Nicole Gonzalez of @lilliesandleon

Photo By Yumi Matsuo

Nicole Gonzalez of @lilliesandleon

I clicked the join meeting button on my screen and waited to see what face would greet me on the other end. See, I knew I was interviewing Nicole Gonzalez of @lilliesandleon but I didn’t really know what she looked like. Despite being very active on Instagram—with 36.1K followers—Nicole is quite a private person who is really good at including herself in photos without actually including herself. Private to a fault, she keeps a close-knit circle of family and friends —along with her two kids, Lucas León, almost 10, and Lillie Sol, 6— and she shares the moments she spends with them on her feed without giving too much away. Any follower can see how she masters being present with the people she cherishes, while also capturing the beauty around her. It’s a difficult dance for most people, but she nails it.

When the blank screen changed to reveal her face I was greeted by a huge smile and an apology that she was taking the call from her childhood bedroom, in the home she grew up in. Wearing a white tank top, a gorgeous gold charm necklace, and her bouncy black hair in a half pony, she started to tell me about her family, her upbringing in the Bronx, and her incredible journey of making space for self-care after losing herself during the pandemic. Get ready to take notes, because we can all learn a thing or two about how she’s helping herself get back on track.

You live on the Upper East Side, right? Is that where you typically spend your time?

We have family all over the city in Queens, in Brooklyn, in the Bronx so we go all over the place—the train is our best friend, we take it everywhere! But yes, we spend a lot of time in our neighborhood, we love it here. We have Central Park, we have all the museums so close by, the kids’ school is right here, and their activities, too. Lillie’s dance classes are on the west side, but we just jump on the crosstown bus and we’re there in 10 minutes.

Where are you from? Where did you grow up?

My mother is from Puerto Rico and I grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx, which is where I am right now as we’re talking—I’m actually sitting in my childhood bedroom. My mom was a single mom, she was a teacher who always worked in the city, so that’s where I always went to school. I went to elementary school and junior high in Spanish Harlem, and then I went to Beacon High School on the Upper West Side.

Speaking of school, how do you feel about your kids going back to in-person school full time? 

We had an opportunity to see how their school was going to handle everything in the spring, for the last month and a half of the school year. The teachers were great about easing them in and we felt so safe. Having said that, I know that nothing is 100% and every decision we make is taking a chance, but because of how it went in the spring we feel really good about the school year ahead. 

That is so great to hear! As mothers, all we can do right now is make the best decision in the moment and just be ready to change that decision if we feel differently down the road. This situation is so ever-changing.

That’s what makes me feel better, too. I don’t feel like I’m putting them in and then that’s it. If at any point I feel cases are going up or the school isn’t handling it well, or whatever, I can always pull them out.

What are you most looking forward to as the school year begins?

When I think of them going back I just feel a surge of happiness for them being able to be with their friends again. My daughter loves to learn, but Zoom school at five years old was tough, so it’s wonderful for her to be in school. But what I’m most looking forward to is getting back to me. I feel like I lost a huge part of myself during this whole ordeal—my career, my goals, everything just took a backseat. I’m really looking forward to carving out that time for myself where I’ll be able to work from home, produce content, collaborate, all of these dreams and everything I’ve been wanting to do that I had forgotten about or just felt weren’t possible during the pandemic. I’m starting to feel that fire coming back and it feels really really good.

I think a lot of people—and moms in particular—can relate to that statement. Speaking of your goals, what are some of the things you’re hoping to accomplish for yourself, professionally or personally?

I’ve thought about getting back to my blog, but I think I’ve lost the joy in that somewhere along the way so I don’t know yet. The other day my friend was asking me different questions and it got me thinking about what it was that I lost—was it writing, was it sharing? When it comes to social media, things shifted since back when Instagram first started out. The race changed and we had to change the way we did things, and it became more of a hustle rather than creating art. But now I’m starting to enjoy creating again. I enjoy taking pictures and sharing different parts about my life and opening up in certain ways. I used to write more about my journey through motherhood, but now I just talk to my friends, I don’t really share anything too personal. But what’s interesting is I find that I resonate with accounts that share personal things about motherhood, so it’s making me want to share part of my story a little bit more. I am so lucky that I have a wonderful group of girlfriends that have kept me afloat, that I’m able to share things with, but sharing on social media again will be baby steps because I’m such a private person.

 I think sharing our stories ultimately makes us feel less alone during this crazy thing called motherhood. You mentioned your friends, can you talk a little bit about what roles your friends play in your life as a mom, especially throughout the pandemic?

Oh my god, for me it’s a loaded question because my mom was a single mom and I’m an only child and so a lot of the people in my life that were my family growing up were actually her best friends. They became aunts to me. I grew up seeing the importance of women having friends, and how they can be even more important than blood family in some cases. I’m just so lucky to have amazing friends, some since I was 12 years old. I have a very small family so my friends are very important to me.

Photo By Yumi Matsuo

As a mom who is coming out of this pandemic, and who is just trying to get through every day like we all are, what are some of the little things you do just for yourself? What does self-care look like for you?

Self-care for me right now is 1000% taking care of my mental health because it completely affects how I move through the world, how I move with my children, and how I see my future. My mental health was definitely impacted greatly throughout the pandemic, and it’s still an ongoing struggle. Even a little bit before Covid hit I began to have anxiety for the first time, so when the pandemic hit and I lost my aunt, my mom’s best friend who is like a second mother to me, I wasn’t able to handle that grief properly—and I still have a lot of that grief. She didn’t have a funeral, we weren’t able to say goodbye, nothing. It was the first time I had to step into that adult role as I was the one making phone calls, handling the logistics, and it took so much out of me because that was when we were home with sirens blaring all day. It was a lot and I think I just hit bottom. But at the end of last year I couldn’t take it, living with that pain and grief and anxiety but not doing anything to help myself. I realized I couldn’t wake up like that anymore, I needed to learn how to manage those feelings. I started journaling so I could figure out the thoughts in my head. It’s not a daily practice but every now and then I take out my notebook. Also, being honest with myself and with my friends has been a big step for me, because I’m such a private person to a fault that I often don’t share things even with my close friends. So being able to talk to people and open up was like a weight was lifted. And now I’m in the process of finding a therapist, and I hope to have that all figured out by the time they start school so I can start my weekly sessions.

