routinely go through things, de-clutter, and donate.

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me About Design and Control, Design*Sponge

I want inspiration to be everywhere you look. Children have brains that are rapidly growing, developing and absorbing life around them. In every room of my house I have at least one piece of art that is thought-provoking, or colorful, or outside of the box. And none of these things break the bank — they’re thrifted from flea markets, salvaged, photographed by family or handmade. I want to give little eyes something visual that takes their imagination on a journey.

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me about Design & Control, Design*Sponge

I strive to cultivate a home where there is freedom to create, be comfortable and feel safe. The number one thing a child typically craves, at the end of the day, is to feel safe and loved. So I want my home to be a reflection of that. While there are rules in place, this is their home, too, so all furnishings and all rooms are welcoming to children — there isn’t an “off-limits” sitting room or anything like that. Instead of compromising on my personal style, I choose furniture and pieces that perform well with kids (and pets) and are made well. Sure, we have the staple workhorse IKEA pieces (bookshelves, dressers, my daughter’s bed), but items like rugs, couches, etc. are typically things we save for. In return for our higher investment, these pieces last much longer in the long run and, as a result, end up being “kid-friendly” and looking great. If my daughter wants to paint in the living room (on a big, old blanket to protect from spills) or build a castle in my master bedroom, she can follow her creativity wherever it takes her.

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me about Design & Control, Design*Sponge

Baskets, baskets, and more baskets. I’m not the first person to laud the benefits of attractive organization, but I’m a diehard fan. I have a pretty basket in each room (two in my living room alone) that elevate each room’s design, but they actually corral clutter. A catchall basket at the foot of my stairs and in the master bedroom are particularly helpful in always keeping these spaces neat. The biggest game-changer came when I tucked a basket under each bedside table in the master bedroom. I’m sure most of us have clothing items that are in an undecided state of use — a shirt worn for just a few hours, or a go-to sweatshirt — that would usually end up on the floor or a chair until we send them to the laundry hamper. These baskets hold those things (and my slippers, my phone charger, etc.) and now we never have the piles-of-random-clothing-everywhere issue that so many of us seem to battle, but maybe don’t make public.

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me about Design & Control, Design*Sponge

Celebrate who you are and all of your weirdness, because it will inspire your children to be unequivocally themselves without fear of judgement. When I was pregnant with my first child, I had a silly thought that I couldn’t keep my obscure art pieces in the house any longer — like my skull print below. I wondered, “do parents have skull imagery throughout the house?” to which I answered myself: “a parent can be anyone, there is no rulebook.” I have large, visible tattoos, and that doesn’t bother me in being a Mom, so why should the art I keep in the home worry me about the influence it has over my children? If we stop apologizing for who we are and all of the delightfully different things that make us up — and instead embrace these quirks — we become shining examples to our children and others of how to be confident in who we are, and no one else.

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me about Design & Control, Design*Sponge

I am not Martha Stewart. Every once in a while I am bound to forget this truth. I go to bed some nights with a sink full of dishes, or baskets of folded laundry that never made it into the dresser, and I feel bad. But I am a working mother, and I am not perfect. However, I have the type of brain that is more at rest when I am in clean, tidy spaces. So to please my brain (and have some sense of control over my environment on busy days), I let the functional systems I’ve put in place do the work. Those baskets in each room are easily filled with a few steps around each space to pick up toys, books and other objects. Surfaces like tables, countertops and dressers remain neat because I previously pared down our belongings to quality items and cut out the clutter. A few minutes spent putting everything in its functional space leaves me with a comfortable home where my busy mind finds harmony.

The bottom line: At my core, I still want to have control over things in life, but I know that’s not realistic. To compromise, I arrange my home’s design to allow for a loss of control or the day-to-day mayhem of kids and life. That way, I don’t lose sleep over how my home looks, because it’s always a comfortable, creative space in which I share life with my loved ones. And if the place is blown at the end of the day, it’s nothing a few trusty baskets can’t fix.

What Becoming a Parent Taught Me about Design & Control, Design*Sponge

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Comments

  • OMG, your first paragraph really hit home for me. I was 28 weeks pregnant, had just finished the most grueling month of my professional life, my house was a complete disaster because I’d been working late every day and just needed to rest when I got home, and BAM, I went into labour. It was a Friday night, I’d planned to spend the weekend doing dishes and cleaning the house (while my husband studied for a professional exam), but baby had other plans. I didn’t even have a pregnancy photo. I was sitting in the hospital on a Friday night running through the huge list of things I had to do “once my midwife tells me to take it easy and sends me on my way”. HAH. Next thing I know, I’m on bed rest and getting jabbed with needles and being told the baby could come at any moment. Yeah, I learned a big lesson in control that day. She was born 24 hours later. Having a child has completely changed my Type A control over things, including my home. Thank you for the reminder :)

    • 28 weeks, you are a TROOPER! It’s amazing how many plans we can have, but it’s all up to them :)

  • Thank you! I’m so tired of being told that I have to let my home deteriorate into a cluttered plastic toys r us war zone for my toddler to thrive. Now that he’s mobile, im actively looking for strategies to decorate and store that makes it easier to clean and tidy up, and keep it a comfortable place for all of us to be. It’s so true that they are inspired by whatever they find! My current fun zone is the rustic tray on the coffee table. It’s full of (fake) succulents, antique keys and insulators, led candles. It mooshes back together easily but I can rotate through all kinds of fun objects for little hands and eyes. And yes, I do love me some baskets!!

