Back when I was teaching English in a wealthy school district, I used to assign a personal essay about a challenging experience. Kids wrote about Little League defeats, trouble in school, falling-outs with friends, and pets dying, but my favorite microgenre was the remodeling memoir. The first I encountered was about a kitchen reno that displaced the author and her family to the poolside casita — there was a tragic line about a hot plate I wish I could remember. I used to think the reason I liked this story was that, though it was the epitome of a first world problem, it was told by the one kind of person whose obliviousness can be not just forgivable but charming — that is, a child. Recently, however, anytime I log in to a streaming service and see what’s waiting in my algorithmically tailored queues, I am confronted with the truth that I am, in fact, willing to overlook any number of character flaws if it means I can vicariously experience rapture over a Carrara marble countertop and an apron sink. Judging by the prodigious number of home makeover shows available to mainline day or night, I am not alone.
Our culture loves a home renovation story. It’s our refresh of the conversion narrative, salvation available at the click of the remote. In the “before” home, the audience is guided through messy, unfashionable rooms that reveal not just poor taste but something more pathological and more intimate. There’s a voyeuristic pleasure in watching the hosts toss other people’s possessions — their frightening Nutcracker collections, their inexplicably numerous shoeboxes, their hideous china. Often, there’s a tear-jerking backstory about how the house fell into such a state, and the host listens empathetically to these confessions, promising transformation in exchange for the homeowner’s trust. In sweeps the demolition team, wiping all sins away, and when the “after” home is revealed, it is not only beautiful, it is life-changing. Tears are shed, gratitude is expressed. It is a religious experience. Once we experienced the divine in cathedrals; now we touch the face of god in 3,000-square-foot single-family houses decorated in the modern farmhouse style.
If home renovation stories — at least, on TV — speak to some quasi-religious yearning for redemption, perhaps that is why we conflate morality with gorgeous interiors. Take a look around the world of parenting media, where bloggers alternate home tours and tips on gentle discipline, and every parenting TikTok seems to take place in front of a kitchen island large enough to go to war with Sealand. These mamas may decorate with monstera leaves and ceramic boob planters, but they are not so far removed from the 19th-century ideal of the angel in the house, the woman who presides over the domestic sphere, in charge of the home and childrearing, the family’s moral and aesthetic heart.
The message that runs through these shows like a Scandinavian motif is that your job as a parent isn’t to prepare your child to go out into the world, but to create a perfect microcosm for them to inhabit.
Nowhere is this collapsing of good design with upright motherhood more in evidence than the Netflix series Dream Home Makeover, which follows rich people who already have their dream home as they work with Shea and Syd McGee, an interior designer/court jester wife-and-husband duo, to redo whatever rooms are less than perfect. Why people with this much money don’t just hire a decorator offscreen is something I do not understand, but maybe that kind of thinking is why they are the ones with millions. The premise is so insipid and the homeowners so unlikable (not even Jesus himself could empathize with the SoCal frat dad with the wine cave) that the show spends most of its time with the hosts in soft-focused scenes of Mormon-adjacent domesticity, mother McGee and her duckling-like daughters in floral prairie dresses and matching curls. In an episode of another Netflix show, Instant Dream Home, a Christian family bursting at the seams receives the surprise blessing of a prefab one-room schoolhouse as part of their surprise reno. Now they can really enjoy staying home, all the time, together, forever. The message that runs through these shows like a Scandinavian motif is that your job as a parent isn’t to prepare your child to go out into the world, but to create a perfect microcosm for them to inhabit.
The house I live in, with my husband, two kids, and cat, is a “before” house. It is small, dark, and boxy, a feeling we have enhanced by leaving the walls a depressing shade of gray. The laminate on the mismatched kitchen cabinets is peeling. We hear highway sounds in the living room and feel the breeze with our windows closed. The previous owner worked in theater tech, and it shows. She had a passion for gold paint and rosettes, and every “improvement” is constructed like a gaudy mayfly, made to come down in the blink of an eye, yet here they all still are, 10 years on. When an online furniture retailer gives me a little quiz asking me to identify my decorating “style” — coastal or boho or the portentously-titled “transitional” — I find myself scrolling in search of a photo of one of the dollhouses in Hereditary.
