Living With Kids: Melissa Neff

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

Melissa and her family have graciously welcomed us into their home for this week’s Living With Kids home tour. And what a home it is! Bright, warm and beautiful, with a totally unique history — in its previous life, the building was a Social Services office building for the Catholic Church. They remodeled every inch of it and it has turned out beautifully.

The other thing I love about this interview is that Melissa talks very vulnerably and honestly about mental health — both challenges she has faced, and issues she is helping her daughter navigate through. Welcome, Melissa!

Hi! My name is Melissa Neff and I have been a long time reader of Design Mom, so it’s a privilege to be featured on the Living with Kids series. My family and I live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Members of this home include myself, my husband Luke, and my 3 daughters — Isabella (age 9), Olivia (age 7), and Elena (age 4). Needless to say, there is a lot of estrogen in this house, and subsequently a lot of crying, drama, and big feelings. Luke has his hands full. :-)

Luke and I actually met in Peru. We were both there for a summer working with an organization which was helping street children and bringing medical pop up clinics to rural areas. We both had separate romantic interests at the time, and honestly, I found Luke to be a little too much for me — one of those center-of-attention kind of guys. But throughout that summer, he shed some layers like an onion, and I started to see that he was in fact a good person who I cared a lot about. We stayed in touch after that summer — I was in college in Maine, and he was in college in Tennessee.

The next summer he was a camp counselor and started writing me letters while his campers had their rest time in the afternoons. I guess you could say that we started to fall in love as we wrote more letters back and forth. It was clear that we wanted to start a relationship, but I was going to spend a year abroad in Bolivia and he was about to start medical school, so timing was inopportune. However, we just kept communicating — writing letters and emails, making long distance phone calls, sending little dict-a-phone tape recordings back and forth.

Once I was back stateside, we continued our long distance relationship until I graduated from Colby College in Maine and moved down to Tennessee where Luke was still in medical school. Long distance was hard, but if forced us to learn how to communicate well with each other and resolve conflict — tools which help us still today after being married for 14 years!

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

These 14 years of marriage have included 5 moves (Johnson City, TN, Winston-Salem, NC, Davis, CA, Atlanta, GA, and now back to Winston-Salem, NC), 2 degrees (medical degree for Luke and Masters in Social Work for me), a 7-month deployment to Afghanistan, 3 kids, mental health issues (for me and my oldest daughter — more on that later), a lot of marriage therapy (which we are currently doing weekly), lots of unbelievably good times, and several really dark seasons. But through it all, we have grown closer as a couple and as a family. 

So let me introduce you to my loved ones. Luke: he is a type A personality who gives 110% to whatever he does, is driven, manages to stay cool as a cucumber (whether dealing with kid tantrums at home or operating on NICU babies at work), loves to be outdoors, and go on adventures with the girls. He is an explorer and lifelong learner. He enjoys listening to podcasts, runs to and from work often to get exercise in, has a sense of humor I am jealous of, and has a deep spiritual faith that informs all aspects of his life. 

Isabella is our first born. She is 9 years old, creative and artistic, a good and loyal friend, a rule follower, people pleaser, and mature beyond her years. She plays the ukulele and guitar and has jammed with bluegrass groups full of 60-year old men for nursing home crowds and played at her elementary school talent shows. More than anything, I am amazed at her confidence. Her voice and music skills are pretty good, but what leaves me in awe is the ease in which she plays in front of others.

She has carried a big emotional toll from our multiple moves. It’s interesting. People always tell me “kids are resilient — your kids will be fine with your moves.” But I have learned that I don’t agree. Yes, some kids are resilient. But some kids struggle more with resiliency. And Isabella (and I) have had to work on actively building our resiliency. I am thankful to say that we have both done a lot of good work around that and are better for it. 

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

Olivia is our middle child. She is 7 years old, curious about everything (read: asks non-stop questions), super attentive to every detail (read: is the first to point out if one of her sisters got more ice cream than she did), a gamer (she loves all board games and PE games), stubborn, and fiercely loyal. You can always count on Olivia to tell you the brutal honest truth!

Elena is our baby. She is 4 years old. If I would have written this before our move I would have said that she was our easiest kid, sweet and gentle temperament, flexible, and fun-loving. But sheesh, this move has been really hard for her. Not sure if it’s just an age thing or if it’s an Elena thing, but she has been tough and a true test of patience lately. Big feelings. All of the time. My hope is that as she continues to feel more settled physically, and with time, she will feel more settled emotionally. But we all love her so much and she makes our family complete.

And me. Hard to describe myself. I am an extrovert and find a lot of fulfillment in relationships, connection and community. I am fairly Type A and love systems and organization — perhaps it gives me a false sense of control in the chaos of life with 3 kids. But each time we have added a kid or moved, it has forced me to purge — not just our things but also our calendar. I hold closely to the model “if it’s not a HELL YES, then it’s a no!” (Easier said than done, but it has been liberating when I actually follow through.)

In my free time I love reading blogs, doing Crossfit (or any type of group fitness), thinking about design and making our space more functional, and hanging out with friends.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

I am half Brazilian (mom from Brazil and dad from Guatemala) and have dual citizenship. Thankfully, that allowed us to obtain dual Brazilian citizenship for the girls too. I grew up going to Rio de Janeiro in the summers (and we try to take the girls once a year — my grandmother and all of my aunts, uncles, cousins are still in Rio).

