It’s a worry that fuels our guilt. So we asked working moms and their adult kids how it’s going today. Their answers are frank, surprising and ultimately affirming.
SARA STEVENS 61; founder and owner, Candy Care/ Ooh La La Candy, Scarsdale, NY; children ages 26 and 24
She could sense that her working bothered her daughter, Rebecca. She knew the teenager wished her mother wouldn’t be sleeping when she got home, that she was more involved in her life, the way her friends’ parents were (the same parents who would later let themselves into their adult children’s apartments and do their laundry—“to this day,” Sara Stevens notes with no small amount of irony). And although she sympathized with her daughter, Sara had found her calling. After several management jobs in magazine circulation, followed by ten years as a freelance copywriter, she had come up with an idea—“in her own offbeat way,” as she puts it—to combine candy and greeting cards. The initial response was so positive, Sara decided to launch her own business. She called it Candy Care.
It was small, “more of a hobby,” Sara says, but she threw herself into it, nurturing it along for about four years. Then, in 2006, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, “totally out of the clear blue sky,” she says. Her husband urged her to sell the business, but two weeks after surgery Sara was back at work. “The day-to-day work responsibilities kept my mind off my disease, and the business actually grew. Along with amazing doctors, the business was an important part of my treatment.” There was another surprise. Rebecca, the girl who had resisted Candy Care as a teenager, was now a college senior who didn’t want to leave her mother’s side after the diagnosis. Rebecca could see now how much the business meant to her mom, and after graduating she wanted to know: Could she join her in running the company? The business that had once been a source of strain in their relationship had now brought them together.
REBECCA ZOROWITZ 24; director of sales and marketing, Candy Care/Ooh La La Candy If you’d told her back in high school that she’d one day help her mother run her business, Rebecca Zorowitz never would have believed it. “I hated, hated Candy Care,” she says, laughing. “I felt like it took my mom away from me.” The hours it required of her mother meant she was asleep by the time Rebecca came home. “When I was younger, I didn’t think much about my mom working,” Rebecca admits. “I had freedom when I was in middle school, and I felt comfortable, loved and warm. But when my mom started working for herself, she took on a lot more hours.” The older Rebecca got, the more sensitive she was to the work-life issues. “By the end of high school, it upset me that I didn’t have a curfew. What kid wants a curfew? But it bothered me that I was the only one without one.” She later recognized it was because her parents trusted her. Her mother’s cancer diagnosis changed everything. “Any hostility I’d had went away,” says Rebecca. “And I realized her work was what kept her going.” She later joined her mom in the business, and her admiration grew. “She’s a go-getter. When she wants to get something done, she gets it done. That has taught me a lot—her power.” Rebecca is grateful for her mother as a role model. “All my friends think I’m so strong. But it’s because she’s so strong. I think I am a reflection of her, and I hope I can be that for others.”
LAURIE KELLEY 48; vice president of marketing and communications, University of Portland, OR; children ages 22, 20, 15 and 11
When one of her children developed migraines at age 4, Laurie Kelley wondered if her busy career somehow contributed. “I thought maybe it was our stressful life, or that my daughter had such long days in child care,” she says. And years earlier the young mom’s heart broke when her day care told her they’d put her children’s cots together at naptime so they could comfort each other through tears. Laurie was proud to be the first woman in her family to go to college and get an MBA. She loved her career immensely. But she often wondered whether she was doing the right thing for her children, whom she loved even more. “I just wasn’t sure I was a good parent,” she admits. “I worried a lot about their future.” Something shifted for Laurie when a friend was diagnosed with what would become terminal cancer. She decided to scale back at work, switching to a three-quarter schedule. But then there were fears that her dedication at work was being questioned, that her career was stalling. She went back and forth like this, even staying home for about two years to focus on her family. But she missed her career. Laurie returned to full-time work in 2006. For all her worries about her job’s effect on her children, she can now see all the things she and husband Michael, an attorney, did right: They were both involved in their care; they instilled independence in them and had regular family dinners despite six crazy schedules. Today, she’s proud that her two kids in college and two more still at home are all thriving. She looks back on her younger self, all that she didn’t know then. All that she knows now. “People don’t talk enough about how everything is going to be okay, and it really is.”
