This house tour made me cry.
My odyssey to figure out why
I love a good house tour.
I love clicking through photos of strangers’ living rooms and zooming in to read the titles of their coffee books. I love inspiration by way of an inky blue-black front door or the soft, inviting look of a vintage waxed pine kitchen table. I like to imagine myself drinking tea nestled into someone else’s velvet settee or showering in someone else’s jade tiled bathroom.
I love a good-looking home.
But sometimes (especially if I’m viewing photos of a home inhabited by children), if I fail to detect any evidence of actual lives being lived in these good-looking homes (ugly plastic toys, not-perfectly coordinated powder room towels, a bowl that doesn’t match the other bowls, colors that aren’t immediately recognizable as being “on trend”), I’m left with a curious sense of emptiness. These types of house tours appear visually cohesive and aesthetically harmonious, but I don’t necessarily feel anything.
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I guess the disconnect occurs when I’m conscious of looking at a domestic space that adheres to all my preconceptions of what beauty is even if that beautiful domestic space looks more like a stage rather than a home where people cry, fight, spill, love, bleed, and spit out mouthfuls of water due to sudden, uncontrollable guffaws.
While homes featured in stereotypical house tours vary widely in terms of design, size, shape, and color scheme, most rely on a certain level of perfection to inspire and influence; most house tours don’t make me cry.
But author Catherine Newman’s house tour, featured recently on Cup of Jo, did make me cry.
For some reason this home tour completely caught me off guard. Yes it is one of those rare homes that feels both beautiful and normal—but it is also something else. Something I didn't really think about until later when I found myself thinking about that paper covered table.
What is so inspiring, to me, about Catherine's home is less about the aesthetics and more about the person behind it. Just as I felt a warm rush of relief reading Waiting For Birdy as I was about to become a mother, I felt a similar thrum of comfort reading about Catherine as a mother of young adults. Here is a woman who has survived sleep battles, food stages, school paperwork, and puberty. Here is a woman who has children who love her, who want to be at home (even in bed!) with her. I don't know why, but I cried. I cried for what we do for our children and how possible it is to find such beauty and joy there. I know Catherine isn't some mythical perfect mother with perfect children and a perfect life. What I do know is that that is a happy home. And wow, how wonderful to relish in that for a bit.
Kate’s point about perfection really underscores how I typically feel when consuming aspirational house tours: a mixed up sense that I should strive for domestic perfection even though I intellectually realize domestic perfection is impossible and would actually be at odds with a life well lived. Perfection is the antithesis of experiencing beauty in an embodied way!
The first clue that This House Tour Will Not Be Like Other House Tours can be found in the second photo featured on Cup of Jo. It’s a photo of Catherine’s entryway. The entryway contains a shoe-tray. The shoe tray does not hold a neatly lined up pair of Hunter boots, a pair of white Converse sneakers, or a pair of apparently-never-worn suede mules (is it just me or are Hunter boots seemingly a prerequisite for standard house tour photos??)
The shoes on Catherine’s shoe-tray are not perfectly lined up. In fact, the shoe-tray itself appears to be a bit too small to contain the household’s shoes.
What I’m trying to say is that the shoe-tray in Catherine’s home looks like every other shoe-tray I have ever seen in real life. And this felt revelatory.
There are so many equally revelatory images in this house tour. A chair covered with clothes (WE ALL HAVE ONE), tipsy-turvy stacks of board games, not perfectly plumped throw pillows, dishes drying in a dish rack, kitty litter in the bathroom, a tissue box flaunting its distinctly uncool tissue box pattern.
Anna Maltby serves as consulting editorial and fitness director for motherhood at Nike, and knows Catherine both personally and professionally (she used to be Catherine’s editor), and shared her thoughts about why this Cup of Jo house tour was causing such a “HOLY SHIT YES” reaction.
Catherine is such a special person and writer, because she approaches everything with such thoughtfulness and heart, but also somehow in such a breezy way? She's always made it clear through the many times she's written about her family that her home is a casual, warm, welcoming place—totally without pretension—where there are probably crumbs on the countertops and a jumble of board games piled in a corner, and that's okay because everyone's just having so much fun. Or having really present conversations about life. Or watching funny videos together. And that's what home should be about!
But the way social media trains us to view the home nowadays is as a place to show off how clean and organized and tasteful and wealthy (but not too ostentatiously wealthy!) you are. Catherine's home tour was incredibly refreshing because it actually felt like home — the kind of home most of us probably grew up in (or did in our daydreams), where you can just crash on the kitchen couch (genius!) and tell someone about your day while they cook you something tasty and hearty. It looks like a hug.
Yes! It looks (and feels) like a hug! The figurative crumbs do not detract from Catherine’s home’s beauty; they remind us that people loving and living are what imbue a home with the type of beauty one can feel rather than simply see. The life of this home is not tucked away out of sight. Particularly when examined through the lens of momfluencer culture, which, while not a homogenous culture by any means, is typically synonymous with a certain type of all-white, always-perfect home, this house tour implicitly invites us all to notice (and celebrate) the beauty of our own lives.
