Living With Kids: Sarah Neely

Sarah and her husband, Chris, live with their 2 kids and three dogs in their charming home outside Decatur, Georgia. When they bought the home it hadn’t been updated and they have slowly been making changes that feel modern but that also feel true to the bones and history of the home. That, and the fact that Sarah’s husband is a furniture restorer and reseller, means this home is full of warm and inviting pieces that you can tell have a lot of history.

Sarah and Chris also adopted their first child after many years of trying to get pregnant, and then a few short months later found out they were pregnant, so their two kids are only 14 months apart. You’ll love getting to take a peek around and hearing what Sarah has to share about raising kids and how they’ve adapted to the pandemic. Welcome, Sarah!

Our family is me (Sarah), Chris (my husband), Ella (six years old) and Oliver (five years old). Plus three dogs — Snooka, Duggan and June.

Yes, that’s a lot of dogs. All rescues, and our newest family member June was rescued from the middle of nowhere last year when we saw her on the side of the road. Snooka leapt into Chris’ arms when she was a puppy, and earned her name in honor of Jimmy Superfly Snooka of WWE fame. To keep with the theme, we named Duggan after Hacksaw Jim Duggan. And finally, June, who was not named after a wrestler, but was inspired by a favorite band, the Highwomen, so we went old-school country and her full name is June Carter Cash Neely. 

Several years ago, I decided to stop waiting on Mister Right, and just get on with it. I bought a wonderful house, and started talking to an adoption attorney. Then, I got laid off from my long-time job. I was so shaken up and had been working so hard, for so long, that I just took my time in finding another job. I traveled to see friends, baked, worked on my yard and home projects and worked with some non-profits that were meaningful to me.

In that year off, two of my closest friends got engaged, and asked me to help plan their wedding. Another friend had decided to open a restaurant, and the chef, who was new to town, agreed to cater the wedding. The chef was Chris, and he just radiated kindness.

It was honestly love at first sight for me. I was completely tongue-tied. He’s a big burly guy with a big beard, and I’m 5’2”. He was just one year sober when we met. On paper, we didn’t have a lot in common but it was just so comfortable to be around him. I’m not a big drinker, and never imagined I’d find someone who also didn’t drink. And I can’t believe how much faith I had in Chris’ sobriety! It’s such hard work, which I definitely didn’t appreciate at the time. His confidence in his decision to be sober was so strong, and has stayed that way. In February, he’ll celebrate 11 years sober. He’s an inspiration and has counseled many people in our lives about addiction. I’m so proud of him.

We realized that we actually crossed paths about two years before we met; it was at a crazy party. I was working for Red Bull, and had some athletes I was hosting. He was partying and definitely not sober. We laugh because we can’t imagine we would have fallen in love with each other’s past selves!

Chris is in the antiques business. He’s focused on mid-century — buying, restoring, and selling modern design furniture, artwork and décor. He’s taught himself woodworking, how to recognize designers and artists, and how to dig deep and research when he doesn’t know something. You’ll definitely see that influence in our home; most of our furniture and art rotates in and out. We enjoy something, then we move it or replace it with some new find. We’ve already changed artwork in the kids’ bathroom and our bedroom since these photos were taken!

I am the Vice President of Strategy for a marketing agency. It’s a dream job. I met the agency founders almost four years before I joined the team; we clicked right away. I knew I wanted to work there but the timing wasn’t right. We stayed in touch, I did a bit of consulting for the agency and I just kept bugging them for a job. I’ve been here for about 4 years now. We focus on Word of Mouth marketing; I help our clients figure out what their authentic story is, and how to share it with the people who will find it most relevant, in an interesting way. We work with clients from big international brands to local start-ups. It’s very collaborative, very rewarding, and lets me get creative and think about weird things on a regular basis. I love it!

Chris and I met a bit later in life; I was 37 when we got married. We got married quickly, and have been married for just under 10 years. I wanted to be a mom so much, but it just wasn’t working out. (That’s a whole crazy, sad, hard, angry, emotional story of its own.) As my sweet OB-GYN told me once: “It’s like baseball. Nobody’s batting 1000, we’re just waiting for the right pitch.” And by pitch, he meant a good egg and healthy embryo.