My summers in Brazil opened my eyes to a world of dichotomies — wealth and poverty. I grew up watching hoards of children wearing nothing but rags, walking around barefoot in the streets, selling fruit, begging, and trying to survive one more day. While I was in a privileged bubble visiting my middle class family.

I studied abroad in La Paz, Bolivia for a year during college and completed my thesis. I focused on investigating how to meet both the short-term needs (food, shelter) and long-term needs (vocational training, education) of street children.

All of those experiences led me to want to pursue gaining more skills in how to help people, specifically children and families, culminating in getting my Masters in Social Work at Chapel Hill. The beginning of my training and career was at a local Child Protective Services Agency, investigating abuse and neglect in children. Needless to say, it was heavy work and the hours were demanding. Between Luke’s chaotic and unpredictable surgical residency schedule and adding kids to our family, I needed to find something different. 

So the past several years I have piece-mealed together various jobs and experiences ranging from facilitating anger management groups in elementary and middle schools to doing contract social work research, and writing to being a Court Appointment Special Advocate for foster youth.

But if I am honest, my identity as a social worker and a mother has been a real struggle for me and feels complicated. I feel pulled in different directions and feel like I am doing everything half-assed. However, I have been doing a lot of work lately on giving myself more grace, letting go of trying to do all the things for all of the people, practicing more self care, and, as my therapist has said “touch it, don’t take it” (as it relates to interactions with others — your crisis does not have to be my crisis, your issues don’t have to be my issues). This is the most challenging for me because I am a people pleaser!

Those of you who know enneagrams, I am a 2! And so is Luke! So it makes for an interesting marriage.  

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom  Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

We live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A city with the population of around 245,000. Best known for being the home of Reynolds Tobacco, Hanes Manufacturing, and Krispie Kreme Donuts. We lived here from 2006-2012 and just moved back a few months ago. The change the city has experienced is astounding. The energy around innovation and entrepreneurship is palpable in the downtown where we now live. New restaurants are popping up, start-up companies are establishing themselves in new buildings, other more established companies are moving their offices downtown to anchor new developments.

Our house is a block from an independent bookstore called Bookmarks, which has a wonderfully curated children’s book section, along with a just as wonderfully curated adult section, plus a wine and coffee bar called Footnotes). We live a few blocks from our local library, and Camino Bakery — with amazing loaves of bread and delicious sweet treats. We live near an independent movie theater called Aperture, which has 3 theaters always showing the latest independent films. And we live near dozens of other unique and creative places to spend time or get a good meal.

After enjoying the amazing food scene of Northern California and Atlanta, we were wondering what a move back to Winston-Salem would look like from a cultural standpoint. I’ll say that we have been pleasantly surprised!

Another really unique change is that all of the old abandoned tobacco factories that occupied huge swaths of the downtown area have been renovated and converted into residential, commercial and educational spaces. The transformation is astounding and it has attracted more investment into Winston-Salem. The upshot is that more people are moving downtown and creating a demand for all the new and fun places that are popping up. The girls hop on their scooters and we explore our downtown neighborhood all of the time.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

Our realtor is a good friend of ours that lives in the downtown neighborhood. She knew that we were looking for a unicorn — a single family home with a detached guest house or apartment that we could grow into as our three daughters grew. My parents who live in Boston are also very involved in our girls’ lives and like to come for extended visits. Ergo, we wanted a separate space for them — a place they could retreat to when things got bananas at our house and where they could feel comfortable and have their own lives. And, after living in Atlanta, we wanted more of an urban feel and wanted to be closer to the exciting cultural and food scene of Winston-Salem. So, we were pretty serious about the neighborhoods close to downtown and also close to the hospital for Luke. 

After making our wish list, we looked for several months and nothing was really jumping out at us. Most of the homes we saw in person or online were going to be so expensive that we wouldn’t be able to make many updates or customize it to work for our family. Many of the historic neighborhoods in town had homes that fit most of our wish list, but were prohibitively expensive. We felt like we kept striking out.

That’s when Abby (our realtor) got creative and started looking at nearby properties that were zoned for mixed residential/commercial. As it turned out, there was a old home that was built in 1910 with an above garage apartment in the back that was owned by the Catholic Diocese. The church had been gifted this property by an Irish glass artist and his poet wife when they moved back to Ireland in the early 1990s. For almost 25 years, the church had run the Catholic social services programs out of the house and an adjacent property. Most of the home was a tangle of small rooms that had been converted into individual offices for legal services, counseling or storage for food and clothing donations.

In 2017, the church relocated their operations to a new facility and vacated the house, where it sat on the market for almost a year — with not even a single showing, let alone an offer. 

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

From the very moment we walked in, we felt like we had found our unicorn!  It needed lots of work, but there were so many unique features — from the little bench at the bottom of the stairs, to the beautiful fireplaces and hardwood floors. We knew this was the home for us. We just had one problem: we had no idea how to lay everything out and how much it would cost to renovate it. We were able to get the property at well below asking price, and we expressed our earnest desire to the Bishop that we wanted to raise our family in this home.

