Living With Kids: Sonja Ibsen Allen
Life is its most interesting when it takes some unexpected twists and turns. It’s not always what we expect or what we would plan. Reading Sonja’s story (today’s Living With Kids family) this morning, I couldn’t help think of just that. As a teenager, Sonja couldn’t wait to get out of her small Northern California town. And now as an adult and a mother, she has not only moved back home, but is also living with her parents while she and her husband save some money to buy a place of their own. Sharing a roof with your parents brings new meaning to the idea of “it takes a village” to raise a child.
Hey folks! Sonja here. I am the lucky wife to Sam and mama to Leo (2). Sam and I met in college. Our meet cute included a broken cash register at a campus café (my fault), a fateful meeting at a grocery store I’d never been to before, a wonderful and pushy roommate, and some light Facebook stalking. After Sam found me on Facebook he bought me a cup of coffee and we’ve been together since. He is a Chemist who looks like Clark Kent. He’s incredibly smart, kind, curious, and a wonderful partner and parent. Sam works at a biotech in Silicon Valley. We, luckily, get to commute together! I work a few miles up the road as a recruiter.
Because married in grad school didn’t seem like enough of a differentiator we decided that Sam should definitely become a Dad too! We welcomed Leopold in October 2015. He is a wild child! He seems to get more energy the more he runs. He’s so funny and sweet and is obsessed with his mini husky puppy Freja whom he calls Frej-bej. He loves Batman and reading books and most of all he’s got some serious dad moves on the dance floor. He turns on the record player and will grab your hand and say, “Up! Move!” and away we go.
I grew up in Livermore and never in a million years thought I’d live here again – but here we are as of April. I imagine it was teenage angst that made me believe it was the worst place in the free world but truth be told Livermore is a great little town and a wonderful place to raise a kiddo. We currently live with my parents, sister, and brother in law on a 19-acre property. It’s surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills and the house itself sits near a one-acre pond complete with tiny rowboat, sprawling lawn, beautiful trees, flowers, and the best part for Leo — so many dogs and horses!
My mom owns a dressage barn and the house property backs up to the pasture of my mom’s horses Bentley and his miniature horse buddy Norman! Leo routinely gathers carrots and apples from either the yard or the kitchen and stomps over to the fence. He then kicks it while yelling, “NEIGH!!!” Bentley and Norman dutifully wander over to consume all the goodies that Leo has dragged over.
Our neighbors are mostly wineries. Livermore Valley is a burgeoning wine country and it’s fantastic! Good wine, lots of concerts, outdoor movies, community events, etc.. I might have drunk the Kool-Aid but it’s a lovely little town. It feels much more like a small town than suburbia and I love that we have a great farmer’s market, coffee, restaurants, and more all in our sweet downtown.
There are fountains and green areas in the downtown so kiddos can run around while parents lounge and sip on wine and beer and it’s fun to live in a place that’s so small but lively. We still ache for Seattle (spent the last six years there for Sam’s PhD program at the University of Washington) but feel lucky we get to raise Leo in a wonderful place so near his favorite people.
Let’s get real about the Bay Area for a second. It’s obscenely expensive. My parents opened their homes to us so we could have a soft place to land and some time to get our financial feet under us. If we were to rent a place by work it would easily be over $3000/month along with $2000/month for childcare — whoa! Long-story short we have some generous benefactors who offered to help us buy a house. Houses in the Bay Area are really expensive and in Livermore inventory is very low.
We had planned to keep our noses down and try to buy a house in about a year but a few weeks ago my mom found a flyer and as of Saturday we bought a house! Still a million little boxes to check but it’s the perfect little house for just shy of $700k ringing in at 1200 sqft. We bought the cheapest house in the best neighborhood. Not everyone would think it’s perfect but that’s ok — it will be perfect for us. My Pinterest is literally exploding — can you reach a max number of pins? I’m sure I will find out…
We live with my parents! My parents, Mitch and Erika, are truly wonderful people. Even if they weren’t my parents I’d want them in my life. You can’t choose your family but if you could I’d reup on these folks ASAP. My parents had me in their very early twenties so they became grandparents in their 40s and I can’t recommend it enough! They are very active and engaged with Leo. My parents can both easily beat me up a mountain while hiking or down a mountain while skiing — goals!
Because Sam and I have a hefty commute (but we get to do it together — he works at a BioTech and I am a recruiter for a commercial real estate firm) my mom is on point for mornings and afternoons with Leo. She is incredible with him! Just this morning she sent me a video of him riding his bike around dressed in a Batman cape and mask, followed by a coloring session, capped off with FaceTiming relatives in Sweden over scrambled eggs and ketchup.
They pal around the barn picking strawberries and apples. It’s a truly enchanting childhood and we feel so lucky to have my folks! Not only does Leo have grandparents nearby but I get to have my cake and eat it too. I get to pursue my career, which I really enjoy, and know that my son is being cared for by people who love him like crazy! Is there a bigger blessing than that?
I’m a pack animal by nature and turns out Leo is too. Sam…not so much. We build in some introvert time for him but he’s a trooper. While it’s often sunshine and rainbows there are times we’ve butted heads. There have been disagreements about bedtimes, toys (I hate toys with batteries – they drive me nuts!!!), general structure. Basically, it comes down to parents being stricter and grandparents being less so…overall I think we’ve all come to a really great place. However, physical proximity can put a damper on things. There are times (ahem…) when I wish sound didn’t carry like it does. Roommates — forever killing the mood.
