This is not another story about how hard it is to balance motherhood with career.
“Work-life balance” is a cliche. We worry — rightfully — about the cost of child care, the wage gap, and maternity leave policies. Much has been written, and there’s still an enormous amount of work to do.
And plenty of us are trying to find our way. Seventy percent of mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force, and more than 75 percent work full time, according to the Department of Labor. Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18, up from 11 percent in 1960.
With so many mothers in the workforce, surely they can offer some lessons about professional success. For all of the struggles, logistical hurdles, and more, what are the rewards? We asked five high-powered women to reflect on how motherhood has shaped and improved their career outlook.
They welcomed the reframing. “We spend most of our days feeling guilt that we haven’t done something well for some constituent or accomplished something. We are exhausted, never off,” says Danielle Sheer, general counsel and vice president at Carbonite. “This allowed me to think about how much more successful I am because I’m a mom.”
In that spirit, here’s what they had to say.
CEO and Founder, Donii
Motherhood Gave Me . . . An Audience
Her Child-Care Solution: Nanny
Angie Janssen, 34, runs Donii, an online donation platform for goods and gear.
“We get the stuff you donate to people who need it most,” she says. The Boston-based nonprofit matches its local charity partners with potential donors — from companies, office buildings, schools, colleges, and other organizations — who connect through Donii’s Web app to make sure toys, books, and clothes go to people in need rather than being sold to thrift stores or textile recyclers.
Before founding Donii, Janssen worked in socially responsible investing. She left when she was pregnant with her first child, now 4; she and her husband, Derek Janssen, also have a 3-year-old.
“Having kids was the driving force behind what I’m doing now,” she says. “I’m able to empathize with the people I’m supporting. This isn’t just lip service. I know how hard motherhood is with a lot of support. Imagining how to manage all the things you want for your children without a support network, or access to goods and services — that sensitivity gets built into the work.”
And her children — who are in the care of a nanny while she’s working — are often her best audience, because they’ve helped her refine Donii’s messaging.
“You should be able to communicate your mission to a toddler,” she says. “I tell them what I do: ‘Donii is for people who don’t have the nice things that you have. Not everyone can just go into a store. We need to help those people.’ If I get too theoretical, eyes glaze over.”
Just mentioning that she has young children can have repercussions, says Janssen. “People say, ‘You have two small kids’ — question mark. There’s an implicit sense of ‘There’s no way you can be a full-time entrepreneur.’ It’s discounting that I would be able to commit in a way that a 22-year-old college grad could.”
But her role as a mother fuels her ambition. “My mom worked,” Janssen says. “My parents were doctors. I was always proud of my mom being a working woman who managed her family, and having kids is a big part of me wanting to push across the next hurdle. [My son] tells people, ‘My mom works for Donii. My mom was on TV.’ I want them to be proud of me.”
General Counsel, Carbonite
Motherhood Gave Me . . . Permission to Delegate
Child-Care Solution: Nanny
Danielle Sheer, 36, is general counsel at Carbonite and sits on the boards of the Boston Club, which promotes the advancement of women to visible leadership roles, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She and her spouse, Justin O’Connell, have two young daughters.
Sheer has watched Carbonite, the cloud data protection firm headquartered in Boston, expand from a team of fewer than 50 to a company with more than 1,000 employees. Her perspective has grown along with it.
“I have a team of people who work for me at Carbonite, but up until I had my second child, I read every single document, every changed page. I touched every single piece of paper,” she says. “It was very difficult to delegate. I wanted to control the quality of the work of the legal department.”
That approach eventually became unsustainable. “When my second child came along, I found I just didn’t have time to touch every piece of paper. It forced me to delegate and empower my own team to make decisions themselves. I had to trust that I trained them well enough to be ambassadors,” she says.
“I learned by watching my 3-year-old daughter. I couldn’t solve her problems for her and expect her to learn. She needs to do it herself. I was watching this development happening, and I was doing the exact opposite with my team.”
It didn’t always work. Sometimes, she says, colleagues tried to “short-circuit” her seven-person team by overruling or bypassing it. She’d push back, insisting that colleagues work with her team members instead of going straight to her.
Now, she says, she has more time for bigger-picture projects, like board memberships and lobbying.
“I have a 3-year-old. A kid pushes her on the playground. If I intervene every time this happens, I’m not empowering her to stand up for herself.
“[Being a mother] helped me grow up at work. If you hire professionals, let them do the job you hired them to do. Release the reins.”
Counsel and Vice President, State Street
Motherhood Gave Me . . . Self-Respect
Child-Care Solution: Day care
Rebecca Gilding, now 37, graduated from law school, took the bar exam, and had her first child in 2012. Three years later, she and her husband, Javier Castillo, had another baby. She was working hard at a job she liked. Life was good.
“I enjoyed the company. I enjoyed the atmosphere. I worked up until the Friday of my son’s birth,” she recalls — though occasionally there were “little digs” about going on “vacation” after she gave birth. She took 13 weeks of maternity leave and tacked on two more weeks of vacation.
When she returned, she got shocking news: She’d been overlooked for a new position, despite being the logical choice.
“One of the men in my group being considered sought me out and told me that he didn’t think it was fair — he told me he thought I should have been considered,” Gilding says. “Kudos to him, looking out for a sister.”