So, that wasn’t working, and since we were very open to adoption, we went to an adoption seminar just to get the lay of the land. While there, a young woman approached us, chose us to be her baby’s parents and we were in the delivery room for our daughter’s birth about 10 weeks later. Then, a few months after Ella’s adoption was finalized, a “good pitch” surprised us and we ended up with another wonderful surprise and that’s Oliver! They are 5 and 6 now.

Oliver’s preschool went back in-person in June, and I am so grateful that he is having a wonderful Pre-K experience. He’s learning so much and just loves it. And I’m so grateful to the school for figuring out how to get kids back, and to all the parents for following the protocols that make it possible. Oliver is a sensitive soul, a bit more shy, and plays happily by himself. He’s also wildly fearless physically and has two emergency room visits under his belt already. Oliver is kind and sweet, loves to hold hands and is always happy to share. He has his daddy’s blue eyes

Ella shines when she’s the center of attention. She loves to be able to talk to someone, and have any kind of audience. She makes us laugh intentionally all the time, and unintentionally with her funny questions and serious thoughts. She has gorgeous dark curls and a very expressive face; she was such an expressive baby! She is just learning to read and that is a joy. I once told her that when she could read, she’d be able to answer any question she could think of, and that lit her up! She is incredibly curious and observant and has an amazing memory. 

Oliver has a few quirks that were really challenging for a few years. We finally put the pieces together and had him evaluated by a specialist; he has some sensory processing issues. Once we learned about that, and got him into some occupational therapy, he is so much happier! Sensory processing affects how you feel in your body — some sensations are overwhelming, some are underwhelming and some sensations just make you feel uncomfortable. We learned that he didn’t have the same control of his body as his peers, and that it can be overwhelming to him to be in loud places.

I feel really passionately about Sensory Processing Disorder; I don’t think enough parents know about it and it’s something that’s common, and treatable. Just naming what was going on was such a huge relief to us. And then to have treatment that helped him gain more balance (literally) and helped us gain insight into helping him… it’s just been a gift. He will be able to head into Kindergarten right on pace with his classmates, and happy to be there instead of miserable. 

When we met, Chris and I were living in Florida. We both loved treasure hunting at estate sales, and had a vintage-inspired wedding. Etsy was just getting off the ground, and I thought it would be a good way to keep being able to buy fun things, without becoming hoarders. That hobby shop on Etsy turned into Chris’ full-time job, giving him a way to step away from the high-pressure restaurant industry. And giving us the flexibility to pick up and move for my career. 

Atlanta has been very good to us, with Chris building his business and reputation and relationships within Atlanta’s film industry. He’s worked with set designers and has pieces that have appeared on Mad Men, in Hidden Figures, and in Baby Driver. I’m pretty sure that means we’re friends with Jamie Foxx, by extension.

Chris working for himself, has given us the flexibility for me to pursue more responsibility in my career. Pre-pandemic, I was traveling a pretty good bit. He could be the at-home parent. It was hard to leave sometimes, but it was also a nice break. I could be by myself, think big thoughts and get good hotel sleep! Chris also needed to fit in buying trips.

So all of that meant communication was really important. Not just calendars and details but big picture stuff like goals and family priorities. Lots of hard conversations. Lots of compromises and re-imagining what we thought “family” looked like. Ella changed schools two weeks into Kindergarten, and I had to miss her second first day for work travel. That was hard. I cried, asked my Mom to visit and be there for the big day, and then I went to do my job.

Being a parent is really hard. It’s the thing I wanted most in life, for as long as I can remember. I waited a long time for that dream to come true, and then I had to go back to work. That was a really hard time; I didn’t wait this long for them to be at daycare! But, I transitioned to a role that has more flexibility (I recognize that I’m very lucky these days, to have the flexibility to rarely miss a doctor’s appointment or school activity is one of the things I’m most grateful for.)

It’s also important to me that our kids get to see us enjoy, and be skilled, at our jobs. And that we both pitch in to make the home run; Chris does most of the cooking, I do most of the laundry and yard work. 

We live in a great hidden gem of a neighborhood, just outside Atlanta city limits, in Decatur, Georgia. We live about 15 minutes from downtown Decatur (where my office and the kids’ schools are), in an unincorporated part of the city. It means we’re close to everything awesome, but pay lower property taxes. 