And in addition to the vibrant images (rooms full of sunshine, quirky-cool bookcases, bud vases of pink flowers, vintage doorknobs, Robin’s Egg Blue paint, gallery wall inspo) there are Catherine’s words, which also disrupt the narrative of typical house tour verbiage.
On her decision to cut an interior window (which a friend did for the family), Catherine says: “It changed the whole vibe of the downstairs, and it was such a nice housewarming gift. It also means you can shout to each other, which is all anyone in my house ever does.” (SAME)
On messes: “We have a houseful of teenagers all the time, and kids will spill stuff and say, ‘Omg I’m so sorry!’ But we truly don’t care, and I’m very happy about that.”
On her bedroom: “I don’t even know if the bed is comfortable or not. I think it’s fine.”
On her bathroom: “I tried to keep it real, but then I kept thinking — omg, the photographer will pull back this curtain, and there’s going to be a bucket of dirty washcloths and all the acne medication. It’s so weird what makes you feel shame.”
On motherhood: “I realized that, unbeknownst to myself, I had approached motherhood as hosting this really good, multi-decade party.”
Contrast Catherine’s words with standard house tour blurb-age, which often goes a little something like this.
“We found this 17th century Tuscan archway at an out-of-the-way antique shop in Paris and knew we’d center the home’s living space around it. You’ll notice Italian architectural elements throughout the great room, which we think really tie everything together in a subtle yet crucial way.”
“It was an absolute non-negotiable for our bedroom to be a place of refuge, which means we did copious research on which shades of ecru were most conducive to sleeping, regenerating, recharging, and ultimately, creative productivity.”
“It was important that everything in the children’s playroom be organically, locally sourced, and it’s been a delight teaching the kids about why their favorite wooden elephant is purple. Beet dye, of course!”
Writer Virginia Sole-Smith told me she felt “VERY SEEN by Catherine’s line about acne medication and dirty washcloths in the shower.”
I remember when we renovated a bathroom in our old house, I actually tried decanting my shampoo and shit into VINTAGE MILK BOTTLES because I saw someone do it on Pinterest and I was like, well we can’t just have this pink plastic bottle here next to the new subway tile! And obviously that was insanity and lasted like, a week.
And now whenever I see a pretty bathroom reveal on Instagram, I wonder how it’s going to look once they have their kids gross bath toys and what not all over the place.
To Virginia’s point, please see Exhibit A: my kids’ very cute bathroom full of their very un-cute shit.
I LOVE THIS HOUSE TOUR SO MUCH JOANNA. Can you tell me a bit about how you decided to feature Catherine’s home on Cup of Jo?
Catherine has written for Cup of Jo for years, and her essays are always very popular— for example, how to raise teenage boys and what surprised her about being an empty nester. She has such a great way of writing and thinking about the world. And I'd seen a photo on Instagram of her pear gallery wall and thought it was cool. And I know our readers love her, so I reached out. And she was up for it! She wrote back kind of jokingly, like, oh my gosh, I'm gonna have to get all the clothes off the chair in my bedroom. And I was like, no, keep the clothes on the chair! Everyone has a clothes chair!
Did you expect it to resonate the way it did?
I knew it would be great just because Catherine is so great. I mean, it was so hard to condense our phone call when I was writing the piece up because there were so many fun moments. Like, the book she leaves on the bedside table for overnight guests. And covering her coffee table with paper so kids can draw on it. The couch in the kitchen. The funny European board games. All of it was so much fun.
I did a very unscientific look into the average amount of comments for Cup of Jo house tours, and it seemed to hover around 100, but Catherine’s garnered 379! My DMs blew up with love for Catherine’s home (and the way she spoke about it), and I wonder if part of the reason it resonated so strongly for so many people is the conspicuous lack of sterile perfection. There’s so much pressure on women to do everything perfectly all the time (including the creation and upkeep of domestic perfection), so I wonder if this house tour was a much needed reprieve from the unattainable domestic perfection we see so often in influencer culture?
There is definitely immense pressure on women to do everything perfectly and I feel that acutely — but the idea of domestic perfection in particular (always tidy home, amazing home-cooked meals, etc.) feels more intense in certain communities than others. I think these expectations can differ based on what community you live in, where you’re from, maybe your religion. For example, I have a lot of blogger friends who grew up Mormon, and they've told me that there's immense pressure from the church and community to achieve this type of domestic perfection. Growing up, they were taught how to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect homemaker; they were taught that motherhood is 'the highest, holiest calling.' So, there are different levels of this pressure, and some people thrive within that and some people feel shame. I’m so, so glad Catherine's house tour might have helped show another way to live. There are so many ways to be in this world.
I really appreciate the nuance of your point - like not ALL people are triggered by the same things, and not ALL people (depending on their lifestyles, cultures, backgrounds) feel the same pressures. After talking to approximately a million people for my book, it was continuously interesting to learn which "perfect" tropes pushed peoples' buttons and which didn't!