ROSS KELLEY 22; student, Washington University in St. Louis
He’s a college senior, captain of the men’s basketball team and cofounder of a nonprofit that resells abandoned dorm room furnishings—with all the money going to a local domestic violence shelter. Poised to graduate this month, Ross Kelley wants next to follow in his mom’s footsteps. “I’m majoring in marketing,” he says (it’s one of his three majors). “And a big reason is because I see how much my mother loves her job.” He credits her with his own ability to do many things well. “My mom would work, cook, clean, carpool, work out and be a mother in a single day—with a smile on her face. Her optimism and diligence to her family and work had a huge impact on the adult I am today.” That’s not to say Ross had no resentments growing up. “At times I might have felt neglected or embarrassed that she was at work when other moms were always around.” But Ross also says his mother was always there when he needed her. Today he’s grateful that she worked. It meant he couldn’t rely on her for everything, which pushed him to reach out to others and grow socially. Still, he did worry—about her, because he saw her worry and doubt. In college with his own grueling load, he understood the signs of exhaustion that crept into his mom’s usually stalwart persona. “She loves working, but I know she sometimes feels bad,” Ross says. “I once said to her, ‘You love your work, and you spend so much time with us. Do what you want to do, and don’t worry. Look at us.’” Look at him.
SHARON EDWARDS 50; administrative assistant, Social Security Administration, and co-owner, Sharava Sign Language Service, Baltimore; child age 19
There were times when her life felt like a whole lot of running. “I’m still running now,” she says, and laughs. But when her son, Denzel, expressed a love of music as a little boy, and she saw how serious he was, well, Sharon Edwards, a single mom, couldn’t imagine things any other way. Sharon cofounded a local sign language interpretation business with her sister, which required occasional travel. But her primary job, with the Social Security Administration, allowed her to work a flex schedule. So she arrived early each day—by 6 a.m.—in order to pick up Denzel from school and shuttle him to music classes and performances. It meant long days and many hours in the car. It also meant that Sharon didn’t put in for some promotions over the years “because I knew I needed to get off early to help my son. I could see how they really wanted me to be there all the time, and I knew there were times I really couldn’t be there after hours.” She regretted this at times, but wanted to be there for her son more. “This was something I had to do,” Sharon says. “It was something he wanted, something that would keep him on track and not in the street hanging out with a bad crowd.” Sharon, who divorced when her son was 2, is grateful that her parents helped care for Denzel. “He’s been around a lot of very positive people through the years, and I feel he was really listening to what everyone else was saying.” Still, it was mostly just Sharon, who made sure he was listening to her, who wanted to show him he could be anything he wanted. She’s proud that her son hasn’t wavered from his goals: “He has a clear plan of what he wants to do, and he’s pursuing it.” If anything, he’s inspired her, she says. Watching him, she finds herself thinking of reviving a long-held dream, one she deferred for work: to return to college and finish her degree. All that running—it’s leading them both somewhere. She knows this, without a doubt.
DENZEL EDWARDS 19; student, Castonsville Community College, and cashier, PetSmart, Baltimore
At age 10, after performing his first choir solo, Denzel Edwards announced that his life’s ambition was to be a musician. And his mother threw herself into doing whatever she could to help him—“even if she had to get off work early,” he recalls. She ferried him to music lessons, was at every recital. “Sometimes you’d think she was overcompensating, because it was just the two of us.” He wouldn’t have minded if she’d missed an event. But the truth is that her unwavering belief motivated him. “So many parents will just say, ‘Music is an impossible career,’” says Denzel. “But she has always supported me.” While other kids from the neighborhood were drifting, his mother made sure he stayed focused, despite the demands of her job. And when her schedule required her to be away, she made sure he had somewhere to go, something to do. “She never let me just stay in the house; she always involved me in something.” There were summer camps, internships, a stint volunteering at a local retirement home where he sang for the residents. Now, at Castonville, he juggles his own busy schedule, with classes, music lessons and a part-time job. His goal, Denzel says, is to one day transfer to a prestigious music school. Denzel understands his mother’s sacrifices, what her hard work has given him, how so much of this has been about making sure he doesn’t repeat her one great regret: not following her own college dreams. She was studying to be a social worker but stopped when she had Denzel, in order to take a full-time job. And he knows that job, in turn, sent him to camps and paid for the drum, piano and voice lessons—and enabled him to dream. “Without those things,” he says, “I don’t know where I’d be today.” He’s a young man who never gives up, just like his mom.
