Single mom reclaims moments of joy through Season of Sharing

Nothing about Natalia Kataeva’s life is simple. She has this thing she says, whenever you ask a seemingly easy question — like, “How’d you wind up in Sunnyvale?”

“It’s a story within a story within a story,” she’ll say. She’s not kidding.

It’s a rainy Sunday morning, the hard kind of rain that the wind forces sideways. Kataeva, 37, is in her kitchen, cutting up some cinnamon bread, making tea and setting out some cookies with sweetened condensed milk in the center. It’s a Russian thing, she says. “Usually it’s something grandma would make. I’m not sure if these are as good.”

Her two daughters, Sasha, 11, and Lana, 8, are bouncing around the kitchen, too, helping however they can, telling stories about the time Sasha decided to test her crayons on every surface in an old apartment. Occasionally they’ll start chatting with their mom in Russian. The home is covered in artwork, there’s a mini library set up underneath the staircase, and two guitars hang on the wall.

Kataeva’s first “story within a story within a story” goes like this: She was born and raised in Kazakhstan. In the ’90s, she applied for an exchange program in Israel. The Soviet Union had crumbled and “things felt dangerous.” She wound up staying in Israel, getting two degrees, one in archaeology and another in theater before moving to the Bay Area with the man she’d married. They moved for a time to Tokyo (“We don’t really miss Japan because we have a kimono here,” Lana says — not that she’s old enough to remember Japan) but ultimately settled in the Bay Area.

Went to work

Throughout it all Kataeva had been a stay-at-home mom, and so, when a divorce came in 2008, she didn’t really know what to do with herself. She was a single mom and simple things — interviews, socializing — all felt foreign. She has a Russian accent but speaks English perfectly. Still, nerves would cause her to freeze up. “It takes time,” she says. “You learn that stuff, you learn that by experience and exposure.”

For a while after the divorce, things were fine. Kataeva was managing to balance work as a product tester at Barnes & Noble with her daughters’ busy schedules — right now they’re in parkour, gymnastics, Russian and music classes — and school and dinners and packed lunches and all the things that come with motherhood. A few years back, though, the divorce case was reopened; issues with custody had to be resolved. Suddenly Kataeva found herself with a court schedule to balance along with all other parts of single motherhood.

“The most challenging thing was that I was dreaming of giving my kids so much,” she says. “I had to manage all that by myself. It was pretty stressful.

Laid off

“You feel guilty that you’re not giving as much as you want to give. That’s how you feel.”

Kataeva wound up going part time at work, which became an issue when Barnes & Noble heavily downsized and she was let go. She found other work, mostly contract work, through companies like Google, but with a background in the humanities, she felt like she was at a disadvantage.

Through a program called NOVA, she was able to enter into a certificate program at UC Santa Clara. She graduated in September and landed a job with a new startup called Yummly, a search engine for recipes. She says she loves it. “It’s a small company. They give you more — you count. Everything is personal. Everybody is engaged, everybody’s passionate about what they’re doing.”

Rent due

There was a problem, though. “There was this bottleneck,” she says. She’d started a new job but rent was due and her first paycheck was still a ways away. Her landlords have always been supportive, “great people,” she says, but the thought of missing rent was terrifying. “I was really, really stressed out.” That’s when folks at Sunnyvale Community Service connected her to The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund. She was able to pay half her rent on her own, and the fund covered the other half, helping to keep her and her daughters in their home.

Smiles return

These days, schedules are still tough. It’s not as though being a single mother suddenly becomes easy. Every day is a story within a story within a story — court, after-school activities, play dates, all of that builds up. But Kataeva smiles a lot. Her daughters laugh and gently needle each other. They talk about how good their mom is on the guitar and how much they like school.

When you’re struggling, it’s hard to find those moments of joy, Kataeva says. “Suddenly all this extra stuff that makes your life enjoyable, it’s taken away.” But, thanks to NOVA, Sunnyvale Community Services, the Season of Sharing Fund and, most of all, Kataeva’s resilience, she’s taking them back, day by day.

Ryan Kost is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @RyanKost

The original story can be found here.