I’ve also recently started doing acupuncture. I’ve never thought about it, never done it in my life, but Ora Space reached out asking me to work with them. It truly has made such a difference. I’ve cried during sessions, they’ve helped so much, I truly see the progression. The first two times I stayed awake and I couldn’t relax. My mind was too busy thinking about where I had to go after my appointment, what I had to do, how I had to go buy stuff for lunch for the kids. But the last couple of sessions I’ve been able to completely shut off and feel almost the release from my body. When I leave the office I’m on Cloud 9. It helps me get through the week, it resets my body, and even when the partnership ends, it is something I will definitely be implementing in my life. And I even want to expose my kids to it, to show them that there’s other ways to heal and release.

Another thing that’s been a huge help is exercising three times a week. I do it at home with two little dumbbells and a booty band, and I watch YouTube videos. I do what I can and when I don’t I really feel the difference in my brain. I never want to do it but I never regret it because I always feel so good afterwards. I didn’t work out at all during the pandemic, and in January or February I decided to do a very easy online Pilates class and my knees and my joints were on fire. I realized how much I needed to stretch, move my limbs, move my joints. The same way you take care of your car, you put gas in it, you change the oil, it’s the same for your body and you only have one. If I don’t do anything now to take care of it I will wake up in 10 years and it will be even harder. I want to be strong, I want to be 50 years old and strong.

We talked a lot about the struggles of the pandemic, but what was the silver lining of the pandemic for you? Were there any positives?

It’s a hard question for me, but if I had to answer it I would say that before Covid hit I was just living with anxiety, not doing much about it, and just going through life accepting things as they were. The pandemic brought me to a place where things got so bad, but then a light switch flipped. I realized I wanted to change things about my life, and it forced me to reckon with things in a way that was uncomfortable. I might not have done it otherwise because I was always so busy, and I never wanted to take the time to open that part of me. Before the pandemic it’s almost like I wasn’t listening to my gut or my intuition because I didn’t have time to wallow in what I was feeling or sit down and figure out where this pain is coming from, where this trigger is coming from. I just had to keep moving. So to then be able to say I want to deal with these feelings, I want to figure out from the bottom up what I can do for myself, I’d have to say that was the positive thing that came out of this. But I do not want this to get misinterpreted like I fixed myself and I’m super woman now, because it’s still very much a work in progress. But to know that I’m on that path brings me so much happiness.

 It sounds to me that the theme of your life right now is that you’re working to make yourself strong again, physically, mentally, emotionally.

That’s how I feel. And I think what’s so amazing is within my friend group I’ve seen a collective shift, too, towards this way of thinking. Even scrolling through social media, you can see the shift in the type of posts people are sharing, of people making changes, growing, and it’s a beautiful part of life because we shouldn’t stay the same. I’m not the same person I was before—I love that person, I love all parts of me, I love every part of my story, but I’ve grown and changed and I’m always changing. That’s the beauty of life. Now I realize that I need to use all my resources: acupuncture, talking to my friends, telling them what I need, being honest about how I feel with the people I love, and even therapy, it can all make a big difference in my mental health.

As moms and women it’s often hard to ask for help, to open up to those close to us, because there’s a veil of perfection that we’re always hiding behind.

I think what has helped me a lot the longer I’ve been a mom, is looking at the relationship I have with my mom. She’s always been the queen of my life, but I look at her now as an adult and I see her faults, I see that she’s a real person, and that realization has helped me so much. When I beat myself up over being the perfect mom for my kids, I’m now able to take a step back and remember that I’m a person, too. I’m just a person, there’s no manual on how to do this, I’m going to make mistakes. Also, when they see me upset or see a side of me that’s human, like when they see me cry or get into arguments with my mom, now I know that’s ok because they also see us work it out. It’s a part of life, I can’t walk around being a shell of myself. I want my kids to see all of me because all sides of us are beautiful. I tell my son and my daughter it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to have all these big feelings you have, I have big feelings, too. It’s helped me a lot to remind myself that I’m a human being. Especially during the pandemic, what was I supposed to do, hide every time I got upset? Like they weren’t going to see me cry? I was with them every second of every day. It’s just not realistic.

So when you look to the future, what do you see?

I want a little country house, that’s the dream, that’s my next goal. It’ll be our weekend house for now, but my intention is that I will live there eventually. I went to SUNY New Paltz for college so I love the Catskills, I love Upstate New York. I want to retire there and have a garden. The house will be for the kids now, but my intention is one day my grandchildren will come and visit me there.

Nicole’s Favorite…

Cafe to get a cup of coffee: Maman, 1424 3rd Ave.

Store to shop for her kids:

 Place for self-care: Ora Space, 9 E 4th St., 646-205-7008

 Kid-friendly restaurant: Patsy’s Pizzeria, 801 2nd Ave. and 61 W 74th St.

Parks to take the kids: Ancient Playground, Central Park, East Side at 85th and Wave Hill Public Garden, 4900 Independence Ave.

Date night or girls night restaurant: La Esquina, 114 Kenmare St., 200 W 55th St.,  1402 2nd Ave.

 Favorite kid activities: ice skating in Bryant Park, roller skating in Central Park, and Museum Mile

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