The restaurants, the parks, live music venues, Emory University, the CDC… so many smart people and delicious places to eat. I went to college here, and my favorite Chinese food restaurant from back in the day, Fortune Cookie, is still here! And the sesame chicken is still just as yummy.

Our neighborhood was built in the mid 1960s, mostly brick ranches on big lots. Lots of trees and families who have been here for years — in fact, there are a lot of original owners still. Which means we’re one of the youngest families and have two of the few kids in the neighborhood. We love the community, and the active civic association.

Our closest neighbors are really great. They spoil our kids, call us when our dogs escape, and we share tomatoes and cookies back and forth across the street. This year, at Halloween, we had three separate neighbors drop by goodies for the kids since they knew there wouldn’t be trick or treating. And our favorite neighbors volunteered to let our kids come ring their doorbell! So we dressed up, walked down our driveway, up their driveway and the kids got to say “Trick or Treat!” It just made my heart melt!

The one silly thing we don’t like about our house is that we live at the top of a big hill. Cars drive a bit too fast, and it’s too steep for bike riding. But that’s truly our only complaint!

We bought about 4 years ago. Homes today are selling for between $250k and $350K. We got a great deal, and bought in the knick of time, for well under that. We feel really lucky to have found a neighborhood so close to the city and in a part of town that we love. I went to college at Emory University, and when we talked about moving to Atlanta, I knew this was the part of town I wanted to be in. It’s so diverse and in addition to being diverse, it’s clear the city values diversity. This year’s political movements divided a lot of communities; I feel that this year united Decatur around values many of us held but did not speak out about as loudly as we could have. And this year our city and even our state have stepped up to stand behind diversity and inclusion. It makes me feel really proud, and that we’re in the right place.

Chris discovered the neighborhood, and drove me through it several times. It’s cute, with well-kept homes and a really great retro community pool and tennis court. But I wasn’t convinced. It was 10 minutes further from Decatur than our rental, and restaurants, etc. I was convinced that we needed to keep looking for something in the city. But property taxes are high, the schools are really desirable with home prices reflecting that and we just didn’t find anything we loved and could afford. I said I’d only consider the neighborhood if it was the perfect house. 

Then one day, Chris wanted to drive me past one that had just been listed — he had been keeping an eye out for listings in the community. We pulled up, and they happened to be having an open house; the realtor was just closing up. We hopped out and asked if we could come in, and that was it. We put the car seat down with Oliver still asleep and let Ella patter around. It was the perfect house. We knew it right away. It was in great condition with plenty of space, a great backyard and most importantly, it hadn’t been updated at all. We could invest our time and make it ours.

While we were standing around, whispering to each other about how great it was, the realtor crossed out the sales price on the flyer and wrote a number almost $10,000 lower!

It was a whirlwind after that. We hadn’t been seriously looking, so raced through mortgage approval process. And then Chris took some time off to handle the renovations we needed before we could move in — mostly cosmetic, the house was truly in excellent shape. We just wanted to brighten it up, and make the kitchen more functional. Lots of dark pine paneling got covered with drywall, walls painted, the pine kitchen cabinets painted. To save money and to add back in some warmth, we put in butcher block countertops. Chris and friends (shout-out to Todd and Meghan of Atomic Furnishings!) installed LVT floors, the kitchen back splash, and the kitchen counters, a new sink and all new appliances. Chris did the homework of researching and buying the best appliances for our budget. And we went with white because stainless steel just didn’t feel right for this home. 

Painting the kitchen cabinets was not our favorite. We’ve learned a lot since that project and definitely would have done it differently. We found affordable cabinet pulls at Ikea that we think are cool, and have held up great. 

The brick fireplace reclaimed the original beige-y brick for a few years. I was reluctant to take the permanent step of painting it, even though we didn’t love it. Chris finally convinced me and now we do love it! (We used a sprayer. Highly recommend). He built the mantle from reclaimed wood, and painted the inside of the firebox that crisp black. The fireplace doesn’t work (a chimney repair is on the long-term list) but we like the look of it as it is. 

We’ve tackled a few more projects as we have time and budget; one idea we had from the first walk through was to put in a glass door where there had been a window in the kitchen, and add a back deck. We did that about six months before the pandemic. We love the light and the outdoor space, and holy moly were we grateful for that this year!