Why, when I picture my best, fantasy parent self — present, peaceful, attuned to the needs of my children — am I always in a gorgeous, light-filled open space that has a great flow for entertaining?
It’s not that I’m indifferent to my surroundings. Once a year or so, I’ll get so fed up I decide we need to do something, now, and start frantically bookmarking DIY projects, but then I think about all the steps involved in doing one, and I feel so exhausted I need to lie down.
I’d like to think that I’m too savvy to be influenced by reality TV and social media personas who are trying to sell me crap through affiliate links, but then why, when I picture my best, fantasy parent self — present, peaceful, attuned to the needs of my children — am I always in a gorgeous, light-filled open space that has a great flow for entertaining? Surely if I was in such a space, I would not be yelling at my kids about the food rotting in their lunchboxes and the school forms I’ve misplaced as they dig through the shoe hamper on their way out the door. I’d simply point to their individual cubbies in our well-ordered mudroom, where backpacks dangle like chrysalises from Shaker hooks. I’d kiss the tops of their heads and wave them calmly off from the foyer, a space that sets the tone for the house and says, this is our refuge from the world.
The truth is I feel shame about the state of my house, and I feel shame about my desire to improve it. Sometimes I tell myself the reason my house is ugly is that I value other things — “We spend our time outdoors, exploring,” or “In my free time, I choose to make art.” Deep down, though, I know that beneath the façade of high-mindedness or bohemian insouciance, I am a shallow and acquisitive person who is constantly envying other people’s spaces, speculating on the cost of their new kitchens, and spending more hours of her one wild and precious life than I care to admit scrolling through houses on Redfin. I’d like to be the kind of person who can say, “I spend my money on experiences, not things,” but I believe in my heart that an experience I’d enjoy is sitting on the expansive deck of my gracious home while my children run around our beautifully landscaped yard.
As we drove around, the truth sank in that you don’t just live in a house; you live in a neighborhood, a town, a world.
This summer, after perseverating for several years on whether to stay where we are or leave seeking greener pastures, we stayed with my parents so we could house-hunt on the East Coast. It wasn’t difficult to picture ourselves in this living room or that yard, but as we drove around, the truth sank in that you don’t just live in a house; you live in a neighborhood, a town, a world. We may live in an ugly house on a street that is technically a state highway, but my kids can walk themselves around the corner and be in a jubilant park among friends. It probably would not excite any real estate agent to know that for a few months, and unbeknownst to me, my kids were feeding a neighborhood rat by dropping craisins down the crack in the sidewalk (“She’s a mother,” my daughter told me when I said I was calling the health department. “She needs the food for all her babies.”), but there is something to be said about living in a place where our children have a degree of autonomy, not to mention the opportunity to appreciate nature. It would be easy for me to say goodbye to my house; harder to say goodbye to my kids’ school, to the many people who love them, to our friends.
The last house we looked at was perfect, with a vaulted great room that opened off the kitchen. I’ll spare you the rest of the details. Would we be a happier, more harmonious family living there? I’ll never know. We didn’t make an offer, and the last time I looked, the house was in contract, on the way to being the background in someone else’s TikTok.
At the end of the summer, we flew back to our ugly house with mixed feelings, but my husband swears that now that we’ve made it through this summer of indecision, he’s committed to making our house work for us. He’s already called a window guy for quotes. I have my doubts. Still, I’ve ordered a new light fixture and some paint samples from the $70-a-gallon company that advertises to me on Instagram so that I can take the swatches to the discount hardware store to color-match. We have a budget spreadsheet and have been watching YouTube videos about tiling. My children might not remember a beautiful home or even a clean one, but maybe they’ll remember us trying.
Photo Credit: Douglas Keister, wbritten, LWA, Judy Davidson, Gallo Images, Latitudestock/Getty Images