Living with Kids: Julia Soplop

Today’s house tour features Julia, and she is already a friend to the Design Mom community. You haven’t heard her story yet, but you have seen her gorgeous photography work when we featured her sister Mari Melby’s home earlier this year. Julia was kind enough to offer to show us around her gorgeous home in North Carolina and we were happy to say yes. Her home is restrained and minimalist without seeming cold or unwelcoming. Welcome, Julia!

Hi, I’m Julia. I live with my husband, Jeff, our three daughters and our old-but-still-puppy-ish yellow lab in Pittsboro, NC — a rural town adjacent to Chapel Hill. I’m a born-and-bred Minnesotan and have spent my life documenting the world around me in writing and photography. I believe there is something profound in simply bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. These days I’m a full-time mom, full-time home educator and part-time lifestyle photographer. When I get the chance to spring free, you’ll find me on a hiking trail, bike or kayak chasing a stunning mountain view.

My husband, Jeff, and I first met in graduate school for journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. We became fast friends and a few months later, we found ourselves both presenting papers at an academic conference. Truly you could not find a nerdier situation. After we gave our riveting talks, the weekend took an exciting turn (after all, we were in New Orleans). We never looked back and got married about a year later. Choosing to walk this life with him was the easiest and best decision I’ve ever made. This month we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary. 

Jeff has spent most of his career in the world of clean energy technology. He travels for work, but is an extremely involved parent. He’s a surfer and a triathlete. He’s currently pursuing another graduate degree, this time in economics, and recently started contributing to a prominent economics blog. He’s quite modest, but I find it impossible to be modest when I talk about him.

We have three girls, and I’d characterize the overall vibe around our house as WILD. Cricket (7) is a sensitive soul — a near carbon copy of me in many ways, but much braver and with a significantly better memory. She’s organized, intellectual, thoughtful and athletic. Nora (6) is free spirited but also strong willed and introverted. She’s a snuggler and nurturer and has such a natural grasp of humor. Lately she’s been working feverishly to demonstrate that she’s responsible enough to care for her own pet. I’m happy to report that as of this week, she is the proud owner of a baby hedgehog named Thistle. Piper (2) is all joy and spunk. She never stops moving, talking or joking. I’ve come to think of her as the perfect exclamation point at the end of our family.

In the last year, Cricket and Nora both became equestrians at their own request (or demand, rather). The girls spend just about all their time at the barn riding and grooming horses, reading horse books or playing with horse toys. Sometimes you’ll even find Piper trotting around with the owner of the barn on the biggest horse there! It’s an amazing experience to watch your kids start to find their passions and develop skills beyond your own.

Deciding what home meant to our family involved a seven-year process of soul searching. When Jeff and I finished graduate school, we were lucky to have jobs fall into our laps in the Research Triangle area, so we stuck around and bought a house in a suburb filled with conveniences and amenities. The area had exploded in the 1990s, and most of the nearby homes were built on tiny plots of land in the same styles and with the same finishes. For many of our neighbors, the classic suburban life was exactly what they were looking for. But it just wasn’t us.

I started to develop a sinking feeling that perhaps we were settling — that we were still young but were already letting some our dreams slip away. The confusing part was that Jeff and I had very different dreams of where home should be (his had a beach view and mine was nestled in the mountains). We spent years researching locations that might incorporate both our visions but wouldn’t force us to give up the positive things we had going in our suburban life — affordable real estate that allowed us to live on one income while I stayed home with the girls, good schools and universities (and a highly educated population), family-friendly activities. The reality was that other places that appealed to us were substantially more expensive and would require us to give up positive aspects we already had.

I had long tried to convince Jeff to abandon his beach idea and move to Colorado. Over time I realized that as much as he enjoyed mountain activities, I hadn’t convinced him my vision of home was his own, and it didn’t seem fair to keep pushing.

We decided it was high time we took elements of our individual and disparate goals for a home and create a new dream that would benefit our whole family. We started to think outside the framework of mountains and beach that we’d been set on for so long and listed out other aspects of the home in which we wanted to raise our family: a beautiful view, privacy, separate bedrooms for each of the girls, a screen porch, some land to run around and play, and all set in a neighborhood so we weren’t too isolated. When it really came down to the details, the things we envisioned for our family were quite similar. Suddenly all these goals felt attainable and we suspected we could find them nearby. We’d have to trade the idea of living in a dramatic landscape for living in a landscape with more subtle beauty, but neither of us felt disappointed thinking of a wooded backyard filled with swaying loblolly pines and wild animals.

Finding a comfortable house in our area is not difficult, but finding one on an acre or two of wooded land within a neighborhood proved challenging. We went under contract on two houses, both of which fell through. We were discouraged. Finally, we came across a house in Pittsboro, a semi-rural area we were completely unfamiliar with that is only 15 or 20 minutes south of the bustle of Chapel Hill.

