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The Beautiful Truth About Working Moms

Carolyn Cope Working Mama | Umami Girl

See me worky-working on my giant 2011 laptop? Might be time for new headshots 🙂

Hello hello, and happy day after International Women’s Day to us all. This post is sponsored by BBVA Compass. As you’ll see, the opinions are most definitely my own. (I have a lot to say on this topic, who knew? Answer: my husband.)

This may be the proudest I’ve ever been to create sponsored content, because the Working Moms Mean Business project is all about empowering working moms by dispelling some of our less-helpful cultural myths and replacing them with data. Spoiler alert: The kids are all right. Maybe better than ever.

And just to clarify from the outset: Every mom is a working mom. You didn’t need me to spell that out, I bet. But in this post “working” means engaging in additional work for pay.

My own working mom story

I want to spend a few minutes describing my own winding path of working motherhood, because I think it helps to know a little about someone’s personal experiences when you’re trying to figure out where they’re coming from on an important topic like this. Fasten your seatbelt, though, because there are some sharp turns ahead. If you’d rather skip this part and head straight to the facts, here’s where I am today: I’m a married mom of two daughters, 12- and 8-years old. And I’m the founder and publisher of Umami Girl, which started as a hobby and now could comfortably pay the average American mortgage. By next year I’m hoping it will pay ours.

A Mere Babe

Growing up, I never expected to get married and start a family on the early side. For whatever reason (maybe because I preferred dorky homemade Halloween costumes to dating, all the way through the first half of high school?), I just kind of assumed that my sister, who’s five years younger, would get married first. Not sure I ever mentioned that to anyone, but I felt it in my bones.

Then, toward the end of junior year of college, I met Cope. And I realized that bones lie. We got married three years after graduation (and celebrated our 15th anniversary last fall). I’d been having lots of fun at a small company with “Cyber” in its name — just in case you wanted to know if I’m old as hell — but that ended for me the way it ended for most people, and it was time to do something new.

Attorney at Large

Two years later, at 27, I was in my second year of law school. This was late 2003, and legal jobs abounded, so I dressed my totally not pregnant bod in a skirt suit and high heels, interviewed at twelve billion prestigious NYC law firms (give or take) and received twelve billion offers. These were offers for the summer internships that typically led to full-time employment the following year. And I mean “typically” like unless you jumped off a firm-sponsored booze cruise into the Hudson River during your internship, and sometimes even then, you’d probably get the job.

Here’s something I found pretty amusing but some people at my law firm seemed to find bemusing at best. I showed up for the first day of my internship looking a little different from the rest of the class, my six-months-pregnant belly swelling underneath a very professional empire-waist top from A Pea In the Pod. I purposely chose that top “for the avoidance of doubt,” as lawyers say. It cost half of my first week’s paycheck, but it was worth it to let everyone know for sure that I was the most professional-looking DEFINITELY PREGNANT summer associate they’d ever seen. As the first definitely pregnant summer associate they’d ever seen, the competition wasn’t that high.

After the summer, they hired me back full-time. Not that they had a choice. It was back to law school for the third and final year, and then I’d head to the firm indefinitely. Our daughter was born at the beginning of that school year, and looking back I understand why people thought it was a little crazy that I only skipped a week or two of classes. Youth, am I right?

Ummm…Not Even Sure What to Call This Phase

That year was exhausting but actually pretty great, except for the nanny who secretly fed the baby potatoes while I was still exclusively breastfeeding and the way my hormone-purging brain started seeing polka dots and lots of the beautiful patterns in nature as grotesque and shocking. That was super-fun and something no one really prepared me for. Even so, I’m convinced I suffered way less postpartum emotional difficulty because I stayed immersed in my usual life rather than creating the world over again from scratch the way we do on maternity leave. (We desperately need more-humane paid leave standards in this country, don’t get me wrong. But we also need to find ways to improve upon our current new-mom norm of what amounts to Solitary Confinement with Screaming Newborn.)

After law school I passed both the NY and NJ bar exams, and then the law firm allowed me to defer my start-date for a full year so I could stay home with le bébé. Thanks to my ridiculous privilege, during that time I also spent my Saturdays studying at what is now the International Culinary Center in NYC and earning a certificate in their La Technique program.

All this was possible because Cope has a big, big job — one that dwarfs even corporate law — and a willingness to keep showing up at it come hell or high water.

Legally Blah-nd

After that I practiced law for a scant couple of years. (That’s a recipe developer’s term for a year and a half.) To put it mildly, it wasn’t really for me — but I worked with some incredible women who have taken that experience to truly great heights. During my one performance review at the firm, they told me all the partners I’d worked for agreed that I was very smart but didn’t really seem to be invested in the work. (12- to 14-hour days notwithstanding, I guess.) My reaction was not, “Oh no! Must fix!” but instead, “Huh, the review system is impressively spot-on.” Shortly thereafter, early in my pregnancy with our younger daughter, I decided I couldn’t take that job for one more day. I sometimes wonder whether I’m the only person to have worked at that firm throughout two successful pregnancies and cashed in on zero maternity leaves.