MARIE DARDANT 59; French teacher, Paul Breaux Middle School, Lafayette, LA; children ages 33, 30, 23 and 20
There were moments, recalls Marie Dardant, when she’d be driving along and a momentary panic would seize her. She’d count heads in the rearview mirror, praying she hadn’t forgotten a child somewhere. And no wonder: She had four children, a full-time teaching job and a husband often away for weeks at a time for his work in the oil industry. Marie remembers always being busy, “everything kind of crazy, trying to keep everyone’s schedules straight.” Though she felt she had the perfect job, being off from school when her own kids were and enjoying her career, Marie sometimes wished she didn’t work. Some of those times came at the end of the day, when her patience had been used up at school. “It was hard to have anything left for my ‘real kids.’ I think they felt kind of jealous of the time and effort I spent on my students.” But, Marie adds, “you do what you have to do, and you hope you’ve done the right thing. Yet there’s always that feeling, ‘I could have done that differently.’” Still, Marie the teacher knows that the answer always reveals itself in time, like the way her students return years later to tell her about their lives and all that they have accomplished, and she sees just what her influence has been. “It sounds kind of trite,” she says, “but that feeling of having made a difference means so much to me.” It’s exactly the reassurance she needs. Just like those years long ago, when she’d check the rearview mirror and realize that her children were all there, all fine.
GWENDOLYN DARDANT GUILLOTTE 30; vice president, revenue management, Schumacher Group, Lafayette, LA; children ages 6 and 3
Her mother might have been inundated with responsibilities, her father often away, but all Gwen Guillotte can recall is a sense of security. “I looked to my parents as the ones who were always calm or supporting or comforting.” Now a mother herself, with two young daughters, she says, “I try to remember that.” She had always wanted a career—“I learned from my mom that it’s important to achieve your own success to set a good example for your children.” But she didn’t want a job that left her unable to enjoy even fleeting little moments with her girls, “the everyday moments. Just being in the car together. Those are the times that develop character.” That’s something else Marie taught her. Gwen still recalls the day she took her to New Orleans, just the two of them, to buy a dress for high school homecoming. Six years ago, Gwen began her current job with Schumacher Group, a company that staffs emergency room doctors—a job she loves. “I might work a lot of hours, but I leave at six for my kids,” she says. Sometimes she wishes she did a better job of unplugging from the day and then plugging back in. “There are times when we’re driving home and I’m not as engaged with my kids as I want to be.” So many working mothers are full of nagging fears and doubts, she suspects her mother must have nursed them, too. Now it’s her turn to offer comfort and support. And she can, as can her brothers and sister. They are all very different, Gwen says, but the common thread is their independence and the feeling that they’re responsible for their own futures, with no limits. Their working mom is the reason. Life has come full circle, and Gwen knows from her own experience, as her mother’s daughter, how it turns out. “When you have a job, you get feedback on how you’re doing,” she says. “When you parent, you don’t. So this is a way to reinforce to my mom that she did okay. She did the right thing."
PEGGY CAMPBELL-RUSH 55; kindergarten teacher, Union Township Elementary School, and educational consultant, Mansfield Township, NJ; children ages 23, 21 and 18 The women in her family all worked—her mother and her grandmother before her—and from an early age Peggy Campbell-Rush had the sense that something vital was being passed down. In her grandmother’s stories of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Ohio (a commute made by horseback) and her mother’s descriptions of the satisfaction she drew from her students’ achievements (a gifted diver and swimmer in her day, she taught physical education at the elementary school across the street from their home), a lesson was being conveyed. Now, in hindsight, Peggy sees that this lesson has helped her endure her own dark days. A breast cancer diagnosis; a head-on car crash. It was those moments, plus the usual exhaustion from her job teaching kindergarten, that made her think, My God, why don’t we live in a trailer? Why do we have this house and mortgage to pay? But then she’d think of her grandmother and mother: the woman on horseback; her mother balanced on the high dive, poised to leap. “If someone has modeled resiliency and strength,” she says, “that’s what you emulate.” And so it goes for the next generation. “My rule is to try not to do anything for my kids or students that they can do for themselves,” explains Peggy. “My children have grown to be respectful, resilient and reliable, and I think they are so because I worked and they had to step up to the plate.” But there is a little regret—“I missed many activities at school, which at times just broke my heart.” Still, her mom and her husband’s mom lived nearby and attended when they could, and the teachers let Peggy come to school at other times and participate in an activity with the class. Beyond the trials, Peggy says, “I love working. I love coming to my job, love being vibrant and vital. And I love being a mother, too, so there’s really no choice but to buck up.” Always a hard worker, she’s written six books along the way, fitting them in at night or early in the morning when her three children were asleep. Her youngest heads to college this year, and she hopes this is what she’s passed down to all of them, just as her grandmother and mother did before her: “the strength to get through things.” She thinks of her middle daughter, Morgan, in her junior year of college, taking 20 credits, captain of her rugby team. So strong already. “I think she believes—no, she knows—that she can have it all,” Peggy says. “And I’m glad for her to feel that way now, because that’s what being a working mother feels like, knowing that you can somehow do it all.”
