How I Failed at Feeding my Children

white flag

About 2 and a half years ago, I wrote this post about giving up on the feeding therapy program I’d tried to institute. Not much has changed since I surrendered to convenience foods and making three different recipes at every meal…until now, that is.

In the last two posts in this Feeding Therapy series, I describe the Ellyn Satter Institute approach to eating and how it shed light onto my own struggles with eating and weight loss, and I outline their program for feeding children. In learning about the program, I came to realize that I was responsible for my son’s weight problem in ways that had never occurred to me.

I had started with such lofty ideals as a new mother: How did I get to be a Feeding Failure?

It starts, as eating issues usually do, with my own childhood. My mother was a war survivor who suffered through hunger and food scarcity as a young child. She used to make us stay at the table until our plates were cleaned. It made for many an unpleasant evening as I tried to force myself to eat foods that made me gag and sat alone for what felt like hours after everybody else had left. I vowed that I would never do the same to my own children.

My kids started out as great eaters, but they soon dropped one food after another until their diet was startlingly limited. It’s called food jagging, and it creeps up on you slowly and unexpectedly until you suddenly realize that they’ve backed themselves (and you) into a food corner that is now making it difficult to provide balanced nutrition for them.


At first, I tried to fix this by following the advice of others to make them “try a bite” of vegetables and other foods that we all thought they should be eating. This, combined with their sensory issues and attention deficits – none of which were recognized by us at the time – made for some really horrid mealtimes. Lots of crying, screaming, arguing, cajoling, and full-on body tantrums.

I tried…I really did…pressured by my husband, my mother, and my own ideas about what feeding children should look like. But my gut told me that so much stress for everyone could not possibly be good for the kids or our family. So I gave up, and began cooking and serving separate meals to the kids and the adults. Lots of work for me, but at least it was peaceful.


I reasoned to myself that, since we were a homeschooling family with a husband who worked largely from home, we got enough “together” time that not having sit-down meals together wasn’t a problem. Feeding the kids separately from the grownups also offered us the only apparent hope for eating our own meals in peace. Every now and then we’d give it another try, and it always ended in misery and failure.

Then they were diagnosed with autism, which I took as further justification for giving up on family dinners and hopes of a varied diet. Cue the gummy vitamins.

We moved into a tiny mobile home, and the dining table quickly morphed into a workspace for me. The kids’ bedroom was right off the kitchen, and it was just easier to serve them in their room, rather than having them come into the already crowded kitchen to pick up their food.

My mother came to visit us one week and asked, as neutrally as she could (I give her credit for that), if I served the kids their meals on a tray every day or was this just because she was visiting? (nope, I did it every day, for every meal). It was then that I started to realize just how far into crazy-land we had come.


I told myself that when our new house was built, I’d make them eat at the table or breakfast bar like normal children, and stop serving them like a waitress. But it’s unlikely we would have eaten together. I’d have served them first to get it out of the way so I could enjoy a peaceful dinner with my husband.

You can imagine that making so many meals, so many times a day, quickly became exhausting. When convenience foods no longer cut it, I moved to making them prepare their own meals. It started with me telling them I was no longer making lunches, then progressed to breakfast on weekends, and then I made the ultimate deal: in exchange for pizza twice a week, I created “make your own dinner night” twice a week. That was four nights a week I didn’t have to make a bunch of different dinners – win for me!

But despite the appeal of the pizza, the kids never embraced the concept of making their own meals (they eventually changed it to one night a week; that’s how much they hated making their own dinner). Miss Em simply didn’t make anything on those nights, and turned instead to her stash of junk food (she regularly cycles to the corner store, buys food with her own money, and saves it for just such an occasion). Mr. Boo made himself dinner (usually some double or triple stack salami sandwich creation), but he complained and stomped around every damn time. And he left a mess in the kitchen that I was loathe to make him clean up, since by then he had only just calmed down and would likely have had a full-on meltdown if I’d pushed it any further (by end of day, that is the last thing I feel like dealing with).


So that is how I got to the point where I was able to say “yes” to every item on the following checklist for kids who are overweight (or have other eating issues):

  • meals and snacks occur at irregular and unpredictable times
  • meals are not eaten at the table, but in front of computer or TV
  • the kids tell the mother what they would like to eat and mum makes it (short order cook)
  • the kids are responsible for feeding themselves without having achieved Eating Competence (which is the end goal of the feeding program)
  • the kids binge on certain foods, sometimes even hiding the evidence (one day I discovered a stash of snack wrappers underneath my son’s bed)
  • the Division of Responsibility is not being followed

I was a Feeding Failure. And because of it, both my kids had diets that were severely limited and limiting (for example, visiting friends for dinner always meant I had to bring food for my kids). And worse, my son was obese.



But now I have hope, because the information I’ve learned has given me the tools I need to make family dinners a success. I now understand that the family dinner is about so much more than just connecting as a family (which is nice anyway, even when you are a homeschooling family):

  • It exposes the kids to the presence of new foods, which is the first step in overcoming limited food preferences, and essential for kids with sensory issues around food.
  • Kids don’t tend to enjoy hanging around the table too long (especially if they have ADD), which gives them a motive to eat just enough, and not too much.
  • People tend to eat less when they focus on their eating than if they eat while performing other tasks (like being on the computer).
  • Having food in serving dishes means everybody can decide for themselves how much to eat, rather than being served a portion that tempts one to “not leave anything wasted” and thus eat beyond satiation.
  • Having food in serving dishes allows kids to pick and choose from the nutrients in front of them: research shows that kids will naturally choose foods their bodies need and, over a period of days, will naturally balance out their nutritional requirements.
  • Being at the table allows kids to learn the social norms and expectations around eating in their culture, which will allow them to function better when in restaurants or eating at other peoples’ homes (especially important for kids with social disabilities).
  • It’s less work for mum to have one place where eating and messes take place, and not have to collect dishes from all around the house.

So after an initial wave of guilt as I realized all the ways I’d gone wrong in feeding my kids over the years – and that this was directly related to my son’s weight issues – I took comfort in recognizing that I didn’t have the knowledge and guidelines I needed to be successful back then. And I was excited about this new information, because I believed it really could work with my children.

And once I believed that I could make this happen, that we could sit around the table together as a family and enjoy a meal, that my kids could learn to try new foods, that my son could return to the weight that is right for him…I realized how much I’d wanted this all along.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the baby steps needed to go from being a total Feeding Failure to the end goal of Eating Competence and happy family meals.


Categories: autism, family life, Feeding Therapy, parenting | Leave a comment

Feeding Your Overweight Child


In my last post, I spoke about the new feeding and eating plan that I discovered after taking my overweight son (who also has autism) to visit a clinical nutritionist. I discussed some of the principles of the plan, and how it shed light on my own struggles around eating and weight loss. Today, I’m going to discuss the plan in the context of feeding children.

The plan I’m referring to is based on the Feeding Dynamics and Eating Competence models developed by the Ellyn Satter Institute. I should point out that this plan is for ANY CHILD, not just the overweight child. But since that is the issue our family is dealing with, it’s the one I’m going to focus on here.

The basic premise of the program is that children are born hardwired to eat what they need: no more and no less. This immediately reminded me of my days as a La Leche League leader, when I would counsel anxious new breastfeeding mums to let their babies take the lead on when to eat, how much to eat, and how often. So I knew this premise to be true. What I didn’t appreciate was that it continues throughout childhood and into adulthood providing we (the people doing the feeding) don’t screw it up.


We screw it up by imposing our own values and anxieties around food on our children. We fuss over the ones who don’t eat much, and we chide those who eat a lot. We try to force the picky ones to eat “just a bite” of new foods, while we deem a category of favourite foods to be “bad for you” for the overweight kids. We let them eat in front of computers or TVs, so they don’t focus on their body’s signals of satiety. Or we don’t feed them often enough, triggering anxiety about when they will next be fed and how long they will have to go hungry, which leads to overeating when they finally get some food (a smart evolutionary strategy gone awry). We don’t eat together as families much anymore, so our kids are not exposed to new foods (and here’s the part that nobody told me: sitting in front of food is the first step, a real honest-to-goodness step, in learning to like new foods. That “just one bite” that we were told to insist on? That is much further down the list of steps, and even further for kids with sensory issues).