I don’t regret my legal experience, and I don’t regret having left it behind. But that was really the first time in my life that I’d stepped off the yellow brick road where the next achievement is generally agreed upon and never too far from sight. I’m actually grateful for having been acutely miserable at that job (to put it less mildly), because it helped me make the otherwise scary choice to step off that path and onto one more truly my own.

To use a term you’ll hear in the Working Moms Mean Business podcasts: While I was traveling down the off-ramp, and for many years after that, I didn’t have an “on-ramp” strategy, as women returning to work now know to say. What we did have, though, was a sense of Team Cope working together in the collective best interest of our family.

Stay-at-home Blogger

That was 2008, and that’s when I started Umami Girl. I joined an ad network and did a sponsored post or two in the early days, but mostly the blog was just a mildly obsessive hobby and a space in the world to call my own when nothing else was really mine all mine.

For several years I slowly built the Umami Girl brand and honed my skills, but primarily I focused on the kids. I was a stay-at-home mom, and, for three of those years, also a “trailing spouse” when we moved overseas with Cope’s work. How’s that for a title that could use a new branding agency?

That kind of freedom was exciting until it wasn’t anymore.

From Umami Girl to Umami Rockin’ Biz Lady (Oh hi, is this post public?)

Last year I co-authored two cookbooks and decided I was finally ready to turn Umami Girl into a full-time job with a full-time income. Lucky for me, thanks to the hard work of talented colleagues, the nascent blogging industry is also ready to reward that kind of effort. You no longer have to be a borderline A-list celebrity to earn a good income from a blog. Like a normal industry, you just have to be really good at your job.

I don’t think of myself as a natural entrepreneur, but it turns out I like working for myself, I like making money, and I’m even starting to like building a small business with some part-time help. Committing to growing this business has been a virtuous cycle where one opportunity helps create the next.

And the kids are totally into it. I’m pretty sure the little one thinks I am an A-list celeb. I’ve completely spaced on a couple of their appointments since I started working more, and this morning I looked at the state of the older one’s toothbrush and was thankful she’s still alive. But other than my being intermittently mortified (and when is that not the case, TBH?), no one has really been harmed in the making of this blog.

So that’s where we’re at. Always learning, always striving, always gently course-correcting. And usually remembering to make the ride at least a little bit fun.

Working Moms | Umami Girl

Me on my 40th with my beautiful working mom friends: from left, pediatrician, French teacher, anthropologist and sculptor. What hat?

Working Moms Mean Business

In partnership with BBVA Compass, finance journalist and blogger Emma Johnson created an ebook and a podcast series to encourage working moms. Both are worth your time.

Mom Guilt e-Book

The free ebook is called Mom Guilt: Why we have it and how to conquer it. Princeton nerd that I am, I was delighted to see the work of Anne-Marie Slaughter and Laura Vanderkam woven throughout the pages of this book.

Fun facts from Mom Guilt:

  • 70 percent of moms with kids 18 and under work outside the home, and 40 percent of these women are the sole or primary breadwinner in their household.
  • YET. 60 percent of Americans believe children are better off when a parent stays at home, and only 21 percent of adults say the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home has been good for society.
  • MEANWHILEStudies show that daughters of working moms grow up to be higher earners, sons of working moms grow up to help more with housework and child-rearing, and kids of both stay-at-home and working moms grow up to be equally happy.
  • And P.S. Today’s working moms spend AS MUCH TIME with their children as stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s.

One criticism of this book is that it’s suuuper heteronormative. Maybe the next edition won’t be.

Working Moms Mean Business Podcast

I’ve come to love podcasts for the “moments in between” — the little bits of wisdom you pick up from the conversation that don’t always pertain directly to the topic. Here’s something from the episode with Jennifer Owens of Working Mother Magazine: While families are getting better at sharing the “first shift” (paid work) and the “second shift” (basic childcare and housework), women are still overwhelmingly responsible for the “third shift,” which is the meta strategy work of planning the family’s schedule and bearing responsibility for things not falling through the cracks. This is a huge draw on energy and attention, and one I experience regularly but hadn’t quite put my finger on. Good stuff, right?

The podcast series has 10 episodes in which Emma interviews successful women at a variety of career and family stages. They cover topics from what it’s like to be a primary breadwinner in a marriage, to women in tech careers, to mentorship. I’ve listened to three of the episodes so far and, given what I’m up to these days, found the episode called Mompreneurs especially useful. No matter where you are, I’m sure you’ll find some great nuggets of value in there too.

Whew!

There you have it. I’d say “That’s all I have to say about that,” but it isn’t. I’ll spare you the rest for the moment, but let’s keep this conversation going. It’s a doozie, and I’m so grateful to have a chance to participate.

Talk to you soon.

Carolyn xx

WELCOME TO UMAMI GIRL!

Hi there, I'm Carolyn, and I'm delighted you're here. I'm a NYC-area food, travel, yoga, coffee, wine, running, music making and book obsessive with a great family and a love for sharing it all with you. Grab a drink and come on in. Learn more.

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