Moms Make it Work: Sarah from Spain

We have another international mom posting for us today (besides our beloved Canadians)! Sarah lives in Spain and I have 'known' her since our wedding days (i.e. seemingly forever). I was excited for her to offer her story to our series because living abroad with a young family fascinates me. I studied abroad in Madrid and miss it dearly but I cannot imagine raising my family there--so different and so amazing. Sara truly 'makes it work' as a full-time working mom in Spain with two, going on three kiddos. Enjoy her post and you can find the rest of the Moms Make it Work series here. And if you or someone you know lives abroad and would like to contribute to this series, I would love to hear from you! International moms who make it work are a category on my 'must find more of' list for this series, right now;)


When I saw that my blogger friend Julia was hosting a blog series about how moms "make it work" I was thrilled to read all the entries, and inspired to contribute my little story.  Julia and I have been internet friends for about 7 years now, our first connection was made on a little message board called "The Knot" where we bonded over Alençon lace dresses with sashes and DIY invitations.  Turns out Julia also studied in Spain where I live.  We further connected a few years later over our pregnancy losses which happened in the same year.  I believe that she and I are kindred spirits and I am so glad we "found" each other online all those years ago and continue to keep tabs on eachother through the social media worlds of Facebook, Instagram and blogging.  I unfortunately don't blog much anymore but you can find some previous "mommy abroad" type posts at Babbles and Bibis.  These days I mostly just have time to "overgram" my cuties and other life stuff, you can follow me on IG at @saritagemba.  I don't know how I lived life before my iPhone.

Without further ado, here is my submission for how I, as a fellow mom, living abroad in Europe, "make it work"!

What is your background story? What was your career/schooling before you became a mom? And now where are you?

I am from a small suburb of Boston, Massachusetts where I graduated from high school with every intention of getting into the business world and eventually settling back into my hometown area and starting a family at a young age. Little did I know how my life would change once I got to college and discovered the great, big world beyond my little bubble.

The decision to spend my junior fall semester of college abroad in Seville, Spain in 1998 was a pivotal one.  As soon as I stepped off the plane and began my adventure, I immediately felt at home in a place so foreign to me and I found myself wanting to drink in every little thing the Spanish culture had to offer.  I immersed myself fully into my study program and met so many amazing Spaniards who taught me how different and amazing life could be.  While the rest of my friends were crying the whole time they were abroad, I cried the entire way home.  I knew I had to get back to Spain somehow.

I won't cover the next 10 years of my life in detail because it's complicated and involves a long-term relationship with a Spaniard including two weddings and two international moves (but luckily, no children).  It finally occurred to me in 2008 (just a few months AFTER our huge Spanish wedding) that I was not happy in the relationship.  I had changed as a person since moving to Spain permanently in 2004, and I couldn't continue to pretend that everything was perfect with us when it was so clearly not.  Our separation was a dark time in my life but luckily it was short-lived as I serendipitously met the man who IS the love of my life only a couple months later.  We had a whirlwind romance, quickly discovered we loved everything about each other, and soon decided to move in together and start a family.  I don't remember even thinking it was crazy at the time because it just felt SO RIGHT.  Five and a half years later, it still feels right and we are happy as clams.


Daniel and I met in October 2008, moved in together in March 2009 and began to "look for a baby" (that's the literal translation of "trying for a baby" from the Spanish - makes me giggle every time) in Summer 2009.  We found out I was pregnant right after my 31st birthday in February 2010  We were ecstatic, and our beautiful daughter Manuela (named after Dani's mother) arrived in October 2010. 

celebrating our first Thanksgiving together as a family

I'm sorry, but look at this face!!

We immediately wanted another baby, but I tragically suffered an early pregnancy loss with what would have been #2 in October 2011.  Following that loss, I ended up having some health issues and underwent gallbladder removal surgery in April 2012.  That summer, after my recovery, we got pregnant with our adorable son, Lorenzo who was born in March 2013.  

Little Lorenzo

He was born with kidney issues that we are still dealing with but which we hope will be resolved soon with corrective surgery.  The name Lorenzo in Spanish is associated with the sun and we feel so blessed to have this little ray of sunshine light up our lives.  Lorenzo and Manuela are 2 years and 5 months apart and simply adore each other.

my two little buddies

We just recently found out that we are expecting #3 in early Fall.  It was a bit of a surprise, but we are thrilled to be growing our family and having so much fun in the process.