So, here it is in a nutshell: Satter calls it “the division of responsibility”. I, the parent, am in charge of the what, where, and when of eating and my school-age children are responsible for the whether and how much.

I make sure they eat regularly (no more than 3 hours between offerings), that they sit at the table without distractions (other than my stimulating company, or that of the rest of the family), and that they are offered foods from each of the four groups Satter lists as essential for growing kids: protein, carbohydrate, fruit or vegetable, and dairy (that last one assumes, of course, that there are no dairy allergies, and the book gives details on how to accommodate those). And here’s the fun part: make the food delicious! Cook with fat, sprinkle butter or sugar on those veggies, make everything a joy to eat. Provide a well-balanced offering of delights, and watch mealtime become fun again, not just for those who eat it, but for the one who is preparing it too!

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 8.47.33 PM

Nobody wants to come to the table for this.



A delicious, well-balanced meal that’s a pleasure to make and a joy to eat.

The kids are responsible for deciding whether or not to show up for the meal (understanding there is no eating in between meal and snacktimes), what foods on the table to eat, and how much of any food on the table to eat (the exception being dessert, the only rule for which is that there is only one serving per person at the table).

That’s it.

No rules about how long the kids must stay at the table – if they are wanting to get down from the table and/or they are starting to act up, then they are done eating and we need to respect that so they learn to understand what that feeling means.

No rules about eating vegetables before dessert – they can eat their dessert at any time during the meal. It’s only one serving, so it won’t “ruin their dinner”, and they may learn all on their own that it’s nicer to save the sweet stuff for last (or they may not, and that is okay).

No rules about “trying a bite”, no matter how picky your eater. The steps to getting to eat a new food are:

  1. look at the food,
  2. be close to the food,
  3. touch the food,
  4. play with or manipulate the food,
  5. touch the food to the mouth,
  6. taste the food,
  7. chew the food,
  8. swallow the food.

There might even be some more in-between steps in the case of kids with sensory issues. The idea is that, if they are continually exposed to the variety of foods your family enjoys, and there is no pressure on them, they will slowly (or quickly, each child is unique) go through the steps and, when they are older, will learn that new foods are nothing to be afraid of.



No rules about eating one of everything on the table: if they make an entire meal out of bread and butter, let it be. They will eventually round it out – maybe not that day, but most likely that week – and even fresh, white bread slathered in butter gets boring if that’s all you eat every day. Their bodies will soon crave what they need to balance it out, and you’ll make sure it is on the table when they do.

Finally, no forbidden foods. Regularly (reasonably often) offer cookies for a snack (with a glass of milk and some fruit on the table). Let your kid have as many cookies as they want, while they are at the table. Have potato chips on hot dog night, and make sure there is enough for everyone to get their fill. If your child has learned not to trust that these foods will be available, he or she may begin by scarfing down as many as can fit in their tummies…but eventually they will trust that such foods will be offered, and no limits will be imposed, and this can greatly reduce that chance of eating disorders, or even just the routine binge-and-guilt cycle that too many adults (including myself) get sucked into. It will also make these foods lose their “forbidden fruit” appeal, which goes a long way to healthy eating habits in the future.

I have to say, that when I first started reading I found myself sliding into a pit of guilt. My son was overweight, and to add to the guilt of having let him get that way, I was now faced with just how badly I had screwed up the feeding of my children over the years. On the checklist following “why is my child overweight?” I ticked off pretty much every single item. Regular mealtimes? nope. Eating at the table? nope. Division of responsibility? nope. I realized that I had basically tossed my kids into the deep end of the feeding and eating swimming pool without giving them the proper foundation. No wonder my kid was fat.

How did I get there? I’ll answer that in my next post. I’ll also be blogging about instituting the plan (which happens in stages) and discuss our challenges and triumphs. These posts will be tagged under “Feeding Therapy” if you wish to follow along (or read about some previous tried-and-failed plans).

For now, I would encourage anyone in charge of feeding kids, or anyone who is struggling with their own eating and weight issues, to visit the Ellyn Satter Institute website. I have bought and read two of their books: Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming and Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and I would recommend either of them.


Categories: autism, family life, Feeding Therapy, parenting | 1 Comment

Eat Well

Aspen Thanksgiving

Like many adults, my weight has slowly increased with age. Over the last three decades, I have lost and regained the same 10 to 20 pounds. And while I have never been significantly overweight, I have tried a few of the more popular diet and eating regimes, which I can sum up in relatively few words:

Slim-Fast: the bars and shakes lose their appeal fast, they are nowhere near as enjoyable as real food, and the “sensible dinner” soon turns into a pigout followed by endless second helpings and sinful desserts as you brace for the next round of starving through your day.


The Paleo Diet: if you were raised in a culture where rice, pasta, or bread is a staple (which pretty much covers all of them), you will eventually miss these foods desperately. In a pathetic attempt to recreate those delicious and satisfying foods, you will learn complex recipes using previously unheard of ingredients such as coconut oil and almond flour that contain twice the calories and cost five times as much, while being only a tragic substitute for the real thing. I love cauliflower, but making pizza crust out of it will never be as satisfying as sinking your teeth into a soft, chewy, gluten-y pizza pie. And if you should ever be interested in running a 10k or cycling over reasonable distances, you will soon discover, perhaps painfully, that “carb loading” really is a thing.


Calorie-Counting: perhaps the simplest of the weight-loss programs, this allows you to eat anything you want, with no forbidden foods, provided you log every single calorie you eat. Today’s calorie counting apps make this process fairly quick and easy, so long as you eat packaged foods and dine out at chain restaurants. If you like to cook or bake, be prepared to weigh every portion and recipe ingredient, and to do a lot of math. If you like to dine out at somewhere other than Boston Pizza or McDonalds, if you frequently attend potlucks, buffets, or have meals at a friend’s house, you will find this more difficult. On days when I run, I found it easy to meet my calorie goals, but on non-exercise days I frequently went hungry.


I haven’t been crazy enough to do the Slim-Fast diet since I was an undergrad at university, but I did do the Paleo diet a few years ago, and up until about a week ago I was still on the calorie-counting plan. The results of both were the same: Initially I had no trouble sticking to the plan, I easily lost weight, and figured I was set for life only to slowly regain the weight and fail the second (and third, and fourth) time around.

I understood missing bread and pasta, so I wasn’t too hard on myself when the Paleo Diet proved a bust for me.

Blog Photo

But my failure at calorie-counting was really frustrating. I couldn’t understand what was going on for me that I continually ate past my calorie goals, sometimes eating when I didn’t even feel hungry, or eating high-calorie foods that I didn’t even like all that much. Was I stressed? Was I unhappy? Was there some other psychological issue causing me to overeat? I couldn’t find any such reason. Day after day I would wake up thinking “this is the day I stick to it”, and within a couple of days I’d blown my count.

The solution, as solutions often do, came to me from a completely unexpected source. An appointment with a clinical nutritionist for my overweight son turned me on to an approach to eating that I’d never considered. As I read through the articles and books, I realized that so much of what the author was saying fit with my experience and explained my repeated failures at reproducing my previous weight-loss results. I’ll go into the book and the approach in much more detail in a subsequent post about Feeding the Family, but here I’ll talk about the issues that really hit home for me personally.

The problem with ANY kind of restrictive diet, whether it is not eating certain foods or controlling the portions of those foods, is that it leads to a cycle the author calls “restraint and disinhibition”. After controlling your food for so long, your body eventually rebels and drives you to seek out high-calorie, high-fat foods. Nothing less seems to suffice, and you are led to believe that you actually hate vegetables and will never be satisfied without a steady intake of potato chips and cookies. This cycle, which is described in great detail by the author and backed up with references to numerous studies, described my experiences perfectly. I saw myself in that pattern, and it explained my experiences with every diet I’d tried.


