The job interview was coming to a close, and I knew I had to make a decision fast. Dancing around the issue of flexibility, I made a general inquiry about office culture. Having controlled my work schedule as a self-employed writer since becoming a mom 11 years ago, I was terrified at the prospect of being locked into a 9 to 5 office job with little wiggle room for sick children, school plays and teacher conferences (not to mention early morning yoga classes and occasional lunch dates with friends). As the employer—a single woman with no children—acknowledged the high level of stress in her bare bones communications office, I decided to go for it.
“I should probably tell you,” I interjected haltingly. “I have no problem doing what it takes to meet deadlines, including working from home in the evenings. But I will need to leave at a pre-determined time every day to pick up my kids from school.” Then I exhaled, a wave of relief mingling with dread washing over me.
My predicament is by no means unique. For as long as mothers have been part of the workforce, they’ve struggled to strike that tenuous work/family/life balance. Most recently, the debate over whether it’s possible for women to “have it all” was reignited by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.
In the article, Slaughter, who rose to dizzying professional heights by becoming the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, drops a bomb. She acknowledges her inability to “be the parent and the professional I wanted to be” when her job forces her to stay away for long stretches from her two teenage sons, one of whom is experiencing a rocky adolescence. Poring over the essay bug-eyed, I glommed onto a quote Slaughter inserted from Mary Matalin, who left her job as assistant to President George W. Bush to spend more time with her daughters. Boldly, Matalin stated: “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.”
Duh, right? Well, yes and no.
While this advice makes sense, not all working moms subscribe to it. Many work in industries or offices that won’t shake traditional office norms—and hours. Afraid to lose their jobs, some suffer in silence and deal with fallout on the home front as best they can. Or, they drop out of the work force altogether, deciding it’s easier than fighting for more job flexibility or trying to “do it all” on the company’s schedule. Then there are those who live by Matalin’s credo, controlling their own schedule. I spoke to a handful of local professional moms who have managed to do just that. Interestingly, parenthood turned on some of these women to careers they never would have pursued before having children.
New moms, new careers
Such was the case with Laura Prichett. At the tender age of 25, she was putting her dual degrees in Russian literature and public health to good use as a contractor working in Kazakhstan, helping the country develop a family planning policy. “I thought that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she says wistfully.
That was before kids. She made her last trip to Kazakhstan when pregnant with her first child, in 2000. Her second came along a few years later, at about the same time she was finishing up her Ph.D. in public health. Though she did some part-time research work for her former professors, Prichett says, “I was happier staying home with the babies.” Plus, she admits, her husband’s long work hours didn’t leave her much choice.
By 2005, as she was waiting to adopt a child from Vietnam, Prichett decided she needed a creative outlet to defuse the anxiety surrounding the uncertain process. She started blogging, and following the blogs of other women in the same situation. Two of them were fledgling professional photographers. Prichett, who’d always been the ‘go-to’ family photographer, decided to give it a shot.
“I started practicing like crazy, doing tutorials and online classes,” she recalls. Now, Prichett is owner of Limepop Photography, with an impressive portfolio of family-oriented photographs and a schedule that has her working anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week. Her job may no longer allow her to make the global difference she once did, but Prichett has achieved a new top professional priority since becoming a mother of three: owning her own time.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to maintain. Prichett admits to occasional pangs of resentment, like when she has put in a full day, made dinner, and then looks ahead to working four more hours into the evening to finish a client’s project. “It’s a constant struggle,” she says.
Other moms who have created flexible professions can relate. After all, it is typically they who juggle multiple family responsibilities while their spouses give nary a thought to re-arranging careers to fit into the family’s schedule.
“I am definitely the quarterback of the house. I’m the one who always makes the kids appointments, takes care of repairs, pays the bills,” says Laura McNabney, a Baltimore mom of four and registered nurse turned real estate investor and developer. Though she describes her husband as a “delightful person,” McNabney says a light bulb went off in her head when she was pregnant with her first child and her husband told her he’d support whatever decision she made about her job after the baby came along.
