Johnny Miller

3 questions to ask when your house doesn’t feel like a home

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

The past year has been a weird one, especially when it comes to our home.

We moved into our house in March, before we were vaccinated (a lifetime ago, in Covid years), with big dreams and no bandwidth. We’ve renovated two homes in the last five years, and I’ve gotten used to being able to have things just so. But amid the juggle of taking care of a baby (now a toddler), two full-time jobs, and trying to find a childcare situation that worked for us, I had to get less precious about the house and just be grateful to live in it for awhile.

I imagine I’m not alone in this. We’ve all been spending more time at home for much longer than we ever imagined. This time, by turns cozy and confining, has created an undeniable intimacy with the spaces we live in. We notice more now. Situations that used to be tolerable have become urgent. The path of light across the house during the day was once a curiosity; now it’s part of our rhythm. Home has always mattered — but it matters more now, and yet for many of us, it’s gotten harder to make changes. The stakes feel higher, the logistics more complicated.

We resolved the tension by doing urgent things: recoating the pool and fencing it, childproofing, and redoing the driveway and laying in the garden, which needs time to settle in before we can really enjoy it. And I began doing more DIY: learning how to paint trim and hang wallpaper, doing some digital antiquing, and a little light furniture design.

Still, after a year of settling in, this place doesn’t yet feel like home. I can point to specific things I don’t like, things I’m excited to change when we can finally renovate: the brown stone on the kitchen counters, the floors that are in desperate need of refinishing, the bathrooms that make me feel like I’m in a 90s hotel. (I know the 90s are back again, but I don’t need them in my bathroom.) But I know that it’s not really about those things.

A lot of times, we look around our homes and all we see are problems. We feel stuck, and we think: If only I could renovate my kitchen or fix my ugly floors or get everyone to stop leaving their stuff in a pile in the entryway, I’d feel so much better. When we complain about our homes, the world is quick to offer solutions. Solutions, after all, often come in the form of products, which can be used to make money.

But a home is not just a problem to be solved, or a collection of products to be “curated.” It’s an idea about how we want to live that we are creating in the world. A house feels like home if the physical things in it reflect this idea. But if we don’t know how we want to live, no amount of stuff can make it feel homey.

It’s not that the stuff doesn’t matter. It does, but it has to come from a deeper place than Pinterest. Our last house was a great example of this. We lived well in that house. The memories I have from there are clear and vivid, and the decor isn’t just a background, but a player in our story.

I remember when Graham was so small I would get in the bath with him. The striped wallpaper that surrounded us is indelible in my mind, along with the feeling of those chubby thighs. I remember what it felt like to come home in the springtime, when the climbing roses we’d planted hit full bloom. Seeing the coral-colored door and soaking in the scent of roses, our tiny cottage felt like a palace. I remember how Albert used to go out into the garden to putter around, and come back inside with an armful of blooms. How I used to check the fit of my baby wrap in the circular entryway mirror. And of course, I can never forget the light dancing over the yellow bench in our room, under the dormer with the window panes I sketched out by hand for our contractor. Yes, the bench was always half-covered in clothes, but it lit up the room nonetheless.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve started to get serious about a small renovation and some decor changes. It’s still a ways out, but it’s exciting to be able to start planning. Yet it’s so easy to get sucked straight into finishes and paint swatches. What kind of stone should we have in the kitchen? What color for the cabinets? Are we keeping this hardware or changing it out?

That’s what your contractor will want to know, of course. That’s what will dictate timelines and budgets. And it’s what the marketplace urges us to do. But it’s not what makes a home.

So, I’ve been doing some work to zoom out and get clear on what we want out of our home as a family, and what changes will really matter in creating the life we want to live. And because I love to share the tools I use for myself with you, I created a free resource to help you do the same. It’s called 3 Questions to Answer Before Making Changes to Your Home. You can download it here.

This tool is designed to help you:

  • Stop swirling over swatches and make better decisions when it comes to decor.
  • Overcome indecision by getting clarity on your deeper vision for your home.
  • Move past overwhelm by identifying exactly where to start transforming your space.
  • Prioritize your changes so you can get maximum joy out of minimal budget.
  • Feel more confident that your choices are the right ones for you and your family.

What I remembered after doing these exercises is that when I look at what I really want out of a home, the exact finishes and colors aren’t so consequential. Maybe the kitchen will be blue, maybe green. There are many different choices that could make me happy.

So what does matter? Spaces that promote play and cuddling. Lighting that makes us feel held. Walls where I see our story played back to us. A kitchen where we’re excited to gather, where the mess I make baking with Graham feels beautiful. A guest room that feels like a big hug to the people we love.

Am I still going to fix those floors? You bet. But not just because I don’t like the color. Rather, because when Graham and I roll cars down them, I want to smile at what I see.

Images: Top image by Johnny Miller. All others by the author.

February 4th, 2022

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    Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. Tammy Thiele on February 9, 2022

    Thank you for this. I’ve been so focused on what our home lacks, I forgot to see the ways it doesn’t. Looking forward to going thru the guide to see where changes will make the most impact.

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