I began to recognize the tragic consequences of continuous attempts to “eat healthy”. I had stopped baking because I could never stop myself from eating more cookies than my count-for-the-day allowed, nor could I turn down a second or third slice of homemade bread fresh out of the oven. I stopped making homemade meals because they were more difficult to count, and many of the meals I used to enjoy cooking were not low-calorie enough for me to enjoy them on days other than my longest running days (leaving me to deal with leftovers that I wasn’t allowed to eat). I even began eating frozen low-calorie dinners, something I had never done in my life, and I somehow convinced myself that these foods were tasty. I even sometimes turned down visits with my mother because that usually meant either eating out, or being served delicious homemade cakes and pies that I was not supposed to eat!


It really hit home to me when the author asked us to perform a simple thought experiment. She asked us to make a list of the meals we would make if we had NO restrictions at all on our eating. As I dug through the cobwebs of my mind, I began to remember all the meals I had loved as a child, and the ones I had later learned to cook for myself. I was raised on stir-fries and rice (my mother was born in Hong Kong and lived there for many years) and roast beef and yorkshire pudding (my father is English), and fried rice was one of my go-to comfort foods. I recalled wonderful homemade soup recipes, pasta sauces, a fantastic tortiere made using my mum’s pastry recipe, sausages with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, and risotto to die for. I’d been raised on food like this, and was never overweight until I left home. Why? The book explained it to me.

The approach is two-part. The first relates to the what of eating, and the prescription is delightful: eat delicious, tasty meals. Discover (or rediscover) the joy of making yummy food. Eat until you are satisfied, and don’t bother with portion control or calorie counting. Make eating a pleasure, something enjoyable that satisfies our deepest cravings for variety, flavour, and satisfaction. Cook with fat, because it makes food taste delicious. Enjoy your vegetables by roasting (without holding back on the olive oil), by coating steamed veggies in melted butter and salt, by braising carrots in butter and brown sugar, by dipping celery sticks and raw pepper slices into ranch dressing, by doing whatever you do to make your favourite vegetable dishes shine. Don’t use substitutes (unless you have a medical condition that requires you to do so). Love the food you eat! Look forward to your next meal because it will taste delicious, not because you are starving and want food…any food.

The second part relates to the where and when of eating. Don’t graze, don’t eat mindlessly in front of your computer, the TV, or a book. Don’t wait until you are starving and then seek out whatever food will satisfy that urge quickly and deeply – such habits lead us to dispense with cooking (must…eat…now!) and to reach for high fat and high calorie foods that satiate without providing much in the way of nutrition. Trying to reach for a bowl of carrot sticks when you have made it through your whole day on a dry English muffin and a cup of coffee is fighting Mother Nature, and you know the old saying about doing that.

Instead, have regular snack and meal times throughout the day – and eat only then – so that you approach eating hungry, but not famished. When you are hungry, all sorts of delicious foods look appealing – from vegetables to succulent roast chicken – and you can take the time to enjoy the food rather than desperately shovelling it into your mouth. Pay attention to the food, savour it, have as much as you need to feel satisfied without stuffing yourself. Prepare a variety of foods so that you have a well-balanced table of delights from which to choose: fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Make each of these dishes mouth-wateringly tasty, and you will ensure that you don’t fill up on the starch and fat while neglecting the veggies and protein (veggies help fill you up so you don’t overeat on the fats and carbs, and protein keeps you feeling full longer, but you won’t want either of these if they don’t taste delicious). Enjoy dessert, even go back for seconds if you like, but wait until you are done with your meal, and eat until you are full, knowing you can always have more at the next meal or snack if you want.

This is not a prescription for weight loss. Instead, it is a program designed to have you reconnect with your body’s natural drive to eat what it needs and stop eating when it is done. This instinct is something I taught as a breastfeeding counsellor – all babies are born with this ability – but we mess with it as we get older. We become adults who no longer pay attention to our body’s cues, and instead seek out intense flavour to make up for a bland diet of low-fat, low-flavour, low-enjoyment foods. We seek out quick, high-fat foods to halt the gnawing hunger that pushes us beyond caring about variety and nutritional composition. We eat on the run and pay little attention to the process of eating. We eat convenience foods because spending time to cook meals that aren’t awesome could be better spent elsewhere.

As I read through the materials given to me by my son’s nutritionist, I realized that I had been sabotaging my own attempts at maintaining a healthy weight by falling into the cycle of restraint and disinhibition (and the guilt that follows).


Determined to follow this new plan, I made a list of meals I loved and began to make them.

I bought perogies for the first time in years, fried them up with onions, and ate them with sour cream. But I also made one of my favourite vegetable dishes: kale sauteed in coconut milk. I truly love this dish and ate so much of it that I didn’t need to pile up my plate with perogies, although I had given myself permission to eat as many perogies as I wanted (and I did).

I went to the grocery store and stocked up on staples I haven’t bought in way too long: chicken stock for homemade soups, tomato sauce for pasta sauces, rice of all kinds (wild, arborio, basmati). I dusted off recipe books and planned for curried vegetables, and beef and broccoli stir fry, with as much rice as I want.

I started baking again, and was reminded of how much I love baking! I made banana chocolate chip muffins, and toll house chocolate chip cookies. Now the leftover halloween candy holds no appeal for me, because the stuff tastes awful compared to my homemade treats. And since I eat them after a meal, when I’m already pretty full, I don’t eat very many of them. Then when I crave more of them, I make myself wait – because it won’t be for long – and by the time I’ve finished that meal or snack, I only want one or two because I’m full and satisfied again. I’m not going hungry, and I’m not depriving myself, and I’m not restricting myself so that cycle of restraint and disinhibition is halted in its tracks.

In my next post, I will present this program in full and discuss how it relates to the problem of my overweight son and the severe food restrictions and lack of variety in both my children’s diets.


Categories: Feeding Therapy, Personal Growth | 2 Comments

Designing the Perfect Floor Plan

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 10.15.57 PM

Almost-final floor plan for our new house. Some slight modifications were made after this version, but the room layout is the same.

Designing a floor plan from scratch can be a difficult process. If you live on a city lot, chances are you have several constraints in terms of the length, width, and height of the building. If you live in a subdivision or strata situation, you may even have limitations on the style or design elements. On the other hand, like us, you may live on acreage and have many choices in terms of the location of the building site and the orientation, size, and dimensions of the house. The challenge with this situation is figuring out where to start, because the possibilities are almost endless but the budget usually is not.

I worked on the floor plan for our new house over many years, and the final result is the product of a great deal of thought and research (and endless revisions). Here are the steps I took to create our floor plan, and which I would recommend to anybody embarking on a similar exercise.

Step 1: determine the site and orientation of the house.

If you live on a city lot, you may have little to decide in this regard, but on a bigger property there are some considerations. In terms of our building site, I knew from the beginning where I wanted the house. Our property slopes gently to the southeast, with a pretty view of woods and mountains beyond. The obvious site was at the top of that hill. That was also a good choice due to its proximity to the well head, incoming electrical supply, and septic field. In addition, water coming in from outside the property (a neighbouring forest at a higher elevation) enters at a spot downhill from the site, thus alleviating any concerns of water pooling around the foundation. In terms of orientation, we wanted to incorporate passive solar design, which means the long side of the house is oriented east-west and the south face contains lots of windows. Luckily, our property faces south, and the views are also in that direction.

Before we owned the property, part of the hill had been dug out to make room for the mobile home and detached garage. This left only about 50 feet from the western property line to the 10-foot drop-off where the hill had been dug into. We decided to tear down the garage (which was shoddily built in the first place), have the house extend over the drop, and use the resulting space underneath for a walkout basement. Not only do I have an intense dislike of basements and didn’t want one, but I also wanted my house to be on grade, a single-level home. We solved this by keeping the walkout basement as an uninsulated space that is physically and thermally separate from the house. We will also have the excavators build up the ground on either side of the entrance to the walkout, so that from either the front or back of the house, virtually the entire house will sit at ground level, like this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 6.29.10 PM

Step 2: carefully plan the location of exterior doors

Once the site and orientation of the house is chosen, the next step is to determine where the exterior doors will be located (front door, back door, side entries, patio doors, etc). One of my biggest pet peeves is houses designed such that the doors are not used properly. How many people do you know have homes where everybody enters through the side door, back door, or sliding patio doors rather than the front door, because the front door is not located close to the spot where people arrive at the house, and another door is more handy? Or how many parents complain that their children come traipsing in and out of the house with muddy boots and wet play clothes through a living room door rather than the mud room door, because the latter is not located close to where the children play outside?