As a side note, writing a letter to the seller telling them about you and your family can go a long way in negotiations. Because real estate transitions can be so impersonal and even adversarial, it really was nice to make that human connection and let the sellers know what our vision was for the home and who would be inhabiting it. 

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

That process of remodeling before we actually moved was really pretty good, but it all comes down to the contractor. We had done walkthroughs with multiple contractors on a weekend before before closing on the house. Their reactions ranged from “this will really cost you” to, “why don’t you just tear it all down and rebuild”. Despite some dispiriting appointments, the last contractor of the day was such a breath of fresh air. Mike Gallo came in with energy, enthusiasm and a vision for how we would need to grow into the house. He was talking about future bedroom options for the girls and how their bathroom should be laid out to maximize their personal space. It was those comments and others that let us know that he was our guy.

Some tell tale signs that he would be a great fit: he thought about our daughters, he told us up front that he wasn’t the least expensive nor was he the most expensive option in town, he is a carpenter and manufactures all of the cabinetry and millwork at his shop, and above all, he only engaged in one project at a time. We found this to be the most helpful. From his perspective, I think he appreciated the fact that we weren’t occupying the home and forcing him and his crew to work around us. That made their renovation job a lot easier from a logistics standpoint. The other thing that he appreciated was that we had a healthy communication stream through email and text that allowed us to stay in contact, but not use up too much of anyone’s time with long on-site visits or drawn out conversations.

Still, it was a big job with lots of moving parts. There was asbestos removal, several chimneys that were removed in their entirety, some structural engineering work to the foundation, a large load bearing wall that was removed and lots of selections to make — so many selections! We quickly ran up against “decision fatigue” (definitely a first world and privileged problem). 

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

The decisions and attempts to stay within our budget (and to figure where to spend a little extra), were the most difficult challenges. That was the biggest eye-opening experience — the bank told us that most folks exceed their original budget by 15-20% and we thought that was ridiculous. We tend to be pretty fiscally responsible and thought it would be easy to keep costs under control. But a little upgrade here and a change order there, and it adds up fast.

All in all we loved the process and are so happy in our home. We did not use an architect or designer, so the learning curve was steep, but it ended up being a pretty amazing collaborative project for my husband and I. And we were able to customize our home in a way we would never have been able to had we not done this renovation. We made the old kitchen our master bath, the old dining room our master bedroom, the old butlers pantry, our master closet. A storage room became our laundry and mudroom (I have always wanted a drop zone for all 5 of us, not just for the kids’ backpacks and shoes). A closet and bathroom became our kitchen pantry. We took out 2 large fireplaces that were not working, which opening up a big open living space.

Our hope is that our home will be a place where community is created and cultivated through hospitality. 

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

I love that our home used to be a place that served the community so well. When I was a social worker at Child Protective Services, I would refer my families to Catholic Social Services — whether it was for the food pantry or therapy or teenage mothers or immigration services. So it is so fascinating to be living in that home now. I often think, “If these walls could talk.” Since it has only been a year since Catholic Social Services relocated, we have members of our community who come by asking for help. We are able to give them the new address and directions and they are always grateful.

For me personally it was important to stay connected to the organization — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I am social worker and I live in the home of a previous service organization. So I connected with the organization, completed volunteer training, and now volunteer at the food pantry on Thursdays when I am able (the food pantry was located in what is now our garage). It’s amazing to think about how they used every nook and cranny in our home to help members of this community.

We even had a really neat experience several weeks after we had moved in. There was a woman doing some yard work on the house next door. When Luke said hello, he noticed that she was wear a “Catholic Social Services” t-shirt. That sparked up a conversation and she went on to say that she was a social worker who had worked in our house for 16 years! Of course, we invited her in and she began to tell us stories about the various offices and people that worked in the different rooms (she literally occupied a closet for several years). It was a really unexpected and lovely connection to make, and she was so excited to know that we had renovated it.

At one point, she saw the girls playroom and started to tear up because that was the room where she had her office for the majority of the time she worked here. She was touched by the memories and our girls were captivated by her stories. 

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

We don’t often get the parenting thing right. It can be so difficult to manage 3 girls with such different personalities and emotional needs. That being said, we do have a vernacular that came to us by way of some intense occupational therapy. We talk about the zones of regulation. Green is calm and emotionally in control. Yellow is silly and a bit disrespectful. Red is mad as hell! We talk a lot in our house about how everyone’s engine gets red (angry or anxious), but our job is to figure out how to get our engines back to green (calm) as quickly as possible. Taking deep breaths, exercising, swinging outside, listening to music- just to name a few — all good ways to get back to calm.

Even when Luke and I are having a heated discussion, we tell the girls that we have red engines and are going to work to figure out how to get both of our engines back to green. An engine challenge. :-)

Another strategy we learned from a friend is to “go gray rock.” It’s when you try to replicate a boring, unnoticeable, blending into the environment, gray rock. Ignore, don’t show emotion, don’t engage. I am a really emotional person and parent, but I am learning that my emotions usually escalate the situation. If I can “go gray rock,” oftentimes the girls lose interest in fighting with me or begging me for something. I am not advocating to do this all of the time, but it has been helpful from time to time — especially when there are lots of big feelings going on around me. Or when my 4 year old is having a mega public tantrum at Target which happened yesterday.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

We also did an online course some great friends of ours created called Build Your Best Family. We learned about how to make a family mission statement, identify family values (we settled on respect, gratitude, growth, community, adventure, and simplicity), streamline some of our chaos, and have family meetings which is a weekly time we get together intentionally to talk about the upcoming week, give high fives to each other (compliments), discuss any interpersonal conflict.