I don’t feel like a fair judge of the adoption process because ours was so fast and relatively easy. It’s expensive; we were lucky to have family help with the finances. It’s terrifying to take that risk, knowing you might have your heartbroken. But if you’re considering it, my advice is that it’s worth it. Ella’s birth mother was very young, but very certain in what she wanted to do. She never wavered, even when Ella was born. I know she was sad, and that it was scary and hard, because we talked about those feelings, but she was very brave and certain that we were the right match. Ella knows that her birth mother wasn’t ready to be a parent and that she chose us because she knew how much we would love her. 

Before we started adoption, I didn’t realize how conflicted and sad I’d feel. I had always loved the idea of adopting, and had even begun to pursue it before Chris and I met. But once we started down the path, after infertility, it felt like an ending. I had thought I would carry babies and adopt. And then, there I was doing one instead of the other. And I was so scared to be hopeful once the adoption started. Even in the hospital, Ella never went to the nursery; I didn’t want her out of my sight. I actually didn’t realize how much fear I held onto until the adoption was finalized. My advice to anyone pursuing adoption would be to find another person who’s been through it, and trust them enough to share all your fears and emotions. Whatever you’re feeling that feels ugly or weird or selfish or self-pitying, it’s just a normal part of the rollercoaster ride.

The kids are 14 months apart. We had a sweet friend with close-in-age kids tell us that the first two years were going to suck a lot. And then there’d be a light at the end of the tunnel, and it would get better. I am so grateful for that candid advice! Two under two or two toddlers are so much fun! Messy and adorable, and funny and snuggly. They were, and are, wonderful. But, when those sucky times came, it was so helpful to know others had sucked before us! 

They bicker more than I’d like, we’re working on that. Ella loves to boss Oliver around, and Oliver loves to tempt Ella into hijinks. When they play together, and we hear them laughing, it is magical. 

Ella is multiracial, and frankly I thought we’d get more curious looks or questions than we do. Another reason to be grateful for our awesome city! Like a lot of white parents, we started talking about race a lot more this year. We’ve always been open with Ella about her birth story, but man, talking about genetics and melanin was a conversation that was tough. We read a great book called All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color. The book talks about where we get our skin color, and we had a conversation about Ella’s skin color and her birth parents’ skin colors. She’s growing layers of understanding about her heritage and her story, and I worry she’ll feel sad one day about our differences. 

Our life has changed a lot since the pandemic. I don’t travel for work anymore, which has made it possible for us to do more projects around the house, and just have more of a routine. Earlier dinner and bedtimes make everybody happier. We had a garden for the first time this year, and that was such a pleasure! 

Schools in our area closed in March, and have not re-opened. We’re doing virtual learning, and school at home was not a success. Ella was miserable, and we hated being the parents and the taskmasters. I learned that I do not have the patience to be a full-time teacher. We’re in a learning pod for now, which is a huge improvement for our social butterfly. Ella loved Kindergarten and school, and soaks up everything like a sponge. She is not flourishing this year in school and I know I speak for a lot of parents when I say this is crushing. I hope she can learn to love school again, when it’s back. I hope I have the tools to help her re-kindle that love. I hope we can go back to school again soon. I hope our teachers are able to adapt, again, and nurture students back to the school routines. 

One thing we did right, was get in lots of outside playtime! The kids had outgrown their first swing set, and we wanted to build a fort of some kind. Chris scoured Facebook marketplace, and found someone selling a really nice wooden play structure. We rented a truck, took it all apart and hauled it back to our house. It took two trips! We were able to get it for about 10% of what it would have cost retail. That is something that has gotten a lot of use this year! We’ve done treasure hunts, lots of neighborhood walks and even gotten in some North Georgia hikes. 

I miss collaborating in person with my team at work, it’s such a fun part of my job. While I’m really proud of how we’ve adapted, I do miss that serendipity of walking into someone’s office to bounce ideas around. 

Chris really had to adapt — from figuring out how to find furniture to restore, to figuring out what people would be comfortable with when buying. But I think a lot of people wanted to make their homes more comfortable once they were stuck there, and Chris has been busy with restoring and selling!

I hope our kids remember a lot of laughter. We try to teach them that laughter and a positive attitude really can change most situations. I hope they remember looking on the bright side, and making the best of challenging times. 