I was determined to make sure that wasn’t the case in my new home. I considered where we go when we head outside to do “dirty work”, such as gardening or heading off for a run on the muddy trails, and I placed the door to the mud room (which is also the laundry room, so that sweaty, drenched, or dirty clothes can go straight into the wash) in a place that makes it the easiest option for coming and going from such activities. It’s also where I would head out when walking the dog, so it’s a logical place to put pet supplies such as leashes, towels for drying off, and pet food. I can even put up a dog gate to keep her in the laundry room if she is really wet and needs time to dry off before entering the rest of the house.

The main entry door is located right where guests would naturally park their cars when visiting, and is the closest approach if you are coming on foot from the street. It is the only obvious entryway from the approach, making it the first and only place guests will be drawn to, and nobody will have to wander around scratching their head wondering where the front door is (I’ve actually been to houses where that is the case).

Another entry door is located next to the carport, and is where the family will leave and enter when departing or arriving home by car. Instead of passing through an unattractive and cluttered space, as back doors often do, I wanted a pleasant and welcoming entry. After all, we’ll be using it every day. Why not make it a nice experience? (I learnt this from reading Sarah Susanka’s books , which I highly recommend, even if you are not wanting a “not so big house”). So the family entry leads into the cheery family room, where parents returning from errands will be greeted by the kids, with a suitable launch pad and plenty of room to hang coats and place shoes so as to keep things tidy and organized. It’s also not far from the kitchen, so as to limit the lugging of groceries through the house (note: the door is missing in the floor plan at the top of this post).

Step 3: group rooms based on the desired light and views

After making a list of all the rooms I wanted in my new house, I grouped them according to the the need for views and natural light and what side of the house that would put them on.

On our site the lovely, sweeping view is to the south, which is also where the most daylight is coming from. The east gets the morning light, and in our case provides a view of the street, the driveway, and our two neighbours (albeit off in the distance). The west and north sides receive virtually no direct sunlight due to being bordered by dense forest and a wooded area, respectively.

By considering the desired lighting and views for each room, I was able to draw a crude diagram of rooms in relation to the four directions – N, S, E, W – which helped begin the process of laying out the floor plan.

For example, the living room is a public space so I wanted it to enjoy the best views and be brightly lit, which meant having it on the south side of the house. The dining room will also be used by guests and a nice view adds ambience to a family meal, so it too was placed against the south wall.

The kitchen should also be brightly lit and have some views to entertain the cook and dishwasher. My kitchen is on the north side of the house, but is completely open to the dining room, with its large south-facing windows. A north-east facing window by the kitchen sink provides a view of our driveway and entry to check on the arrival of visitors and guests.

Bedrooms aren’t used much, if at all, during the day, so having a lot of daytime light is not important to me. I chose to put the master bedroom on the east side of the house to get that morning light, and so I can peek out a window to see if an early visitor is arriving, or to check if the garbage truck has come, without having to get out of bed.

The kids’ rooms are placed on the west side of the house, which is up against a wall of very tall trees and a relatively deep forest. Not a lot of natural light, but plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing, especially deer and elk (and rarely bears, who generally don’t come close to the house), which the kids will appreciate more than the morning sun.

Bathrooms don’t need views or bright light, neither does the walk-in closet, so they had lowest priority when it came to the prime light and view locations.

Step 4: separate public and private spaces

Consider your home under conditions where you are entertaining, or when guests are visiting. Guests will generally need access to the living room, a bathroom, and the dining room. As well, modern homes are designed with easy access to the kitchen, so that the cook can interact with the guests while getting the meal together. Placing the main entry near these areas will avoid having guests wandering through hallways, the kitchen, or areas where the kids tend to hang out, like a family room or bedrooms. It can feel invasive for the guests, and it puts pressure on you to keep the whole house guest-ready clean rather than focusing on certain areas.

If you have a guest room, it’s nice to have that placed closer to the public spaces, though this is a matter of preference. For example, in a two-story home where the master and kids’ bedrooms are upstairs, you may wish to put a guest room downstairs so that the family has some “down time” away from company when it is time to retire. And of course, it would be great if the guests don’t have to share a bathroom with the kids, not just for privacy reasons but because kids are messy!

Because our house is all on one level, I created separation between public and private spaces using specific design elements and a carefully planned layout. The house is roughly rectangular, and I ended up placing the public spaces in the middle of the home, with private spaces on either end. My design is a modified version of this floor plan, so I’m able to show you some examples of the layout (my rooms will be smaller, and the design finishes will be different).

The main entry leads into a large living room, which is open to the kitchen and dining room, as illustrated in the photo below.

living and dining

As shown in the next photo, an open hallway separates the foyer from the living room, which provides a transitional space between the entry and the living space, and also helps to define the living room as a separate space despite being quite open (the concept of a transitional entry is another idea gleaned from Sarah Susanka).

The area between the pillars and the wall behind is an open hallway.

The area between the pillars and the foyer, running left to right, is an open hallway.

At one end of the hallway is an entry into the kitchen, defined by a vertical post:

from kitchen

At the other end of the hallway is a similarly framed opening, with an overhead beam and a vertical post that is attached to a wall corresponding to the one shown in the photo above where the TV is. That end of the hallway marks the entry to a transitional space between public and private – a small corridor that contains the door to the guest room, which is across from the door to the guest bathroom, and ends at the door to the master suite. That last door marks the entry to a private space, containing the bedroom, a walk-in closet, and the ensuite bathroom.

At the other end of the house is another private space, with the kids’ bedrooms and bathroom. Between that private space and the public space is a transitional area that leads from the back of the kitchen to the laundry room and family room, where the kids will hang out with their friends. The friends will want to be closer to the kids’ rooms, and they won’t mind using the kids’ bathroom (and the kids won’t mind sharing it with their friends). Adult visitors won’t have to venture into this part of the house, and the kids’ friends won’t mind if their hangout area is less tidy or beautiful than the rest of the house.

Step 5: consider how your family uses the space

Each family has their own daily rhythm and lifestyle, and the way rooms are used (or unused) differs from one family to the next. I found it very helpful to spend some time mapping my family’s movements at various times of the day, throughout the homes we have lived in, to consider how we use the various rooms in our home throughout the day. What tasks are being performed? Are we together or seeking quiet private spaces apart? Is there space for the kids to be creative, to play, to study, or read quietly? Is there a quiet, kid-free space where adults can retreat? (Sarah Susanka calls this the “away room”, and it’s a must-have for any family home)

Our kids enjoy playing computer games and video games. These activities can be noisy, especially when playing together or with friends. Having a family room that is separate from the living room gives the kids a place to hang out with their friends without the adults being banished to their bedroom. It also means that if the older one and her friends don’t want the younger one around (a situation that has recently become an issue in our household), they can retreat to her room and he still has somewhere to play. And the kids have a place to hang out while the adults are entertaining guests in the living room.

The family room has a built-in, wrap-around sofa for TV viewing and console gaming that also provides a reading nook by the window. There is also a workspace for projects and ample room to display artwork and the kids’ creations, a desktop computer, and plenty of shelving and cupboards for books, board games, and art supplies.

The family room is placed near the kids’ bedrooms for when they need some down time in between games, and near their bathroom for easy access during playtime. It’s also close to the laundry room with an exit to the yard if they want to go outside and play, and they can do so without having to traipse through the kitchen or living room.

The close proximity of the family room to the kitchen is handy for the kids and their friends – I even designed the layout of the kitchen so that they can come in and grab a drink or snack without getting in the way of meal prep and cooking. And it’s close enough that I can keep an ear open for sibling battles while I’m working away in the kitchen, but separated enough that I’m not right in the middle of the noise.

