Diy & Crafts

Living With Kids: Thea Rattner-Pietig

Today’s home tour features Thea, a mom of 2 living in Connecticut. Thea’s story is a reminder that life doesn’t always work out the way we expect it to, but may work out the way it should. It reads a little bit like a romantic comedy — Thea’s best friend’s little brother, who she teased as a kid, and then dated for a bit in her early 20s, is the person she ended up with after her first marriage ended. Thea’s home is classic and elegant, and feels so livable. You’re really going to love it. Welcome, Thea!

Hi all. We are a family of four plus one dog. I am Thea and I am the lone girl among all boys. There is a lot of testosterone pumping in my house! I’m the Managing Director of a boutique ad agency specializing in Outdoor Advertising, and I live with my new husband (still sort of weird to say), Louis, who is a financial planner, and our two boys, Lincoln, who will be five in September and is my son from a previous marriage, and Sheppard who just turned one.

Lincoln is the decisive, charismatic cuddle bug — who takes his time learning every new skill. Sheppard is the adventure baby — or as Louis calls him, an unguided missile, since he goes full throttle but with no gps navigation system in play. You can tell from the sparkle in his baby blue eyes that he is going to be a mischief maker, but right now he loves to giggle and play hide and seek, even if it means he is hiding behind a glass door.  

Wonton, the Maltese, is my original baby and almost nine. I have to admit he definitely has fallen down the attention totem pole these days. Wonton is loyal to the end. He has seen me through everything, highs and lows, and still only barks and yelps when I’m around, to protect me and assert his codependence. He is truly a mellow and purely gentle, kind soul who follows me wherever I go throughout the house. 

Now, as a “ puppy brother” he often gets TOO much attention from the boys. Between headlocks and pulling his tail this little dog looks tiny but he puts up with A LOT! 

Louis and I have been married a little over two months now, but don’t be fooled by the newlywed glow, we have known each other for well over 22 years. Our story tells like a romantic comedy:  we crossed paths over and over, and finally fate and the universe brought us back together. 

Let me explain. We met when I was in 8th grade and Louis (who went by his middle name, Daniel, when we met,) was ten. To say it was love at first sight would be a total lie and probably criminal in a most states. I was friends with his older sister and their family had just moved to Connecticut from Brooklyn. I have a clear memory of meeting him for the first time in his parent’s kitchen where he was coming home from fourth grade with glasses, braces and an oversized backpack. He was the quintessential dorky, younger brother. If someone had told me then he would be the love of my life I would have probably thrown the snack I was eating at them. 

Over the years we came across each other at events. Our families celebrated Thanksgiving and Fourth of July together a few times but otherwise he was pretty much a non-entity in my life. When I was in college Louis ended up leaving our high school and going to boarding school because as he says, “He required additional structure.”

That’s when he came back with a lower voice and a different first name, Louis. During that time, he made it clear that the tides had turned and he was not a little kid who could be push around anymore. By torturing, teasing and making me cry one day while sitting in his parents living room it was clear he was no longer a kid and wanted to be treated as an adult. 

It wasn’t until we were both living in New York City going through our own breakups that we reconnected. Louis was young and just starting out his life post college and I was five years into living the city life and was looking to date more seriously. We “hung out” for about six months and as things started to get more serious and we were at the tipping point of going “public” with our relationship, Louis decided he wasn’t ready to be serious and he told me to go find someone else. (That’s letting him off a little easy because it was less graceful than that.)

To my credit, I listened (for the first and only time ever so he says) and quickly met and started dating my first husband. Because Louis was related to one of my best friends, we’d still run into each other occasionally with mixed results. There were times where we screamed at each other (classy), or ignored each other (mature), or got accused of flirting (whoops).  Whatever the case, it was clear there were still sparks there but neither of us was available. 

Fast forward to 2017, I had just moved back to Westport, Connecticut with my then husband and our two year old, Lincoln. We had purchased this big, beautiful McMansion and it was truly a showpiece kind of house. I was ecstatic to be back in town and living in the suburbs again after twelve years of city life.

Then things really fell apart. My relationship was fractured and try as I might, I had to make the difficult choice to move on so that I could be a better person for my son. I didn’t want him to grow up surrounded by anger and fighting. So, although my life looked picture perfect from the outside, I made the choice to walk away from the material things for the greater good.

