Natacha is French, her husband is from Ecuador and they have two kids. Their son is 6 years old and their daughter is 2 ½. They have been living in the Bay Area for about 10 years. Her husband works full-time and when their first child was born, she decided to stop working to take care of him full-time and she is now taking care of her second child full-time.
In this interview we talked about leaving a job that you like to take care of your child, finding the stimulation and structure to keep yourself and your child occupied, meeting other families through various activities and she shared a great tip to help finance these activities. As a stay-at-home mom myself, Natacha’s story particularly resonated with me so if you are a stay-at-home parent or planning to spend a long period of time with young children I hope this can inspire you as well.
Why did you choose to take care of your children full-time and stop working? Was it an easy decision?
Natacha - It was a very difficult decision. I mean, both my husband and I love children but we also love our jobs. I absolutely loved my job. Most recently, I was working in customer experience management as a project manager, implementing platforms for our clients to manage employee or client feedback. Extremely interesting and rewarding, but long hours, mainly because I wanted to make sure to find appropriate solutions to the questions our clients had about our platform. I didn't know I was going to be a full-time parent. What happened is that when my son was born I was working for a great company, and every couple of months, I kept negotiating and pushing out my return because I wanted to see my son develop, I just wanted to be involved and I couldn't find a daycare solution that I felt comfortable with. So I decided that I was going to take care of him and just see how it went. As a side note, my mother was a stay-at-home parent so I think somehow that probably influenced me as well. My husband comes from a Latin American family and in Latin America, families are very present, and moms or at least their families are often the ones taking care of the kids, but that probably had an impact as well.
Was being a stay-at-home mom like you expected?
Yes and no. It is definitely tiring. I think a lot of people warned me that being a stay-at-home mom, I was not going to be intellectually stimulated but I never felt that. I found that maybe because of the way I structured the activities for both my kids, I ended up always having that stimulation. I will admit that when my first was a baby I did create a couple of Excel models here and there, for example to estimate the number of diapers needed on a long international journey… so maybe I also created the stimulation right there. I didn’t feel isolated from other adults and I don’t recall ever missing the interaction or intellectual exercise because I started helping out with school and things like that, so I was able to find those stimulations. So from that perspective, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't as people had described, at least for me. I do think though that it is tougher than I had envisioned. For example, when the kids are sick, you don’t get a break at all. But it's very rewarding, so I don't have any regrets. I do need to get better at self-care, like seriously better…
Do you have family or friends helping you? Like you said, sometimes the kids are sick, do you have any help in these situations?
We don't have any family nearby which does make it challenging at times. We do have great friends, but both my husband and I, especially my husband, don't like asking for help. The one time we did have to ask for help was when I was about to deliver our second child. We've also made a choice to not have babysitters, because of not being at ease having someone else take care of our children, but we are coming to a point where we do need some backup for certain situations. So yes, we are going to eventually have to find them.
How do you keep your day occupied with your daughter?
We leave in the morning together to drop off my son at school and after that, we have an activity nearly every single day. We have a very structured schedule. I drop off my son at 8:30 am at the latest and most of our activities start at 9:00 or 9:30 am so that eats up the morning, that's where she's at the highest level of energy and attention. Then we pretty much have lunch and then she naps at the start of the afternoon, she's down to one nap right now, and that's when I can organize a certain number of things, do house chores, speak to relatives and family. Then she wakes up and we go pick my son up from school. After that, we usually go to his extracurricular activities. So then I need to find a way to creatively keep my daughter busy while my son does his activities. She's getting more and more wanting to participate so soon we're gonna have to come up with a plan B.
She's just starting to be at the age when she wants to be around other children a lot of the time so I’ve found that if I stay home when she's sick for example, if she misses one day of activity, she has a craving to be with other children. So I try to maintain this schedule as much as I can. But days go by fast. The downside is that I probably don't have enough time at home for myself, to organize things and just put in systems for my sanity. But she's very happy so that works out.
You said the days are going by fast, sometimes stay-at-home moms say the days are long but the years are short, you have never felt that?
Not with my daughter. I mean, when my son was younger and I was sleep-deprived, some days felt long because I didn't start activities with him before he was 8 or 9 months old. Also, with our son, I was convinced I needed to hold him after he had fallen asleep in my arms so that felt long (rookie error!). Because my daughter was born during the pandemic, my son was doing his preschool online at that time. So she was watching classes all day with me and my son online until she was five months old. So my days were structured for me and that made it a bit unique. I think had I not had that imposed structure, I probably would have felt the same way I had felt with my son at the beginning.
So you are doing activities with her every day, can you tell me more about them?
