Babies in the Boardroom

Issue 128 – January/February 2005

Five women who brought their children to their jobs—with wonderful results!

mother nursing at workWorkplace policies, practices, and prejudices have tended to separate moms and babies sooner than some moms would like. The US lags behind many other developed nations when it comes to maternity-leave policy. Here, I explore a road a working mother is less likely to take—bringing her baby to the workplace. It’s true that many workplaces are no place for a baby, but that need not be true for all workplaces if the mother’s desire is there and the work culture tends toward being supportive of mothers—or could be encouraged to take a leap of faith in that direction.

While bringing your baby to work has an impact on everyone involved, it is primarily a way for a mother to respond to her natural instincts. Money can still be coming in, and baby can spend the workday near mom—in a sling or another close-to-mom setup.

Work can also be a place where a bit of what Thomas Moore would call “enchantment” can live. Moore, a former monk and now a practicing psychotherapist, praises the workplace that addresses the concerns of the soul. Using a bit of Moore’s analysis, a baby has value simply for enlivening the spirit of a place, even if the balance sheet lacks a column for this asset. A company that allows room for the well-being of its workers can reap returns in employee retention and morale—provided the work gets done.

Where will you find a “working baby”? There are probably some in your own community. Here I introduce you to a few of them. Two of their mothers run their own retail businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City’s Soho district. One is a director of the New Mexico state office for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. One works at an organic farm near Watsonville, California, while operating her own side business. And another runs the website for Mothering magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Representative of the challenges and pitfalls such choices bring, their experiences also suggest some of the lifestyle and career choices that make bringing a baby to a workplace work out.

Cath Morrison and Sarah
shop owner and entrepreneur
It may look like a play area, but it’s Karikter—the shop Cath Morrison calls work. It’s also where her daughter, Sarah, spends the workweek with her mother. It’s a boon for Sarah that her mother’s place of work is a sweet, colorful world where Babar, Bécassine, Tintin, and the Little Prince smile back at her. The extended family of the shop’s employees and business associates have watched Sarah grow from a tiny baby tucked away in her mother’s sling to a rambunctious toddler who moves inventory around randomly and plays with phones and adding machines.

Cath owns three retail shops—two in San Francisco, near Union Square, and one in New York City’s Soho. Bringing Sarah to the shop was her response to starting a family while building up her businesses. But Cath’s situation is equally an expression of her ideas on mothering. She isn’t comfortable with someone else serving as her substitute. “I want to be the one teaching Sarah the right behavior and providing for her.

I couldn’t hand her off.”

It may be playtime all day for Sarah, but Cath has businesses to run. This is tricky, given that sometimes the shops or her daughter demand her full attention. The secret is to find pockets of time for the tasks that demand more continuous attention. “I can sometimes delegate, and I get a lot of work done when Sarah is napping,” she says. “If I really need to focus, one of my employees can take her for a walk.” Taking a nap is something Cath herself would probably love to do. The day-to-day responsibility for the shops and Sarah (who travels for long stretches with her mother) makes even this exceptional woman tired. “I envy moms who get to stay at home with their kids,” says Cath.

Jordan and Ry Champagne
organic farmer and entrepreneur
In addition to the full-time enterprise of raising a son, Jordan Champagne works several jobs at Happy Boy Farm, which is also home to Fearless Pickles, a division of the Watsonville, California, organic farm that she and her husband, Todd, launched together. This business and their jobs on the farm allow them to live close to the land and do work that soundly applies the principles of conservation. Jordan devotes more than 20 hours a week to the business and works another 20 as a coordinator for the farm’s market staff. “Owning your own business,” Jordan says, “means you live your work.”

Jordan’s lifestyle would be the envy of some, but others would lack the constitution for it. The family’s workday begins around 6 a.m. Jordan uses a morning meditation to clear her mind and help her get focused on the day ahead. While hanging up cloth diapers to dry on the line, she begins sorting out work errands and business phone calls. Once Ry awakens, he will spend the greater part of the workday alongside mom.

Ry has been toted in a baby sling to the bank, where mom has fed him during meetings. He has sat in a harvest basket playing with beet greens while mom and others rescued overlooked beets for canning. He has sat playing in the couple’s home office as nearby mom made appointments with grocery stores or ordered supplies. He has also been worn by mom in a backpack at a few farmers’ markets. “There are a few things at a market you can’t do with a baby,” says Jordan, “but people always seem willing to help out a mother if she’s trying to get something done and needs a little help because she’s with her baby.”

Anabelle and Madison Thomas
shop owner and entrepreneur
As Jordan and Ry Champagne go about their farm and market routines, farther up Highway 101, in San Mateo, California, Anabelle Thomas and her daughter pass the day at the family’s garden-inspired furniture shop. Diapers can be found right by the cash register, tucked into a pale-green, turned-leg changing table, one of the few pieces of furniture that’s not for sale. Anabelle doesn’t sell the diapers, either—they’re there for Madison. This space, which for the greater part of the week is her daughter’s home away from home, resembles a home itself. As a result, when Madison learned to cruise, she had her choice of many styles of coffee tables and sofas, and many stylishly appointed chairs. “The whole store, really, is her playground,” says Anabelle. “She likes to play peekaboo behind the different cabinet doors, and she’s really into fabric swatches and tassels.” It’s interesting for the first-time visitor to see a baby there. Madison puts a nice face on her mother’s business and makes fast friends with the customers.

