Living With Kids: Kirsten Clark
Kirsten is a mother, a doula, a farmer, a homeschooler, and a wife. She and her husband live with three young kids in a small home on a lot of land. And you are going to love reading their story. When so many friends were going “bigger and better” with their homes, Kirsten and her husband decided to stay in their small home and make it work for their growing family.
Hi, we’re the Clark /Watkins family! Our home is me, Kirsten Clark (31), my husband Josh Clark (34), my daughter Magnolia “Maggie” Mae Watkins (10), and our “Irish twins”: Virgil (almost 2) and Everett (almost 1). Josh and I were married six years ago. He works in IT support, and I support families as a birth doula and also remain home with our kids and homeschool Maggie, who is in 5th grade this year.
Josh and I met way back when I was 16 and he was 19 and I was dating his best friend. We were nothing more than friends for years upon years, through the time I became a single mother to Maggie and beyond. I had been through some rough relationships and had a sudden lightbulb moment, “Hey wait! Josh has always been such a gentleman and treated me so well! Maybe we should try dating?” I texted him saying, “Hey, you should ask me out on a date!” and he did and we’ve been together ever since.
The last several years in our family have been all about growing and birthing babies. I spent three years in a row being pregnant. In 2014 my husband and I conceived our first baby together. He was a boy and we named him Wendell Lyle, after the poet Wendell Berry and after my beloved grandpa Lyle. It was a blissful and joyful pregnancy until we found out that Wendell had died in utero around 28 weeks gestation. About 60% of stillbirth is unexplained and we never got an answer about what had caused Wendell’s death.
Losing a baby sent me on a life-altering journey of grief. I knew when we lost Wendell that I needed to feel my feelings fully in order to survive and heal. I trusted that a power greater than me would walk with me through the darkness and was mourning alongside me. Wendell’s life is continually an inspiration to me. As part of my birth work, I am certified with an organization called StillBirthDay to serve families who have lost a baby or a pregnancy. All births are sacred and all birthing families deserve to have their journey respected.
Our first rainbow baby, the rainbow after the storm of pregnancy loss, was Virgil Emerson. Pregnancy with him was so, so hard. We had lost the innocence of enjoying a pregnancy after walking through the worst possible outcome. Virgil’s home birth was physically and emotionally difficult, but getting to hold him in my arms, alive and breathing, was one of the pinnacles of my life. He’s now a rambunctious almost-two-year-old with an unyielding passion for vehicles and a zest for life.
Our youngest, Everett Bloom, was our “bonus baby” who completely surprised us by showing up when Virgil was only four months old! We had not planned on conceiving again so soon… let’s just say that exclusively breastfeeding is NOT a reliable form of birth control! Now that Everett is ten months, he’s a good-natured sweet baby who’s just happy to be here hanging out with us.
Our home is a modest 1200 square feet, with three bedrooms and one bath, that we purchased a little over five years ago when we had been married about six months. We paid $103,000 for the house plus 7 acres of land, which is pretty average for house prices in rural Alabama. We wanted enough land to give small scale farming a try, as I had spent a few years working on small organic farms.
We initially began land hunting closer to Huntsville but quickly realized we’d be paying $200-300,000 for a house and land if we didn’t expand our search a little farther out. Ardmore was a 45 minute drive from my husband’s work in Huntsville and seemed like a good area to get a lot of bang for our buck when it came to land.
Not all the properties we looked at were high-quality, since we were looking for something under $120,000 but with at least 5 acres of land. When we came across this house, we had looked at a few other properties that day with my father in law, including an old horse farm with a burned out mobile home on the land… not exactly what we were looking for. As soon as we walked into our house, we knew it was the right place for our family. My father in law was worried, though, that the house just looked good in comparison to the burned trailer property!
In the first year of living in this house, Josh and I went through some serious envy of friends who had bought and moved into bigger, “better” homes. Wouldn’t it be luxurious if we had another bathroom so no one had to squirm in the hallway with legs crossed waiting for someone inside to finish up? Or what if we could have a dedicated craft room or play room or guest room? And darn, we didn’t have space for dinner parties or family events!
But as we settled in, that 1200 sq feet began to become the perfect space for who we are as a family. We realized we aren’t party throwers, so no need for a 12 seater dining table. Having a comfortable common area seemed more important than having large bedrooms, since we try to spend plenty of quality time together daily.
We’ve made some changes to the house to fit the farmhouse aesthetic a little more. When we moved in the fireplace was dark red brick, which I painted white to brighten up the room. We added a shiny silver tin roof. We tore out a huge vanity in the bathroom, replaced it with a pedestal sink and old-fashioned jelly cabinet, and added white beadboard and black walls.
I have amazing creative friends and family and our home is full of their art. The drawings of Josh and I in the living room were done by my friend Mandii for our wedding invitations. My friend Colleen made the fabric art that hangs above our bed. Quilts abound, as both of Josh’s grandmas were prolific quilters, and my grandmother has made special quilts for each of the kids.