We also use the family meetings to discuss the hard things that are happening in society and the world around us. Things that we would be tempted to shield them from, but that we know need to be discussed so that they can grapple with and form thoughts around racism, sexism, and corruption, just to name a few. And we have a snack and play a game to end our family meetings. 

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

For me, motherhood has been a place where I have felt like a failure in so many areas (this is not meant to be self-deprecating). It’s just that when you are in a workplace you have an opportunity to work hard, make a difference, maybe get some good feedback, muster up patience to navigate through an occasional interpersonal office conflict. I feel like parenting has been quite the opposite for me. There is just so much opportunity for failure — I am patient, I am patient, I am patient — until I lose my shit because I feel so worn down, and it’s only 8:33 AM on Saturday.

I am someone who likes control, parenting has slowly stripped me of layers and layers of that control. It’s a humbling thing.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

But if I had to identify something I am good at — my mom superpower — it’s that I am good at asking for help and getting resources. It’s exposing, vulnerable, and hard to recognize that you can’t fix something or hide something any longer. Or, that you can no longer manage a nagging problem anymore and need to ask for help. But wow, it has been my tried and true method for coming through so many tunnels.

Every family has their tunnels. For us it was with our oldest Isabella. From a young age she was a challenging kid here and there — books would refer to her as “spirited.” But as she approached age 5 (which happened to be after Luke was deployed in Afghanistan for 7 months and we welcomed Elena into the family — both massive transitions), it was clear that her emotion regulation was not improving.

We started reading a lot about Sensory Processing Disorder, specifically tactile defensiveness (when a kid’s amygdala goes into fight or flight mode when they encounter a texture on their body that does not feel good — clothing, being wet or sticky, etc). Things came to a head when Isabella was not able to get dressed in the mornings and she was not able to regulate her emotions at all. It was a dark and scary time. It was like we were losing our amazing Isabella to the symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder. It was clear that we needed outside resources.

For the next year I took Isabella several days a week to occupational therapy and play therapy. I studied and learned more about Sensory Processing Disorder. I incorporated what she and I were learning in both occupational therapy and play therapy into our life at home. She slowly blossomed and was able to express and process her emotions in much healthier ways. It was amazing to see.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

Fast forward a few years to another move — this time across country as a 1st grader from California to Georgia. About 2 months after the move, sensory issues started to impact Isabella again. and her ability to regulate her emotions decreased drastically. And this time around, her problems were compounded by debilitating anxiety — it totally paralyzed her…and us. She could not leave her room, she stopped doing things she loved like gymnastics and swimming, because she was scared about how her clothes were going to feel on her.

On one hand, we felt like our Isabella was slipping away. On the other hand, everything in our life as a family had become subservient to her, and we felt like we were completely held hostage. It was overwhelming. I  subsequently started having physical symptoms of anxiety — panic attacks, heart racing, perseverating thoughts. It was so strange. I had never dealt with anxiety in my life, but I was getting crushed by it as well. I knew that we both needed help.

Enter my super power of tapping into resources. I went to the doctor, got on an SSRI (zoloft), started therapy. Isabella started intensive occupational therapy again as well as cognitive behavioral therapy. We learned together about how to work through anxiety and brought what we were learning into our home. Our team of professional resources helped us get our life back, helped us get our daughter back, and taught us tools that we use on a daily basis. So in conclusion, my superpower is using other peoples’ superpowers when needed. :-)

A byproduct superpower of the superpower I just mentioned is that I have learned a lot about restorative self care and what that looks like for me. When I am in a good place mentally and physically, I am a much happier and pleasant wife, mother, social worker, and friend. Self-care outlets for me have been exercising through group fitness/running, as well as going away for weekends with girlfriends. All of it does my heart good which translates into positive energy for me as a mom.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

We told our kids even before we moved into our new house that we wanted our home to be a place where people would feel welcomed no matter who you are. In today’s social climate, there is so much fear, intolerance, and creating a sense of “the others”. At every opportunity, we are trying to push back against that and raise our girls to be be women of strength and love and acceptance. Our hope is that they see these values lived out in this house, and that they also see this wonderful home as a place of hospitality and warmth. We also want them to know that they can always come home.

