You’re going to love meeting Emily Richards and her family today. Because Emily’s husband speaks Spanish, they decided to move to Madrid with their three boys and give urban living a try. It’s so fascinating to hear Emily share the difference between their previous suburban life in Raleigh, North Carolina and their new life in the big city. And you’re going to love their bright and beautiful apartment too. Welcome, Emily!
We’re Todd, Emily, Parker, Emmett and Ben. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest while Todd is from Arizona. Todd and I met during our freshman year of college; he broke my finger by smashing it in the car door on our first date and from there we had a pretty typical story.
But fun fact: soon after we met we found out that if my family had stayed in Phoenix where my dad was finishing up residency, Todd and I would have grown up mere blocks from each other and gone to the same schools and church. His step mom even babysat my siblings!
Todd is a lover of all things technology and is the one everyone in our extended family calls when they need to buy a TV, computer, phone, basically anything technology related. He comes off serious but you’ll quickly see that he’s got an impressive sense of humor and is famous for his dance moves.
At my brother’s wedding the bartender told my brother that Todd needed to be cut off after witnessing his dancing. My brother told him Todd was the most sober guy in the room (we don’t drink). He also likes to build things and come up with creative and useful ways to improve our home. He’s a man of many trades I guess you could say.
I love efficiency, and getting things done, and am always working on a project. I love food and trying out new cooking techniques and challenging myself. I made a goal at the beginning of the year to make a Spanish tortilla every week until I had perfected it. About mid- February I finally nailed it and now they will forever be a staple in our home.
We spent 8 years in Raleigh, NC after leaving college, and have been in Madrid for the last 2 years. Todd is a financial statement auditor (you would have to ask him what that means, but he says it is the sexy type of accounting, not the nerdy kind). I’m mostly a stay at home mom and do PR writing on the side.
Parker (11) is our oldest and could spend all day outside either fishing or looking for lizards, frogs, and snakes — or all at the same time. He claims living in an apartment in a big city is his personal prison. He keeps us on our toes with his latest finds and creations.
Emmett (8) is one of those kids who gets along with everybody and everyone wants to be his friend. He gets just as excited as I do about trying new foods when we travel, and he is always up for something new and adventurous. He is as happy living in Spain as he was in the US. For him it was just a matter of learning a new language and a new sport (futbol), so he could fit in well, and he was all set (easy right?).
Ben (5) is the star of our show, he is everyone’s favorite and makes our world go around. When he was born, we found out he had Down syndrome and our lives were forever changed in the best way possible. He gives the best hugs ever, can get away with anything by putting on a big smile, and he is a true joy to be around.
We tell our boys that we don’t have a favorite, we just love Ben more than them We can tell it is all working when they say, oh of course, don’t we all just love Ben more than anyone/anything else in life?
Our home is currently in Madrid, Spain. We moved to Madrid almost two years ago for Todd’s work. We always wanted to live abroad and since Todd speaks Spanish, going to a Spanish speaking country was at the top of the list. When this opportunity came up we jumped at the chance to live in Europe.
We wanted to take advantage of the experience so we splurged a little and live in one of the nicer residential areas within Madrid. Madrid is a cheap city, relatively speaking, and there is a common assumption that we, as Americans, are enjoying a great cost of living discount by living in Spain. The reality is that we came from a very inexpensive city (Raleigh) and are paying twice as much in rent in Madrid as our mortgage was in Raleigh.
All of our neighbors are locals and it is a mix of older retired couples and what appear to be “well to do” families with teenagers and an occasional younger child. We seem to be the poor American family of the building — our mode of transportation is a city bus and no nanny/maid comes to our house every day, like many of our neighbors.
Our apartment is nice, but we are definitely paying a premium for location. We loved that it was between two major metro stops, a ten-minute walk from Retiro park (their version of Central Park) and had lots of character (see: original herringbone wood floors and lots of floor to ceiling windows).
We were surprised to learn that in Madrid, living in the city is not typical for expat families, but for us it was the only option. We wanted to take full advantage and have an authentic Spanish experience. This comes with its own set of challenges as not many people in our area speak English. I’ve learned enough of the language to get by and if I get in a jam one of my kids can translate or if I really need to, I’ll call Todd.
When you live in a city and walk everywhere, your neighborhood truly becomes your home. The boys see friends from school playing at the neighborhood park, we see the same dogs walking with their owners, the elderly taking their daily stroll with their caretakers, the same homeless people on their corners, and the shop owners that have come to know our family.
