Motherhood can create challenges at work, but for some, it generates better opportunities
But not all change is bad. We spoke to women who, after becoming parents, changed their work lives to spend more time with their children, to be available for the countless doctor’s appointments and to be more fulfilled. As many mothers know, time is precious. So why waste it doing something you don’t want to do? Why spend the day in a job that isn’t fulfilling or doesn’t fit your family’s needs or your own? For many, being a mother provokes inspiration to move toward a career and life that holds deep meaning. Otherwise, what is this all for?
After her own struggles, this nurse now helps Black moms breastfeed
Krystal Duhaney, a registered nurse, assumed breastfeeding her first baby would be a breeze. But it wasn’t.
She asked her pediatrician for advice, and he didn’t have any. And social support was almost nonexistent. “As a Black woman, none of my family members breastfed or knew anything about it, so I really had to figure it out by myself.”
Determined to continue because of the research showing its benefits for Black babies, Duhaney and her son struggled their way through two years of breastfeeding. When he was 3, she was pregnant again with her daughter and determined to have a better experience this time around.
“I began educating myself on breastfeeding and how to be successful, and I learned so much and loved it so much that I became certified as a lactation consultant,” she said. Through that work, she found herself surrounded by parents who were dealing with the same difficulties breastfeeding that she experienced. “I realized that I wasn’t alone and that breastfeeding support was a huge need for not just myself but moms across the world.”
That’s when her business, Milky Mama, was born. Duhaney decided to leave her high-stress job as a bedside nurse in 2017 and dedicate herself to helping moms navigate breastfeeding through education and nursing products. “In my job, I just went to work. It was just routine,” she said. “I really didn’t have any attachment to it other than it was my career.”
After pouring herself into Milky Mama, however, she saw how a decision she made for the health of her children when they were babies was still benefiting them as big kids. “My kids saw me build my own business, and they would come to our store and our grand opening and see the line wrapped around the building,” she said. “They saw me up late working and knew that it was something that I built.”
The career switch also allowed her to have the time to focus on being a “present parent,” Duhaney said. She makes her own schedule and goes to her kids’ games and awards ceremonies. It also gave her the opportunity to show them it’s okay to change your mind instead of living by society’s expectations, she said. “It really gave me a sense of motivation to know that they were always watching.”
After a baby and a pandemic, this teacher became a business owner
Cat De Vos had her dream job as a Montessori schoolteacher. She poured her life into her work: She arrived at the school outside Nashville five days a week at 7:30 a.m., taught until midafternoon, came home to cook dinner and then spent several hours preparing the next day’s lessons. She even worked on weekends prepping class materials.
De Vos believed deeply in Montessori principles, which emphasize hands-on learning and child independence. Classrooms are meticulously organized, with school supplies stored in clean, aesthetically pleasing spaces.
But with her first child on the way, the future life she imagined with her son — the ability to pick him up from school or weekends camping in the nearby Smoky Mountains — would be difficult with her work schedule.
During the pandemic, when Americans found themselves drowning in stuff purchased during the lockdowns, she sensed a growing need for home organization. Children, who were spending more time inside the home, needed places to play and learn. De Vos decided to launch a business in which she would implement Montessori techniques by helping families reorganize their homes. By working for herself, she could set her own hours and still have time with her son.
“I really craved that flexibility that teaching didn’t really give me,” De Vos said. “I really want to be present for him.”
De Vos applied to a business accelerator program in Chattanooga, Tenn., called CO.LAB, where she learned how to write a business plan, establish a budget and set goals. She attended three-hour weekly classes for several months.
De Vos calls her business Little Nest. She visits clients’ homes, where she measures rooms, counts toys and examines storage capabilities. She asks parents to observe the child in each space and how they interact with their things.
With the data in hand, she returns with a plan. De Vos has worked with a mother living in a 900-square-foot home with four children, ages 1 to 9. The house was overflowing with clothes and toys, and DeVos put her on an organizational plan. Another mother asked her to build out a classroom space for Montessori learning.
“A large part of what I do is help create an organizational system for parents,” De Vos said. “Parents are just really overwhelmed. That’s the general consensus I get during my consultations.”
Leaving her secure full-time job wasn’t easy, but working for herself gave De Vos the flexibility she hoped for. “I can still be a follower of this teaching that has been life-changing for me,” she said. “I feel like I can still share it, just not the extent of being in the classroom all day and being as exhausted as I was.”
She left an engineering career and started a nonprofit to help children like hers
Michelle Norman was only in 10th grade when she decided on a career path and enrolled in the University of Texas in the early 1990s, where she majored in petroleum engineering and met her future husband.
