July 2013

Back to Work: Women In Business

Author: Rebecca Edwards

I remember my first middle school dance. Surely you do, too. All limbs and no coordination, I was a foot taller than my “date” but determined to make it work. My multicolored Esprit dress was too big. My feet tried not to trip. And my crimped hair competed with my braces for most prominent feature.

Needlessly to say, it was a life passage—no matter how inelegant. And so go many stages of our lives. Like middle school, motherhood for me has been a series of wonderfully awkward and humorous moments. Laughable mommy milestones include my first explosive diaper in a public place (I still feel sorry for the checkout woman at Publix.); crying my eyes out and holding up carpool the first day Ransom (my oldest) went to school; and accidently flashing the UPS man after I forgot to secure my nursing shirt properly.

And now, as I, like many women, am phasing into a new mommy moment—the reentrance into the workforce—I must admit I feel as goofy and all “left feet” as I did at my first dance. I find myself second-guessing my hourly rates and wondering, “Am I really worth this?”—rushing around like a mad woman, trying to remember where I last placed my cup of much-needed chai tea, and torn between focusing on making a deadline and looking over to see one of my three daughters giving me that “please play with me” puppy dog stare.

When I started researching for this article, I posed a few questions on Facebook, e.g. “Why is work important for women?” and “What issues do moms face returning to work?” Some women posted responses, but many more e-mailed me directly because they feared that their honesty might make them seem like bad moms. And why would they be viewed as “bad”? you might ask. The answer is that all but one mom (out of about 20) admitted that they feel better about themselves when they take time away from their children and, yes, work.

One woman wrote, “As a mother, unfortunately we are judged on everything. Ev.er.y.thing! It becomes very frustrating, and you doubt. Then you try to clean the house and the kids destroy it in five minutes and you doubt some more. Then you try to be energetic enough to please your spouse and doubt creeps in again. But you go to work, you’re talked to like an adult, you’re respected for your opinions, and you actually accomplish a to-do list without backsliding, and voilá! You feel human again. You feel woman again. You feel, well, YOU again. And it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Over the past few weeks, several women who saw or heard about my Facebook post have shared similar viewpoints, and I’ve ended up having some great conversations. One woman at Starbucks said, “When I work, I don’t feel splintered.”

I sat down with my dear friend and neighbor Andrea Norman who, after having her two boys Wyatt (6) and Sawyer (4), has finally pursued her dream to own her own design company called Sea to Soil.

“Sea to Soil is the culmination of so many aspects of my life,” began Norman, who has been a boat captain for years but had to reduce her hours to raise her boys. “And for 10 years, I’ve been looking at oyster shells. I knew I could use them to bring the marine world to land and to educate people about the Lowcountry and our environment.”

Norman has developed a technique for placing local charts inside oyster shells and then creating both wearable and decorative items, from jewelry to Christmas wreaths. Her dining room table is now what she calls her “Lowcountry sweat shop,” and on it are several different types of gold and silver chains of various links and weights, her delicately-made pendants, and strings of muted and vibrant colored beads, stones and gems. In the corner, piled neatly, are stacks of nautical charts, driftwood, coral and shell and a wayward toy car and some recently folded laundry.
“I think my boys are learning a valuable lesson watching me work,” Norman said. “They see me be creative. They see these things from nature can become art. They see me follow my dream. They see my work ethic. And they see me work to pay for things.”

Today has been a very exciting day for Norman and Sea to Soil. She just bought a new smart phone, URL name, and Square (to swipe credit cards), and she established a PayPal account. Today, according to Norman, was like a personal rebirth. “I feel like I just had a coming out party,” she joked. “It’s exciting and dynamic, and I think it has and will make my family stronger.”

Yet Norman admits that building her own business has not been an easy task. She can no longer volunteer at her children’s school as much as before; her husband Eric has had to adjust his work schedule; and yes, there is the financial strain and uncertainty of launching a new business.

Norman concedes that returning to work is not easy for any woman. “I think there is definitely a prevailing societal stigma that moms should just be moms—that they have chosen to have children and that they should want to play with their children, engage with them and embrace homework and other activities. There is this mentality that this should be their ‘job,’” she said. “Moms spend a lot of time living for other people, and I think it is critical that they reconnect with themselves.”
Research backs up Norman. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Women are projected to account for 51 percent of the increase in total labor force growth between 2008 and 2018.” And a 2010 Pew study found that “more than seven out of 10 mothers taking care of children are in the labor force.” Yet CNN reports in the series “What Women Want” with Soledad O’Brien, “The public remains conflicted about the impact working mothers have on their young children, with only 21 percent of Americans saying it’s a good thing.”Parker Harrington, another entrepreneurial mom who just started her creative concepting company, gives a face to this data and advice to other self-starter moms who want to set their own hours and pace in order to be responsive to their family’s needs. “When I first decided to go back to work, I accepted a position at Long Cove as director of marketing and communications,” Harrington said. “Long Cove was the best thing I could have done. Looking back, I realize it was a launching off job. It gave me confidence. It took me out of my comfort zone. And it made me accountable to many people. I can take that discipline and approach working for myself as if I’m working for someone else.” Harrington encourages other start-up moms to first work in a corporate setting before making the leap to a sole proprietorship.

Yet Harrington disputes some other working mom recommendations admitting that she doesn’t cook in advance. “Even when I was a stay at home mom, I would look at my fridge at 5 p.m. and think ‘how can I make dinner out of this?’” she said. Instead, she makes an effort to better plan grocery shopping; she does not separate her work and home calendar, because “inevitably they coincide,” and she has enjoyed delegating some of the children’s needs to her supportive husband Rick.

“Rick has done more laundry in the past two years than his whole life,” Harrington joked. “I think he now understands more about my responsibilities and really loves being the visible parent at our daughter’s school.” (At the time of this interview, Harrington’s two children went to two different schools, so she and her husband split volunteer and carpool responsibilities.)

Like Norman, Harrington is in the early stages of launching her own business, and she recently rented an office space in Sea Pines Center. Her husband and kids were so proud and excited for her that they helped with renovating and organizing it. Rick, a builder, even designed an ergonomic desk for his wife, and Harrington says family meals are more dynamic now as she talks about her new clients and projects.

“There’s a lot of talk about women returning to work—maybe too much talk, maybe too much of making a big deal out of it. I think it is phase—a phase women between the ages of 30 to 40-something must go through,” Harrington said. “And like any other phase, it will have funny moments and difficult times. Some women will love it. Some will be challenged by it. But all of them will get through it.”

I nod. I went to school with Harrington, and she was at my first middle school. She knows how far we all have come and how important these phases are.

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