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Our Story

In Jen’s words:

As long as I can remember I wanted to be a mother and an artist. Always. I dreamed of falling in love with someone hilarious and amazing, having a couple of incredible babies, making a super cool & cozy home, & doing something creative to share with the world.
I had plenty of years searching, wandering and pondering. Unsure of what I was doing or where I was going. My teens and 20’s were tumultuous years! I’ll spare you those details.
Then along came the year 2001 – it was a big one for me. I had just graduated from a long and drawn out college education in December of 2000. In early February 2001, the relationship I was in for many years ended. On February 22nd my dear, amazing mother turned yellow, and a few days later was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I spent the following months caring for her as she rapidly lost her life, and died at home in mid-July. Then on September 11th, THE 9.11, I met the love of my life. We moved in together shortly thereafter, and were engaged by Christmas. Six months later we were married on a beautiful day in May in the Santa Cruz mountains, and almost a year to the day after I lost my Mom we were pregnant. PHEW! It all happened so fast, but from the day Rob & I met, it all felt so RIGHT.
Zoë was born 5 days after my 31st birthday. The 3 of us lived a sweet simple life in a charming barn behind the house of one of our dearest friends. Zoë was, right from the get go, as she continues to be today: deeply loving, surprisingly hilarious, and amazingly bright & clever.
2 years later, came our sweet boy, Sam.
Sam was about 2 or 3 months old when I started to suspect that something was different about him. His disposition was sweet & happy… his big blue eyes and his bright smile were downright dreamy. But he was so floppy! He didn’t engage his muscles – didn’t push with his legs when we stood him on our legs, didn’t hold up his head. At his 4 month well-baby visit I voiced my concerns and was dismissed by the doctor. “Some babies just don’t use their muscles that much” – I didn’t buy it. At the 6 month visit, I brought up my concerns again, and at that point all hell broke loose. Many tests were ordered, we referred to a neurologist, an MRI was ordered, and we were advised to start early intervention. All of the tests came back normal… there was nothing medically wrong with our boy that they could tell, yet he continued to be significantly developmentally delayed and hypotonic.
We made the decision to move to Portland, OR in the Spring of 2006. We wanted a fresh start, a home of our own, and to live in a place where we could find the kind of lifestyle we loved and the supports we needed to raise our kids the way we wanted. It was such a great decision!!! We love Portland!!! I started my portrait photography business, She Saw Things, a few months after our move.
Rob & I never really went through much of an angry or denial stage after learning that our son most likely had a lifelong disability. Quite naturally we knew that we would always take it day by day, loving both of our kids for who they are, and doing our very best to support their needs & desires.
Sam had no diagnosis until his 4th birthday, when his developmental pediatrician at the time time told us, “You’d be hard pressed to convince me that he is not on the Autism Spectrum.”  While we hadn’t ever felt like we really needed a diagnosis, somehow having a name for it was a bit of a relief. I had grown tired of long winded explanations for why my son didn’t talk or respond and made loud strange vocalizations and flapped his arms.
AUTISM – it’s such a small part of what defines us as a family, and as 4 individuals, yet it is such a huge part of how we function. It shapes the way we do things, and it has made us all incredibly creative problem solvers! We are all madly in love with each other, and at the end of every challenging day I feel confident in saying that we wouldn’t change a thing.
While it doesn’t look exactly as I had imagined it, my life’s dreams have come true. This life may not be easy, but it sure is beautiful!


In Rob’s words:

Life has certainly been exciting.

I feel like I have lived an adventurous life. Through all the adventures I’m still able to maintain my high level of compassion, humor, and unwavering loyalty to the people that occupy my heart.

As a child, I struggled with being different. I was adopted at birth and lucked into the family I found myself a part of. The atmosphere was supportive & quirky, challenging, and full of ups and downs. We lived in an affluent community, we had technology at our fingertips (Apple Computers was founded close to our house), I had clothes, food, and shelter… It was in my family that I first became introduced to ‘special needs’ as my younger brother (who was also adopted) was challenged by dyslexia and soon after, manic depression. This is relevant to me as it gives you an understanding of where my strengths and weaknesses originate from.

As a kid, I always wanted to be a rock star. At age 5 you could’ve seen me on stage at a local junior high school singing the hit of the day “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell ( I was a typical suburban boy; played soccer & baseball, was a science fanatic, an avid camper, lover of fishing, and pretty much anything that found me spending time with my father. Eventually I lived that dream and found myself making a living (for the most part) making music from 1991 to 1993.

When my teen years arrived I found myself in turbulent waters. Like Jen, my teens to early twenties are best left to those who were there with me or those who are my closest confidants. I will say this though, as wild and reckless as those years were, I still approached them with compassion and conviction  and with the benefit of hindsight, those years actually helped to make me who I am today.

Lets fast forward to the mid 90’s. My father was diagnosed with stomach cancer on my 24th birthday. With a less than optimistic chance for survival, I moved away from the Santa Cruz Mountains and into my parents house to help during the long recovery. This experience was life changing for my entire family. My father survived the stomach cancer, and fought against all odds to stay alive for 14 more years.