I want our kids to remember the big moments like our travel adventures and their landmark milestones. But, I also want them to fondly recall simpler things like the half birthday celebrations (we start when they are 6 months old and they love it!) and our holiday traditions. For example, every December we do 25 experiences for Advent. It’s usually a mix of larger events and outings — like cutting down the Christmas tree, attending a Christmas parade and tree lighting, visiting Santa Claus, or driving around to see Christmas lights. And simple things that don’t require leaving the house. Some of our favorites were having a picnic next to the tree, rocking out to “Feliz Navidad” and other Christmas songs, making paper-snowflakes or a Christmas ornament. It’s been a way to be intentional through the holiday chaos.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

I also want our girls to remember sharing a room. The girls have always slept in a shared bedroom. My oldest is starting to ask for her own room, but I just don’t see the need for it. I hear her about wanting her own space, and since she plays music, she has a music corner downstairs with her guitar and uke and amp and microphone. Also, there are plenty of nooks and crannies anyone can escape to if they need some space. I love that the girls have each other sleeping close by. I love that they can talk themselves to sleep. I love that they are learning to share a space which can sometimes be really hard and frustrating (an engine challenge), but also such a good life lesson.

I mean, let me be clear, room sharing with three younger kids can be a total shitshow sometimes. But overall, I think that it’s been great for our girls.

We hope they totally forget how we as parents sometimes get stressed and short tempered and too preoccupied with our own lives and careers to be authentically present. I hope they forget the times where I have made body mistakes — when I have grabbed an arm too hard or put one of them in a timeout too forcefully, when my engine was way too red. I do hope they remember when I apologize to them for the mistakes I have made.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

The greatest gift we have been given as parents of these girls is watching them grow into their own personalities and be strengthened by the inevitable hard things that crop up in life. It’s amazing to see experiences through the eyes of three little people.

It’s hard to think about missing anything about their lives and development when we, the parents, are in the trenches. But we know we will look back on this special time when they are all in elementary school, before all the pressures and other interests that teenagers develop, and will miss this. (Side-note: I am TERRIFIED about the teen years and having 3 girls — pass along any advice please!).

We will miss how they still want to be held when they are sad, or want us to scratch their backs until they fall asleep. We will miss how they crave that special one-on-one time with us.

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design MomLiving with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

I wish someone had told me that my kids are not necessarily a reflection of me and that my identity is not inextricably linked to theirs. It’s taken me a lot of therapy to get to a better place with that. It used to be “if Isabella is in a good place, then I am in a good place. If Isabella is in a bad place, then I am in a bad place.” It was enmeshed and unhealthy but I put so much pressure on myself to be responsible for her emotions. 

The only sure thing I know about parenting: when things are bad or hard, they will get better. And when things are good, they will get hard again. So I have learned not to hold on to any situation too tightly — holding loosely has helped me tremendously. 

Living with kids: Melissa Neff's home featured by top design blog, Design Mom

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What a lovely home. Thank you, Melissa. It’s hard to imagine that this home used to be full of so many small spaces with offices and service rooms tucked into different nooks and corners. It feels anything BUT chopped up and divided. Tons of open space, tons of light through so many bright windows, and, just like Melissa promised, chock full of interesting details and character. That charming little bench at the bottom of the stairs is so great — you just don’t see things like that in new houses.

Melissa was also so open and honest about the challenges her family has faced with mental illness. It’s so hard to speak about our own struggles, but I think sometimes it is even harder to speak about the challenges that our kids are going through. There is a natural tendency as a parent to feel somehow responsible — that if you had just parented a different way, or been more strict, or been less strict, that somehow things would be different. I loved everything Melissa said about knowing how to recognize when and how to get outside help when her family needs it. It’s cliché to say “it takes a village” but it is so true that some parts of parenting are better handled when we an outsource them to people with more training or more experience or more time.

What parts of parenting have you found are best “left to the professionals”? How do you know when to ask for help and when to put your head down and get the work done yourself? What’s the best thing you have ever outsourced that ended up feeling like a blessing in your life?

SOURCES

Living Room sofas here and here

Loveseat

Yellow Armchairs

Counter stools

Hanging chairs


You can follow Melissa on Instagram. 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.

83 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Melissa Neff”

  1. I was lucky enough to meet Melissa when she lived in Davis and now to call her a good friend. It was such a wonderful surprise to see her home and read her words on here! I often find myself thinking “What would Melissa do,” when trying to be a better friend or mother, and have tremendous admiration for her and her family. She’s so open and kind and so her vulnerability in this interview doesn’t surprise me. Thank you, Gabby, for sharing this! We miss you, Melissa!

    1. Such kind words Ashley- miss you! Thankful for our friendship! Until our next weekend getaway (or phone date Friday :-) )

  2. I love the Zones of Regulation! I’m a school psychologist and am fortunate to know many occupational therapists. OTs are amazing, and I believe sensory and self-regulation issues are at the root of so many behavior issues we see in our schools. Melissa, your girls will benefit from your honesty about mental health issues and your willingness to seek out answers and help. It will also help all of you that you have learned to “detach” in a healthy way from them. You hear the phrase, “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.” That’s actually awful, when you think about it! I had to learn this lesson, too, with my children — that being completely enmeshed with their feelings and experiences isn’t good for anyone. Thanks for sharing this story!

    1. A school psychologist! Wow! I am sure that you are such a gift and asset to your school. I also believe that sensory and emotion regulation are foundational to a lot of issues- it’s been so eye opening. Our family has all benefited so much from Zones of Regulation :-)

  3. This is my favorite home tour yet. I love the honesty about how hard it can be to remain calm. Sometimes the home tours are filled with so much joy about motherhood it makes me feel guilty! This was so real. I am heading to a silent retreat this weekend and this is helping me feel less guilty. I am a SAHM of a 5 year old and 2 year old and so often life is an “engine” game. This home is beautiful and so is the mama who is killing it!