We founded our farm — Haven Homestead — in the little Alabama town of Ardmore, which sits right on the state line of Alabama and Tennessee. Ardmore is picturesque and quaint in some ways, with a cute family hardware store and white rocking chairs on the front porch of City Hall. A set of train tracks runs through the middle of town. Everyone knows everyone else. Lots of folks have big gardens in their yards. You’ll see plenty of pickup trucks as you drive through town. You can head to the local flea market to pick up antiques or a bantam rooster.
In other ways, it is tough to live in a small town in Alabama. Racism is alive and well. The flea market was host recently to the Grand Dragon of the KKK (the KKK birthplace is about 10 miles north into Tennessee), who proudly proclaimed his message to passersby. It isn’t uncommon to see Confederate flags flown prominently. The week we moved into this house, our elderly retired neighbor used the N-word in a conversation with my husband, casually like it was no big deal. This is the reality of living in rural Alabama. People are open and friendly but may also harbor deep prejudices.
Birth work as a doula has been both enormously rewarding and enormously challenging. Birth is one of the most important days of a woman’s life. It is transformative however it happens and the birth experience holds great power to shape who you are as both a mother and a woman.
Part of my motivation in doula work is for every family to feel loved and supported, whatever may come in the birth process. Birth can be unpredictable and sometimes difficult. Hard things can happen during birth. Having a guide, emotional and physical support as labor and delivery happens, can make the transition more peaceful for the birthing family.
Another part of why I do this work is because of the obstetrical violence against women I have both witnessed and heard far too many stories about. Hospital birth in America, particularly in the state of Alabama, can be dangerous for a woman. Assault is not uncommon. Unnecessary surgical birth is not uncommon. Threatening and bullying is not uncommon. The recent lawsuit of an Alabama mother who suffered irreversible damage after a nurse assaulted her is not an unusual story for this state. I have heard doctors tell mothers “If you don’t do what I say, your baby is going to die.” I have seen doctors perform procedures on women’s’ genitals without consent and cause physical damage.
Addressing these issues is not a pleasant part of doula work, but it is necessary. I work to provide expectant families with the information they need to birth within a paternalistic system, to find care providers who will value and truly support the mother’s choices about her own body. It is exhausting and depressing to be fighting this battle that should not exist.
Then there is the birth high, the oxytocin flood that envelopes the room when a strong mother brings her baby into the world. What I love most about attending births is watching a mother discover her own strength. I liken the natural birth experience to running a marathon: yes, it’s an intense and sometimes painful physical journey. But if you’ve got folks in your corner who believe in you and will cheer you on, making it across the finish line to hold that brand new baby in your arms is the biggest rush of joy.
It is an honor to be invited into the most intimate moment of a family’s life, the moment they become parents, and to bear witness to their joy and transformation. There is nothing like watching a new soul enter the world, borne on the strength of his mother’s love.
As far as farm life goes, we’ve lived the full spectrum out here: planting blueberries, blackberries, apple trees. Digging up a big veggie garden in the front yard. Raising a flock of sheep and a herd of heritage breed rabbits to provide ethically raised meat. Keeping chickens and ducks of all kinds. Seven acres was the perfect amount of space to get a taste for farming and learn a lot of lessons along the way.
We absolutely idealized farm life before moving onto our land. It’s easy to idealize! Having cute lambs to snuggle, harvesting fresh lettuce for dinner, being in touch with the land. But it is hard, hard work to farm. It means getting up in the middle of the icy January night to check on a mother rabbit who is due to have her babies. It means taking out the shotgun to shoot an adorable adolescent raccoon or possum that has been raiding the henhouse. It means pulling weeds in 100 degree weather with 80% humidity, sweat dripping down every part of your body. It means slaughtering animals you’ve raised since the day they were born.
It can be so rewarding, though. We’ve loved being able to provide food for our family. I love working in my garden, putting my hands in the dirt and nurturing plants from seed to harvest. There’s not much that’s more satisfying than digging up potatoes like buried treasure, one of Maggie’s favorite garden tasks. There is not much sweeter than holding a tiny baby bunny in your hand or snuggling a newborn lamb.
I recommend that families interested in farming try it, for sure! But go in knowing that it’s a lot like parenting… or any of life, really. There will be amazing days where you feel so grateful and happy to be farming. And there will be days when you ask yourself what the heck you’re doing on a farm. And that is okay, either way.
Just a couple short weeks ago, we transitioned back to city life in Huntsville, leaving behind the farm that we loved so dearly and learned so much from. It is wonderful being a closer drive to almost everything, including our families, but we miss the wide open feeling of our little farm.
We chose to move back into the city because farm life had become unsustainable for us as a family. My work as a doula means I need to be close to the hospitals. Maggie was in need of more social time and play dates are much more accessible with us in town. And we were drowning under the responsibility of keeping up with two babies, plus livestock, plus land maintenance, plus driving so far to even pick up groceries. We needed to downsize and scale back so we could enjoy the time while our kids are young.
