By Gabrielle.

Mandi’s loyalty shines so brightly through this entire interview. It’s honestly like a love letter to her husband…and Ohio.

I have to mention, I’ve become a little obsessed with her state of late, especially after catching a few episodes of Cleveland Hustles. Have you seen it? It’s a concept reality television show by LeBron James that follows young entrepreneurs trying to create local jobs and a business model that can be replicated across the country. They’re paired with Cleveland businesses and mentors who’ve made it locally — and stayed. You see, everyone associated with the show share one major goal: they are all committed to bringing jobs and opportunity back to Ohio. It’s wonderful.

I’ll let Mandi tell you her tale. It’ll fill you with emotion and might even make you look around and ask yourself what you can do for your own city. It had that effect on me.

Welcome, Mandi! We are so happy you’re here.

Hi there! I’m Mandi. I live with my husband Phil and our two daughters, Lucy (three) and Juniper (one).

I’m trained in interior design and had planned to move to the big city — Chicago — to become a successful designer living in a cool loft in a fun neighborhood. Instead, during my college years I fell in love with the challenge of freelance life and investing my talents and friendships into bettering my local community in Northeast Ohio.

Our area, known as the rust belt, has experienced an incredible loss over the past few decades with the exportation of manufacturing jobs, resulting in wounded and shrinking communities, increased crime, and plenty of brain drain. I resolved to stay because it was difficult, but also because it was easy. Our family all live here, and they’re such an integral part of our lives. Sometimes my brother and I dream about relocating all of my in-laws along with our own family to someplace warmer, but in general we have tremendous Ohio pride.

I hesitate to say this, just because oh how I wish it didn’t matter, but ever since marrying during our poor college years, we’ve struggled quite a bit financially. Phil and I are very proud that we make every effort to create strict budgets, follow through, and save wisely, but there’s not much you can do with the salary of rural kindergarten teacher and a part-time blogger who works primarily for someone else’s blog. It’s something that I’ve always said didn’t bother me, and I’ve sworn I wouldn’t want my husband to stress or feel like doing something he didn’t enjoy just for us to have more material possessions.

I myself have worked odd jobs just so I can continue doing what I enjoy, and also spend as much time as possible with our kids. It’s a choice we’d made, and I wanted him to know that if we were poor for the rest of our lives, I’d be happy with it.

I guess he wasn’t as happy, though. Content, perhaps, but eager to do more and experience more. So he recently made a career change and is now working in sales, which will certainly give us a different lifestyle someday, but for now we’re keeping to our old budget and banking everything else so that in a few years we can put my interior design training to work and build a home that we’ve designed and dreamed for together!

Looking forward to a better home is something I’ve struggled with since before we were married. It’s what made me interested in interior design from the beginning, I suppose. You know, the desire to improve the space around you. But I found myself obsessing over when we would have enough saved to get a new house, when we could finally put drapes up on the windows, and when we’d be able to do something about our drab kitchen. I mean, we couldn’t even afford paint for the kitchen, because we were literally putting every extra dollar into an envelope to save up for an Ikea sofa! As much as I tried to tell myself to snap out of it and just enjoy this space we had now, our time together, and blah, blah, blah… my mind wouldn’t let me.

Until I was diagnosed with cancer. Then everything changed.

Not that I would ever want anyone else to go through what my family went through, but I have to say, if I had the chance to go back in time and prevent my cancer (a rare type from a malignant paraganglioma tumor), I definitely wouldn’t. The experience taught me so much about how foolish and trivial furnishings and fabrics are when faced with a limited amount of time on earth. I shifted all of my energy into relationships and spiritual matters. I looked towards eternity in Heaven, rather than wasting away a few lame years waiting for a West Elm sectional while bemoaning my prefab sofa.

I did recover from cancer, but I had a very difficult time adjusting back to normal life again afterwards. I wrote a few blog posts about it if you care to read about it in more detail. But how could I go back to caring about throw pillows and shag rugs after being given a second change at actual LIFE?

