At Home with Francie Lin: The secret behind the peace at Miriam’s house, where a Florence woman and her partner run a day care, raise 7 kids

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  • Miriam Fathallah, joined by her youngest, Sylvie, 5, calls in her kids from the back yard as she and her partner, Kathleen Hulton, reflected in door, prepare for dinner at their Florence home on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Miriam Fathallah and Kathleen Hulton’s kids, clockwise from left, Jude, 10, Abby, 11, Quinn, 13, Serenity, 10, Emaline, 14, Trinity, 13, and Sylvie, 5, gather in the dining room of their Florence home before dinner. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Miriam Fathallah, left, and her partner, Kathleen Hulton, of Florence listen to the observations of their youngest, Sylvie, 5, as she watches her siblings play in the back yard just before dinner. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kathleen Hulton, left, and her partner, Miriam Fathallah, at right, hoisting Sylvie, 5, hang out in the kitchen of their Florence home just before dinner on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Serenity, right, 10, grabs a grape to snack on at the dining room table where siblings Emaline, left, 14, and Trinity, were working on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • From left, Abby (background), 11, Jude, 10, Serenity, 10, and Quinn, 13, build a snow fort in the back yard of their Florence home on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Emaline, left, 14, and Trinity, 13, work on personal projects on the dining room table of their Florence home on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kathleen Hulton and her youngest, Sylvie, 5, enjoy some time in the living room of their Florence home after Sylvie was the first of the kids to come in from an afternoon of playing in the snow. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Miriam Fathallah says her favorite part of the house she shares with partner Kathleen Hulton and their seven kids might be this pantry nook organized between the kitchen and dining room of their Florence home. Photographed on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 12/22/2020 3:22:50 PM

There was a dark period of my life when I was addicted to home design blogs. I don’t remember how it began; I think I was searching for instructions on how to hang a plant from the ceiling, and the next thing I knew I was painting accent walls in every room and installing track shelving of various impractical lengths in order to duplicate the vibe of a cool Brooklyn brownstone in a house built in the 80s (the 1980s, not the 1880s).

As hobbies go, it was fun but unsatisfying, not least because a good number of the projects I undertook, while pretty, required everyone to make major lifestyle accomodations, like squeezing all their clothes into a midcentury-esque bureau with ridiculously shallow drawers, or standing at a cautious distance from the bookshelf when putting away a book so that if the brackets collapsed, the shelf wouldn’t smash their toes.

Then the pandemic hit and all that went out the window — partly because I had no time to think about anything nonessential, and partly because, as with many things pandemic-related, I was forced to reconsider what, exactly, I had been fussing over in the first place.

I love beautiful things, but domestic beauty is a different beast than, say, visual art. Functionality and use become part of the beauty, and are so tied up with the feelings of home that they might be, in the end, the bulk of what matters. With everyone spending all day every day in the house, I have stopped noticing either my track shelving or chipped counters; the feeling of frazzlement is not lessened by woodcut prints on the wall, but neither is it made worse by gross 30-plus-year-old linoleum in the bathroom.

Instead, I have been thinking of the houses and places that have given me a sense of peace in the past. In some ways, this is every house or apartment I’ve ever been in that wasn’t mine; responsibility brings stress: bills, laundry, what to make for dinner.

Even so, a house that stands out from the others is my friend Miriam Fathallah’s place. This is interesting, because hers is not a house that pays much attention to decoration in the traditional sense. She and her partner, Kathleen Hulton, have seven kids (among them two adopted, two foster), and Miriam runs a home day care, which is how I know her.

I walked into her house one day when my son was a baby and, despite being nearly catatonic from lack of sleep, knew immediately that this was a good place. Unlike other day cares, Miriam’s house was not a riot of colors and plastic toys. The space was small, but the floor and carpet were scrupulously clean. The kids who were there seemed happy and focused and well-loved; there was a smell of baking in the air.