I spent a great deal of my life as a mediator, whether I was a peer counselor, or extinguishing infernos at home, I was the ‘fixer’. Once my father was stable, I decided to do something for myself. I moved to Southern Oregon and proceeded to live in and around Ashland for the next 5 years.

As we arrived at the year 2000, I was living on 90 acres in a small cabin that once was a blacksmith shop. My landlords were my dearest friends. I had a charmed life there; played music with people I love every Thursday night rain or snow, I built strawbale homes, a group of friends that makes my heart swoon, brewed hundreds of gallons of beer, and simply lived life to its fullest.

I hit a bit of a bump in the road when a relationship I was in ended. This was the 3rd long-term relationship I had been in and it ended, like the previous ones, at about two and a half years?
Shortly thereafter, I decided to leave Ashland. I needed to make money so I could return to Southern Oregon, buy land, and build my dreams. The bubble had not yet burst in the ‘dot com’ boom and I found employment in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It was the year 2000 and I certainly didn’t fit into this world… Shaved head, big black beard, weird tattoos, thick black plastic framed glasses (that look was apparently going to be hot in 8 – 10 more years). I lived it up for a while with no responsibilities, loads of money, traveling…

It was at the beginning of 2001 that I placed a ‘personal ad’ on I did it as an act of solidarity with my dear friend who had just moved to Seattle and was looking to meet someone. I heard absolutely nothing and actually had forgotten I even did that. In August of that year I received an e-mail whose title was “I’m here!”. That message was from a woman named Jen who happened to live nearby. We exchanged e-mails and had an instant connection. It was a deep connection that found us both feeling a little weak in the knees even before meeting in person.

On the evening of September 11th, 2001, while much of the world was glued to the never-ending, constant streaming of death and destruction, Jen and I sat across from each other at a little sushi restaurant in the city I was born in (Santa Cruz, CA.) and we fell in love.

I asked Jen to marry me in December 2001 and we had a phenomenal wedding in May 2002. The only traveling we did together was for our honeymoon (we went from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia, over to Victoria, B.C. and back to Seattle). By summer we were pregnant.

Being a Dad was a great role for me. It was love at first sight for me and I feel the same intense connection and love for both my kiddos.

In many ways I feel really lucky that our first child was meeting all of her milestones at all the right times. With this as our gauge AND Jen’s intuition, we were able to raise enough red flags when our son had been missing some important milestones.

From the moment our first pediatrician listened to Jen, we have been fighting and advocating for our boy. We attribute much of his success and progress to our commitment to early intervention.

We felt a strong desire to leave California. We loved the coastal mountains and places in and around Santa Cruz but they were beyond our reach financially. We decided to check out Oregon. My heart was set on returning to Ashland, even though many of my friends had moved elsewhere. We talked about Eugene, Oregon but were drawn to Portland. A dear friend of mine (from Ashland) had just become a Realtor in Portland so we made the trek to see her.

Soon after, we bought our first home and moved to Portland (in 2006). As each week passes and months turn into years, not a moment goes by where I’m not thankful that we’re here in Portland.

Oddly enough, time seems to travel at a faster pace now than ever before. This year (2012) our daughter is going to be 9 and our son will be 7. Both Jen and I live ‘in the moment’ because there really isn’t much use for anything else.

We’re a spectacular group, the four of us. We’re full of life, silliness, dance moves, quick witted comedy, and love. We’re certainly UNconventional. Just the other day I found myself bragging about Sam’s spaghetti art. This of course meant that it was during dinner and that he had made yet another masterpiece with tomato sauce covered pasta on our white table. If I tried to do that as a kid I’d have been in heap loads of trouble.

I am really smitten with my little family and really cherish the things we do to celebrate life. We’re always trying to improve and with that, I think things will only continue to be amazing for us.


In Zoë’s words:

Top 20 words that describe my family:

It’s hard to have a brother with autism. Sometimes he beats me up, and I want to beat him back, but I know it’s wrong. Sam sometimes does strange things that make me feel weird. He has a thing about taking my socks off, and I like that. Even though it’s hard, our family does a lot of fun stuff together. I love my family.

January 10, 2012 - 10:09 pm

danni remender - You are both such beautiful writers. Thanks for sharing this.
Stay Unconventional,
Danni x

January 10, 2012 - 10:10 pm

kaary - i love each & every one of you…this is a beautiful work of art. xoxo

January 10, 2012 - 11:52 pm

jen ruiz - Beautiful!

January 11, 2012 - 12:43 am

amanda - what a lovely endeavor, to share your adventures, and to let us share in your bliss and tribulations. i love you, McDowners!

January 12, 2012 - 5:50 am

carlyn - beautiful words and gorgeous design!

February 8, 2012 - 12:35 am

Rob - Thank you Danni! We really have no choice but to be unconventional! We’ve got Zoë & Sam to thank for that!

February 8, 2012 - 12:36 am

Rob - Kaary,
We’re really blessed by so much. One of the things we’re blessed with is YOU in our life! Thanks!

February 8, 2012 - 12:39 am

Rob - Thank YOU Amanda!
Without support from amazing people like you it just wouldn’t feel as bright!
– Rob

February 8, 2012 - 12:40 am

Rob - Thank you Carlyn!
– Rob

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