Here we are at Seville's Spring Fair, shortly after Lorenzo was born!

That's the personal/family background (sorry that was long and complicated), now on to my career/schooling:  I graduated from a small liberal-arts college in New England with a self-designed major/minor combo in Hispanic Studies, European History and Modern Dance, with the intentions of entering the business world and perhaps some day doing an MBA.  I ended up working in Human Resources, in both the high-technology and manufacturing industries, before deciding to make the move to Spain permanently.  Upon arrival in Spain, I made my entry into the world of international education and student travel, because it is my passion to help other students like me fulfill their dream of immersing into another language and culture.  I started working my way up at the same company where I studied abroad, and am now an administrative director where I focus on preparing proposals for custom study abroad and educational travel programs, together with my colleagues in our U.S. office and worldwide locations in Spain and Latin America.  I also have direct contact with the students at our Seville location (where my office is located) and help them plan their independent travel.  I absolutely LOVE my job and wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.

Here I am accompanying an American student group to the beautiful village of Arcos de la Frontera in southern Spain

I currently work full-time while raising two small children (and a 3rd on the way!)  People ask me all the time how I do it, and I hope this post will help to answer that question while offering a unique perspective from an American mom living abroad.

What are the best parts of your situation? What are the biggest challenges? 

The best part for me is that I feel completely fulfilled by the career aspect of my life while still having lots of quality time with my children and being able to be a mom.  I don't think I would be able to accomplish this if I were living in the U.S.  Spain does a really great job of providing help to families - including affordable daycares (you U.S. moms would cry if I told you how much we pay!), long maternity leaves (16 weeks off, 100% paid!) and a supportive atmosphere from family, friends and the workplace.  In Lorenzo's case, he was born in March which meant I was due back to work in mid-July but since my company closes for the entire month of August for summer vacation (another score for Spain!) I got to have almost a 6 month maternity leave with him.  It was amazing.   Now that I'm back full-time, I work 40 hours a week but since I am in contact with counterparts in the U.S., this often involves after-hours work (my daily office schedule is generally 8:00am-4:00pm and Spain is 6 hours ahead of the East Coast U.S.) which allows for me to be flexible and work from home if I need to follow up on something, or set up a Skype call, etc.  The best thing I ever did was to work from home on a part-time basis during my second maternity leave, which I believe gave my company the faith they needed in me so that I could continue to fulfill my responsibilities away from the office and thus allow me to control my own schedule.  It has done wonders for my productivity levels and has overall made me a very happy employee.

Also, my husband and I work really great together as a team and complement each other beautifully.  I wouldn't be able to do it without him.  In our current arrangement, I take care of Manuela and he takes care of Lorenzo.  Manuela goes to pre-school right near my office so I take her in with me every morning and pick her up when I'm done.  It's a long day for her but she has fun and learns a lot!  Dani gets Lorenzo to daycare where he spends the morning and has lunch, while Dani works his morning shift.  Dani then picks him up at 2pm, is with him during his mid-day "siesta" break and naps with him until I get home in the afternoon.  I'm alone with both kids all afternoon while Dani goes back to work until about 8:30pm (this is a typical Spanish schedule - Dani owns and operates a storefront graphic design business which opens in the morning, closes for "siesta" and reopens in the evenings).  We currently live in an outlying suburb of the city of Seville so our daily commute is about 30 minutes, but we just moved here so we're still adjusting, and will probably have both kids at school/daycare in the village by September.  That will probably mean a solo commute for me every day once I go back to work after baby #3.  It might also mean getting some help at home here in the village as opposed to having both babies in daycare and both of us running around like chickens with our heads chopped off all day.

I will probably jinx myself for even bringing this up, but another " best part" about our arrangement is that so far my children have proven to be excellent sleepers, which helps us to be almost fully-rested for our full days at work.  Any sleep we need to catch up on after a whirlwind week, we can do on the weekends.  It's not uncommon for us all to take a big, fat nap together after a big lunch on Saturday or Sunday.  God Bless the Spanish Siesta.  Since Day One with Manuela, we have always used a "rotation" schedule for late-night parenting so that at least one of us is always getting a full night's sleep.  It has worked wonderfully except, of course when I was breastfeeding the first few months and just had to suck it up...but both of my kids went to bottles before I went back to work, so that worked our nicely.

