Apartments in New York City, my husband’s parents’ home, and finally our own house—my husband’s and my journey of sharing a home has been far from what I envisioned for my adult, married life.

I’d lived in the same house from the time I was eighteen months old until I was eighteen years old. The first move in my memory was when I went off to college. When I married my husband, John, we thought we’d rent for a few years, then buy as close to a “forever” home as we could get.

We were young—twenty-three when we married—and our families of origin were healthy and stable. So, we didn’t think beyond what our brand-new family might come to need as far as a home. But the first nine and a half years of our marriage saw a couple of plot twists, and, as it turned out, it took that long before John and I purchased our first home in 2019. It wasn’t the story we expected to tell, but we’ve had some cherished experiences and learned quite a bit about ourselves as we cultivated a home and eventually bought one, too.

Settling into marriage thankfully wasn’t tied to settling into a home

When we signed our first lease for an apartment in New York City, my dad asked why we would put money into rent when we could be investing in something we could profit from later. It didn’t help that I told him our first apartment had “character.” I meant French doors and high ceilings. He was probably wondering what we’d call him in to help fix first.

Renting was the right decision, because as that first lease came to an end, so did my first pregnancy. A fourth-floor walk-up is not a problem for two able young adults. It is a challenge when you add in a baby and a stroller. Plus, the only friends we’d made in nearly a year on the Upper East Side were the priests at our parish. We knew we wanted to relocate before I gave birth. I’m so glad that didn’t mean listing an apartment to sell!

Renting as our family began to grow allowed John and me to live with various elements of our wish lists and decide, through practice rather than theory, what worked best for us.

We might have rented longer, but my husband’s parents were in need of some help. My husband’s brother, Karl, had been living with their parents, helping their homebound father with physical tasks and assisting now and then with their mother’s in-home daycare. With his own wedding approaching, it was clear that someone else would need to move in when Karl moved out.

John and I were planning to move back to New Jersey before our oldest started kindergarten. We wanted to be near our families as our children grew up, and while being in the same house was a touch closer than we’d anticipated, it just made sense. We made the decision in about a minute. Really.

We wouldn’t have to shop for a house, and my in-laws were very gracious in encouraging us to make the spaces of the house that were ours feel like home. We spent many weekends painting and fixing things before we moved in. I loved that my kids were the fourth generation of Schlegels to live in that home.

Navigating the reality of “home” not feeling quite like home

Confident as I was that our quick decision to help family was the right one, I still wasn’t really prepared for what the situation was going to look like, day to day. I didn’t realize how challenging my role helping with the daycare, while raising two young boys and freelancing, was going to be. The first night after I lived this reality, I laid in bed, wondering how we could pack our stuff up and get back to Brooklyn. By then, someone else was living in the apartment we’d rented. And of course, I wasn’t really going to up and leave. But the eight or nine months that this continued were harder than I let myself acknowledge.

The next year my mother-in-law closed her daycare, and we were able to swap some of the spaces in the house to make it easier to use. We undertook more renovations as we prepared to welcome a third child.

I loved how the renovation turned out, but part of me wondered if we’d ever own our own home. My aunt had lived with my grandmother in her childhood home all of her adult life, and it was only after she (my aunt) retired that she and her husband bought their own home. It was possible that the same might happen for us. I vacillated on how I felt about it. Sometimes I really wanted more space to spread out, to make more decorating dreams come true, and to entertain larger groups of people. I wanted a house I had chosen. Other times, I found it easier to accept that the people in my life were more important than the space I was living in. I knew it was a gift that I’d met my husband when I did and that we’d been able to grow the family we both desired.

Still, once we had four children, things started getting tighter in our home. I tried to remind myself that my mother-in-law had raised six children in this house, while caring for elderly family members in the home. Why couldn’t I raise these four, and even add another?

The reality is, I am not my mother-in-law. What’s more, the elderly family members who lived with them passed away while my husband and his siblings were still young. So, most of the time my mother-in-law was raising her kids there, it was just the eight of them in the house.

A host of factors began pushing us toward a decision to buy our own home. Our kids are small, but they are getting bigger. John and I felt called to have another child. I’m adamant about everyone having a room that allows for good sleep. Where would we put another child’s bed? I have a lot of children, but I need some quiet in my day to be my best. Would I lose my mind if we stayed in this house?

At the same time, however, other factors complicated that decision. If we left, we’d have to take my in-laws with us. But how could I ask them, especially my homebound father-in-law, to leave the home they’d lived in for over thirty years? Again, my in-laws were so gracious. They understood the space was getting tight. They appreciated that we wanted to find a place where we could stay together.

Even in homeownership, expectations don’t always meet reality—and sometimes that’s for the best

My husband and I had looked at houses online from time to time, but now things got real. We asked friends to recommend a realtor. We should have asked more questions when one we contacted passed us along to a colleague (our styles did not mesh, and we had to have some tough conversations). But at our first meeting, she said she might have just the house for us. We wanted to stay in our town and find a home with another senior suite, so the pickings were going to be slim. This home she found was currently off the market, she told us, but she knew the owners wanted to sell.

In all the conversations and dreaming about a home we’d buy someday, I said there were three things I didn’t want in a home: I didn’t want a Colonial. I didn’t want one of those two-story entryways that, to my mind, are a waste of space and can also be kind of pretentious. And I didn’t want to be on a busy street.

Want to guess how many of my “no, thank you” boxes this house ticked? All three.

But it would fit our family and provide room to grow. It had a great yard. It was up on a hill, which was a relief considering the floods the other home had weathered. And across the street—where I’m looking out right now—is protected land, which means no one can ever build on it and block our view. You know the opening scene of The Lion King, with the beautiful sunrise? We see colors like that every night as the sun sets. And the best view is from that entryway I didn’t want.

My adult journey looked different than I ever anticipated, and I can see the good in it. Our initial move back to New Jersey wasn’t rushed, nor was the move to the home we bought. When any part of this journey got hard, John and I reminded each other that this is adulting. We worked together to make the best decisions we could. John and I have very similar senses of style. We value function and beauty to similar degrees. At the end of the day, we want our home to work, and we want it to be lovely. We also had each other to lean on, to talk through things with, and to build our home together—in each space we lived in.

Early on in our marriage, we decided we wanted our home to be a welcoming place—a place where family and friends new and old could feel comfortable, safe, loved, and cared for. This is what home is about for us. This is how we see our marriage as life-giving beyond the biological children we have.

It’s kind of unbelievable to me that when we got married, even through the marriage prep course we took at our church, John and I never talked about how caring for our parents might impact our marriage or lifestyle. When we teach marriage prep now, I encourage couples to think about this. I married John, but I also married into his family, and he into mine. Our life together is about more than us, and our address reflects that.

In the past year, this home has been more of a gift than we ever could have anticipated. We had room to welcome a fifth child into our family, as we’d hoped. We also had room for our kids to run around outside when they couldn’t go anywhere else. We had space for a swing set in the yard. We had John’s parents safe at home, rather than in a care facility that might have kept them isolated for a long period of time. And now, we are welcoming friends and more family back in, allowing this house to fulfill the dream we always had for it.