Nadya Suleman – who now goes by Natalie – stepped away from the spotlight in 2013 after cashing in on her “Octomom” fame with a nude photo shoot and sex tape.
But Suleman, 41, says she was ready to give up her alter ego much sooner.
“I had stopped wanting to do it from day one,” the mom of 14, who first made headlines after giving birth to octuplets in January 2009, tells PEOPLE. “I was violating my boundaries and my value system and my own self. I didn’t think of it at the time because I was in survival mode, and I was doing whatever I possibly could to provide for my kids.”
Suleman decided to “abandon the character” three-and-a-half years ago.
“There was definitely a catalyst – my girls, particularly my oldest daughter Amerah. She was about 10, and she started integrating my traits and behaviors,” she says. “After I had observed my daughter beginning to emulate me, I saw her going down that same potentially destructive path, and I realized at that moment I’d rather be homeless in my van with all 14 kids than continuing down this path. It was not what I wanted for my children.”
Suleman moved her family to Orange County, California, and returned to her work as a counselor.
“I was alive again,” she says. “As ‘Octomom,’ I was the walking dead. When I woke up and I went back to my roots, my helping profession, and my kids, we were struggling financially but it didn’t matter. I never felt so free and so happy in my life.”
Now Suleman works part-time doing family therapy two or three times a week, and her full-time job is raising all 14 of her children – aged 8 to 14 – by herself.
“Every day I wake up around 5 and get the kids ready for school,” she says. “I work with Aidan, who’s 11 and is disabled, to get him ready, and one of my twins [Calyssa, 9] is autistic so I give her extra nurturing and attention. Then are four school drop-offs!”
Suleman spends her days either at work or at the gym, before having to do school pick-ups.
“Then I have to start cooking,” she says. “The eight kids and I are vegan – which means zero fast food – so I will cook two to three hours a day. The food is like a full-time job right there. It’s non-stop.”
WATCH: Natalie Suleman On Dropping The ‘Octomom’ Moniker
Although she abandoned “Octomom,” Suleman says her kids – especially her oldest – do have an awareness of her prior fame and poor choices.
“I’ve always engaged in open, honest communication,” she says. “There’s no topic that can’t be discussed. I’m very open with them about my past.”
Suleman says she regrets making a sex tape more than anything else.
“I earned $8,000 from basically selling my whole soul for that little pseudo-porn experience,” she says. “I definitely regret that 100 percent. At the time, we were in foreclosure, we were about to be homeless, and it allowed us to move into a rental, but of course I do regret that more than anything. But I learned. It validated and reinforced who I am not.”
While she doesn’t blame anyone for judging her based on her media portrayals at the height of her Octomom fame, it did upset her that people questioned her mothering ability.
“What bothers me and hurts me is the fact that people assumed I was a bad mom,” she says. “I do everything. I don’t have any help. I’ve had no nanny since my eight were about 2.”
These days Suleman is fully focused on making sure her kids have normal, healthy and happy lives, which doesn’t leave much time for her personal life.
“With regard to dating, that’s just not realistic,” she says. “I devote my whole life to my family and that’s the least I could do, because there’s only one me and 14 of them. I have to give all my energy and all of me to my kids.”