This was the turning point for Louis as well. For years he had been living a very different life from me, partying and living life hard. And here’s where we cue in fate: As I was saying “enough” to the lie that everything was okay, Louis was finally ready to say “enough” to late nights and solo living, and settle down. He decided to grow up, at least a little bit. 

We met again at a place of enough life experience, enough difficulty, and enough love lost, to know what we’d missed with each other, and we set off to build the life we wanted together.

I would like to note that my ex-husband is a terrific friend and co-parent now. In life, sometimes people are not meant to be together no matter how much you force it. I am lucky we came together and made Lincoln and I am lucky to have him as a co-parent. We truly work together better now than we ever did married and I really do love and appreciate him even though there were some very hard and painful times for both of us. 

We live in Weston, CT. It’s a 99% residential town that borders its far more well known and glamorous sister town, Westport. My husband and I both grew up in Westport so we didn’t venture too far! The term neighborhood is laughable — Weston has a minimum 2 acres zoning requirement, and we sit on 4 acres. About 3.5 of our plot is non-buildable wetlands that provides amazing seclusion, and rich, robust greenery that blocks off our neighbors on both sides. I have to admit, I have never met my neighbors with the exception of one person who accidentally received a package addressed to the wrong number and kindly brought it back to me.

Weston is amazing because: you can get 100% more house than in Westport at almost all price points. Average home prices in Weston and Westport are still way higher than the average. Westport’s median home price hovers around $1.2MM while Weston is about $800K.

The house I purchased in Weston was nearly half the cost of the 4000+ square feet house I had in Westport — and not only did I get the land but I only sacrificed a little square footage. My current house is 3000 square feet with a 989 square foot deck.

Aside from the housing aspect, schools are smaller, but top-ranked for the state. There’s less showmanship and it’s a more down to earth than some of the other Fairfield County towns nearby. People at the store smile and say hi to each other and we have a Norman Rockwell-esqe Americana feel to the town. 

Downsides? The market in Connecticut is very weak right now. No one can really pinpoint what exactly is going on, but the best guess is since GE and a few other businesses have relocated, pension concerns and state fiscal concerns are driving retirees and young families toward other areas.

We are about 70 minutes via train to New York City so commuting is doable but also not as convenient as living in Westchester or Northern NJ. Also, we used to be known for having more reasonable taxes than the other tri-state suburbs. This seems to have changed, and in particular Weston, without any major industry also comes with larger property taxes. Not fun…. 

We do have access to Westport’s amenities: Longshore (public pool, tennis, and golf), YMCA, Compo Beach, and all their shopping, and restaurants, etc.. Quite honestly I have considered living other places but I love the four seasons in New England and no matter how hard I’ve searched, I’ve never found a community that had beach access, spectacular schools, an active art and theater scene, dining and retail, all in one suburban spot that was still fairly easily accessible to New York.

Dining and the arts are a huge part of our life. Westport/Weston and the surrounding areas of Fairfield county provide endless dining options for families and date nights. I often joke that I don’t cook but I do “make” reservations. Thank goodness for Louis (or Loulou as we lovingly call him) because he actually provides us home cooked meals other than what I make in the microwave! 

It sounds hokey but I work in New York City once a week and every time I get off the train at the end of the day, I take a deep breath and look around and feel like I am back in a happy place. I love it here!

When my original house sold I considered my options and ultimately decided that it would be the least disruptive to Lincoln’s life if I quickly set up roots in a comparable house that would allow him some stability. We toured our house and Louis loved it immediately. “This is more than a house, it’s a home” I remember him saying. I saw the potential, but was pretty dead set on staying in Westport where our parents live and where we knew what life was like.

After weighing the options, the numbers worked, the floorplan was great, and the bones had potential even though the house was dated. I won’t say old because it was built the same year as me, but let’s just say it needed a little “nip and tuck.” We decided to put in an offer, which was promptly rejected. The sellers heard “divorce” and “separation of assets”, and that it would need to be a longer escrow so the divorce decree could be finalized, and they decided I was too much of a risk.

The major concern was they would have to wait and if something went wrong, they would lose out on the fall market. 