He went on to be a Naval aviator. She eventually landed a civilian job as an environmental engineer at Naval Air Station Atsugi in Japan. “I was in my mode, and it was great,” she said.
But then their daughter, Marisa, arrived. Born at 27 weeks and weighing just two pounds, three ounces, she spent the first three months of her life in neonatal intensive care and then five months in transitional care.
After six months of spending 12 hours a day at the hospital and doing intermittent reports for her director at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Norman had to resign.
“Everything changed drastically for us,” she said. “The idea of continuing to be an engineer was gone. My life now became one of a caregiver.”
Marisa was eventually given several diagnoses, including cerebral palsy. As her daughter got to be school-aged, Norman saw the issues military children have getting access to special education and a free public education, which they are entitled to by law.
“Because we move every two to three years, we don’t have that ability to stay somewhere long enough that the community and school system get to know you and provide the service and support you need,” she said.
Norman began to compile data to help military leaders understand the problem. That led to her starting a nonprofit, Partners in Promise, an organization that protects the rights of military children in special education. The organization began to gain attention, and she was invited to testify in front of Congress on the issue.
“Never in my life did I think this was the route I would’ve taken,” Norman said.
Last school year, Marisa took the Virginia Standards of Learning test and passed. She graduated with a high school diploma in June and is looking for employment. She also wants to help out with Partners in Promise as an advocate for military kids like her.
Amid all the celebrating, Norman is looking ahead to what her own future will be. “Will I go back to engineering?” she asked. “It’s very unlikely. I’ve been gone too long. It’s a little disappointing, but I always believe everything happens for a reason. My daughter coming into this world and being part of this amazing family — we’re blessed to have her.”
For Norman and other military spouses with children with special needs, working full-time is often not compatible with the number of appointments and meetings their kids’ care requires.
“It’s tough for those who have always dreamed of doing something, how to reconcile that,” Norman said. “I think there is a sense of understanding and camaraderie. ‘Hey, we’re here for a reason. Let’s see what kind of impact we can make here.’”
She left the corporate world to be a present parent — and found a more meaningful career
Christine Chang had no plan when she quit her job as a health-care executive.
For years, Chang had been an achiever: high school state champion swimmer, sorority president, high-income earner, strategic planner. But in spring 2018, the strategic planner had no plan.
Chang realized that she did not like how she parented while working as a director for Northwestern Medicine. Life as a parent of two sons had become a series of child-care drop-offs and pickups with her husband in Chicago’s West Loop. Somehow, parenting had become project management.
“I didn’t even know what the kids were doing,” she says.After work, “I would run in the door and have to jump in right away, like either start taking care of the kids or helping with dinner, and it was just like ‘go, go, go,’ just getting the kids fed and getting them to sleep. And then almost always after bedtime, I’d be back working. I would really only see my kids, in terms of quality time, minutes maybe, out of the course of an entire day.”
When she looked ahead, she saw a path in a corporate-type setting that “would require me to make even more sacrifices on the family side to keep going, and I decided I did not want that for my life.”
So she quit, not knowing what was next.
Chang could sense a call to ministry, a desire to merge her Christian faith with a career of meaningful work.
She went through a major inner transformation, coming into a sense of self that wasn’t defined by external achievement. She wrote whatever came into her mind in the mornings and dedicated that entire summer to her kids. They went to the pool and the park, unrushed. They found swallowtail caterpillars and watched them emerge from their chrysalises. They planted cucumbers and zucchini and peppers for Chang’s younger son, Ethan.
Around the same time, their older son, Jonah, received a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, and she had time to research what interventions they would pursue.
“The entire environment in the house changed after that summer,” she says, “like we actually had more of a sense of peace, and the kids weren’t just constantly on edge because we were on edge.”
That fall, Chang began conversations with the lead pastor of her church about serving as its executive pastor. The role would involve financial oversight, communications guidance and yes, strategic planning for River City Community Church on Chicago’s West Side. She also began studying for her master’s degree in theological studies.
Shortly after completing her degree, Chang transitioned into an interim role directing the children’s ministry at River City. Chang is also now a full-time doctoral student at Yale University, taking classes and researching her dissertation on racial capitalism, the idea that racialized exploitation and capitalism intersect and reinforce one another, and how that has formed and shaped faith communities.
As a 41-year-old Ph.D. student, Chang says she hopes to be a model for her sons, now 11 and 9, to live in a way that is true to themselves, and to care about injustice.
“I see parenting less about doing all the things my boys need,” she says. “I still want to do those things, but I also see parenting as helping them become who they are, who they’re meant to be.”