With the help of some spiritual mentors, I’ve been able to understand how these seemingly trivial passions of mine — design, fashion, photography — add so much joy to my life and enhance the few years I’ve been given on earth. They’re fun. They’re exciting. But the way our home looks is not the most important part of our home.

I live in Canton, Ohio, where I was born, and very close to where I attended college at the University of Akron. We live in a unique area with three close cousin cities — Cleveland, Akron, and Canton — that we usually just refer to as Northeast Ohio. It’s unique because there is a great mix of landscapes and communities, and each city is reawakening with city revitalization projects happening in the wake of the rust belt decline.

Lake Eerie is our version of a coastline, Portage County gives us rocky terrain and caves, and Canton is surrounded on the south and west by Amish country. We also have a good mix of rural, suburban, and urban places everywhere in between. Each individual city has its own mix of recent and well rooted immigrant communities, so I like to think of our area as being pretty open and understanding of people from all walks of life.

They say “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation” in terms of politics, so it’s exciting knowing how much my community can impact the future of our nation. In general, if you get plugged into local communities — even slightly — in Northeast Ohio, you will find an energy and vision that I believe to be unmatched in the rest of our country. As Lebron James says, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned.” We pride ourselves in that work ethic and just wish the rest of the country could see how much has happened and changed thanks to the hard work of those who’ve stayed here and care about our region’s future.

As far as my actual home goes, Phil and I have basically run the gamut of living spaces, as far as Canton, Ohio is concerned. Nine years ago we began our marriage in a suburban basement apartment, but moved into my brother’s gutted 1920s bungalow to help him renovate and pay his mortgage. That was a really fun two year stretch that people thought we were crazy for undergoing. Some people would mention how perfect our living arrangement would be for the premise of a sitcom, and I would chuckle and agree! My brother is still very close with Phil and I, though we don’t have to share a tiny bathroom any more.

After the bungalow years, we moved into the most gorgeous 1920s Tudor apartment with towering, gothic arched ceilings and unbelievable charm. Because Canton is such an inexpensive place to live, this dream apartment was an incredible living experience we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy if we had actually moved to the big city as I had originally planned. I didn’t think we could ever leave that place, knowing I wouldn’t be able to find such a magnetic design within our price range, but just two years later, I found myself pregnant for the first time and eager to make a financially wise decision to buy a small mid century ranch with a meager amount of character but a fantastically low mortgage payment.

As I mentioned earlier, we’re very excited about the prospect of building in the next few years, but in the meantime we’ve been trying to make a few changes here and there that will make us appreciate our current home a bit more before we leave.

We only toured three homes in our buyers’ market region when we were looking four years ago. When I saw the brick wall core of the home and the openness of the kitchen and dining area, I knew we wouldn’t find anything with such a good starting point for such an amazing deal. I don’t mind sharing that our home was under 90K, and is around 1500 square feet. We have no basement and no stairs in our home, which is certainly unusual for Ohio, but very convenient for keeping track of tiny humans. Although just today my three-year-old asked me, “When are we going to live in a home with stairs in it?” I have to admit, a little separation would be nice at nap time!

If I wake up early in the morning, the sound from our kitchen carries across the terrazzo floors into the children’s room alerting them that Mommy finally has some alone time, which should probably end immediately.

Thankfully Phil doesn’t have much of an opinion when it comes to interior design, but he really appreciates everything I do to make our home look nicer and work more efficiently. He verbally affirms what I’ve done with our space since we’ve moved in, and I really appreciate that. He also is always willing to help with projects, even though he never seems to grasp my vision. I asked him to find a few friends to come over and rip the cabinets off the wall and he didn’t even question me once!

The biggest challenge has to be the fact that we have two small children and only one living room. We have no basement, no den…. nothin’ but our one living room that also serves as our office and playroom.