    1. No guilt or shame- motherhood is HARD!!! (at least it is for me)
      A silent retreat?!?!? Good for you! I hope it’s a wonderful and restorative experience. Staying at home with little ones can be so very intense!
      I really really appreciate your thoughtful words! Thanks for reading!

    2. Agree! Sometimes these are hard for me to read, I guess because the people seem so perfectly happy with motherhood! And maybe they really are – but a good dose of honesty about how.hard. it can be to parent wildly emotional girls, especially, is so refreshing!

        1. I just read this home tour and I loved it too. I have two fiercely emotional boys and what you wrote about it being much harder to feel successful at motherhood than at work really resonated. I also loved the photos of your beautiful home and reading about its history. All the best to the 5 of you.

  4. I was captivated from the moment I saw the first picture of her home. This house is so beautiful, warm and inviting! I can clearly see why she fell in love with this gem; the architectural details are everywhere and I also loved the little bench by the stairs. Melissa is an open book when talking about her beautiful family and the challenges they’ve gone through and I appreciate her willingness to be open and honest. Thank you for sharing your absolutely beautiful home and words with us Melissa. Thank you Gaby for a wonderful post.

  5. It’s nice to see your home with wood trim not painted white! I love the white look but I’m currently living in a house with wood trim and you’ve designed yours so nicely! Thank you!

    1. The natural wood trim was one of the things I loved most about the home originally. The painters kept wanting to paint the trim white and I was like NOOOOOO! :-)

  6. WOW!! This is one of the MOST honest, authentic and loveliest home tours I’ve ever read. Melissa, I applaud you for your bravery in sharing your touching stories and thank you for sharing your swoonalicious home….severe home envy here :-) Heading over to follow on Insta asap!!

    1. Hi Kath- I was striving to be my most authentic self with my words (which is a little scary)- I appreciate your words- SO nice!

  7. Hi, adult with SPD who was forced to share a room with her neurotypical younger sister despite protests here — please give your daughter her own room!

    1. Liz- thanks for letting me know- maybe I will revisit topic with Isabella. She does not protest it much yet, but you have reminded me to listen to her! Would love to hear more about your journey with SPD if you are willing to share (my email is melissarneff@gmail.com)

      1. Thank you so much for your response. I hope my comment didn’t come across as too harsh — you clearly care very much about your daughter. But I know that sharing a room strained my relationship both with my parents (who I felt didn’t listen to or care about me and my thoughts/needs) and sister (who “fit” in the world so easily, which made me feel even more different/alienated), and I just want better for younger generations!

        1. I SO appreciate your comment Liz- I am always open to advice, esp from someone who understands what Isabella has been through personally- something that I never will know from her perspective. THANK YOU!

      2. Really appreciate that you are willing to rethink this without throwing up a defensive shield. I’m sure your children appreciate that about you.

        1. Margaret- No defensive shield here- I have fumbled my way through parenting for the past 9 years and know I will continue to. So it is always helpful to hear others thoughts and perspectives. Thanks for chiming in!

  8. Oh my word, what a beautiful home, but more importantly, what beautiful words. As a mom of three littles who also struggles with anxiety, thank you for sharing your story – both the light and the dark that is life.

    1. Solidarity! I wish we all could talk more openly about mental health stuff, because the struggle is REAL and it can be so isolating and lonely. But I do think that the darker times make the lighter times that much brighter and richer. Thanks Jen!

  9. I loved this tour. My fiance and I are closing on a house today that is similar in style and age, with a similar-sounding neighborhood. This made me so excited to start decorating and renovating! And as a mom who has dealt with anxiety and been through the therapy, SSRI, self-care routine, I see you and I respect you! You’re doing great things. I loved your family meeting idea–I’m totally suggesting that to my fiance for our blended family!

    1. Congrats on your new house MJ! Good luck as you get settled. And thank you for your encouraging words. And you should def try out the family meeting- it’s so nice to have an intentional space in your family’s week to talk about big things and small things.

  10. What beautiful photos of a beautiful home! As a Realtor I appreciate them on a whole different level, serious house envy. Thank you for the post and I loved your comment about holding onto things loosely. It’s a hard thing to master.

    1. Thanks Melanie! It’s def a hard thing to master and something that I have to work on daily. Realtors are amazing people- I joke with my realty friend that she is a counselor, social worker, real estate agent all in one. You are helping people navigate not just buying or selling a home- you have an intimate spot in their lives to work through a lot of emotions that go along with listing or buying a house!

  11. It’s like Melissa was in my brain when she wrote the following! Particularly as a SAHM, I struggle with this reality so much. Thank you for articulating this, I will be sharing with my husband:)

    “For me, motherhood has been a place where I have felt like a failure in so many areas (this is not meant to be self-deprecating). It’s just that when you are in a workplace you have an opportunity to work hard, make a difference, maybe get some good feedback, muster up patience to navigate through an occasional interpersonal office conflict. I feel like parenting has been quite the opposite for me. There is just so much opportunity for failure — I am patient, I am patient, I am patient — until I lose my shit because I feel so worn down, and it’s only 8:33 AM on Saturday.