The worst part: Some of the men up for the job were also new parents. “It felt horrible,” she recalls. “It felt like I was being punished for doing what men do. One had a baby the same exact day I did. The other one’s wife was due within a couple months. We all had young families.”
She was torn: She had a stable job. The money was good. But she knew she had to look elsewhere. Through networking, she found the position at State Street. The move to the financial services behemoth meant a boost in pay and job title.
“I did think This is crazy. I have a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old. You shouldn’t be moving jobs. But if this had happened to my daughter or my son, I would have been enraged. If [you’re not] being appreciated, find something better. I can’t expect that of my kids if I don’t live that,” she says.
Now, she says, she feels valued. “Having children really solidified that to me: If I’m going to work 40-plus hours, I need to enjoy being there. I feel like I am being valued and taken seriously. I’m not going to sit somewhere away from my family, plus commuting, if I’m not.”
MIKI FELDMAN SIMON
Motherhood Gave Me . . . Perspective
Child-Care Solution: Day care, part-time work
Miki Feldman Simon, 49, founded IamBackatWork in 2016 with a simple but ambitious mission: to help women return to the workforce after career breaks. Having been through multiple hiatuses and successful reentries herself, she wanted to facilitate the process for others.
“Confidence is one of the first things that holds people back,” she says. “It’s very easy to lose your professional confidence.”
Her Lexington-based firm coaches women on matters like resume preparation, branding, and networking. Raised in Australia and Israel, she was a volunteer in the Israeli Army, a human resources director, and a marketing executive before founding her company.
IamBackatWork originated after multiple family medical issues saw Simon quit her job as vice president of marketing for the education firm Kurzweil and return to Australia. (Her husband, a software executive with Oracle, was able to work remotely.) Caring for her dying mother and her aging father-in-law as well as her two children — both of whom had health crises during this time — made her reassess her priorities.
“Any work issue that I had to deal with was minute compared with a life-and-death situation. I was taking care of my mother. I was taking care of kids in the hospital. Nothing compares to that,” she says.
That broader perspective helped guide her toward launching a business that helps other women. “The last couple years made me think: What’s my legacy? What do I want to do with my life?” she says. “My mother had a tough life; I wanted to make a difference in other women’s lives. It was a really big drive for me. As it happens, the day I launched my company, wanting to help women after my mother passed away, was the day my father died. A month later, my father-in-law passed away. The circumstances made me think about what legacy I wanted to leave behind and made me more determined to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Executive Vice President/Executive Creative Director, DigitasLBi
Motherhood Gave Me . . . Open-Mindedness
Child-Care Solution: Nanny
Sue DeSilva, 51, the single mom of twin teenagers, works about 60 hours per week as the executive creative director of DigitasLBi, a digital marketing and technology agency with headquarters in Boston.
“I’m always on but not always in the office,” she says. “I go home, have dinner with my kids, and get back online at night.”
While a 60-hour-per-week job might not seem conducive to parenting, DeSilva sees the upside. “It’s made me a better creative,” she says. “I see how kids answer and come up with their own solutions. There’s not one answer for everything. It has made me try to create a department where people feel they should bring their best ideas forward. What I think might work isn’t always the right solution.”
She’s also learned from one of her sons, a budding writer who has a column in the local newspaper and does improvisational comedy. “His process and his approach helped me open up to being open to different ways of solving things.
“We’re working on a big project right now, a big campaign, and it has a lot of moving pieces. There are a couple writers on it, and I look at it, and I say, ‘You know what? I don’t know if that’s exactly how I would have solved it, but it’s working, and I don’t have all the answers.’ It makes it a better campaign.”
WHAT MOTHERS STILL NEED
> More Women in Leadership Roles
Danielle Sheer, general counsel at Carbonite, serves on the board of the Boston Club, whose mission is “to impel the advancement of women to top leadership positions.” It’s still a major gap, she says. “We need more people who are mindful about needing diversity in leadership roles, boards, every single position. I am committed to advancing women leaders because I’ve seen how diverse teams are smarter and more successful . . . . Diversity, like motherhood, is really good for business.”
> Affordable, Reliable Day Care
Rebecca Gilding, counsel and vice president at State Street, relies on day care and uses a backup center, Bright Horizons, when her usual provider is closed. The financial realities of the arrangement are stressful. “We were paying over $700 per week for day care. I’m from northern Vermont, and I tell people that figure, and it blows them away. If you’re away 40-plus hours, [kids] need to go someplace where they’re safe and nurtured. I looked at one place where I wouldn’t have left a cat for a weekend. I left sobbing.”
> Less Judgment
Sue DeSilva, executive vice president/executive creative director at DigitasLBi, credits her success partly to female bosses early in her career who promoted her and understood that she needed flextime to balance work with family. That’s rare, she says. “There’s a lot of judgment in creative departments. There are very few women who get to [the executive ranks]. They drop out. There is judgment of women who decide to work one day a week or who try to do something flexible. Especially, for most of my career, I was the only woman in the group, and I didn’t have a stay-at-home spouse, and all the guys did. . . . I don’t want the eye rolls when someone says, ‘She’s out today.’ ”