We do a 45-minute Music Together class which we take outdoors. I also used to do that with my son, we did those indoors, and a friend of mine wanted to try the outdoor version so we do those every week and we're very happy with both the instructor and the content of the class, introducing music of different cultures and being with other kids and rhythms and small instruments. And being outdoors is actually fantastic. It gets cold in the winter but we bundle up and in some of the songs, in the fall for example, we can actually use dead leaves outside and throw them up in the air. It is just a very nice experience, I highly recommend it. My daughter is singing the tunes in the car now and beating rhythms. It's also fun for adults, there are little parts where we dance as well, I think it’s very enjoyable, at least for me it is. In the class 4 to 6 kids participate each week and one thing I enjoy is that it's either a parent or a nanny or grandparents that are there with the kids. I like seeing grandparents, they just seem so happy to be there with their grandchild and sometimes they recognize music from their culture and get up and start dancing and it's just a very nice moment.
We go to a program called Music and Dance at Bright Beginnings in Sunnyvale, that's a two-hour program and it's structured as an introduction to what a preschool day would be. This is good for us because she didn’t go to a regular daycare so we want that exposure. At the start of every session, there's a free play time and then they have a circle time with songs. The reason it is called music and dance is that the circle times are very much focused on listening to different music and learning little basic dances, there's a Mexican hat dance for example, where each child has a hat as an accessory and learns just basic steps and then they have two art times when they have a theme, for example for fall they'll use dead leaves, paint them and dab them on sheets of paper and add glitter or other things like that. And then there's an indoor space with toys and games and an outdoor space as well. We each bring a snack and there's a table where all the children eat side by side, my daughter loves that because she gets to eat with the children, with a lunch box like her brother, so it teaches her to be independent so that's very nice. One other thing I appreciate is that throughout the year, as the child becomes more and more independent, we can actually start dropping them off. We can leave them in the classroom and step out to the main lobby area. I'm not there yet but I'm happy that I have that system in place, where I can gradually get her used to being fine without me. We had done something similar in another Bright Beginnings program with my son when he was little and that worked out well, except that in his case, the pandemic hit, so that annihilated all our efforts. What I also like is that they tidy up together at the end of each activity. Bright Beginnings is a lovely place that we really appreciate, it's a good community to be part of, and I like that they are teaching community values. You don’t go there just for a class, it goes beyond.
We go to Waterworks for her swim class. She takes a parent and me advanced classes. She started in the beginner's class and then walked her way through advanced. My son had done the same thing. We've been in this swim school for five years now because he started when he was eight months old. We are very happy with it, both kids are at ease and in the water, which is very important to us because our family in France lives by the sea, so they have to know how to swim, it's not an option.
We go to Gym Kids at Bright Beginnings, which I hadn't done with my son and I'm sad we didn't, in fact, if I could go back, I would do that with him. I had heard a lot about it when he was little, but we were already doing a lot. But this time around, I decided I'd try that with my daughter. We've been going for two years now and it's been fantastic. I think her motor skills have just grown. It is a 45-minute class. The first 30 minutes is free-play and every quarter the layout of the room changes, there's a combination of little ladders that go up to a little tower, and then kids can either slide down or climb down other little ladders. Everything is padded. There's also a trampoline, ball area, and little cars that you can sit in and play around in. Each week during the free-play time, there's a different little motor skill type activity, it can be anything from little foam beams that children can walk on or bean bags to throw and toss to reach a target. There's an instructor, when it's free play she comes around and helps and sings songs. It's very nice, I think it builds a nice community of parents, we discuss parenting questions with each other. At the end of the session, there is a circle time led by the instructor, which my daughter adores, it is a combination of parachute, bubbles, little puppets, little bells, and they learn basic numbers. It is a great way to spend 45 minutes and kids usually nap well afterwards.
So those are pretty much the recurring activities that we have and then since I help out with certain things at my son's school, she also comes along and volunteers with me when I'm helping out.
How did you choose these activities? Was it because they were convenient for you in terms of location or time? Were they recommended by friends?
I think it was a combination of asking myself what I want her to be exposed to, while I could still really choose before she starts school, and recognizing that swimming, motor skills, and music are very important ones. I definitely wanted the activities to start somewhere between 9:00 - 9:30 am so that she had enough energy. At one point, I tried some classes that were later in the morning and she was just so sleepy, it made no sense. And then location as well was a factor. I think for my sanity, I need to feel like I am moving from my son's school to the activity towards home and not going in the other direction. I also did some of these activities with friends or heard about them from other parents. But I can't say that I had extensively read about them before doing them. I just tried them out. For example, there's one activity that we tried that we ended up not doing, it was a dance activity, which ironically I had read about the most, but she was too young for it when we started and she spent the entire class trying to figure out how to open the door and leave. So it was also trial and error, we stuck to the activities that worked.