    I am someone who likes control, parenting has slowly stripped me of layers and layers of that control. It’s a humbling thing.”

  12. Thanks Melanie! It’s def a hard thing to master and something that I have to work on daily. Realtors are amazing people- I joke with my realty friend that she is a counselor, social worker, real estate agent all in one. You are helping people navigate not just buying or selling a home- you have an intimate spot in their lives to work through a lot of emotions that go along with listing or buying a house!

  13. I think it’s so wonderful that so many people are speaking about mental health issues openly. I also have three daughters just a couple of years ahead of Melissa (my oldest is also Elena, and is 11!), and I am always struggling with the “you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child”. I have one who just struggles, and it is hard not to wrap my self worth into that. I started a full time job this year for the first time and it feels as if we’re all starting to work on who we are as individuals. It’s good work, but exhausting. The home tours are lovely, but the info on mothering is always my favorite.

    1. You have an Elena!! And we are leading parallel lives with you a few years ahead of me with #lifewith3girls ! I hear you on that exhausting individual work! I also just started a job last month (25 hours so not full time) and it’s been tough how to figure it all out- feel like I lost some margins that helped me get all of the life stuff done. If you have any tips, please pass along! I’m all ears!

    1. Thanks Megan! We wanted concrete but I was not sure how high maintenance the care would be (which with kids I was wanting something easy to care for)- so we went for a Ceasarstone quartz called Rugged Concrete

  14. Oh my goodness, I SO appreciate Melissa’s openness and honesty. So refreshing and it is priceless to read fellow mama’s struggles that echo mine and my own kid’s. Heartfelt thanks to you. Fab house too!

    1. Thank you Anissa! It’s been so encouraging to read these comments and see that I am not alone in these motherhood struggles!

  15. I just want to voice the grace and familiarity with which I read this post. Thank you, Melissa. You are an AMAZING mom and person. My oldest has SPD and I have no idea how we made it through his third year when he refused to get dressed every morning and my husband and I became bitter enemies somehow in the endeavor to “help” him. There is so much stress. And I totally hear you about feeling patient patient patient and then RED ZONE! It is so hard.

    My son is in OT, and I really should introduce the zones of regulation in our home. I’ve learned so much through his challenges, but, like you, I’ve foremost realized that self care is the best medicine that I can give everyone in the family. Everything falls apart if I’m dysregulated, and I feel like my dysregulation spirals the kids into disarray in the future.

    Your home is beautiful. I love the simple but dynamic patterns you selected for baskets and pillows. Thank you for your honesty and resiliency. I know we’d be good friends if we lived in the same town.

    Sending light and love to your family.

  16. Amanda! Your words are so kind- and you know that damn clothing struggle! I look back at our darkest times and have a little PTSD when I think about the getting out the door struggles. You are right though- my own self care and my own self regulation are VITAL!! Wish we could exchange war stories over a coffee or tea, but alas. The internet will have to do :-)

  17. Wow what a beautiful home and powerful words, I love it!

    Can you tell me about your snapshot wall? Are all of those photos the same size? How to you put them up, and do you move them around or just keep adding on to the wall?

    Thank you for sharing your home.

    1. Hi Lisa! That’s one of my favorite corners of the house. We love taking pictures and I was getting annoyed at myself for never printing them out so we could look at them and enjoy them. I often catch the kids sitting in that corner talking about the friends and family in the photos. They are mostly all from my instagram account- I printed the square 4×4 photos from Social Print Studio and then put them on foam board (I did not want to put them all on the wall because I wanted to be able to move them around, and I did not want to mess up the walls). Hope that helps! You should do it- I bet you would enjoy it as much as we do!

      1. I love this too! I’ve started printing those auto-instagram books so my kids can sit and look at photos, but I LOVE the idea of displaying them too. I’m totally going to steal this!

      2. Hi Melissa – Ahh that’s such a great idea and I love that the kids look at them and have memories associated with the pictures. I very rarely print out any photos anymore and I miss that. This would be a great way to showcase them relatively easily. I always wait for the “best” picture to print out (usually large to frame) so it doesn’t happen very often. But there are so many others that are just as perfect. I think I am going to try it – Thank you for the inspiration!

        1. Yay Lisa! If I waited for the “best” picture to frame I would have nothing. Instead I have a wall of memories with family and friends and community- esp people who have helped me through tough times.

  18. This home tour feels more like a HEART tour. Thank you, Melissa, for sharing so many wise and honest thoughts. I began my journey as a parent as a very type-A person and learning to let go of some control has been so humbling and healing. When it comes to parenting, we usually think about how we are shaping our children in the world; thank you for reminding me how powerfully they shape us, too.

    Also, the woodwork in this house is so so pretty.

    1. So true Kile- these little people have exposed me and shaped me and stretched me more than I could have ever imagined!

  19. You said, “There is just so much opportunity for failure — I am patient, I am patient, I am patient — until I lose my shit because I feel so worn down, and it’s only 8:33 AM on Saturday.” I was so glad to see this! This is my life. I’ve told my husband the same thing a hundred times. I feel I get no credit for alllllll the times my patience is tested and I respond with love and grace. All anyone sees or remembers is the time I finally lose it, which happens all too often for me, whether because I struggle with my own emotions, my kids struggle with theirs, or we both struggle together. Thank you for making me feel less alone.

