- Nicole Villalpando American-Statesman Staff
“Sometimes you make all these plans for your life and the craziest things happen despite them,” says Jen Hatmaker. That’s how the 40-year-old mother of five, Christian author and speaker describes how her family ended up on an HGTV show.
She had written an essay — “Worst End of School Year Mom Ever” — about how she had five kids limping across the finish line of school. It went viral and landed her on the “Today” show in June 2013. An HGTV executive saw the show and already knew Hatmaker from her books. Within weeks they were in talks for what would become “My Big Family Renovation.”
“It was so ridiculous,” she says. “We laughed for two weeks.”
The show, which they shot the pilot for in August 2013 and finished in February 2o14, shows Hatmaker and her family renovating a 105-year-old farmhouse in Buda. The Hatmakers are Jen and husband Brandon, 42, who is the lead pastor at Austin New Church; biological children Gavin, a junior in high school, Sydney, a freshman, and Caleb, a seventh-grader; and adopted children from Ethiopia Ben, a fifth-grader, and Remy, a third-grader.
Hatmaker will talk about the renovation at the Austin Home & Garden Show next weekend. Her talk will be about the 10 things they learned from renovating their home on national television. She’ll tell you “what it’s actually like to have cameras in your face while trying not to argue with your spouse,” she says.
The cameras weren’t the hardest part, though. Living in the house while it underwent a major renovation was. Every inch of the house was redone while they lived there. That was the one thing she would never do again.
“It was too hard with five kids,” she says. “We have too much life to live without having a house.”
During that winter, they lived without heat or water in the house or a kitchen. She and her husband lived in a little room off the garage. Her sons lived in an RV on the property, and the girls lived in whatever room wasn’t a construction zone.
They ate a lot of sandwiches and Pop-Tarts that winter, and every night they ate at restaurants. Often, they went to Cleveland’s in downtown Buda where they ordered the same thing and ate at the same table every night.
“We were so worn out,” she says. “We didn’t have the energy to look at a menu.”
Doing a renovation on TV was great, though, she says, because while she and Brandon really did work on every inch of the house and had the calloused and scarred hands to prove it, a lot of the decision-making was done for them.
The Hatmakers bought the house, but HGTV gave them the renovation. HGTV vetted all the contractors. “We weren’t paying the bills or doing the invoicing,” she says. “We were just told when to show up.” Someone would clip a microphone to their clothing and they would start working and filming.
“We wouldn’t have taken on a project this big,” she says, without HGTV’s help.
One of the things Hatmaker liked about the project was how much of the original house they were able to reuse by removing the popcorn on the ceiling and uncovering the original longleaf pine, refurnishing the original wood floors and using the shiplap. It really spoke to their values, she says.
One of those values is doing more with less. In 2010, the Hatmakers took on a challenge that later became the book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” Each month for seven months, they tried to tackle a different area of excess and do more with less. One month they only wore seven items of clothing. Another month they only spent money at seven places. Another month they only ate seven foods. Another month they eliminated seven types of media. Another month they gave away seven things each day. Another month they observed the seven sacred pauses each day. Another month they tried seven green habits.
Her kids were 12, 10 and 8 (Ben and Remy had yet to be adopted). “There was plenty of grumbling,” she says. “‘Why does Mom get these weird ideas and why do we have to pay for it?’”
They learned a lot from that experience. The seven pieces of clothing was actually freeing. Shopping at only seven places was really difficult. The month before they had spent money at 66 places. The media month was hard, but also freeing. “What do we do if we’re not looking at our phones?” she asked. Instead, they found a new rhythm to life. They played a lot of games and did a lot of fun things together. And they talked to one another a lot. She also says she was so productive that month.
“7” is just one of 10 books she’s written. She’s just finished her newest book: “For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards.” It will come out in August and is essays on how to love ourselves better, how to love our neighbors better, how to love people better.
Much of what she writes in this book and her other nine books is about letting people off the hook. “It feels like we are in this Pinterest world bombarded with what’s best,” she says. “We see these idealistic images that aren’t even realistic. Nobody’s really living like that.”
Hatmaker, a former teacher, began writing one day when her children were 1, 3 and 5 and she was a stay-at-home mom. She borrowed someone’s laptop and started writing her first book. She didn’t even have an email account. “I don’t know what made me think I can pull it off,” she says.
Now Hatmaker gets invited to speak around the country. She’ll speak at the “IF: Gathering” conference Feb. 6-7 at ACL Live. The second annual gathering of women across Christian faiths sold out this year in 13 minutes and will have an expected 40,000 women live streaming it at IF group meetings around the country.
When she does travel for speaking engagements, Hatmaker has rules to keep her family at the forefront: no more than one night away, and she has to be home on Saturday for church on Sunday. She and her husband started Austin New Church in 2008 centered around the idea of “Love your neighbor; serve your city.” It meets at Bailey Middle School and does a lot of outreach work with local groups including Communities In Schools, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, Blackland Community Development Corp., Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and Caritas.
The outreach work led daughter Sydney to ask a question one night that would forever change their family. It was 2010 and she was 9 at the time. As Hatmaker was tucking her into bed, she pointed out that their family sponsors kids globally, works with kids in Austin and single moms. “‘Here we have this great family, this great house and we have room and we have love. I just don’t know why we’re not talking about adoption?’”
Hatmaker’s first instinct was to think: “God, don’t listen to her.” But “she was right. All the reasons we were saying ‘no’ were tied to fear, to selfishness,” Hatmaker says.
They started doing research, which lead them to Ethiopia. At the time, in-country adoptions were very rare, and being an orphan, she says, was a “life sentence.” They decided to adopt two kids, assuming they would be siblings. But they found Ben, who was 8, and Remy, who was 5, who were unrelated. In the summer of 2011, the Hatmakers were bringing them home. They spoke no English, the food was unfamiliar, they had never been out of the country.
“It was so crazy terrifying for them,” she says. “That whole first year was fuzzy. We all struggled.”
But, by the end of the first school year, “you’d never believe those kids did not have English,” she says. “Our kids are so amazing. They are survivors, and they are fighters; they have overcome so much.”
Every day, she has gratitude for who all of her kids have become. “I love parenting teens,” she says. “They are funny and smart. What was I worried about?”
She has loved seeing how all the hard work of the constant parenting that little kids require has paid off. “If you just stay the course, one day you turn around and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, it worked!’”
And she is enjoying raising her children in the house they helped rebuild that now has heat and running water and is exactly what they wanted: a gathering space for family and friends to join them.
“It is so precious,” she says. “It is so darling. ‘Oh, we get to live here’ — at least once a day one of us is saying that.”