The house was new construction but had been sitting finished for several months without a buyer. The builder had used high-end finishes and a lot upgrades for energy efficiency (bonus!), which boosted the price tag compared to some of the other nearby homes. But because it had been sitting for a few months, we were able to negotiate the price down to our budget. We bought it for around $450,000. I don’t mind sharing this information, because I think we got a pretty spectacular deal compared to what you would pay for an equivalent home in many other parts of the country. We have 3,300 sq. feet and 1.4 acres of wooded land. So many of my friends live in major cities, where they have great jobs but struggle to find affordable housing. It doesn’t have to be that way if you have flexibility in your job location!

Our house has an open layout on the main floor. Jeff and I both feel like physical clutter makes our minds cluttered, so we knew we needed a strategy to keep the shared living spaces clean. The girls’ toys “live” upstairs on shelves or in their closets. (One benefit of new construction: large closets.) We keep a few baskets on the main floor, where we can throw toys that make it downstairs, but the girls take most of their things back up to their rooms before bedtime. This system works well.

We’re minimalists in our desire not to have “stuff” around the house unless it holds significance. The photographs on the walls are mine. We travel a lot, and they remind us of favorite places and adventures. I also encourage the girls to create artwork they’re proud of, then I hang it up so they can see their art has value. Jeff’s grandfather made our kitchen table. It sat in Jeff’s kitchen when he was growing up, and his parents had it refinished for us as a house-warming gift. I have several pieces of silver from my beloved late grandmother sprinkled around our shelves and feel such peace when they catch my eye and remind me of her.

A local artist and wonderful friend, Jenn Potter, painted the colorful painting at the end of our upstairs hall. Jenn paints in layers, and she asked the girls to paint the first layer themselves. So their own creations lie hidden under the finished product. Can you imagine how honored they were to be a part of the process?

We love bold colors and don’t worry about trends. The builder chose the most incredible green for the exterior. I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to select it myself, but I’m so glad he did; it fits us perfectly. The entire interior, however, he painted beige. We’ve slowly started to change the colors, beginning with the girls’ rooms.

I realized recently that the way we went about decorating Piper’s nursery as a family is emblematic of how we go about loving her together. I wanted to do something bolder for Piper’s room than we’d done for the other girls. Cricket and Nora painted the large-scale painting over Piper’s dresser when they were 2 and 3, and we’d hung it in our previous dining room. But they really wanted to give it to Piper, so we started with the painting and chose the blueberry wall color to complement it. The girls also helped select photos to print for the walls, and Cricket provided a watercolor too.

Cricket and Nora are 17 months apart and refuse to acknowledge the fact that they aren’t twins. They’re thick as thieves. I always knew I wanted one more baby, but it took a few years after having Nora to even think about another pregnancy. Then by the time Jeff came around to the idea of introducing another level of chaos into our lives, we had a four-year age gap between Nora and Piper. I worried she would be left out of their dynamic.

Well I didn’t need to worry, because Piper interjected herself right into the fold, and the girls swooped her up immediately into their relationship. But the even more incredible thing has been how much Jeff, Cricket, Nora and I have bonded over loving on and being in constant awe of this little creature of ours. When I think back, the enthusiasm with which the girls threw themselves into so thoughtfully designing Piper’s nursery should have been a clue that Piper would find herself with four parents instead of two parents and two older siblings.

Our backyard woods are one of our favorite parts of our home. We carved a little trail system through them, where the girls run and mountain bike. Jeff built a fire pit for s’mores. We put the girls to bed and then read or work on the back porch all evening, listening to the woods awaken with screeching owls and foxes.

We adore Pittsboro. Out here, it’s easy to remove yourself from the pressure and business of suburban or urban life and become attuned to the simple, seasonal pleasures of a more rural environment. We find places to pick strawberries in the spring, blueberries and lavender in the summer, and pumpkins and apples in the fall. We regularly visit baby animals at surrounding farms. We hike and paddle year-round along the Haw River. We hang out at an open-air tea house on an organic farm. We visit local alpaca and sheep farms and buy their yarn for weaving. We spend a lot of time exploring gardens, museums, zoos and the nearby tiger rescue. We grab breakfast at a restaurant in a converted textile factory on the river, then cross the bridge to a new island park in the middle of the river to hike and play at a natural playground. And when we need a break from rural life, we just drive down the road to the vibrant college town of Chapel Hill.

Choosing to step back from the busyness of suburban living was a conscious choice that went beyond just the placement of our home. We gained so much energy from being out of the fray that we took it a step further and started homeschooling this year. Freeing the girls from rigid schedules and seven hours in a school building has allowed them so much more time for free play, creativity and pursing their own interests. I’m sure it won’t last forever, but since we can fit their activities into our weekdays, we’ve been able to safeguard our weekends for family time and travel.