I hope they remember it is colorful, with their art framed on the walls right alongside art we’ve bought. I hope they remember being given a vote in lots of family decisions. 

My Mom once told me that in parenting, saying “yes” was harder than saying “no.” I really took that to heart. It’s so easy to say no to one more book or snuggle, or to say no to playing with slime when you’re in the middle of a task. But saying yes just leads to so many good times you’d miss otherwise! I think being older parents makes us cherish the day-to-day more. I mean, we’re more tired, but I think we do a good job of appreciating our kids. I hope they remember how secure and loved they feel. 

I hope they forget the times when we’re short-tempered or impatient. We do a pretty good job of apologizing when we’re the ones who don’t have good behavior, but I hope they don’t have too many of those apologies in their memories!

I have a list of the funny things they mispronounce and say; I miss those! I miss the chubbiness. I miss the times when they were sick and just being held was a comfort. The way Ella ran everywhere with pattering little feet. The way Ollie’s curls were like a little golden halo. 

I just love their personalities. They’re so funny and unique and fully themselves. They’re so amazing that they make us want to be better humans, too. Use kind words. Be generous. Find adventures and joy every day. You have to put some real thought into it if you want to be decent at this parenting job, and that work is making us better people all around.


Thank you, Sarah! I loved Sarah’s advice about surviving the pandemic: lots of outside time, good neighbors and support, and being okay with struggling. I think so many of our kids are not thriving right now. And then when we’re able to get back to a more normal kind of school we will need to do a lot of work to help kids catch up, or help kids re-engage with the idea of loving learning and school. The more we talk about that the better.

I also really appreciated Sarah being so open and candid about her life not taking the path she might have expected it to. Everything from deciding to look into adoption on her own before meeting her husband unexpectedly later in life, to deciding to adopt, meeting a birth mom very quickly, having a child within 10 weeks and then finding out you’re pregnant a few months later. Life has a way of throwing twists and turns at us, and I loved hearing Sarah talk about navigating that.

What are some things in your life that haven’t gone as planned? What have you learned from having to pivot and make changes when unexpected things came up? How have you learned this year to deal with ambiguity?

SOURCES

Book: The Colors We Are

Book: Don’t Touch My Hair

Hallway Runner

Parent’s Bedroom Quilt

Kitchen Pulls


You can follow Sarah on Instagram here, or follow her husband here. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.

Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at features@designmom.com.

17 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Sarah Neely”

  1. I loved reading today’s post! Sarah’s story touched on so many points we’re all feeling this year. Sarah and Chris’s design eye is so fun and fresh. Great read!

  2. Aaahhhh, Sarah, I love your home and your outlook! Fortune Cookie is our favorite Chinese restaurant, too. We don’t live in that part of Atlanta anymore, but anytime we’re over that way, we try to time it so that we can pick up dinner from there. :-)

  3. I love what your mom said about the “yes” being harder than the “no”. That’s so true and what a good remember!

  4. Besides sharing your absolutely BEAUTIFUL house, I really appreciated the vulnerable and personal storytelling. Thank you so much for sharing. You’re an awesome (and cool!) mom and wife!

  5. Besides your GORGEOUS house, I really appreciate your vulnerable and personal storytelling – thank you for sharing. You are a great (and cool!) mom and wife!

  6. Wow- such an inspiring family, beautiful story and beautiful home! You’re doing all things right, Sarah. Thanks for sharing your home/family with us!

  7. I love when people decorate fearlessly in their home, and yall have done this in spades! The art and colors are magnificent! Thank you for opening up about your life journey, especially the adoption process. I had always thought I would adopt when I became an adult. It has yet to happen, but every single adoption story moves my heart.

  8. I totally identify with your experience of moving into an older neighborhood with original owners and few kids. Ours was similar. Thankfully, more families are moving in and we look forward to playing with them incessantly “when this is over.” Whatever and whenever that means.

    P.S. – Where did you find your shower curtain? It makes me strangely happy. Lol!

  9. Two decades ago, I was a finalist for a position at Agnes Scott (which I didn’t get, but which brought me to visit Decatur). It is a lovely place. Your story is beautiful, and I know what it is like to struggle to have kids. Such a great home and thank you so much for sharing your truth!

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