While Madison plays, her mother carries out all the tasks she can, though occasionally she hits a trouble spot. “I know that Madison sometimes doesn’t like it when deliveries arrive or when I have to go to the back room,” Anabelle says. “She’ll get upset. Or she’ll pull at the papers I’m trying to do some work with, or try to type on the keyboard—but it’s fine 80 percent of the time.” The other 20 percent means that sometimes Anabelle needs to put up a sign: “Back in 30 minutes.” They might head to the city’s Central Park, which is a few blocks away and has a children’s playground. Or her husband might take Madison for a walk in the stroller and give Anabelle a break.

Anabelle and her husband care for Madison at work one day at a time. As for Anabelle, the longer she can have Madison spend the day where she is, the better. It’s a question of her peace of mind. “The early years are so important. I don’t want someone else to be the one to make all the day-to-day decisions.”

Deb and Sabine Love

state director of nonprofit organization
A working baby can outgrow arrangements that worked well when she spent a good part of the day in a sling or asleep. At that point, a working mother with a flexible schedule and permission to try new arrangements can shift her schedule by working more hours without baby, or by working at home with a nanny on duty, as Deb Love is doing. Her daughter, Sabine, was becoming more mobile and active, and Deb was unable to be as productive while keeping Sabine at the office.

Deb has worked for the Trust for Public Land (TPL) for 11 years. This agency serves the public by providing a heritage of open spaces by purchasing land from private owners and preserving it for future generations. After Sabine arrived, Deb had made a career change devised to make life as a working mother more practical. She moved from her position as southwest regional project manager, where she worked in a 30-person office and traveled among six states regularly, to become the director for TPL’s New Mexico state office, where she manages a four-person team and restricts her travel to within the state. This move also made it feasible for her to bring Sabine to the office.

In the earlier months, Sabine stayed home with dad on the one day a week that he telecommuted, one day at home with mom, and one day with mom at the office. Ninety-five percent of the time it was wonderful. Deb mastered the art of multitasking, talking on her phone’s headset while nursing, meeting with coworkers while playing on the floor, even speaking in public with Sabine in a backpack.

Deb tells of an occasion when, needing to comfort Sabine, she offered her the breast and was given a raised eyebrow by someone from the community who was visiting on official business. But raised eyebrows were not common. “My staff welcomed Sabine, and her presence did not affect their productivity. In fact, they said it enlivened our office,” Deb recalls. Deb also felt welcomed when her job required her to meet with agency personnel, landowners, and local or national officials. As a working baby, Sabine played the role of “baby ambassador.” A local Santa Fe official often asked when Sabine would be in the office, and he scheduled his meetings to coincide with those days. When Sabine was five months old, Deb brought her to a 3,000-person conference in Washington, DC, and wore her in a baby carrier during workshops and meetings. Sabine drew positive reactions and encouragement from on high: “The head of the federal Bureau of Land Management loved it that I had brought Sabine to the meeting in the Baby Bjorn,” Deb says.

“I think it would have been a different story if I had been new.” The TPL being already “her shop,” in other words, helped make it possible, Deb admits. But she also credits the agency’s being a nonprofit. “I think the work culture of a nonprofit is more understanding than a corporate culture of the need to balance work and home life.” And Deb has now helped pave the way for one of the women she supervises, who recently had a child of her own and plans to bring her baby to the office.

Laura, Maggie, and Ben Goeller
website producer
Deb Love was inspired to bring Sabine to work while she was on maternity leave and was visiting the lending library at Mothering magazine’s offices. When she noticed children about and realized they belonged to one of the staff, she had an “Ah-ha!” moment and decided to try it too. One of the working babies Deb may have spotted that day is the daughter of Mothering’s website producer, Laura Goeller.

When Laura got her job at Mothering, she was amazed to learn that she could bring her daughter to work. Maggie was five months old when she came to work at the magazine. Goeller is now a full-time staff member in charge of running the website.

The workplace has been great for both mother and children. Laura has enjoyed being able to nurse at work, while Maggie and now Ben benefit from interacting with magazine staff. “There will even be times when Maggie might have a meltdown, and someone will notice that I’m at the end of my tether and scoop her up,” Laura says. “Ben can wander over to other people and spend some time with them. It’s very family-like.”

This work arrangement has succeeded largely because Laura has a lot of flexibility in her work schedule. “We have learned that it’s all about adapting, over and over,” she says. To begin with, Maggie would be at her sitter’s in the morning or afternoon. When she became more mobile, Laura began to work more from home while still using a sitter part-time. With Ben, she had a two-month paid maternity leave and then brought Ben to work with her or worked at home. “Some days, the children want all my attention. Or, if one isn’t feeling well, we can leave,” Laura says. Because of this arrangement, Laura prefers to work on an hourly basis and make up work later at home, or over the weekend.

Katherine Relf-Cañas is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her daughter, Olivia (3), and her husband, Joe. This piece is gratefully dedicated to her own mother, Connie Relf.

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