We do have three bedrooms, but opted to give each girl their own bedroom, because they both prefer to play together in the main family area of the house, rather than alone in their rooms. I don’t blame them. I’ve been happier since having my office in the family room too, so I can be with them all while I work. But I’m not so good at tidying up my desk area, and neither is Phil. That’s one of the issues we plan on addressing to make our living environment more enjoyable.

I do allow a generous amount of toys in our home, but make sure that each toy has a storage spot, or else something’s gotta give…or should I say, be given away! I recently made a storage cabinet to house toys behind our sofa, which also created a great little surface for the kids to play, and for us to use as a sofa table when hosting gatherings. It’s nice to have all of the toys so easily accessible, but also out of sight, as this is the first view when entering the room.

Lucy and Juniper’s play kitchen is also prominently displayed on our fireplace wall, so I definitely made a point to find cute looking pieces at garage sales and antique shops so I wouldn’t mind staring at them all of the time.

I used to do 10 DIY projects a month for A Beautiful Mess, and looking back, that is utter insanity and I don’t know how I kept up! I was very stressed out, malnourished, and not well rested. My projects were beginning to lack quality and half my ideas weren’t so great. You could definitely say I was burnt out.

I decided to step back a little when I experienced a very difficult second pregnancy, and haven’t gotten back to my previous rate of productivity and probably never will. Not because I’m incapable, but because I’ve decided other things are more important to me. I have been given different types of opportunities in lieu of DIY projects, such as developing filters for the A Color Story app, working on some behind-the-scenes design projects, and photography gigs here and there.

But in general I lay low these days and enjoy Instagramming more than planning projects and editorial calendars, or managing sponsor contracts. I do go through waves of being very motivated in terms of projects and blogging, and then the wave will subside and I will focus on keeping my home in order, including being present as a parent, a wife, a daughter, and a friend.

The worst part of DIY blogging is finding the space to do it in my small home! I’ve commandeered my dining room for months at a time, and my family is very, very patient with me. During those stretches of time, we make an effort to have the rest of the home neat and tidy at all times. I definitely have a massive amount of craft supplies in my home, and a bit of a wood shop in my garage. I will never purge my supply stash, which is inconveniently stored in several places around my home, because I believe having access to materials when inspiration strikes is so invaluable!

I have quite a few hobbies, and most of them involve crafting or woodworking. Occasionally I become obsessed with a particular project and find myself holed away at home with everything I need to indulge my crafty whims for months at a time. Obviously I leave the house during that time, but I’ll stay up till the morning fiddling with miniatures, or go blind staring at the computer screen as I design something that I may or may not end up building.

Sharing parts of my home on social media can go one of two ways, and frequently goes both of these ways at different moments in time, if that makes sense. Sometimes sharing so much of my home makes me overly critical of it, especially when engaging with others on social media who have what I perceive to be better homes than mine, or “goal homes,” if you will.

But other times I find myself going through a period of time where I’ve been bogged down with the ins and outs of life and haven’t given two hoots about my home for quite some time. Rather than this being a welcome respite from the hazards of materialism, I find that subconsciously I begin to feel stressed at the lack of order in my home and lack of mental rest that comes from my being in a home that is well designed and neatly maintained. So being a part of this aesthetics-conscious part of the internet world is a great way to glean inspiration for my home which results in my creating a space that we all enjoy more with a little thoughtfulness.

As with most things in life, it’s all about balance. In this case, a balance of inspiration, practicality, and contentedness.

We’ve very fortunate to live close to most of our family, and not just because of the convenience of childcare. Phil and I are very close with both his family and mine, and we’re also very close with our Canton church family. I have set days where my mother and in-laws will watch my two girls during the day — my mom on Wednesdays, and my in-laws on Friday — because they have flexible work schedules and love having that guaranteed time with my precious angel children.

Mentally it does so much for me to have alone time to recharge mentally, spiritually, and physically, but I try to be as efficient with this time as I can be. Sometimes I get a lot of work done that earns our family income, while other times I just try to get caught up with housework or my to-do list so we can all feel a bit more sane in our home.