  20. Question – what color is on the walls? It all looks close to the same – is it white, or a grey, or a “greige”? We’ve got dark trim that I struggle to design around because I LIKE the white trim look – but there is way to much to paint, and I want to love it. Just wondering what color paint might go well – right now it’s just a dingy off-white that it was painted when we moved in.

    1. I had no idea before we did this renovation how many types of gray there were- and how they turns all sorts of colors- green, purple, blue, biege. One weekend I bought NINETEEN samples from Sherwin Williams of the grays that I was interested in and painted foam boards so that I could get a better idea than a swatch would give me. I ruled them out one by one by walking around the house in different rooms and in different times of the day with different light patterns and found Repose Gray to be the most consistent. So basically the entire house’s living and sleeping spaces are Repose (kitchen, living room, entryway, stairway, dining room, music room, bedrooms) and all of the bathrooms, pantry, mudroom, playroom is Pure White by Sherwin Williams. All ceilings were Ceiling Bright White by SW. So yes, I did an entire house renovation with 2 colors for walls :-)

  21. A beautiful post about a beautiful friend. Loved getting a sneak peek of your home – which I am determined to see in person in 2019!
    As you know, I am in awe of your honesty and openness. “what would Melissa do” is absolutely a question I ask myself often. So thankful for you, and happy you get to share a bit of yourself with readers here. They are lucky :).

    1. Dora!!! Thanks friend! Always grateful for your friendship and can’t wait to see you in our next weekend getaway (one of my self care pieces!) whenever that may be in 2019!

  22. My daughters are a little bit older – 14, 12, 12, and 9. When the twins were 3, they basically wouldn’t get dressed. One of them would like naked by the front door for at least half an hour every morning, screaming her head off. The other one would lose her ever loving mind every time I tried to leave the house. Every morning. Every morning. For about 2 years. It felt like a hostage situation. It got so I didn’t want to come home because it was so emotionally exhausting to leave again. But I was the primary caregiver, with daily help from my mom and a self-employed husband who was in and out of the house all day. Lots of good intentions, so many tears. I don’t even know how we got through it – certainly not by doing anything sensible like asking for help. But we got through it, they got over it, and it got easier. It sounds like it was terrible, but while those moments were terrible, life on the whole was great. We also moved a lot – like 9 moves in 11 years a lot – so maybe that has something to do with it? (cue sarcastic laughter).

    1. Andrea! First of all TWINS?! And 9 moves in 11 years?! And FOUR girls!!! You are amazing!!!!!

      Any advice for preteen and teen years?! I’m all ears!

  23. Hi Melissa! I live in Winston-Salem too, although I’m envious of your downtown proximity! How fun and magical to be in that spot of town. Thanks for sharing your home and your family with all of us – your house and your point of view are both beautiful!

      1. Another Winston-Salem-ite here! I loved reading about your approach to life and kids. Although I don’t have kids (we have two nieces in town that we adore and occasionally spoil!) your words ring true for lots of aspects of approaching life! Thank you so much for sharing.

  24. I loved this home tour so much! Your home and honesty are beautiful! I did the LWK home tour a few before yours, I wish we lived closer and could have coffee!

  25. Melissa, I wish I could sit down and have a cup of something and just talk and talk with you. Faith, our children’s mental issues, living in the first-world while knowing the need of others. Your post resonated deeply with me as it felt a lot like things that I have felt as a parent. I also want to try that engine color thing. My oldest goes from green to red in a heartbeat – and I don’t respond well. (That “I am patient” mantra until you’re not? So me.) Thank you for being open and sharing all that. Oh, and your beautiful home!

  26. I so appreciate this beautiful tour – in more ways than one! Our three-month-old was just diagnosed with hearing loss, though it’ll take a lot more testing to know the extent. We tried long and hard for this baby and I had a difficult pregnancy and birth; it feels like we’ve already been through a lot and now this surprise diagnosis. Melissa’s reflections on her kids’ mental health and her own is a much-needed reminder that plenty of parents encounter surprises with their kids and with some grace and lots of hard work and love, so much is possible. Thank you, Melissa, for being such an inspiring, authentic example for this uncertain new mom!

    1. Hi J- thank you so much for sharing about your 3 month old- I imagine you have experienced and will continue to experience a range of emotions as it relates to you readjusting your expectations- around conceiving, pregnancy, and now this new diagnosis. I don’t want to throw a bunch of cliches at you- just wanted to say that the unknown and uncertain can be so unsettling and scary as hell. Build up your village, find out everything you can about the resources your baby could benefit from, and snuggle as much as you can :-) You’ve got this!

  27. I aspire to have a home as beautiful as you someday! I love the playful colors, especially the greens! It looks like an inviting space for children! I use a lot of grey in my house too, but need more pops of color, like you did!!
    I am currently into the rustic cabin decor look, especially during the holiday season. I could look through Pinterest for hours and hours at all of their ideas . They are very do-able too! I also have a cabin decor website that features many of my favorite items for rustic cabin decor.
    Thank you for sharing your home with us! Wished I could come visit!

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