I quickly learned which produce stands carry the best fruit, where to get big bunches of cilantro (it’s harder than you think), and which bakery has the best baguettes. They know who we are, and I can have simple conversations with them in Spanish. Our favorite produce stand now lets me get our own fruit and vegetables but doesn’t let other customers. One time I didn’t know I was out of cash and he told me to pay him the next time I came.
We thought that living in a big city we would feel anonymous, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
This is our first experience living in a big city and we felt this was our chance to try out apartment living. When we were looking for apartments I knew I wanted something with the charm that comes with European homes — beautiful molding, big windows, herringbone wood floors, classic tile, chipped paint, old radiators and tarnished hardware.
When we walked into the apartment we live in now I knew it was “the one.” Apartments in Madrid tend to be dark, small, and many times, unsafe. I remember going to look at an apartment and the windows had nothing on them to keep a child from falling out, no screens or railings, just big open windows three floors up. Our apartment, however, had big tall front windows and the kitchen looked out over the street and also had lots of natural light.
When the owners renovated our apartment, they turned one of the bedrooms into the kitchen. This is not normal as most of the apartments we looked at had the kitchen in the back of the house with one interior window making them dark and somewhat depressing. They also had a separate entrance for the kitchen help. I was worried about not being able to hear my kids, especially Ben, if I was in the back of the house so this apartment quickly became the front runner.
We were also sold on the fact that the building has a doorman, Jose, who takes our garbage out every night and brings us our mail. He also helps me carry the stroller up the entry stairs and will sometimes carry Ben. It’s the small things.
Real estate moves quickly and is not a very honest industry here. Many people warned us to be careful. We had a third party helping us who knew how it all worked so she kept us out of trouble. There was one time when an apartment we were interested in turned out to be a fake listing. When our agent called she found out they were using fake pictures to try and get us to come and see a different apartment. What surprised us the most is how fast the process is. We saw the apartment for the first time on a Tuesday and moved in the following Saturday.
Everything is smaller in apartments, especially in Europe. The fridge is about a third of the size of fridges in the states and has three small drawers for a freezer. The oven is also smaller and doesn’t fit a regular size sheet pan. It becomes especially challenging at Thanksgiving. (We wait until the day before to pick up our turkey from the butchers and then brine it in a cooler overnight.) We adjusted though, and now it’s hard to image baking more than six cookies at a time let alone having a dryer again.
It’s not just a matter of a smaller home, it’s a change in lifestyle that we’ve grown to really appreciate and love about living in a city apartment. Europeans live with less and tend to not spend money on what we would consider “normal.” I think we’re the only apartment in our building that uses actual garbage bags — everyone else re-uses plastic shopping bags from the grocery store.
In the beginning everything felt like a novelty — like having a small washer in the kitchen, hanging all our laundry to dry, rolling our grocery cart to the market, walking around the corner to get ice, and shopping for all our fruits and vegetables at one of the many produce shops in our neighborhood.
We now have one cupboard for just a few cleaning products, we don’t cook things in bulk because there simply isn’t room to store them, and we shop for groceries all throughout the week. Produce goes bad quickly — even carrots don’t last more than 3 to 4 days, and we get 60 eggs a week from a local egg shop that is only open twice a week to give the chickens time between laying eggs.
Space is so valuable that if there’s something we don’t like or use, even though we spent money on it, it gets thrown out. Another big change is that we rarely use ziploc bags and we no longer use paper products. In fact, paper products are not really a thing here. Everyone uses glass tupperware — in Spain they call it “tupper.” And they all have a travel set of utensils they bring to work since offices don’t stock plastic wear. I gave Todd a travel utensil set in his stocking the first Christmas we lived here.
Sometimes the constant need to replenish our food supply and waiting for clothes to hang dry can be tedious, but I also love the simplicity of it all. We’ve really come to enjoy having less space and things.
It’s had a huge impact on how we envision our next home when we move back to the states. We don’t want a very big house but a big yard is a must. Our boys are typical little boys and want to be outside looking for wildlife, climbing trees, and riding bikes. It’s what we miss the most about having a home in the states. That and being able to wrestle so it doesn’t disturb the downstairs neighbors.
One of the biggest ways living in the city has changed us as parents is how much we walk and talk with our kids now. Without music or a podcast to fill the silence like it did when we used to drive everywhere in the states, walking has given us back time with them. It has opened up a whole new way that we communicate and spend one on one time with our boys.