I think Catherine's house tour was an antidote to the domestic perfection seen on some blogs and social media. Some influencers focus on the upbeat parenting moments and the styled corners of their homes — and leave the mess out of frame. But! At the end of the day, all parents go through ups and downs: we laugh with our children, we lose our tempers, we sing lullabies, we cry with overwhelm. Part of what I've learned — as someone who has written about her own life for the past 15 years and spent time with many other influencers — is that everyone (EVERYONE) has their struggles. Whether or not people choose to share their difficulties, no one's life is perfect. It can be hard to remember that when you're scrolling through beautiful squares on Instagram. But Catherine's house tour showed a life that isn't perfectly styled but nevertheless is very much full of joy, humor and community. It was a great reminder that the best times in life actually come from board games and drawing on the coffee table and beans for dinner and an overflowing clothes chair — not from having a house that is or is not design-magazine-worthy.
Thank you Joanna!
The last stop on my odyssey to understand Why I Love This House Tour So Much was an email interview with Catherine, who says that when she was initially approached by Joanna, thought to herself, "Ha ha ha, that's crazy. I sent her a picture of my clothes chair as proof that my house was a mess, and she was like, That clinches it. We're definitely doing this. (I love her for that.)”
Catherine! What do you make of the fact that your home has so resonated for readers? Did you have any expectations going in?
I think people like the "real" vibes of the tour—that the kitty litter is there, the tissue box, the clothes piled up. I put real in quotes like that because the truth is that I did clean a bunch, put a bunch of shit away in the "closets" (closets in quotes because there is only one in the whole house), tidy up a bunch of clutter. But the other truth is that I know the house is a warm place. I have felt this especially when the kids have brought their friends home. I feel that we create a comfortable place for them to expand into, and I love that.
I think the tissue box and clothes chair (and all the other photos which show the flotsam and jetsam of LIFE) made such an impact because these bits all represent real people engaged in the real act of living. I write about momfluencer culture, and often talk to people exhausted, intimidated, and feeling invalidated by the all white, never-cluttered homes featured on momfluencer accounts. There's something so unsettling about looking at perfect, minimalist spaces that children apparently live in without seeing any evidence of kid existence? Do you have any thoughts about what mothers and women are fed visually re domesticity and how it might impact us?
I have felt that pressure too—and I think it's the rare hetero marriage where the responsibility of creating the vibe and style of the home doesn't fall to the woman. So, yes. I have often wondered where people's stuff is. I feel like it's the house version of embodied femininity. Like, you're supposed to hide or remove your acne and beard whiskers and pubic hair and fat rolls and tampons—to present a smooth (white) exterior to the world. And I'm over that too, it turns out! I'm letting my freak flag fly these days. Letting my bush grow down to my knees, ha ha ha, like some old crone in a fairy tale.
Wow the house version of embodied femininity YOU HAVE CRACKED THE CODE. I think part of what is so stunning about the photos (and the reception of the photos) is that your home is more beautiful (not less) because the viewer feels a sense of lives being lived messily and joyously. Cat litter and all. Do you have any thoughts about the visceral experience of beauty (as represented by your home) versus, say, the more passive, static experience of like, registering something as aesthetically checking "pretty" boxes but leaving the viewer sort of un-touched? I think a lot about the active work of mothering (versus the cultural worship of passive, static, ideal motherhood imagery), and this feels akin to that?
I know what you mean. It really is a beautiful home, and I do think the unsterileness is a huge part of it. Dying plants and living animals and mess and art. Color and life. I cook dinner in a hospice once a week (I have a novel coming out that's about hospice, actually—We All Want Impossible Things), and I think a lot about how death is one of those messy things we're supposed to hide away.
And of course, in a hospice, you don't have to. You can't even! And it's so incredibly beautiful. It's untidy and it's fully real. Life distilled to its essence of bodies doing their body thing and then not. Maybe I feel like we don't have time, really, to hide what's important. Or to work ourselves to death so that we can afford to remodel our homes according to an HGTV aesthetic that will be out of fashion in two years and that actually feels kind of weird and impersonal to begin with. The cycle of accumulating and remodeling and going broke. I think we can find beauty and meaning in other ways. Like on craigslist, which is where 90% of our furniture comes from, ha ha ha (but actually). Or making art or music together. Or color, which is a very cheap thrill when it comes down to it. Or in a pile of shoes that means your home is full of people you love, and thank god for that.
Thank you Catherine!
To conclude, we’re collectively burnt out by beige, moms and women are tired of feeling pressured to smooth away our realities, tissues boxes are a fact of life and needn’t be rendered more attractive than they actually are, and we can find and feel beauty through human connection rather than a staged shoe-tray and the perfect shade of white.
A home is made beautiful by any number of things: a raspberry-hued bathroom, a house plant past its prime, a pond full of frogs scribbled onto a coffee table. And maybe, most importantly, a home is made beautiful by the lives of the people who laugh, sob, scream, share, eat, struggle, and dream within its walls.