My husband often works from home and enjoys doing so on the sofa with his laptop. The living room will provide a place during the day where he can do so in relative peace, away from the noise of the family room. It is a more formal space for entertaining or visiting with friends and family. We can also make phone calls in peace. The living room is our “away room”.

Like many stay-home parents, I spend most of my time at home in the kitchen. I’m often on my computer while things are heating up, cooking, or baking, so having a desk in the kitchen is a must. There is an eating bar at the large kitchen island so that the kids can keep me company while they eat a snack, or guests can keep me company while I prep a meal. Because the dining area is part of the kitchen, I’ve designed the layout so that diners aren’t facing an open pantry, my cluttered desktop, or a pile of dirty dishes when they sit down to eat. I’ve also placed the kitchen close to the laundry room, so that I can easily tend to the laundry in between kitchen tasks.

I’m a crafter: I love to quilt, sew, and knit, and these hobbies come with a good deal of supplies and a requirement for ample work space on a flat surface. I’ve dreamed of having a proper crafting room, and this new house has one. It was important to me that the room be readily accessible from the main living space and not feel like a remote room to which I was being banished. Out of sight is out of mind, and projects have a way of languishing if they are not readily visible and accessible. If I have to go out of my way to retrieve and work on a project, it just doesn’t happen much. This is similar to the garden zone principle of permaculture: keep the kitchen garden closest to the house, because a garden that is far away is not visited and tended to as much. It sounds simplistic, but I have found this to be very true for me. Accordingly, the sewing room (which is also the guest room) is connected to the living room by a set of french doors (not shown in the floor plan above), which will usually be open (unless guests are staying the night). This will make it easy for me to attend to my projects while staying in sight of my husband (and thus feel like we are keeping each other company), who is likely to be on the sofa using his laptop, watching a movie, or playing on the gaming console. I can also easily bring my handwork into the living room to watch with him, and easily return it when done rather than leaving it out there to clutter up the space. The room can also function as an extension of the public space, for example it could be used to lay out a substantial buffet should we end up having a really large party.

Step 6: consider your pet peeves

Does it drive you crazy when everybody crowds into a kitchen that was not designed to accommodate guests while a large, cold, and uninviting living room space lies empty elsewhere in the house? Have you ever visited a home with your kids only to find them banished to a floor above or below where you have no idea what is going on and can’t monitor their interactions? Does it feel intrusive to enter a home and have to walk through narrow corridors past open bedroom doors or through a busy kitchen on your way to the living room? Does having to descend into a dark, unfinished basement have you avoiding laundry duty? Having a fireplace in the kitchen may look cozy, but can make cooking over a hot stove miserable. Similarly, a fireplace in the dining room can make a hot meal unappealing to overheated guests. Make a list of things that drive you crazy, and avoid these pitfalls with proper design.

One of my pet peeves is guest bathrooms that are located within the public space, such that going to the bathroom becomes a public event. Take the case of a living room with a bathroom whose door faces into the living room. You are visiting with a few other guests and you need to use the bathroom. Everybody sees you enter; everybody see you come out (in such situations, I find myself overly conscious about how much time I take). Everyone can hear the sounds, which may include the toilet being flushed, hands being washed (or not, to the consternation of the audience) and other sounds that don’t need to be mentioned in polite company but which are a fact of life for organisms with complex digestive systems. I was very careful to design our layout so that the guest bathroom was handy in terms of proximity to the living room, dining room, and kitchen, but at the same time out of sight. In addition, people using the bathroom don’t have to walk through other rooms where the kids are hanging out, for example, and drawing attention to themselves. It becomes a private affair, with no audience nearby listening in. It is also very close to the guest room for the convenience of those spending the night.

Step 7: plan for the future

When kids are young, having them close by at night is both reassuring and much easier on everybody. We coslept with our children until they were around 3 or 4 years old (their first beds, when they were about 2, were placed in our room), but eventually they wanted to transition to their own rooms, and having them in a room next door was perfect. It meant that I could clearly hear them at night if somebody had a bad dream or was scared, they could easily come into our bed whenever they needed to, and I wasn’t rushing across the house in the middle of the night to tend to a sick or frightened child.

Our current plan has the guest room next door to the master suite. I will mainly use that space for my sewing and crafting, but if my kids end up raising a family in this house, or if we have grandchildren visiting, that room can be used as a child’s bedroom.

When the kids are older, both kids and parents will appreciate having some separation between bedrooms. In the new house, our kids’ bedrooms are located at the opposite end from the master bedroom. Although I would have been happy with all the rooms together on an upper floor (if I had ended up with a two-storey home), I would have placed a walk-in closet and/or bathroom(s) in between our bedroom and theirs. Let’s be honest, there are things that you don’t want your kids to hear when they get to an age where they recognize such sounds for what they are! Besides, teens have a tendency to keep night-owl hours, and my days of wishing to stay up past midnight doing anything other than reading in bed are long gone. In our current home, the master bedroom is off the living room, on the other side of the wall with the TV. It will be so nice to be able to go to bed in the new house and not be disturbed by the sounds of my husband playing Battlefield or the kids squealing and laughing over a game of prop hunt.

Step 8: pause and evaluate

Taking years to get this project started had one major advantage: I made many, many changes to the plans as I monitored the use of our space, the way we spend our days, the use of inside and outside living spaces, and many other considerations. Over the last year or so, the changes grew smaller and smaller, which is when I knew I’d arrived at the right plan for us.

One thing I loved to do was walk around the space in my mind. I would pick a task, such as making my morning cup of tea, and I would walk through step by step in my mind using the floor plan. What route did I take to get to the kitchen? Where is the kettle, where are the mugs, where are the tea supplies, and where do I fill the kettle? Doing this allowed me to see where it made sense to put things such as drawers, cupboards, the stovetop, and the sink. I imagined taking my dog for a walk – where are my shoes and my coat? Where is the dog leash? Where will we be headed and what exit door will we use? What part of the property will we return through and where is the nearest entry door? What if the dog is soaking wet? What if I am soaking wet?

I would also stop throughout the day and see what everybody was doing. For example, on a typical weekday morning my son is hanging out in his room watching YouTube, my daughter is curled up on the sofa drawing on her tablet, my husband is in bed with his laptop because there is no other place for him to work in peace, and I’m in the kitchen making tea and answering emails at the dining table (which is never used for dining because my laptop and papers are all over it). In the new house, my son may stay in his room, or he may bring his laptop to the family room, where it is brighter, more inviting, and more comfortable and where he can watch YouTube on the Playstation. My daughter may curl up in the corner of the family room where there is a reading nook by the window, use her headphones to listen to music and tune out her brother’s videos. My husband can be in the living room, relaxing on the sofa with his laptop, and keeping me company while I putter around in the kitchen, sitting at my desk while the kettle boils.

These exercises sound simple, but they help you determine what spaces you really need, how they are used, and where they should be located in relation to each other.

Most people don’t want to take years to develop a floor plan, and working with an architect is one way to avoid having to do so. However, the more you know about what you want, the faster the architect can put it all together and the less time it will cost you to have him or her work on the design. Whether you can afford an architect or not, the tips here will help you speed up the process. However, be prepared for it to take more time than you expect. Your builder will likely raise some issues you hadn’t thought of, and you may run into roadblocks when it comes to getting your building permit that require you to modify your design. Be patient – you’ll be living with this plan for years to come, so make sure to get it right!

Categories: New House Build | Leave a comment

Designing the Roofline

As our construction start date draws nearer, I’m having to make some final choices regarding various exterior aspects of the new house, and I’m finding this process to be much more daunting than I’d expected. The problem is the finality of the decisions. Unlike interior finishings, roofing and windows are very expensive to replace or alter, and such tasks are not something you can DIY over a long weekend. Plus, the roof and windows are major architectural features – the whole look of your house can change based on these elements alone.

My roofline crisis started when I went to pick out my windows: I realized that I had no idea how tall they should be, how high off the floor, or how wide. With new construction you aren’t limited in this regard, and the possibilities are almost endless. I did my best to pick them out based on my floor plan and room dimensions, then I sent the list to the designer so he could put them in our plans. I figured once I got a look at them in situ I would be able to refine my choices before placing my order.