On days that we have after school activities, I get more than an hour of walking and talking with one child. I can tell they get so excited when it’s their day to walk and catch up on what’s going on at school or things they’ve had on their mind.
Living abroad has changed us in lots of ways. Traveling these past two years has only made us feel more passionate about seeing the world. We prioritize travel now and love planning trips. Travel has become so affordable the last few years with services like Airbnb and Sky Scanner that it feels so much more doable for a family. I’ve also realized that I would much rather live simply and have less things so we can travel more.
Sometimes we talk about “pre-Spain” life and how we used to spend our time when we lived in the states and owned a home. We loved the creative process of renovating our first home and coming up with ways to make it work better for our family. When we moved to Spain all the house projects went away and we were faced with weekends with nothing on the calendar.
At first, this felt uncomfortable and even lazy, like we should be doing something. But after awhile we became more comfortable with simple activities and don’t feel the need to fill up our weekends. We’ve realized it’s okay and maybe even better for our kids to be bored sometimes.
A challenge of living in Spain is that there are not a lot of easy kid things to do like there are in the states. The activities they do have are far away from the city and require a car. We especially miss having access to pools. The pool complexes in Madrid are huge and very crowded making it near impossible to keep track of your kids. In the beginning, this was especially hard on me because I was used to taking them to do fun activities.
We also chose to get by without a car in Spain. We use public transportation for most excursions and with the growth of car sharing services we’ve been able to get by. Sometimes though, I miss being able to get in the car and go anywhere we want without plans or thinking about which metro or bus line to take.
Families are incredibly close in Spain. They spend a lot of time together and make a point to have regular family meals. Spanish parents are very affectionate and present with their kids. We’ve never seen a parent pull out their phone at their kids’ futbol game unless it’s to take pictures.
Most kids live at home while attending university and often extend beyond that into their 20’s and 30’s. This is partly for cost reasons but it’s also the culture. Parents do not seem to want or even encourage their kids to live independently. We didn’t know this about Spanish culture until Todd noticed all the single guys at his work bringing lunch from home that their mom made them.
While I don’t want my boys living with us (except for Ben) until their 30’s, this cultural focus on the family staying close is something we admire about the Spanish culture and hope to take with us when we leave.
Our home feels like us. Even though not every piece of furniture is ours (it came partially furnished), and there are things we would love to paint, fix up and make changes to, we’ve managed to make it our own. It feels like home.
I’ve always believed that style and beauty can co-exist with children — even boys. At the same time, I never want my home to feel like a museum. I want our home to feel comfortable for adults yet livable and fun for kids. I put my favorite décor items up high, some are even attached with earthquake glue, but most everything at their level is washable or replaceable so I don’t feel the need to protect anything from their wildness.
It’s always a work in progress, but we try to teach our boys to respect our home and take pride in taking care of it. The majority of the toys are in their rooms, but we always leave a couple of favorites out like Magnatiles and the marble track their Grandpa made.
While we really try to keep a relaxed feel in our home, we’re sticklers on picking up the house every night to maintain some level of control. In the end, our goal is that anyone who comes to our home feels welcome. I want visitors to feel that they can go get a drink or snack from the fridge, plop on the couch, and stay for hours.
I was built to parent boys. I get their potty humor, the need to move, explore, get dirty, climb trees, push limits, turn every stick into a gun, wrestle — all of it. It can be exhausting trying to wear out little boys everyday but I also have a lot of energy that needs to go somewhere so it works.
In Spain, I’ve noticed that parents do not allow their kids a lot of freedom in this department. I have yet to see a Spanish child climb a tree. My style as a “boy mom” seems to worry a lot of Spanish parents. They will often advise me to get our child out of a tree or if they’re walking on a wall that’s more than two feet high.
I hear the word “cuidado” all the time. I finally asked my husband about it after we had been living in Spain for a few weeks and it means “be careful.” My Spanish tutor also confirmed that Spanish parents are very worried about their kids getting hurt — she said her mom still tells her “cuidadao” when she’s cooking dinner for her family.
I, on the other hand, lean the other direction and want my boys to get dirty, have scrapes and scabs, and once in a while get hurt. I think it’s healthy.
The way to my boys’ hearts is food. I love to cook and try out new recipes and techniques. But I’ve also used food to comfort my boys when they’re missing home. I make them mac n’ cheese regularly, and there is always chocolate chip cookie dough in the freezer.