We’re holding on to our Haven Homestead identity and will move on as urban homesteaders. Most of what we were doing on our acreage can be translated to our small city lot. We’ll get some lavender Orpington hens in the spring to keep us in eggs. We’ll plant blueberries, grape vines, elderberries. We’ll dig up our front yard to make it into a vegetable garden. Our backyard has space for a couple beehives for honey. A medicinal herb garden is in the mix as well.
I’m excited at the challenge of maximizing every single square foot of space, using vertical and intensive growing techniques. It’ll be a way of farming that is similar to how we’ve approached household living: maximize on the minimal space that you have. Sometimes smaller is better and more fulfilling.
The most exciting part of living in our modestly sized home Ardmore home has been sleeping arrangements. Adding a third kid into the mix was an adventure. When Everett was newborn, we were content keeping him in our room but after several months he wasn’t sleeping as well with us sharing a room… so Josh and I embarked on a game of musical beds across the house! Sometimes we slept in the living room on an air mattress. Sometimes Josh would sleep in our room with Everett in our queen size bed, if Everett was having a fussy night. Sometimes, when Maggie was away at her dad’s house, I’d sleep in her bed. Virgil and Everett will share a room within the next year, but for now it has been worth it to make wonky sleep arrangements work in the short term.
Having less square footage means that we have to curate our possessions and only hold on to what is either functional or meaningful. Both Josh and I used to be packrats, but we came to see how fast we could accumulate junk in the house and how stressed it would make us. We certainly are not minimalist — this last move showed us just how much stuff we own! But we are always striving to do more with less. We try to be intentional with what we bring into the home.
We see the benefits of this with our kids. The less toys we have in the house, the more those toys are valued and played with. Our kids seem to get overwhelmed when there is too much surrounding them so keeping toys minimal creates a more peaceful environment.
I hope our kids feel like home was always a safe space. We chose the farm name Haven Homestead because we wanted to nourish a place of respite and renewal for our family when times are tough. I hope our kids felt like we saw them as real people and listened to their voices, feelings, and opinions.
We talk a lot about how our family is a team. How that means we’ve got each others back. We work together on common goals. We all chip in. We all contribute in our own way. We ask each other for help when we need it. We are each an integral part of our family.
My favorite part of living with our kids is seeing their personalities develop and grow. It is strange to think how this person who was literally a part of me, growing inside my body, is now on a trajectory that will carry them away from me. It is completely bittersweet. When my boys were tiny babies, I would get so choked up at the idea that they’d one day leave me and go to college! But it really is a joy and privilege to see them become their own people. It helps me cherish the times they cling to me and need me because I know it will not always be this way.
We chose homeschooling out of the desire to make the most of the finite amount of time we have with our kids. Maggie attended public school in kindergarten and I felt like I never got to see her during that year. Since we’ve homeschooled, she’s had the time to do so many things alongside her family that are true life education. She’s learned how to butcher rabbits with my husband. She’s been responsible for livestock chores. She’s learned how to cook complete meals with minimal assistance from me. I hope these life skills will serve her well moving into adulthood.
I wish someone had told me that it is okay to be an imperfect parent. I spent years beating myself up for not being the perfect parent for Maggie. I was young when I birthed her. I was drowning in addiction and dysfunctional coping skills and doing my best to survive. I didn’t know how to take good care of myself, let alone my child. But walking through a process of recovery and healing, learning to embrace my past and my mistakes, has been an amazing journey.
Maggie has told me that she can see that I’m working hard to be a better mother to her. When I own up to my mistakes, validating the pain she has felt from my poor choices, and acknowledging to her that I have not been perfect, that is a gift to her. She has learned that there is a healthy process to acknowledging mess ups and moving through them.
We have all benefited from seeking professional help through therapy, when life is hard and coping is a struggle and we feel stuck in a rut of poor choices. We’re all learning as a family to give grace to ourselves and each other when we mess up. Showing loving kindness to our selves first so we can then give that to others. Grace upon grace.
Thank you, Kirsten! I always in awe of people that are able to live on a farm and make it work. I am lucky if I mow my lawn every Saturday. I have so much respect for people who have that connection to the land. I can’t imagine getting up in the middle of the night do check on animals! I’ll be curious to see how the new “urban homesteader” adventure goes.
I find myself going back to Kirsten’s stories about advocating for moms in the hospital during something as important and sacred as giving birth. A friend of mine is a Doula and she always tells moms that their birth plan should be whatever makes them the most comfortable. For some people that is in a hospital, and for others it might be at home. As with so many things in life, there is no right or wrong answer. It is about doing what makes the most sense for you and your life.
Aztec Fleece Area Rug
Vintage Fisher Price Barn
Mid-Century TV Stand
Photo Credits by Meghan Medlen. Kirsten is on Facebook here. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.