When I got my first glimpse at the new drawings, which showed the house from an angle view rather than 2D elevation views, my heart just sank – but it wasn’t because of the windows. I was unhappy with the overall look of the house and I blamed it on the roofline.

I’d spent so many years working on a 2-dimensional floor plan that I hadn’t given much thought to roofing design. When it came time to turn my 2D plans into a 3D structure, I soon learned that these decisions are much more complex than I’d anticipated. For one thing, I had originally thought I might go with a shed-style roof, but I soon learned that my budget had no room for the fancy beams and trusses needed, which require an engineer for design and certification, so shed-style or flat roofs were ruled out almost right away.

Example of a house with shed-style roofing.

Example of a house with shed-style roofing.


Example of a house with flat roofing.

Example of a house with flat roofing.

I wasn’t too disappointed. Most of the Houzz* photos I’d collected in my Ideabooks showed gable-style roofs, which indicated that I would be happier going with that look rather than the more contemporary look of shed and flat roofs. Gabled rooflines are pretty simple, but you need to decide on the pitch – or steepness – of the roof, and that’s where I ran into trouble.

Gabled roofs get more expensive as the pitch of the gable increases (due to bigger trusses and more roofing material). Having a one-story home was very important to us, so using that extra roof space for an upper floor was not a desirable option. And because adding corners to exterior walls increases the cost of framing and pouring the foundation, we had lots of long walls. If we used a steep roof pitch, that would result in a very tall roof. So I tried to keep the roof pitch as shallow as possible. I was conscious that shallow roof pitches have a reputation for being ugly, but I figured this was a snob-factor issue stemming from the fact that manufactured homes tend to have shallow rooflines. Nevertheless, I couldn’t deny that I found steep gables more attractive – consider these examples:

Example of house with shallow (3:12) roof pitch.

House with shallow roof pitch.


Example of house with steeper roof pitch.

House with steeper roof pitch.

On the other hand, when you are dealing with a one-story home you have to consider the view of the long side of the house, and a steeper pitch isn’t always a good thing in that case. The photo below shows the long side of a one-story home with a shallow roof pitch. Notice how you see more of the white siding than you do of the grey roofing.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 2.36.11 PM

However, in this next photo of a house with a steeper roof pitch, you see a lot of roof relative to the siding (the covered porch accentuates this even further). I think this makes the house look top-heavy, and I find it visually unappealing.

heavy roof

Adding side gables along such a roofline certainly can help, and that was our initial approach. But when I viewed the first drawings, I thought it looked a bit boring. So the designer and I came up with a modified salt-box roof for one of the “pop-out” sections of the house, as shown in this image:

(Ignore the weird diagonal lines on the roof surface!)

(Ignore the weird diagonal lines on the roof surface!)

This gave the house a slightly modern, more interesting look and I was quite pleased. But the drawing above was created only recently in Google Sketchup. Back when we were first working on the design, I had limited access to quality 3D views (I had no room in the budget for an architect with fancy 3D software, and given that I had basically created the entire floor plan already, one of the builders – who also does a bit of design work on the side – put together the construction plans based on my drawings using some simple software that doesn’t do 3D renderings very well). I’d seen all the side elevation views, but it was only about 3 weeks ago – after I’d picked out my windows – that I saw my first 3D images…and that’s when I panicked.

I immediately decided that the roofline was too flat, and I tried to figure out what options I had given my limited budget. I came across this image of a dual-pitch gabled roofline in classic farmhouse/barn style.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 5.42.56 PM

I really liked it, and the more houses I saw with this roofline, the more I felt it would be a great choice for our house. The country/farmhouse style would be well-suited to our rural property, and it would add some much-needed character to the house. But could we do this? Was it too late? And importantly, would it be too expensive?

After all the work we’d done on the overall design, I was afraid to bring this suggestion to the builders, who were scrambling to get our plans submitted so we could get started before the winter weather set in. I wasn’t sure how important this would all be in the end, and I worried that I was overthinking the issue. But when I began losing sleep over it, I knew I needed to make a decision one way or the other.  And I realized that the only way to know for sure would be to see it in 3D, walk-around format.

So this past weekend I downloaded the latest version of Sketchup, watched a few tutorials, and put together some models based on the dimensions in the plans. Below is a screen shot of the house with the original roofline I designed, and below that is the modified (dual-pitch) roofline.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 8.29.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 8.30.34 PM

The difference is quite striking, in my opinion, and it is even more so when you manipulate the images and “walk around” the outside of the house. Here are a couple more shots (this time with a different colour scheme, and the bottom one is missing some windows):

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 8.34.00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 9.04.00 PM

What I really loved about this design was how it readily created a nice covered porch area that is so “classic farmhouse”. And to top it off, the point at which the pitch changes from steep to shallow – which I placed one-third of the way along that front face (top blue photo) – just happens to lie along a wall that runs almost the total length of the house. It was pure coincidence, but it meant that a change to this new roofline would require not a single change in the floor plan. Also, the new roof design meant I could have a vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom rather than a flat ceiling, and we could include an attic crawl space over the other rooms for storage.

After seeing these models I knew I would never be happy with the boring, flat roofline of my original design. So I screwed up my courage and took my images to the builders on the day we were going to submit the plans for the permit. They loved the new design. And after chatting amongst themselves they realized that it wouldn’t cost too much more to do this. It requires a bit more roofing material, but something about the new roof pitch meant that they could build many of the trusses themselves rather than having to order them from a truss company.

The decision meant we could not submit the plans that day, but I am so excited and happy with the new roofline that I don’t mind one bit. As I drove away from that meeting, I felt like a ton of weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and I knew it was the right decision. And every day as I go up the driveway and am greeted by that roofline, I know I will not regret it!



* If you have any interest in home design, whether architecture, landscaping, or interior design, you definitely need to check out It is incredibly addictive, but also very handy for figuring out what appeals to you and what doesn’t.

Categories: New House Build | 1 Comment

An Exciting Announcement!


It has been five and a half years since we moved to this property.

When we bought this place, the plan was to live in the little mobile home for a couple of years and then build an environmentally friendly home. But life has a way of throwing obstacles in one’s path, and that was certainly the case for us. After an aborted attempt to get started two years ago, and with the ancient mobile rapidly deteriorating before our eyes, I’m thrilled to announce that we are FINALLY building a house!!!

I have not been keeping up with my blogging of late, but now I will be reporting regularly on the build, documenting the process and the unique design of the home. What’s unique about it, you may ask?

Well, I noted above that I wanted an “environmentally friendly” home, but what that means has changed for me over the years. If there is an upside to waiting so long, it’s that I’ve had ample time to do my research into “green building” and I’ve changed a few things along the way. There are a few unique design elements in the plans, and in some ways I have ended up going against the grain of current thinking around green building practices. I’ll be happy to detail this in future posts and to document the success (or failure!) of our design in the months and years ahead.

Meanwhile, as you can imagine, my life is about to get a whole lot busier! But I am so thrilled to finally be at this point, that no amount of work can get me down!


Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments


If David Bowie’s voice isn’t running through your head after reading that title, you’re probably a lot younger than I am!


I’ve been thinking a lot about changes lately.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve come to realize that I’m entering a new phase in my life. The children are increasingly able to be left at home alone, and my mother has moved to our area and now serves as a handy (and free!) babysitter. This has opened up many possibilities that have been closed to us since we became parents almost 13 years ago, and I find myself marvelling at newfound freedoms after so many years of being needed at home with the children.

As I’ve thought about the changes this is bringing to my lifestyle, I’ve looked back on my life and realized that such changes have been occurring pretty regularly since the time I was very small. In fact, I can break it down rather accurately to a major lifestyle change approximately every 10 years. My goals, my responsibilities, and my level of freedom have changed with each decade and have brought with them a dramatically new lifestyle. I’m reminded of that saying “You can have it all, but not all at once“, and I’ve come to conclude that it describes my life quite well. This realization has brought a sense of deep gratitude and satisfaction. Each and every stage has been wonderful in its own way. Before I get tired of my life, I’m on to something completely different. It brings a colourful perspective to life, and a sense of adventure, too.