The biggest challenge is the day-to-day coordination which requires lots of planning ahead and tons of communication.  If one of the kids gets sick, obviously there's a huge monkey wrench thrown into our plans, but we just deal with it as it happens and luckily we both have flexibility to be able to stay home if needed.  We usually trade off these responsibilities so it doesn't just fall on one person.  I'm still not quite sure how we're going to do it with three kids, but I'm sure we'll figure it out!  

A unique challenge for me as a mom abroad is that obviously I don't have my family here.  They are there "electronically" but it's not the same.  It makes me sad that my kids will grow up only experiencing for the most part only one side of their family.  It's economically prohibitive for us to travel to the U.S. more than once a year (if that).  I absolutely love my big, crazy, extended family and since having kids it has hit me hard how permanent and life-altering the decision to move abroad has been.  I have to put in extra effort to be in touch via social media, Skype, etc. and talk a LOT about my family with the kids so they don't forget about them.  I hope as they get older we can arrange for longer visits in the U.S. which will hopefully also contribute to their bilingual language skills (that's a whole other complicated topic that could be seen as both a benefit and a challenge in my situation).  If you're wondering, I speak to the kids in both languages (as much English as possible), my husband only speaks Spanish, and they watch TV only in English.  They're still little to know how this is affecting them, but my dream is that they one day end up to be fully bilingual.

posing with Santa (or "Papa Noel" as they like to call him) in my hometown while visiting the U.S.

Is this how you expected it to be pre-kids?

Since my entry into motherhood was such a whirlwind, I honestly never really thought about it!  Back when I was a kid and dreamed of being a mom, I guess I did picture myself as a SAHM or perhaps working part-time.  My mom was a SAHM and I was very aware that she did not feel fulfilled so perhaps that has subconsiously driven me to make both worlds work for me.  Economically, you have to have two salaries here in Spain in order to live at all comfortably.  We have pretty much just made decisions as we went for what made sense at the time and what made us happy, and so far things have fallen into place.

Is this your ideal situation?  If not, what is?

I do believe this is my ideal situation for now.  Perhaps once I have three kids I might feel differently, but for now this works for our family and I can honestly say I feel fulfilled and happy.  Obviously, if we were to come in to a lot of money that allowed one of us to not work, or work less, and focus more on the children that would be fantastic, but I don't see it as a necessity.  I do see that perhaps instead of having the two younger kids at daycare, we might try to find a trusted at-home care situation which is fairly common around here and might be more affordable and allow us more flexibility with our jobs if we have someone at home with the babies. 

Do you see yourself making a career change in the next 5-10 years, or is this current set-up staying put for the long haul?

Absolutely not.  My career and my children are completely compatible and I am definitely in this for the long haul.

Here are Manuela and I modeling in the flamenco fashion show for American students at my place of work.  So much fun!

Tips on how you make this work for you?

Organization - I am a highly organized person by default and so coordinating all these details on a daily basis is in my nature.  I have also had to learn to let go of some things - like not beating myself up if I forget to buy Manuela's favorite mid-morning snack and she ends up with the same crackers in her backpack all week.  Communication is SO important.  By the time Dani gets home from work in the evenings, we're usually too exhausted to recount our day so sometimes we'll chat on our phones on our way to work the next day to communicate anything important (i.e. a typical message from me to him: "Did you see the note from Lorenzo's daycare teacher about his bum being red?  Make sure you put diaper cream on him!".)  Make the most of your time with the children - as much as I have to be available for work in the afternoons, evenings and weekends, I do take moments to "turn it off" (like bedtime and a week-long family vacation each summer) and focus only on them.  Also, Dani and I do our best to make time for each other.  Sometimes that means allowing ourselves the luxury of a babysitter (so unheard of here) so we can go out alone, or sometimes that means one of us staying home while the other one goes out with his or her friends.  We both recognize the need to blow off steam and have some "me" and "us" time.

How do you handle mommy guilt that comes with each role?

I try not to focus on the guilt and keep things positive.  There's really no need to even label it "guilt".  You just have to accept your situation and make the most of it.  I simply consider myself lucky to be able to fulfill my desire to have a career and be a mom at the same time.  I have never felt overcome with guilt from either not being at work to be with my kids, or not being with the kids to be at work.  I feel very satisfied with the balance.

Advice for new moms struggling with returning to work outside the home?  Or struggling to decide if staying home is the right choice? 