My professional life before kids looked very different from what it is today. I did things like write and photograph health and science stories for various publications and organizations and work as a field research assistant in Madagascar studying lemurs. But I always knew I’d want to stay home with my kids, and we’ve been able to make it happen by living in an affordable area. The desire to be my kids’ primary caregiver didn’t extinguish my creative side though, so in 2012 I launched a lifestyle photography business focused on authentic storytelling.

I love taking maternity portraits that help women see past their discomforts and gain confidence during a sensitive time in their lives. (I didn’t enter motherhood gracefully; it arrived each time with a torrent of debilitating nausea and vomiting that left me feeling like a shell of myself. A set of maternity self-portraits I took along the way unexpectedly boosted my own self-esteem, and I want to offer that feeling to more women.) And I’m always honored when I’m able to meet and document a newborn within the first few days of life—it’s so rare to get to lay your eyes on a brand-new human!

My business gives me the creative outlet my brain requires and also allows me to have complete control of my schedule. Some years I feel like I can handle more work, and some years I give myself permission to completely step back. I don’t pretend to have found balance, but I don’t hesitate to make adjustments based on my stress level or the needs of our family. 

In some ways, raising daughters is the most familiar thing in the world to me, because I’m one of four sisters and between us we’ve got eight daughters (and one sweet boy, who teaches us so much!). But something that surprised me about our girls is that they’re much more physical than my sisters and I were. They’re always wrestling each other, climbing up and jumping off things and acquiring all sorts of minor injuries. Their physicality is something that has always stressed me out and if I see it, I feel this need to tell them, “Be careful!” or make them stop their fun.

Over time I’ve realized it’s a part of who they are, and often I just need to just walk away and let them wrestle their hearts out without me butting in. Of course I want my girls to grow into strong women. To me a strong woman is someone who averts her eyes from the judgmental gazes of others, puts her nose to the grindstone and unapologetically pursues her calling, whatever it may be.

I hope my kids remember how much intention Jeff and I put into creating a safe and loving home for them. I hope they remember zooming around on their bikes, running through the woods, sledding down the driveway, planting gardens, having the space to create, and the near-constant laughter in our house. I hope they remember that we tried to teach them empathy and resilience. This home is the place I hope they form and maintain deep relationships with each other so that when one sister inevitably stumbles in life, the others will pick her up and carry her until she can walk again on her own. I hope they forget how easily I get frazzled. I hope they forget, or at least forgive, my short temper.

I wish someone had told me (and I had listened!) that there are some phases of parenthood that are going to come more naturally than others and there are some phases you might not handle with much grace at all. And that’s okay. Motherhood came very naturally to me when each child was 0-2 years old — the nurturing, breastfeeding, cuddling years fulfilled my introverted nature. And then when the older girls were 3-4 years old, I found motherhood much more emotionally challenging. They were fighting me on everything, and I was constantly losing my temper. I genuinely wondered if I had already peaked as a parent, if maybe the rest of the road wasn’t going to come naturally at all.

But in the last year or two, I’m hitting my stride again, finding common interests with these kids who somewhere along the way turned into full-on people. If you’re in a tough spot right now with your capacity to parent this particular stage, hang in there! I’ve been at this parenting thing long enough to know that every childhood developmental phase passes quickly — for better or worse — but it’s only recently that I’ve flipped that around to understand that parenting phases pass quickly too. 


Thank you, Julia! What a lovely home. I really appreciate how the home is so clean and neutral in so many ways, with surprising bursts of color to keep it interesting. And that wooded backyard seems so dreamy. As the weather gets warmer it must be nice to spend some time outside and watch the trees and flowers bloom.

I also really loved what Julia said about being surprised about how physical her girls are, jumping off things and wrestling and getting those bumps and bruises that to many kids seem to get. And how her inclination is to step in and tell them to be careful but how she has to force herself to walk away and let them test their physical limits on their own. Such great advice! I think so many of us grew up in a world where we did more roaming and pushing ourselves without a lot of parental involvement. Yet somehow, as parents, we’ve fallen into the trap of being overprotective and wanting to manager so many of our kids interactions. It’s a good reminder to let go and let kids be kids.

Are you good at being a “free-range parent?” Or are you a worrier and want to make sure your kids are being as safe as possible? What have you down to allow yourself to let go while still making sure your kids are OK?


Print of floral painting

Kitchen chairs and bar stools

Dining room table

Wool throw blanket


You can learn more about Julia on her blog and see more of her gorgeous photography work on her Instagram. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. 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

The post Living with Kids: Julia Soplop appeared first on Design Mom.


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