From the outside, Katie Zilavy’s life may look slightly unconventional.
She and her husband, William Berg, are raising two preschool sons in the artists’ area of the Arsenal. Quinn, who has Down syndrome and turns five next month, and Remy, three, are growing surrounded by vintage and antique items their parents collected over the years for themselves and for their business.
But from the inside, Katie’s life feels pretty traditional to her.
While William works in refinery maintenance, Katie’s days revolve around preschool, swim lessons and library time for both boys, speech therapy and reading lessons for Quinn, and Kindergym for Remy. She manages the business, William’s Antiks and Vintage French, as time permits and writes about life and motherhood on her blog, kwqr.blogspot.com.
She scrambles each weekday morning to get to Happy Hearts preschool. “We have to find the clothes, find the shoes—there’s a lot of running around in the morning,” says Katie, 41. Quinn attends three mornings a week, while Remy is there two mornings. “Usually the one you aren’t dropping off is the one who wants to stay.”
Katie’s life now is worlds away from her earlier work in television and films. “I was in production, keeping people organized,” she says now, laughing at the irony. She started out in 1992 at KQED after graduating from UC Santa Cruz. She worked primarily on cooking shows with well-known chefs Jacques Pépin, Martin Yan and Mollie Katzen, then made the transition to feature films and moved to Los Angeles.
Katie landed a job at MTV in 1999 in the production office for pilot programs, but left the channel after working on “Spring Break Cancun.”
“I had great friends, great camaraderie on the set, but it was not what I wanted to be putting into the world,” she says.
So she returned to San Francisco to work on a cooking show. And then, just before she turned 32, she fell in love.
How did you meet your husband?
One day I went with a friend to the Alameda Flea Market, and we rounded the corner and I saw my husband. I literally had the feeling of having the breath knocked out of me. My friend thought I was having a heart attack. It was a physical sense of, “Oh, there you are.” It was one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever had—he just felt like home.
So, of course, I ran the other direction. My friend talked me into going back to his booth, and we talked and I ended up buying a little stitched leather horse for $20. He gave me a good deal, so I thought maybe he was interested. I emailed him the next day and we started a friendship. … Later we started dating.
So now I always tell people that you never know what you’ll find at the Alameda Flea Market.
You worked on “Scream” and “George of the Jungle” before going to MTV. Did you think then that some day you would be primarily a stay-at-home mom?
No. My younger self would have thought I’d be a pilot or photographer or director, maybe something that involved international travel. …
There are many things about my life now that my younger self would never do. I have a minivan, and I love my car. I’ve learned to never say never because it’s the next thing you’ll do.
What would most surprise your younger self about your life now?
Finding the chaos of everyday life to be so normal, or how comfortable I can be in such chaos. There’s always someone crying or yelling or running around. Some days are harder than others, some days are easier.
What’s it like raising children in the Arsenal?
Not having a yard is a challenge, but my mom has four acres in Guerneville so they get to experience that. We do a lot of park time and do our best with a sandbox and water table out front. It’s been easier than I thought it would be. They love it here—we have a swing in our living room.
What have you learned since your sons were born?
In the past year, I’ve come to see being a parent not just as my job, but as a privilege and a gift. I’ve realized these are two amazing little creatures that I get to parent. It’s not that I have to parent them, I get to parent them. And I’m recognizing that this is not a permanent state. …
Another thing about motherhood for me is that it’s softened my eyes to the world in general. When I come across someone who’s difficult, I
think more about why this person is difficult.
Also, it can be easy to get caught up in what’s hard. If you see where there is abundance, where there is that bright spot, that’s what you’ll continue to see.
Who’s in your support system?
We have a good support system in my family. My mom will take the boys when we have a show. Nicole Perry—Perry Family Daycare—has been my life raft, plus my friends and neighbors.
The Down Syndrome Connection of the Bay Area is a great resource for us. They’re in Danville and they offer parent support, play groups. They’re just amazing advocates.
What have you learned as the mom of a child with Down syndrome?
I’ve learned to keep expectations high. You never know how he’s going to surprise you next.
Last summer, we went to the fair in Sonoma County. There was a little pony ride and we weren’t sure about putting Quinn on a pony. Would he cry? What would he do? But Remy wanted to go and so we put Quinn on, and he rode like he’d been on a horse all his life.
Disney World this spring was the same way. We thought he might be overstimulated, and he loved it. We went to see The Lion King and it’s
dark in there and we worried about that, but he loved it and was part of the parade at the end, banging a drum as he marched around with the other kids.
Don’t count this kid out.
What’s it like to be on this journey?
It’s incredible. It’s frustrating. It’s joyful. It’s an incredible learning experience. It’s not a journey I would have chosen for myself, but I’m glad it was chosen for me.
The motto of Down Syndrome Connection is “More alike than different,” and that’s what I’ve learned. Once Remy was born, I realized that a lot of my frustrations and challenges were so much the same as I experienced with Quinn.
What advice would you give a new mom?
Don’t be afraid to ask for and accept help. You can’t do it all by yourself.
See your child first. Quinn is not Down syndrome, Quinn is Quinn.
There are so many other fears and needs, you need to see your child, love your child.
For people in town who see Quinn or see us: Don’t be afraid of people who are different. Before Quinn, I would see a family with kids with special needs and I would feel sorry for them. I know now that I don’t need to feel sorry for them —they have a lot of joy, just like any other family.
Quinn is just a boy. We are just a family. There’s no need to be afraid.