My sister and brother in law Anja and Freddy are absolute celebrities to Leo. He swoons, he can’t take how much he loves them. Anja is the most helpful aunt on the planet. She picks him up from school, changes diapers, feeds him, and developed his favorite nighttime ritual — baby hot tub! A hot water spigot met a galvanized tub and BAM toddler heaven and the easiest post outdoor muddy play clean up ever. Freddy is a baby whisperer. He has a calming effect on Leo and you can often times find them napping on the couch together.
We sometimes struggle with Leo having the ability to ask aunty, uncle, grandma, or grandpa if mom and dad say no! But it’s pretty amazing that so many people who love Leo live right near us! Or you know, just downstairs.
To those of you who have been pregnant you’ll know that those hormones can rock your world. In my case they brought to the surface a diagnosis of OCD and depression. As I started to give that diagnosis thought, I could see a pattern throughout my life, starting with puberty and popping up aggressively during times of change and stress. Moving away to college, moving to Seattle, having a miscarriage (I don’t mean to brush past this — it sucked), dealing with family health issues, etc. were all marked by what I assumed at the time was what anxiety felt like to most people. NOPE! Getting diagnosed with OCD and depression felt both freeing and like a huge weight had been hung around my neck.
I was simultaneously relieved to put a name to what had been plaguing me and racked with shame, and guilt, and a lack of confidence. I started seeing a therapist who specialized in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and worked closely with my primary/OBGYN and a doctor who specializes in prenatal and postpartum mental health. I was beyond blessed to have three amazing people caring for me and working together. I will forever be thankful for healthcare (a RIGHT not a privilege) and the support of my family. Shout out to Sam; he researched OCD and depression and has been an incredible partner. I’m blessed to have such an engaged and supportive partner.
I now treat my OCD and depression with a prescription and lifestyle. I’m definitely not perfect on the lifestyle sides (caffeine, sugar, lack of exercise, crummy sleep will all throw me for a loop) but I have found a lot of relief when I eat well, sleep well, and exercise. Also, the Mindfulness app is absolute MAGIC. It’s still not something I love to bring up because it sometimes makes me feel that people will think I am incompetent and not want to invest in me as an employee or treat me like I can’t handle difficult situations. Not even a little bit accurate.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues is incredibly damaging. I still worry that when people find out I struggle with mental health that they are going to think I am weak when the opposite is true. OCD and depression makes me gritty and tough. I’m a good mom, a good wife, a good daughter, sister, friend, employee, citizen, etc. I am engaged in all areas in my life despite OCD and depression. My diagnosis is not who I am.
I hope Leo remembers our vinyl record dance parties. I hope he remembers that he was greeted by a smile when he entered a room. I hope he remembers parents who love him so much it hurts. I hope he forgets, well maybe not forgets but forgives, the times we came home exhausted from work and didn’t play with him like we should. I hope he forgives that sometimes screen time overshadowed book time. I hope he forgives the million little mistakes I’m sure we will make in his lifetime because he knows that we love him and are rooting for him and that we are always a soft place to land.
The absolute best, and most unexpected, part about parenthood was the joy gained at the simplest things. Looking at the world though Leo colored lenses is a blessing of parenthood. I already miss having the unadulterated joy and happiness that he continually exhibits. I hope he never loses his curious mind and his compassion. His braveness and kindness is astounding and I hope he lives his life this way. I hope I don’t forget to live my life this way!
I wish someone had told me and I’d listened to how horrifying and gut-wrenching parenthood is. The love and fear of being a parent has depths I didn’t know existed. If I’d truly understood the capacity of fear before I’d experienced parenthood I think I may have opted out — who wants to be that vulnerable? OCD makes the fear extra fun for me — I can go dark real quick. Leo is the greatest gift of our lives and he makes me show up everyday in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t.
I often feel terrible that Leo was born to a mother with OCD and depression. I find myself sobbing and thinking that he deserves better. When I crawl out of that little pit of despair I start showing up. Leo saved me from a safe and unadventurous life. I will always work to be there and be the best version of myself so that my son gets the mom he deserves: one who loves him to the depths of his soul and the ends of his toes. He’s not to be changed or altered. He is to be loved with every fiber of my being because that’s what every child and human deserve.
Thank you, Sonja! I really appreciate your willingness to share about your struggles with mental illness. I think we are really getting better as a society about understanding that mental illness is actually an illness and not something that you can smile your way out of, but I think that people who can talking openly about the challenges they have faced is still so important. Sharing stories that lessen the stigma around mental illness is critical.
Anyone who has raised toddler know how appealing the idea of having lots of family just upstairs must be. Toddlers can be tough, so more hands to help is definitely a good thing. And you can see from the photos what a happy little guy Leo is.
Have you ever lived in a non-traditional arrangement with your kids? Would you love having your parents or in-laws under the same roof? Or would it drive you crazy? Would you rather have your space or the built in babysitters? Let us know!
Land of Nod Teepee
Photo credit to Francesco Penko. 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! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, gay parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Reach out at email@example.com.