Did you make some friends among the other parents you met in these activities?
I did yes, but what I do realize though is that in order for the friendships to stick, we need to have somewhat similar parenting styles. Now with two kids, I find it more difficult to make friends with parents who only have one child, just because we manage our schedules differently. When you have two children and there is school you are not as flexible. But some friendships have stuck luckily. And if anything, there are parents I don’t keep in touch with but we're always very happy to run into each other.
So you don't feel alone as a stay-at-home mom?
No, I've never felt alone. Now, I can't tell you how much of that is just due to the activities or due to my personality. I will say the one activity where I find we interact less with the parents is the swim class, though it is where my son met one of his best friends. But I feel that because each parent is focused on their child in the water, we don't have as much time to chat.
I understand completely, it was the same for me. After the swim class, you need to change yourself and your child, and take a shower, it’s not the most convenient place to chat. I personally loved the gym class for that and I felt the instructor wanted to take care of us, the parents, as much as the children. Did you feel that too?
Yes, I mean our instructor has kids herself so she's been very knowledgeable and I think that's very helpful. I've come to her with parenting questions and she's always been great at offering her perspective or actually introducing me to other parents. Last week for example I had a question and she said, “Oh here's my perspective, and here's this other parent who happens to be a teacher who can tell you about their perspective because I'm sure they'll have a different angle of approach”. So that's been pretty great.
One activity that I did not do with my daughter, but did with my son, was a Mother and Baby group for children over 6 months at Stanford Children's Hospital. They have a group for younger babies but I was not ready for that at the time. In that group, it was mainly first-time parents, I made several close friends there and that was a fantastic activity that I would go to every Monday morning. At that point, I was still struggling so much to get out the door, but I was like, “Okay I'm gonna do it because there are other moms there sharing their struggles”. It was extremely helpful.
How did it work? Did you have subjects on which to share with the group?
So the group was rather big, I can't remember how many parents, and there was one facilitator, I think it was a registered nurse. It was in a big empty carpeted room, we would sit in a circle and bring a blanket and maybe a couple of toys and pop the child in the middle, and they would either stay on the mat or interact with other kids. Then we would go around and take turns introducing ourselves and talk about what's new this week, and what struggles we had. In some cases it was teething for example “I had a terrible night” and then other parents would just chime in and say, “Oh, have you tried this or that?”. It was a really great group. And from time to time, I don't know if it was systematic, the nurse would have a topic she would want to cover. For example, she would have a handout with travel tips, if you were to take the plane internationally and then parents who had already traveled would share “I tried this” or “This was a disaster” or just reassure us “You'll survive!”. I made some good friends there. At the end of the year, you graduate, ready to go into the big world. I have a photograph of my son with a little mortarboard, it was really, really good.
Are there other things that you did differently in terms of activities between your first and second child?
At one point, I decided with mums I had met in one of these groups to start a co-working space with a play space for children. When that started, I suddenly shifted my son's schedule and he spent most of the day with me in that space as we were organizing it. It was a good learning experience for me. That lasted maybe four or five months and then I realized, when that ended, which was right before COVID, that I did like having all these activities and having a structure for my sanity. I think it is the same thing when one is unemployed, it helps to have structure in the day and that’s the most important part for my sanity.
Of course, doing all these activities has a cost. Was it easy for you to say “I need these activities for my sanity so this is money well spent”?
It is expensive, so one way that we have made it work is to convince some of our family members that we do not want all those bulky toys but that instead we prefer for them to pay for a part of these activities. So that's the route we went, to have our families participate. And it's interesting because at first, they were like “Are you sure? Don't they need a physical token of our affection?” And I'm like “No, or you can send something under $10 if you want, but for us, the best thing you can do is help us pay for these activities. If my son knows how to swim and you've paid for this swim class, it is a lifelong gift that they'll always remember or that it's up to us to remind them”. I think in the long run, at least for us, it felt like the best route to go.
Next year, your daughter is going to preschool, it’s going to be a big change for you. How do you feel about it?
I'm trying to really enjoy all of our activities every day right now. There are days when she doesn't nap well and when I'm a bit frustrated, I say to myself “Hey, you know, you really need to enjoy it now”. I know by the time we reach next summer she's going to be so ready for school. I still need to potty train her, that's the adventure that awaits us this year. I think it is a bit bittersweet but I think maybe she would not end up being bored, but I would really have to up my game and just go beyond these activities if we were to go longer without school. So it's good and maybe I will get even more involved at their school at that point. But it will be a big change. And I think the first couple of months will be focused on self-care, after putting things on hold for five years and cooking more elaborate meals/exploring meal planning.