This wasn’t my first foray into the home buying process so I knew enough not to get too emotionally attached. When they rejected my offer, I felt frustrated but remained detached. I realized it wasn’t personal and they really didn’t know me or my situation so I moved on and within about a month went on to another house in Westport.

As we were going through the inspection on the Westport property, the home inspector politely insinuated I should “run.” This was a mess from foundation to roof and had severe structural issues. As I started to panic, I reached for my phone to call Louis — but our realtor’s phone rang first. The agent for my (now) house was calling to see if we were still interested. If there is such a thing as a sign, this was basically the universes way of making it NEON, flashing and impossible to miss. 

As it turns out the previous owners of my house had moved to Florida a few years before and were renting the house out prior to listing it. They had not made any updates in over 12 years and it showed. The floors were various different combinations of wood and tile. The playroom carpet was stained and discolored, the kitchen was straight out of the 80’s and there was virtually no lighting in any bedroom. This probably helped me in the end because a lot of people want a move in ready home.

Once we had the keys to the house we embarked on an aggressive six week renovation. I wanted everything done pre-move-in so that we could be free to relax and settle in. Thanks to the help of Pinterest and a handyman named Dennis who had worked on my realtor’s properties over the years, I came up with a plan to create more customized, higher end additions to the house. By adding molding through the archways of the living room, dining room and kitchen, I added more character and elevated the house to immediately look more elegant.

Dennis changed out every door, hinge and knob, and added crown molding and molding to all of the baseboards so they all matched and were sleek, white and more custom-looking. Every single inch of the interior was painted, and all the floors were replaced with hardwood and stained a rich chocolate brown.

The most dramatic change was the den. It had previously been paneled with that 70’s wood that looks outdated and sort of reminds me of the Brady Bunch. The fireplace was red brick and lacked personality. I wanted this to be like a stylish library/den. So, Dennis covered the brick with a stone looking façade tile. Then we added a mantle that was stained the same color as the floors, and sheet rocked over the wood paneling so that the walls were smooth and fresh.

I got the inspiration to add a pattern on the molding so that it looked sophisticated and provided some texture, and then we picked a rich navy blue color called Hale Navy by Benjamin Moore, to add a pop against the rest of the rooms that are mostly neutral toned. 

I already had all of the furnishings from my previous house so I knew what I was working with from a color perspective. In general, my philosophy is “when in doubt paint it white.” It instantly makes something look fresh and clean and adds new life. Plus, the neutrality of white changes the other colors around it.

Originally the kitchen counters were this hunter green granite. It was a popular choice in the early 90s I think. They were in perfect shape and it didn’t make sense financially to change them, but cosmetically it wasn’t what I wanted. Once the floors were stained and the cabinets were painted white, the counters no longer looked green. Now they look like a combination of light black with specks of white and lighter gray. With a new modernized backsplash and stainless appliances it looks like I have a chef’s kitchen! 

I gravitate towards cool tones in general. I love bold patterns and mixing textures to add in richness. My favorite colors for the home are blues and purples and grays. They go with so many things and can be mixed and matched to add a pop of another color. Its easy to swap things out seasonally then too — if I have a big navy throw blanket in the den I can swap that out for a light breezy beachy look in the summer. The accessories add personality and work to transform the space. My advice to others would be that no one will know what you didn’t pick. Be confident in what you choose. If you are not sure then wait on it. I am very decisive but that’s not everyone. If it doesn’t feel right, then go with your gut. 

Most importantly for me was having everything look nice but be comfortable and accessible for my kids. I knew that I had lived in a house previously that felt like a big empty box. It looked pretty but it felt cold. I don’t want that for my kids. Our home, though styled and designer-ish, is also totally kid friendly. There is no room off limits. No one has to take their shoes off to walk on the rugs or sit on the sofas. 

It’s very possible to buy inexpensive things that look high end but can be replaced or cleaned if a juice box or marker explodes. My feeling is that my kids will remember and enjoy life if it’s comfortable and they don’t feel like they have to tip toe around. I love evenings with all of us gathered in my bed, eating snacks and watching a movie. The last thing I want is to be worrying about stains on the duvet. 

