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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.