My 50th birthday is less than 3 years away, and as I approach my sixth decade I’m enjoying thinking about the five that have come before it:

The first decade of my life was childhood, with its utter dependence on my parents. Luckily, I had good ones. I had a good home and a safe and happy life. My lifestyle revolved around elementary school; the rest was either play or following my parents’ agenda (music lessons, vacations, etc). The second decade of my life was high school and university undergrad. My freedom and independence slowly grew (not fast enough for me most of the time!). High school had a tangible goal (to get into University), and University undergrad meant freedom from parental rules and total ownership of my education.

The third decade of my life was filled with graduate school (Masters and PhD degrees). I no longer lived with my parents, and I spent a good deal of my free time socializing with friends (parties and night clubbing) and enjoying my hobbies (horseback riding and hanging out at the barn). I look back on fondly on this time: the world was my oyster, I had total freedom, and I had no responsibilities for anyone other than myself. It was the All About Me decade!

In the transition between the third and fourth decade of my life, I launched my career as a research scientist and got myself into a position where I was basically set. I had established myself and made good connections in my field. Had I continued, I would have enjoyed a solid and respectable career. But as the fourth decade rolled in I met my future husband, got married, and had two children. It’s a cliche, but a true one: having kids completely changed my life. From the moment my daughter was born my entire focus shifted to my children. I was no longer the centre of the universe and I didn’t even care. I experienced a love so profound, and a calling to motherhood that was so strong, that nothing else really mattered anymore. I’d had the All About Me decade, I’d achieved my goal of establishing a career, and I was ready to move on to something completely different.

Babies and toddlers are all-consuming. For a while, I forgot what it was like to walk around without the weight of a child on my back or in my arms. My purses became covered in dust; instead, I kept a full diaper bag ready to go at all times. Leaving the house was a massive exercise in project management, and my days were filled with other mothers and babies and child-centred activities. I didn’t sleep much, I was exhausted most of the time, but my heart was full of a joy I’d never known before.

As the kids became capable of dressing, feeding, toileting, and washing themselves and more independent in their learning, my time began to free up somewhat. As my fifth decade progressed, I was able to read books again and I took up hobbies such as knitting, quilting, and sewing. We bought our acreage and I began studying and planning for a small permaculture-based farm. I even took on a part-time job but, as with all my newfound activities, it was based from home.


I’m now approaching my sixth decade, and I’m seeing some big changes ahead. Miss Em is completely independent at home and can babysit her brother during the day; at night they can go to my mother’s house. Mr. Boo is attending the learning centre 2 full days per week. This means that my free time can now encompass things that take place outside the home. I’ve been volunteering with a local non-profit organization and have recently taken on a leadership role. I’m really enjoying the interactions with other adults and working together for a common goal. I’ve started hanging out at our office one day a week to assist with tasks and sit in on a number of meetings that my role requires me to attend. I’ve been able to spend more time with Husband, sans enfants, which is also a pretty new experience for us. This newfound freedom is set to grow even further this fall, when Mr. Boo will be joined at the learning centre by his sister, and both will attend 3 days per week. For the first time since becoming a mother, I will experience what it’s like to not have children at home during the day (thankfully, they will still be around most of the week!).

I’m pretty excited about the possibilities for myself, and my changing role as a mother. Homeschooling has been such a big part of my job for the last 12 years, but I’m beginning to view myself as the mother of children who attend school part-time. I’ve enjoyed our homeschooling journey immensely, and I feel my children have been given a unique and wonderful first decade, full of unstructured learning, unconditional love, and emotional security. The next decade brings changes for all of us. But as with each new decade of change, I greet this one with excitement, enthusiasm, and gratitude. Bring on the next adventure!

goldfish jumping out of the water

Categories: family life, lifestyle, Personal Growth | Leave a comment

What Easter Means to Me


Today is Easter Sunday. Millions of church-goers are heading off to services, dressed in their Sunday best. The story of death and resurrection is an ancient tale that stretches back in time long before the Christian version, and my guess is that one would be hard pressed to find a culture from any period in our history that didn’t celebrate the arrival of Spring.

Five years ago, our family left big city living and moved to these 4 acres on a wooded hillside, nestled among the trees of the pacific northwest. For the first time, I was living close enough to Nature to start noticing and experiencing the cycle of life. We arrived at the end of February and, eager to get to know our property and the flora and fauna that lived here, I spent many hours walking in the forest and open areas around our home. I discovered vanilla leaf when I noticed dozens of shoots rising out of the forest floor like a tiny army of green sticks. I found wild nettles, and pacific bleeding hearts, and western trillium. I could not get over the birdsong that filled the air – sweet melodies from thrushes and sparrows, raucous raven calls, and the staccato laughter of the woodpeckers.


That first year, everything was new; but each year after that, as Spring came again, I found that some of the new had become the familiar. I saw the same signs of life appearing in the woods and trees. I began to understand how our ancient ancestors must have viewed the world and the passage of time. The notion of a circle, a cycle of seasons, became so much more vivid to me. I felt that sense of comfort in seeing the cycle begin anew each year. There was something reassuring and satisfying in seeing the same sequence of plants rising from the earth after the winter, to hear that the birds had returned safely from their winter journey.

After five years here, I still experience that sense of joy and excitement when I see the signs of Spring. In the winter, we turn inward and thoughts are of hearth and home. But in the Spring, the sunshine and warmth pulls us outdoors and we get to rediscover the plants and sounds that we’d not given thought to for so many months.


Today was such a day. I awoke to a gorgeous sunny morning, and I couldn’t help but grab the leash and take the dog for a walk right away. The birds were singing, and the sun felt wonderful on my face. I saw buds on the bushes all along the side of the open trailway, as though someone had sprinkled green confetti over the landscape. I saw trillium plants, and cherry blossoms, and the long, lush maple blossoms hanging heavy from the trees. I thought about Easter, and the countless generations of people who have lived closer to Nature than any one of us today, how much more powerful and comforting those signs of Spring must have been to them, and how much more a cause for celebration.

Growing up, I spent far too many Sunday mornings sitting in a church, bored and restless, to ever consider doing so of my own accord again. I often take a walk through the forest on a Sunday morning and think about how much more that feels like worship and prayerful connection for me than being within the physical and spiritual confines of a religious institution. The tall, bare trunks of the Douglas Firs rise like columns in a cathedral. The birds are my choir, the scent of the damp earth is my incense, and my heart feels light. It seemed a fitting way to spend this Easter Sunday morning.

As I walked, I thought about the seasonal cycle of Nature and how it stands in contrast to the way of manmade things. Cities and landscapes are always changing and growing. The house I grew up in is no longer there, replaced many decades ago by new homes that hold no memories for me. The tiny farm that sat on my street when I was a teenager, the last of its kind in that neighbourhood, long ago yielded to condos. My university campus has been in a construction boom for 20 years, and even those who still work there comment on how much keeps changing. None of these things ever go back to the way they were. And so I think we modern people tend to view life as linear, as a path stretching endlessly into the future, with no way back to the past and no way of predicting what it will look like in times to come.


But Nature isn’t like that. We get to revisit the past each year. The bleeding heart blossoms that dotted the forest floor last year were all but forgotten until I saw the leaves and buds the other day. I get to re-experience the tender green leaves of wild nettles, the thrill of waking up to a morning filled with birdsong after almost forgetting that such music could be heard. In this worldview, the future is not entirely unknown. I know that the trilling buzz of hummingbirds will become more frequent, especially when the elder flowers bloom. My magnolia tree is about to burst forth in colour. Our forest, which has been bright and open all winter, will close up as the branches fill with leaves and the grasses and shrubs cover the ground with a thick, tall mattress of growth. There is something comforting and reassuring about this perspective, and I understand why our ancestors centred their feasts and celebrations around the cycle of the seasons.