“I remember thinking: It’s just assumed that all this choice/burden is mine,” McNabney says. “I think that, in general, the assumption is that the mother is going to figure out a way to adapt,” McNabney says.
Adapt she did. While working part-time as a consultant at Neighborcare, a provider of long-term pharmacy services, McNabney started to think of creative ways to fund her children’s future college tuition. Simultaneously, she met a woman who gave her the idea for what McNabney says proved to be a serendipitous opportunity.
The woman, a friend of a friend, lived in the Midwest and was investing in residential real estate properties: buying, fixing and renting them. The idea intrigued McNabney, who figured she’d acquire just two properties and use the income to help pay for her children’s college tuition. That was eleven years ago, before the housing market boom.
McNabney started out cautiously, initially hanging on to her three-day a week corporate job. “On my days off, I’d play with my kids in the morning. Then I’d strap them into the car in the afternoon, where they’d sleep, and I’d comb neighborhoods [for investment opportunities],” she recalls.
Fast forward 11 years, and McNabney is the principle of real estate investment company LNM Properties. No one is more surprised about the turn her career has taken that she is. “If you would have told me as I was graduating from nursing school that I’d someday be an entrepreneur with 25 properties, I’d say no way,” she says. “The best part of this is I’m completely my own boss. It’s fantastic to be in charge of when you do the work.”
Mary Pat Fitzgerald feels similarly. A Baltimore-based real estate agent and mother of two, she works at least 40 hours a week but always manages to drop off her kids at school and pick them up when the bell rings in the afternoon. Many of her work appointments fall in the evenings and weekends, when her husband is available for their kids. While her career sounds fairly seamless, Fitzgerald has worked hard to make it that way.
It wasn’t long after her first child was born that Fitzgerald determined her former career as a human resources regional manager for an insurance company, which involved heavy travel, wouldn’t work for her family. “I didn’t realize how much everything would change. I still thought I would keep doing my job,” she says. “All I had to do was walk across the street with my baby and a lot of bottles.” But even with a neighbor as daycare provider, it was too much for Fitzgerald. After having her second child, she quit work—but not for long.
She missed the stimulation of working and the income. With family and friends in real estate, Fitzgerald knew a bit about the business. Her son’s preschool was located directly across from a real estate office. Before long, she got her real estate license and began selling homes in the area. Today, as her son—in preschool when she decided to become a realtor—heads to high school in the fall, Fitzgerald has become a top agent in her locale. But she does have one regret.
“I wish I had known to seek out a career initially that would offer flexibity,” Fitzgerald says.
Planning ahead for flexibility
Cindy Knipp, a Baltimore mother of two, did. After a brief stint after college working for an insurance brokerage, she returned to her hometown of Dayton, Ohio to get her masters degree in teaching. “I thought it would be a good profession, so when I got married and had children it would allow me some flexibility,” she says.
Knipp did end up teaching, but a part-time job at Talbots got her hooked on retail. She found herself working 60-hour weeks as an assistant manager at the store right up until delivering her firstborn. Then she realized the pay, after shelling out for child care, and the hours weren’t worth it.
But eventually she crept back into the workforce. When her son went to preschool, she did too—as a preschool teacher. She’s still working at St. David’s Day School, as her son approaches his senior year in high school. But she’s made room for retail again, too.
In 2010, a chance encounter in Chicago with a friend of her sister’s introduced Knipp to J. Hilburn, a company that sells custom luxury menswear in the privacy of clients’ homes and offices. Soon afterwards, Knipp became the company’s first Baltimore-based style consultant. The job has allowed her to continue practicing her passions for teaching and retail—she teaches in the morning and puts on her style consultant hat in the afternoons and weekends—while still being available for her children.
“I enjoy having the flexibility to say, ‘I’m available until 4 and then I have my son or daughter’s squash match,” Knipp says.
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