Louis and I both come from artistic families. Louis’s mother is an artist specializing in watercolors. My father is in the antique business dealing in 20th century art deco and art nouveau. Combined, we have been to more design stores, craft fairs and antique shows than anyone would believe. Growing up it was customary for my family to drive over an hour to see a craft show just as a weekend activity. So, I see potential and inspiration differently than other people. Light and location are important, and beyond that anything can be changed.

My style has evolved over the years. My first apartment in the city was based on all things shabby chic. I took old window panels and distressed them to make them look like they came from a farmhouse. I distressed a coffee table by hitting it with stones and hammers and nails and then painted it white with little strategic chips. It helps that I have a very handy father and father in law. We call them our unpaid supers, poor guys!

Just because a piece of furniture looks one way when you get it, doesn’t mean it has to look that way when you finish with it. My dad is the king of “dumpster diving.” He goes to the dump and comes back with new outdoor wall sconces that he spruces up and they take on a whole new life!

This house was going to be a reflection of my new life. I describe it as glitzy transitional. There is inspiration from the deco entrance console to the chandelier hanging in the dining room. I also like to incorporate vintage posters with modern art. Our walls showcase Louis’s mom’s art as well as a few of our other family friends who also are highly acclaimed in the art community.

To me, style is made by individuality. Anyone can go in and buy the entire display at Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn but having a piece of Frank Art in my dining room and the JCPenny picture that hung in Louis’s Grandfather’s office to commemorate his 40+ year career with the company, adds the personal charm that no one else can replicate.

I am the kind of person who is never done sprucing things up. I love that design is accessible to everyone especially with stores like HomeGoods and Z Gallerie popping up. I like to say I have champagne taste with a fruit punch budget. Anyone can go in and buy a few key pieces and transform a drab space with minimal expense.

Our guest room/office is a prime example of that. We originally had a live-in nanny and when she moved out I was left with an empty space. Within two weeks I had updated the room by ordering a bed that was delivered in a day, putting in a desk and headboard from Wayfair, and buying curtains and art from HomeGoods. I used my old duvet from one of my city apartments, and the entire room took under two weeks to put together and cost less than $500. 

Since becoming part of Louis’ family, I have really understood the value of family heirlooms. Most of my family and their possessions were lost in the Holocaust so we do not have pieces that are passed down from generations ago.

To me, my home is a curated collection of our life. Louis’ family has a lot of history and tradition. For our wedding his grandparents gifted us 12 place settings of silver that are from the 1800’s. Each time we entertain from now on, I will know we are adding to the legacy of those place settings. Someday I look forward to giving them to our grandchildren so they can live on.

Also, when I travel I always try to pick up a memento that feels special. Sometimes it’s a map that can work as a piece of art in the playroom or a special plate or a vase.

I want to surround myself with beautiful things that remind me of the beauty and grandness of life. It is so easy to get caught up in the moment and forget we are just a small speck on the planet. Having things that bring me joy and remind me that there is life outside of my everyday helps me keep things in perspective. 

 In the past few years I have learned a lot of valuable lessons. A life crisis really allows you to see who and what is most important. I know I am a people pleaser and I want to make others happy even at the expense of myself. I learned that I need to surround myself with the right group or I can get taken advantage of. A support system is crucial in the lowest moments. There are only so many people in day to day life that we have time for. 

I used to be really afraid to be alone. I could barely handle going to CVS by myself and so in order to fill that need I wasn’t selective about who I was with as long as I wasn’t on my own. Alone meant I was vulnerable. Now I have learned to be independent and know that I am much stronger than I could have ever imagined.

In the past five years I lost 130 lbs, had two sons via c-section, bought and sold three houses, been a stay at home mom, a consultant and a full time working mom. It was so hard at times but I surround myself with a network of people that accept me for who and what I am. 

Every stage has been done through baby steps. I have a bunch of other single mom friends who got me through some of the darkest hours. I have a strong, opinionated and loving family to rely on. My parents have not always liked my choices but have always had my back financially, physically and emotionally. We have laughed and cried together and my friends are all an extension of a family I have chosen for myself. We have been scared and felt alone and we have all stepped in to parent each others children. These are the people who show up time and again.