    • Agreed! We hide the “ugly” toys in bins and baskets when they aren’t being played with. Something that really annoyed me was when people would look at our record collection and say “Oh you know you’re going to have to get ride or hide those, right?” We didn’t. Our toddler (for the most part) knows those aren’t to play with. We recently moved into a new home and someone said “You’re not going to put some of the more adult art work back up right?” Of course we are! We are also putting up some stuff we know he likes. It’s so nice to see our new place not as reflection of just me and my husband, or just a toddler takeover, but very much of our team of three.

      • We were told the exact SAME thing about our record collection! Keep your personalities throughout the home, your kid will only benefit from it — good work :)

  • This is lovely. I realized pretty early on in my parent-dom that while I can’t control everything, especially my little dude, if I was able to do just one thing–clean the dishes, make the bed, clean up just one room filled with toys in the minutes I had, I could call that a success. This honors that feeling. Thank you.

    • So glad you related to this — I completely agree with that sentiment. If you can complete just one thing, that’s a success!

  • What a beautiful, comprehensive and true article this is! Congratulations to this EARLY insight into what you are and wanna be…. I’m past the age of small & big children and it took me up to my forties before I realised that I simply can’t and mustn’t do and control everything in my domestic life….. So GO GIRL – you’re doing absolutely amazing! Totally agree with everything. We have this week my husband’s mum with us (we live abroad) and over breakfast we had a similar discussion: We hoard things we love, adore, collect (and I’m a great hoarder of beautiful ‘past times’ stuff! AND have the perfect house for them) but at the end of the day(s) they become an encumbering load, we must rearrange, dust, put away and actually, NOBODY wants this stuff after we have gone from this world…. I surround myself with things I love NOW and when they no longer give me joy, they are put away and later on, 2 years later, when I haven’t miss them (and some were horrendously expensive or had a storytelling quality to them BUT they have done their time & if I can be without them for 2 years I can for the rest of the time!) I LET THEM GO FOR GOOD.
    You have awesome taste and I love everything I can see in those photos. The child’s bed is simply glorious!!!! I can assume you give much hope and confidence to other mothers, all pressed for time and on an impossible quest for perfection in their life – thank you for giving them a ‘push’ and a ‘It’s OK’…. Good Luck!

    • Hello. Are we related? —->”it took me up to my forties before I realised that I simply can’t and mustn’t do and control everything in my domestic life…..”

      I have an 8 yr old and let me just say at 42, I had to just give in. I’ve learned in the last year I just can’t design nor control how my home is designed. I still cringe at times when somethings not in order …but I then walk away.

      Great article.

  • My epiphany happened when I was in a bad car wreck. They told me I was lucky to be alive. Before that, I cleaned long into the night every night and every weekend. Then and there, I decided that if something happened to me, I didn’t want my kids to remember “mom had a clean house”. I wanted them to remember me reading them a book, playing a game, being silly with them or just sitting together talking. Now my home isn’t picture perfect, but my kids have grown into wonderful adults and my 13 year old daughter is on her way. And they tell all their friends “I have the best mom ever”. I did something right.

  • Baskets really are AMAZING!! Because I know I can throw all the toys in a basket when our 6-month-old goes to bed, it allows me to be okay when our living room explodes with color and mess during the day. Your home is beautiful, and it feels so cozy for both an adult and a kid. Thank you so much for posting about this very thing I stress about! I especially love the line “Giving yourself grace is absolutely essential.”

  • I agree to all of this. My daughter was 2 years old when my twins were born and everyone seemed to get a lot of pleasure out of telling me my home would be a wreck. The hallway, with scooters and buggies, is chaos but the rest of it is organised in such a way that it can get messy (really messy!) and be tidied in a few minutes (lots of baskets). We live in a Victorian terrace house in England so there is a lot to be repaired / renovated but with three little ones around I’ve learned not to ‘see’ that! Great article that I can completely relate to.

  • Thank you for this beautiful bit of sanity! I struggle with the Martha mindset sometimes too :) The part about keeping your space true to yourself so that your kids also feel safe to express who they are — Hallelujah! We all need that safe space. Especially when so many of us broadcast our lives on social media. Your writing brightened my day, thanks!

  • I don’t have children and I still really appreciated this message about control. For me, it’s been my income, my dog, and my anxiety that have taught me so much about grace and letting go. My income has limitations, my pet is occasionally unpredictable or messy, and I don’t want to be controlled by perfectionism. This sometimes means rolling with the punches and deleting the pinterest app for a few weeks. Inspiration overload can feel pretty punishing when you have limitations, but when I only have my own situation to compare to, I start making my own rules.

    :)

  • Wow. After getting mad at my son and husband a few days ago because other toys were mixed in the bin with the wooden trains, this really puts things into perspective. Thank you.

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