MARGUERITE CAMPBELL 82; retired teacher; children ages 55, 53 and 47
This much Marguerite Campbell can say of her 15 years as a teacher: “I just loved what I did. I’ve always believed if you love what you do, people will love you for it.” She never questioned whether she would pursue her career or raise a family. She would do both. And she did. When she had to, she brought a baby with her to school, setting the child seat on the floor next to her as she led her gym classes. For those students who needed her help after school, Marguerite transformed her backyard into a training camp for high jump hopefuls with some clothesline, a bar and a mattress. She was the only working mother in the neighborhood at the time, and yet she remembers feeling like “the neighborhood mom while I was teaching because I saw all the kids all day long.” She taught all three of her children and coached all of their sports: “I was lucky to be so involved with their lives and get paid for it, too.” As the years have passed, Marguerite has watched the arc of her children’s lives. “All of them are extremely hard workers with great jobs who meet life’s challenges head-on. They’re self-reliant, I believe, because Mom wasn’t always there to meet every need. They learned to cook and clean and do things for one another.” And then she saw the arc of their children’s lives, which only made her more certain of her choice. In her example, she gave them something they would not have gained had she not worked. The long hours and busy days, the shared chores and personal sacrifices, revealed something of what it means to work hard for what you love the most.
MORGAN RUSH 21; student, Salisbury University, NJ
If her mother ever felt stressed or overwhelmed by all that she was balancing, Morgan Rush never detected it. “Part of her strength was that she wanted us to see a strong mom, no matter what,” she says. In Morgan’s memories, that strength was reinforced at every turn, whether it was visiting her mother’s classroom and seeing the way her students and fellow teachers so clearly looked up to her, or watching the way that her mother battled breast cancer with grace and good humor. “I remember the wigs were very itchy, so she wore a hat with a slogan that, instead of saying, ‘I’m having a bad hair day,’ said, ‘I’m having a no-hair day!’ ” Morgan and her siblings were young at the time, and her mom made sure the counselor at school checked up on them to see how they were handling her illness. “She was hard at work fighting cancer,” says Morgan, “and my dad was there for her the entire time. “ And the head-on car collision that crushed her mom’s sternum, ribs and wrists and left her out of work for three months—Morgan saw her mother fight that, too. Maybe Peggy wasn’t at every event in her children’s lives, but Morgan doesn’t remember her mother’s absences, only her presence. She couldn’t be a room parent or go on field trips. But her three children were all athletes, so she made sure to show up at sporting events when they least expected it, like magic: “We’d look over in the beginning and she wouldn’t be there, but then you’d look over again and she’d be there, having raced straight from work.” Then there were the car trips they took each year, a tradition her mother created. She’d tell the kids what to pack but not where they were going, and on the last day of school she’d take them on “a great explore.” But before she pulled out of the driveway, she would make them recite the Rules of the Road, rules Morgan still remembers: Go with the flow. Anything goes. Plans change. We share everything. She and her siblings would moan at having to say the rules at the time, but now Morgan sees the brilliance of her mother’s lessons, the underlying message of resilience that was repeated so many times throughout her childhood. Now, says Morgan, it’s simply a part of her. She plans to become a teacher, just like her mother. Just like her grandmother. We share everything. “Every time I’m with my mom, someone will say what an amazing teacher she is. And she always says, ‘I had a good teacher myself.’ And then she will turn to me and say, ‘My mom was the best teacher I ever had.’”