I am open and honest about my life and my situation because if it can help one person then I know it was all worth it. I try really hard to live my life with the philosophy that what other people think of me is none of my business. It really is tough at times and particularly in Fairfield County because there are a lot of people who I could try to compete with.  Ultimately though, there is no scoreboard in the sky. Louis reminds me frequently that I can’t compare my insides to other people’s outsides. 

I hope my kids remember how we did everything we could to make them well rounded and happy. We sometimes get accused of trying to do too much. At times we are running from one party to the next or one play date to something else, but it’s never boring. We are reliable and we show up.

We love people and being social and are fun and vibrant (I think.)  I try to say yes when I can but also to always keep my kid’s best interests in mind. This took work. The last two years — to go from a marriage to a new house, new partner, new child — was tough. But like all the best things in life, hard fought rewards are the sweetest. Sometimes I had to laugh even when I wanted to cry and just fake it until I felt I could make it. There’s love in this house. There’s excitement, joy and lots and lots of laughter. 

I hope my kids forget the times I am overworked and tired and stressed and on my phone. We have made a rule to have no phones at the dinner table but it’s often really tough not to have technology interfere during down time. I only have so many hours in the day and sometimes I do need to take a few minutes to check Instagram or respond to the 25 group text messages that are accumulating in my inbox. I hope my children forget those times and always feel heard, even if they don’t always get the response they want. 

My most favorite thing about having my kids is the cuddles. I never expected to be a boy mom. I always saw myself with girls and I am super girly. It was a huge struggle when I found out I was having a boy. I thought I would be the worst mom because I don’t know anything about sports and I don’t care about cars and trucks, etc.. But both of my kids are such mama’s boys. They look at me with such admiration. I actually woke up one morning to Lincoln stroking my face and telling me I was beautiful. (That kid can work me, let me tell ya!)

I look now and the cars and trucks and boy things still aren’t natural for me but the joy they get from them makes me happy. The way Sheppard lights up when I walk into the room, and when he is crying I am the only person he wants, made me recognize that I have the chance to mold these boys into the men I wanted to know. I can think of a handful of guys throughout my life who were true gentlemen. The truly good guys like my father and father in law(s).

These formative years between 2.5 to 8 are the times where they are not only the most curious and sweet and receptive to everything, but they are learning the habits that will stick with them. The traits of kindness, compassion, empathy and generosity are core values to our family. Plus,  I joke that their future partners will thank me someday because they will have no choice but to like shopping and will know a lot about jewelry and hand bags! Sheppard’s first word may just be “Nordstroms!” 

But in seriousness, I want my sons to love people, be resilient and love life for its endless possibilities and wonder. 

I am going to miss the childlike excitement they have. Also, I am dreading the future when they won’t always want to spend time with me. I see glimpses of it now when Lincoln would prefer to stay playing with his friends on the swing than come running over to give me a big hug when I pick him up from school. Right now they both think everything we do is cool. I know independence is key but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

It’s only a matter of time until I start hearing, “I know MOM!…” Actually, that may have happened once or twice already but I have repressed those memories. I always want those cuddles and the soft squishy cheeks that when kissed they both giggle and lean into now. I sometimes ask moms of older boys, do they still cuddle with you?? I will never ever say no to a cuddle. 

I was in such a rush to get married and to stay on the same track as my friends. I put unrealistic deadlines and timelines on things and made decisions based on calculations not realties. I wish someone had told me that it would all work out the way I wanted.

—-

Thank you, Thea. I’m pretty jealous of that gorgeous outdoor living space and all those beautiful trees around the property. And I think Thea did exactly what she set out to do — make her house stylish, a little bit glam, and transitional but still very kid-friendly and livable. That’s not always an easy combination to pull of, but Thea’s done it so well.

I think Thea really hit the nail on the head here too when she said that “it would all work out the way I wanted.” Isn’t life funny that way? Sometimes when we dig our heels in and push and pull and try and make our life what we think it should be, we hit resistance at every turn. But when we relax and go with the flow and trust a bit, the pieces tend to fall into place. What a great lesson to learn.

SOURCES

Artwork can be found here or here

Guest Room Headboard

Sheppard’s Rug


You can see Thea on Instagram here. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.

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, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at f[email protected]

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