Lately I haven’t had as much childcare as I’ve been used to in the past, because my in-laws keep going on these enviable trips around the country, hiking, sky-diving, and whatnot, while my parents, on the other hand, have been dealing with some pretty serious health issues that my dad is recovering from. I’m just grateful for his life, so I really don’t mind the lack of childcare. Though things are getting back to normal on that front now.

Phil and I are very purposeful about balancing our alone time, time with our individual friends, time with our friends we share, time alone as a couple, and time all together as a family. This takes a lot of intentionality, and every month we check in to make sure everyone’s happy with how things have been going.

Sometimes I’ll go away for a trip with my girlfriends, or I’ll have friends over multiple nights in a row for crafting, wine, movies, or just catching up. He plays in a basketball league, is a mentor, has Bible studies with men and also alongside me with couples, and an active social life to boot.

Sometimes I don’t know how we fit it all in, but other than our basics like I’ve just described, we don’t make a lot of plans and try to keep flexible with our schedules. We do like to host, and it seems like our friends enjoy being in our home, too! That’s a big relief for me, because I like being social late in the evening, but that isn’t always possible with kids unless people are able to come to your home for hangs.

What do I love most about living with my girls? I love seeing a spunky personality emerge from what I first knew as a tiny dancing fetus on the ultrasound screen! It’s hard to understand that feeling until you experience it, I suppose, but the amount of influence and responsibility we have over her life is daunting at times, but mostly it’s a huge honor and makes us more thoughtful about everything we do in life, even in how we take care of our home and set good examples for things like screen time and television content.

Most of all, I just really like my two girls, and see them, yes as my responsibility, but also as two lifelong friends that I enjoy having alongside me to enhance every joy and to help soften every blow that comes along as well.

I’ll never forget when the doctors told me that my tumor was malignant, and my Lucy (who was seven months old at the time) just looked at me and laughed with the crinkliest eyes possible. It can be difficult when everyone in your life overanalyzes how to treat you, sometimes avoiding the difficulty altogether. Or sometimes you find yourself feeling the need to tell everyone else in your life that everything will be okay. But when you have a little person who just exudes joy and isn’t touched by the sadness, understanding, or fear, it can be the greatest gift. You don’t have to know that everything will be okay, but at least you can enjoy each fleeting moment while it lasts.

My dad, an engineer and also very talented craftsman, created for my brother and I an enormous collection of building blocks that we put to use in every area of play during our childhood. We would spend all day building sprawling villages with carefully constructed homes, and my parents would let us keep them set up for an entire week, because they could see our imagination and joy at having created such a special play world. I always felt so bad for my friends who had to keep their homes entirely neat and tidy, or pick up all of their toys at the end of the day, with no exceptions.

Yes, there is a balance to find in there somewhere, and I always try to make sure that I’m teaching my kiddos responsibility and making sure our home is enjoyable to all who live in it, but a childhood is such a brief moment in time. I don’t want to regret limiting their joy and childlike wonder. I hope that I give my children chances to try all different kinds of crafts and hobbies in our home, to build relationships with their friends and our family’s friends, to see creativity and healthy habits modeled for them, and to feel like this is their space as much as it is mine.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d let them make a mess in the kitchen whenever they asked to help.

–-

Illness has a way of rearranging our furniture for us, don’t you think? I’ve read this line at least seven times: “I looked towards eternity in Heaven, rather than wasting away a few lame years waiting for a West Elm sectional while bemoaning my prefab sofa.” Thank you, Mandi, for sharing your earned wisdom with us all.

Another line I love because I relate to it so completely: “I will never purge my supply stash, which is inconveniently stored in several places around my home, because I believe having access to materials when inspiration strikes is so invaluable!”

Anyone else out there in love with their city and working hard to get it back where it once was? I’d sure love to hear your experiences.

P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me knowWe love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.