In Spain, food has become even more a part of our family routine. Without much freezer space and because most Spanish restaurants don’t open for dinner until 9pm, almost all of our meals are homemade. Shopping at the produce stands after school drop-off is one of my favorite things to do, and I will base our weekly dinners off of what I find. It’s amazing what a rack of ribs and sticky rice will do to help a little boy forget about having to eat pescado for lunch at school.
I hope they remember how much fun they had living in a city apartment. They did something really hard and had a great time doing it. It’s not easy giving up your bike and a back yard. Probably the biggest life skill they’ve learned here is how to adapt. They learned a whole new language, went to a Spanish school, and made friends, all in a country that is not their own. I hope they look back on this experience and realize how lucky they were.
As a mom, I had to tackle my own personal anxieties and insecurities about living abroad. Anxieties and insecurities that I didn’t know I had until we moved here. There have been a couple of hard moments where I haven’t reacted the best to a situation. I’ve apologized to my kids and explained that even sometimes mom loses her cool when faced with difficult situations; moms are still human. While I don’t want them to forget the lessons learned from these experiences, I wouldn’t mind if they forgot seeing how their mom reacted.
I wish someone had told me how hard it is to live in a country that is not your own. We tend to romanticize living abroad and traveling. But there is a whole other side to the story. Dealing with other cultures — especially when you intentionally put yourself in their neighborhoods, schools and work places — is tough. It is especially challenging when you have children. While we are trying to help them deal with all the hard things, we are also working through our own issues. Add a language barrier to it all and it becomes especially difficult.
On the surface, the challenges seem obvious. I’m more referring to the emotional toll of living in another country. As a mother here, my parental abilities are limited. Picking up a crying child from school and not being able to talk to the teachers about what happened or provide any sort of help is very frustrating. You feel powerless as a mom. How can I help my child handle hard situations at school if I can’t have meaningful conversations with his teachers? I haven’t learned the language well enough to be able to have these types of conversations which only intensifies the guilt.
My role as Ben’s care giver was also stripped away when we moved here and it became clear that finding a doctor who speaks English would not always be possible. I had to let my husband take over communicating with his therapists, doctors, scheduling appointments, etc.
In many ways, I felt like I lost my independence when we moved to Spain. I haven’t been very open about this because it feels ungrateful to complain. But it can be isolating and sometimes you just want to throw something at the wall and scream (which I’ve done).
I love the random little things that constantly remind us kids live here. The little matchbox car on the floor, marbles that collect in corners, the random lego, socks squished between couch cushions, puzzles out for weeks at a time, and even hidden candy wrappers.
I miss early bed times. The Spanish are notorious for their late schedules and we’ve slowly gotten sucked in. I don’t think we’ll ever stay up as late as the Spanish but it is not uncommon for kids to be out and about past midnight in the summer. Our boys say we’re the worst parents ever for making them leave a game of futbol at the park before 11pm.
One thing that’s surprised me about living in Spain is how accepting and loving they are towards people with special needs. I’m not sure if it’s their religious beliefs or an overall faith in God’s plan for their lives, but the general feeling and response we get is that the Spanish view people born with special needs as a gift and should be cherished. Inclusion is not a debate here, they simply ARE a part of society.
I can’t speak for every Spaniard, but in conversations with a few locals it’s been made clear that they want their typical developing children around kids with special needs so they learn how to be kind from a young age to those who appear a little different.
We were anxious to leave Ben’s therapists and doctors back in the states, but we knew moving abroad was the right choice for our family and would figure it all out once we got here. We have been so impressed with the programs Spain has in place for kids with unique abilities and how much love and support is poured on these individuals.
There is a noticeable difference in the way Ben is treated here versus other countries across Europe. As soon as we are back in Spain after a trip to another country, he is immediately showered with hugs and kisses from strangers. As much as I sometimes get frustrated with the Spanish, they always win us over when it comes to Ben.
Thank you, Emily!
I can’t imagine how scary/exciting it must have been to pack up a family with three small boys (one of them with special needs) and move to another country.
I really enjoyed reading about how living in a smaller place forced Emily and her family to live a bit more simply. Fewer things, more frequent trips to the grocery store, reusing bags and containers instead of throwing everything out after one use. I think this is a lesson we can all learn. There is something really lovely about living simply and being thoughtful about the ways we shop and consume. Reading Emily’s words was a great reminder that just because we might have the space doesn’t mean we need to fill it up with stuff.
Moroccan Rug and Wool Poufs
Tassel Pillow on Entry Bench
African Juju Hat
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