Stretched thin, this mother learned about self-care and turned it into a business
It was the 20th time in three months that Shanise Spruill had to take off work to go to her 7-year-old’s school.
Divorced for several years, Spruill was a single parent to three children, ages 7, 8 and 13. The Army service member worked a high-stress job at a governmental organization in Washington, D.C. “A normal day started for me at 4:30 a.m., getting my children up at 5 a.m. and having one hour of time with them before dropping them off and sitting in traffic for an hour to get to work,” Spruill said. “It was chaotic.” And that was just their mornings.
Soon she realized her children, especially her youngest son, were affected by the chaos and stress. “He was having some behavioral health issues,” she said. “He’s one of three children, and I was just not able to be there for him as consistently as I needed to be because of the work.”
Spruill knew something had to change. As a senior leader in the Army, she was accustomed to a culture of resiliency, not self-care, she said. But she wanted something different for her family. She started group therapy with her family, sought a diagnosis for her youngest son and decided it was time to take a different path.
“I started doing things that were more holistic for him and for myself, and that’s kind of what opened the door to creating and crafting, which helped us work through some of those issues,” she said. One of the crafts her youngest son took a particular interest in was beading, so Spruill started creating and selling beaded jewelry with him.
On the brink of retirement from the military, she decided not to wait any longer. “I realized what I was doing was prohibiting me from really standing in motherhood for my son, and that’s what started the shift.”
In January 2018, she began to study stress management and energy healing. Shortly after, she started Johari and Lou, where she sells artisan collectibles, gems and holistic services. “I didn’t see myself as an entrepreneur,” she said, “but it developed out of a need to find something I could connect with, help my family heal and help others.”
She found her purpose as well as the time and energy to be the parent her children needed. “I could have easily tried to fight through it and pretend that nothing was going on at home and nothing was wrong with me and stayed the course of serving, but that would have caused us to derail somewhere in the family,” she said. “Serving had its benefits, but being able to show my children how to do something that helps you as well as other people — I wouldn’t have changed that path. I would walk it again.”
— Kelly Glass
She left the fast-paced world of journalism to live a more creative life
Philippa Tarrant had her dream job as a news producer for BBC when, the night before she was going to England to do a war combat course, she realized that she wanted to have a baby. The job “was all I ever wanted to do and I loved it, and lived and breathed it,” she says.
She had no intention of ever having kids, but just about a year later, her son, Aidan, was born. When she returned from maternity leave, Tarrant felt she didn’t want her dream job anymore, always rushing off to the next big story.
So she moved to the assignment desk as an editor, “sending everyone else to do the job I used to love doing.” She began to realize she wanted to do something more creative.
A few years before, Tarrant lived in North London. There, she would pass a flower shop on her way to work. The owner was often out front with other shopkeepers, chatting and drinking coffee. Then one day, there was a sign on the door that said “Gone to the South of France. Back in six weeks!”
That stayed with her, especially after she went back to work after her son, now 22, was born. Life became incredibly hectic — she would drop him off at day care at 7:30, rush out of work at 5:30 then “drive like a maniac” to get to him on time, she said.
Thinking about that little shop, Tarrant took a flower arranging course and was hooked. Within a few months of her return, she negotiated a schedule where she would work 40 hours in four days for the BBC, then take a day to focus on the flower trade.
She started to gain a few clients, creating arrangements for boutique hotels, working out of her garage. And then her daughter Maggie, now 20, was born. Tarrant took a year of leave from her journalism job, but six months in, she resigned. She wanted to spend more time with her children as she grew her flower business, now known as Flowers at 38.
“It was very surprising to me. I never thought I wanted to do anything else. But there was a thing about wanting to do something more creative,” she said. “And that feeling if I couldn’t be a 20-something news producer available nonstop, I needed to step aside and let someone else do that.”
“If I hadn’t had kids, I’d still be there. But I don’t have one regret,” she says.
She especially had no regrets about leaving after discovering her daughter had special needs at age 2½ that needed a lot of time and attention. When Maggie was 8 years old, she began to lose her speech, which was completely gone within six months, and was diagnosed with a rare disease. “She regressed basically to 18 months and stayed there. I’ve spent forever in doctor’s appointments and hospitals,” she says. “I could never have done this with a full-time job.”
Now, Tarrant is transitioning to her next phase of life. The family will end up in a remote corner of Tuscany, where they’ve had a house for 15 years and where Maggie has been fully embraced by the community.
And, because she’s not one to sit still, you will find Tarrant there, helping a friend run a restaurant. “Having reinvented myself into my most important job as a mother, then a florist, I’m looking ahead to the next.”