In my case, my advice is for new moms struggling with returning to work outside the home.  Clearly, you have to want to do it and know it is right for your family.  If you feel laden with the decision, you will only be miserable about it and should explore alternatives.  When you do return and know it is the right decision for you, know that each day will get progressively easier and better until you find your rhythm.  

Thank you, Julia, for allowing me to share my situation here with the other moms reading this series.  It is wonderful to have the support of an online community and share the ways we "make it work" in all our different situations as moms!

Full series found here


  1. I also studied abroad in Sevilla and really enjoyed imagining your life there as I read this profile. Studying abroad was one of the best experiences of my life, so I'm sure your job is very rewarding!

  2. I'm curious about breastfeeding abroad - you mention that both your kids took bottles before your leave was over, so it was not an issue. Do Spanish women typically nurse their babies? And for how long? I'm also curious to learn more about what childcare is like in Spain. I had read "Bringing Up Bebe" and have since fantasized about living in a society that respects those caretakers of our young - and to make it available for cheap and to all! Thanks for sharing your unique experience as a working mother abroad.

  3. Loved this! Congrats on baby #3 on the way. :) Your job sounds really awesome and fulfilling. Not taking the opportunity to study abroad while in college in honestly my biggest regret in life.

    Cannot imagine that kind of maternity leave - so jealous!! And you're right, I probably would cry at what you pay for childcare. What we are going to pay for childcare for three kids makes me want to cry, but not in a good way! But oh well, we'll make due!

    Thanks for sharing! :)

  4. Joanna - good questions and sorry I didn't touch on them more! I nursed my babies for 2 and 6 months respectively - Manuela for less because she was given a bottle right after birth because of my C-section (terrible standard practice here that I hope will change soon) and as a result she became partial to bottles and didn't take to nursing so well, so we tried but gave up pretty quickly. Lorenzo was a natural birth and breastfed right away and I was able to keep it up for his first 6 months and then switched to bottles for my return to work. I could have chosen to continue breastfeeding but just saw it as too much of a hassle, I was never into pumping and could never really get it to work right. Legally, I could have up to an hour a day for the first 9 months of baby's life to pump at work if I needed it. Alternatively, you can take that time off either cumulatively tagged on to your maternity leave (works out to about 2 extra weeks) or to leave early or come in late to be with your children. I have found that women here aren't that into breastfeeding - most do it for maximum 6 months, some as long as a year. Not sure why because society is definitely much more accepting of it as compared to the U.S. - meaning you can whip it out anywhere and no one will chide you! Most women cover up but if you walk down the street of any Spanish city you will most likely see boob and no one has any qualms about it.

    In terms of childcare, most women rely on family members for the first year of baby's life and then most working women will put their children into daycares, which cost on average about 150-250 Euros a month, the most expensive costs including food and full day of care. If I have a live-in caretaker who will be with both my children at home and even clean and cook on the side I will probably not have to pay her more than 400 Euros a month, which as you can see will be equal to or even better than having both babies in daycare. Having a babysitter handy for nights out is pretty uncommon but mostly because society allows for children to be out and about with you until all hours, especially in the warmer months. On the rare occasion hubby and I want a night out alone, we would normally be expected to leave the children at their grandparents for the night which usually works fine. Most families operate that way.

    Let me know if you have any other questions and I am more than happy to share more details!

    1. So fascinating. What an interesting experience with the nuances of parenting abroad. Thanks for addressing my curiosity. I think I saw a news headline the other day about the undeniably/unnecessary high rates of C-sections in some European countries - everyone has an opinion, I know, but I think the fascinating part is learning of people's opinons and their reasons for them - society/culture plays such a huge role! I'm a pretty middle-of-the-road kind of person, but living in Portland, OR affords me the opportunity to be much more "natural" and "green" than I might have to fight harder for if I were to live in another region, let alone another country. Good luck with #3 and each time you miss your family think about that amazing childcare deal. Just kidding. Kind of :)

  5. Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your story!! It's because of people like you writing about your stories that I am feeling much more confident about the adventure in front of me. My Spanish husband and I are leaving the US in two weeks to have Baby #3 in Spain this summer. I have so many questions.... is there any possible way I could get in touch with you? (email is below) In any case, thanks again for sharing so much of your life. You have such a beautiful family!

  6. Hi CAM, I will write you now, I'd love to be in touch. I unfortunately just lost baby #3 so this has been a sad, sad week.

    Thank you for your kind words and yes, you do have quite the adventure before you!



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