Easter is many things to many people, but for me it is about the celebration of Spring. It is the renewal of life after the death of winter. I can still remember the brackens turning brown and slowly tumbling to the ground last fall, and yet now I see tall stalks rising up, bright green and full of life and the promise of summer. But Easter is also a reminder that life can be viewed as a cycle and not as an endless line stretching ahead into the unknown. I love the connection to the earth that moving here has brought me, and so for me Easter is also now a celebration of thanks for that, for this place that has won my heart and to which I feel more connected than any other place I have lived.


Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Good Times with my Big Girl


The positive effects of Mr. Boo attending his new learning centre twice a week continue to ripple throughout our family. One of the many great things is that now I have two full days a week to spend alone with Miss Em. We’ve been making the most of it, especially with this wonderful weather we’ve been having.

First, we set out for a walk and some geocaching. I used to go on woods walks with the kids when they were little, but when they got a bit older the whining started and I soon learned that if I wanted to enjoy myself and not come home drained and frazzled, I’d best go by myself! But lately she has decided that maybe walking isn’t so bad, and with geocaching she gets to enjoy the thrill of the hunt as well. One of the things I like about geocaching is that you get to see places you probably wouldn’t know about or go to otherwise. We found some lovely trails not too far from here, and logged 4 cache finds that day. Here she is perched on a large stump, tucked into the side of which was one of the caches we found.


The next day I took her to see a special concert by the Victoria Symphony that was put on for school-aged children. We arrived at the theatre to see about half a dozen huge school buses unloading hordes of kids. It was chaos! We homeschoolers also had a section reserved, and it was great fun to pass through the yelling teachers and children marching in line to get to our group. We were well represented, with two rows of seats taken up by homeschoolers! The concert was themed on Nature. Miss Em recognized Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Greig’s Peer Gynt (“that morning song”), and we especially enjoyed the final number: John Williams’ theme to Jurassic Park.

The day after that, Mr. Boo was back at “school” (despite the negative connotations that word has for homeschoolers, it’s the simplest way to refer to it) and me and Miss Em took a field trip to the Royal Museum of BC in Victoria. We went with a mother-and-son duo: I’m great friends with the mum and Miss Em is great friends with the son, so much fun was had! The kids wandered through the galleries, and the grownups followed – it’s the first time I’ve been there and been able to look at exhibits I’m interested in, even if my kids aren’t!

The photo below shows the kids at a photographic exhibit – this station asked them to come up with thoughts about what happened before or after the photo was taken. Miss Em ignored their instructions and drew a picture of a lion (since the photo had lions). I noticed that a few other kids had skipped the instructions and done their own thing on the papers provided. I thought it was funny: I think these “educational” activities are often rather contrived, and the kids saw right through it. It was fun to see a few other rebel souls doing their own thing with the exhibit!


After seeing the exhibits we watched an IMAX movie about the Mars Mission, then headed to a nearby Board Game cafe. I’ve never been to one before and it was very cool. They had hundreds of board games, many that were relatively new and modern, and for a flat rate you can stay and play as long as you want. It’s a great way to try out a game before you buy it, and there is a small cafe too. We dropped the kids off there and went to a nearby Oyster Bar for a “buck a shuck” special. I absolutely love raw oysters and it was a very special treat to indulge (another bonus of not bringing the younger child)! When we got back to the cafe, we decided to play Cards Against Humanity with the kids. Fortunately, both our families are very open with our kids about sexuality (as in, we answer any and all questions matter-of-factly) and while a few of the cards drew some blushes, we had a great time and many laughs (and Miss Em won!).

board game

I have to confess that the respite earned by having Mr. Boo at the learning centre has shown me just how difficult a task I was faced with trying to homeschool both kids. His limitations in terms of what he can tolerate, and my tendency to shy away from situations where he might act out in public, have affected our homeschooling in ways I probably wasn’t ready to admit. For Miss Em and myself, it has meant more time together, and more outings doing things that I would not normally be able to do with him in tow. This past week has been really wonderful, and I’m so happy to have these opportunities.


Categories: family life, Homeschooling, Miss Em | Leave a comment

What exactly is a Learning Centre, anyway?


In my last post, I talked about the new learning centre that Mr. Boo is attending. Some people might be confused about how a learning centre fits in with the concept of homeschooling, so I thought it might be helpful to discuss the role of learning centres in homeschooling.

Families who choose homeschooling are usually dissatisfied with the school system, and often try to avoid duplicating the classroom environment. However, as local homeschooling communities grow, they soon realize that having a place you can go – to hang out, learn together, do crafting or chemistry experiments, or listen to a local expert do a show and tell about something interesting – can be very handy. In my years of homeschooling I’ve been involved in several attempts to find such a place, and it can be challenging.

The facility needs to be available during the day, child friendly and preferably baby-proof since the families attending have kids of all ages, have tables and chairs that can be set up as needed, a kitchenette is very handy, and storage is an often overlooked need. It gets really tedious to cart bins of projects and supplies back and forth, and families have to shuffle them around when they can’t attend due to illness or whatever.

If someone has a suitable home, with enough room for everybody, that is a possible solution. But it puts a lot of pressure on the host family, and if they are ill or otherwise unavailable it can mean a cancelled day.

The next step up is to find a community space, but as anyone who has been involved in a non-profit organization knows, such spaces are usually costly. Parents may chip in for the cost, or if the families belong to the same funded homeschooling program (here in BC they are called Distributed Learning programs), that program may provide some funding for the space. Our DL program supported our community in setting up such a space a couple of years ago, but it lasted only one year due to rising rental and insurance costs for the facility, lack of other options in our area, and changes to the DL funding policies. It also required a huge amount of work on the part of the parents involved, and ultimately it folded.



Another challenge for homeschoolers often occurs when the children reach adolescence. While the younger set is happy to participate in family-oriented get togethers with children of all ages, the older kids like to be around other kids closer in age to themselves, with activities that are geared toward their interests. They also love a bit of independence thrown in, such as the ability to go across the street to a coffee shop to grab some pastries! We had a great teen group in our area that met in the centre of a small town where the kids could walk to nearby shops; the space was comfy and had a kitchen and was a great hang out for the parents and kids. Sadly, we lost the space and some of the families “aged out” and it hasn’t been put back together just yet.

The next step beyond a parent-organized space is a learning centre that is run by an organization. Such a centre might best be described a small private school that is geared towards homeschoolers, who generally only want part time programs, perhaps one or two days a week at the most, and who are not looking for school-style academic instruction, but support and facilitation for project-based and learner-directed learning. We are very fortunate in our area to have a number of such centres sprouting up here. They offer a wide range of programs, workshops, and activities for homeschooling families. Some require enrolment on a term-by-term basis whereas others operate on a drop-in basis. Some invite entire families to participate, while others provide full child supervision and parents can just drop the kids off and go.




Finally, there is the issue of homelearners with special needs. The incidence of autism is such that learning centres and special schools for kids with autism are popping up all over the place, it seems. There are two such schools in our area, though they are both a long commute away for us. Also, when I last enquired, they did not allow part-time attendance, which rules them out as desirable options for many homeschooling families. Because families in BC with children on the autism spectrum are eligible for funding from various sources, such programs are usually set up to accept direct funding from those sources.

The distinction between “learning centre” and “small private school” can get a bit blurry. I use the term “school” to refer to a program that runs 4 or 5 days a week, enrols children on a term or semester basis, is not set up for whole families to participate, and has a program of learning and activities that is set up by the administrators and in which full participation is generally required in order to attend. I use the term “learning centre” to refer to a facility that is set up for families to come together with children of all ages for activities related to learning, or a more school-like situation that is only available on a part-time basis (once or twice a week).

In summary, every learning centre is different. They range from programs designed and executed entirely by the parents for no other reason than they wanted to make it happen, to government-funded programs run by organizations that offer alternative educational opportunities. Learning centres can be a valuable way for local homeschoolers to come together and connect, to learn together and grow as a community. They can also provide support for homeschooling parents who are finding it difficult to keep up with their kids’ growing interests, or who need respite for whatever reason.


Categories: Education, Homeschooling, rethinking education | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at The Adventure Journal Theme.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.