Recently I invited myself over to Miriam’s house so she could tell me all her secrets. Eight months of living, working, and going to school at home had made my house feel, on some days, like a nicely-furnished cage. How did a woman with seven kids in a smallish house do it and not go crazy? Granted, I don’t know what goes on in her life on a daily basis — I’m sure she does go crazy — but when I arrived (everyone was masked, and the visit was short), the same feeling of peace that I remembered from Eliot’s baby days still reigned in her house, despite the fact that there had been a plumbing issue the weekend before and the living room was sealed off by workmen cutting a hole in the ceiling.

“How is this room so clean?” I asked, as we burst in on her oldest daughter, Emaline, who was doing her remote classes in the bedroom she shares with her brother, Jude. (With seven kids, everyone in the house shares a room.)

But “clean” wasn’t really what I meant. What I actually meant was kind of complicated. The room was spare but not sterile. Despite the limited furnishings, it was still full of personality, and reflective of the kids who lived there. There was a single bookshelf full of graphic novels, a small but spectacular collection of stuffies on the bed, and a bulletin board covered in BTS fan art on the wall. There were some bins for smaller items, a little desk, a bureau, the two beds, but otherwise the room was perfectly clear.

“Have almost nothing, get rid of s–t constantly,” was Miriam’s half-kidding response to my question — a less sugar-coated formulation of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” philosophy. Miriam and Kathleen aren’t wedded to their belongings; every couple of months they go through their things and cull what hasn’t been used or is no longer in favor. There are categories of things that are allowed to be purchased, among them books and experiences, and there’s a limit to the number of objects that can exist in the house at all.

When I visited, Christmas was on the horizon, and Miriam noted that fierce negotiations had been going on regarding whether Kathleen could purchase Sylvie, their youngest, a new game or puzzle. (Answer: yes, if another, older puzzle or game was given away.)

In a world where goods are relatively cheap and readily available, holding such a firm line sounds pretty draconian. Suspicious people might interpret it as pious, but minimalism isn’t a philosophical thing for Miriam. “I just can’t function when there’s too much stuff,” she said.

I can’t either, but the energy required to keep up with the accumulation of daily life is often beyond me — and I only have two kids. I would never be able to muster up the will to do this for my own benefit, but as I toured the rest of Miriam’s house, I was suddenly overpowered by a visceral memory of my own childhood. My parents were very much like Miriam in terms of stuff — mostly out of necessity, but the end result was the same: my sister and I had one little basket of Legos, a collection of books and stuffies, and a single Disney puzzle. I must have done that puzzle a million times, but the repetition wasn’t deadening; if anything, it was meditative, soothing. The hours I spent with it are among the happiest I can remember.

That’s the promise at the center of so-called minimalism — that the noise and waste that makes up so much of our current age will be whittled down, leaving us with only the things and experiences that will become a part of our essential being. I’ve always been a skeptic of this, until I saw it done organically and well.

Minimalism conjures pictures of an unhappy house with a lot of yelling and tears, but Miriam’s kids’ lives, at least from what I can see, seem a lot richer than the lives of many people who have a lot more stuff. Sylvie might sleep in Miriam and Kathleen’s closet, but that closet is painted with gold stars; the kids’ birthdays are total blow-outs, with rainbow cakes and bounce houses, and really thoughtful attention paid to the wishes and interests of each birthday child.

That kind of love and care isn’t necessarily correlated to the minimalism, but I think in some indirect way it is. You can’t cull through the stuff in your house every few months without noticing certain things about yourself and the people you live with, who you are, who they are.

I met up with Miriam hoping to gain tips for a cleaner, more organized house, but left with a desire to be a more thoughtful steward of my household. As long as the pandemic lasts and we are forced to confront ourselves in the form of 24/7 at home, why not? I might come out the other side with a better sense of my own core. No accent walls needed.

Francie Lin is an editor and writer who has a complicated relationship with domestic life. She lives in Florence.

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