In a fix

Author: Maraya Steadman '89, '90MBA

One of my special worthless talents is memorizing inspirational quotes. “Success is a journey, not a destination.” I even ordered letters off the Internet so I could stick this quote on the front-room wall: “To those who much is given, much is expected in return.” That’s a paraphrase from the Gospel of Luke, but I’m not sure it was intended to get someone to pick up their room.

I recite inspirational quotes to my kids so often they sometimes come back to me. When I congratulated my 5-year-old for jumping off the diving board this summer, she turned to me and said, “Mom, it’s easy. You just have to face your fears.”

I think about quotes when I’m struggling, although what I really need isn’t a quote on the front-room wall but a hug. This year I needed lots of hugs, but I was so mad at my primary hugger that I could just spit, and my husband was so mad at me he beamed the television with the remote, thereby adding the line-item “replacement television due to emotional response” to our renovation budget.

Illustration by Ward Schumaker

Last year my husband stood in our outdated kitchen, the one I was supposed to renovate six years ago when we bought the house, and tried once again to make toast. As he once again stormed down the stairs to the fuse box, muttering grown-up words, the children and I once again scurried around the house turning off all the lights. I realized in one of those “aha moments” that I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time for a change. It was time to face my fears. We needed a new kitchen.

Picking out appliances, tile, counters and cabinets was exciting. Realizing how much we could spend on a refrigerator was not. Demolishing something that has worked (although not well) for 40 years or more, redesigning, rebuilding and trying to be positive about the entire process was exhausting. Our kitchen renovation was also an exercise in self-aggrandizement. How did I ever think I could manage to pull this one off?

Other excitement: Ripping apart our home, tucking my children into their beds as water dripped through holes in the walls of their rooms, cursing electricians who walked into my bedroom while I was still in it, picking up cigarette butts decorating the backyard and Styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups decorating the front room, and looking a strange man in the eye and saying calmly, “I have never seen you before, I have no idea who you are or why you are standing in my hallway taking your medication.”

“I’m the window guy.”

Right, okay, that’s all I needed to know, stay out of my bedroom.

As stranger after stranger showed up in my house, they would all tell me how patient I was, how difficult it must be to live through the dust and the work, what a saint I was for putting up with all this. They had no idea what I said about them when they couldn’t hear me. I am not a saint. And the only saint I’m still talking to is the one who gives me the strength to tell the contractors, “I don’t care what you call it, there is no way in hell I’m paying for that.”

The only advice I want to share with others contemplating a renovation: “Don’t do it.”

But then I had another one of those “aha moments,” this one at my kid’s hockey camp. Next to the sign on the weight-room wall that read, “Success is a journey, not a destination,” was another inspirational quote, “The largest room in your house is the room for improvement.”

As I stood there sweating in the Minnesota heat listening to the coach’s orientation speech and searching for the sign on the weight-room wall that read, “Just don’t do it,” I realized that was not the sort of advice I would pay someone to give my kid at hockey camp. I also realized I should pay attention, not to the coach who was talking about water safety and bugs and other camp stuff, but to the truth.

In the evenings, I find that our family gathers in our new kitchen; the space brings us together. Last night my daughter sat at the kitchen island with her head bowed over her homework and my husband gave out hugs before sitting down to check his email at the table, where my son was working on a Legos project. As I was prepping our evening meal, my 5-year-old raced up to me and asked, “Can I help you make the dinner, Mommy?”

Despite all the anger and the tears, my embarrassing breakdown over the flecks in the island countertop, all the pages torn out of magazines and the hours spent on details and decisions, the cigarette butts and Styrofoam coffee cups, the effort to create a dream kitchen, something perfect, our new kitchen isn’t perfect. The space is constrained by budgets and boundaries, by flecks and the extra two-and-a-half feet of space I will never find. Still, every morning when I walk downstairs, the new kitchen makes me happy.

Once I’ve finally surrendered to how much we paid for the refrigerator, I think I might order some more sticky letters off the Internet. I’ll put them on the kitchen wall: “Sometimes in life, it is time to make toast.”

Maraya Steadman, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is a stay-at-home mother of three children. See her biweekly “The Playroom” column in Blogs and at her website, She can be reached at