Mothers of Invention

Thanks to the Internet, local moms can run their own businesses and stay at home with baby.

At 2 p.m. on a summer Monday, the phone rings in the Mt. Washington offices of bhealthybmore.com, a new website aimed at promoting health and wellness in Charm City. The site’s creator, Sarah Bregel, 27, answers the call and immediately drops her voice to a whisper. “I’m going to sneak out on the porch so I don’t wake the baby,” she says.

Later that week, Elizabeth Voss, 44, spends an hour of her workday participating in a Twitter chat promoting Raw Olive, her natural bath-and-beauty-products company. “I was in my pajamas. I’m drinking my coffee. The kids were running around. I’m thinking, ‘OK, this isn’t so bad,’” laughs Voss, who runs the seven-year-old business out of an airy studio-office at the back of her Stoneleigh home.

Welcome to the latest twist on working motherhood.

Bregel, mom to a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and Voss, mother to three girls, ages 10, 12, and 14, are part of a new wave of mothers who’ve carved out a third path in between staying at home full-time with their children or working outside the home. In increasing numbers, mothers are having their proverbial cake and eating it, too. They are logging the hours with Play-Doh and playgroup while also running home-based businesses of their own design.

While there have long been stay-at-home-moms who have supplemented their income by working from home for direct sales companies, the latest breed of work-at-home mom is specifically harnessing the ability of the Internet to work virtually and flexibly.

These women have created one-of-a-kind jobs and ventures tailored entirely to their own needs, schedules, and lifestyles, even if that sometimes means working ’til 2 a.m. or having a work schedule beholden to the whimsical nap cycles of a new baby.

“There are a lot of women who felt really pinned down by the ‘Do I go back to work?’ or ‘Do I stay home?’ decision. I’m showing my children that you can have both,” says Danielle Elliott Smith, a St. Louis-based blogger and co-author of the 2011 book Mom, Incorporated: A Guide to Business + Baby, for which she interviewed scores of work-from-home mothers across the country. “The Internet has created a whole new world for us.”

The idea that there can be a third way comes at a particularly edgy moment in the so-called “mommy wars.” During this election year, the sub-rosa tension between mothers who choose to return to the workforce and those who don’t has exploded into a national conversation with a striking virulence.

In April, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen set off a firestorm of controversy when she suggested that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, a stay-at-home mother of five, had “never worked a day in her life.”

At the other end of the spectrum, former Google executive Marissa Mayer set tongues wagging when she assumed the reins as CEO of Yahoo six months into her first pregnancy, explaining that she planned to take only a few weeks of maternity leave and would “work throughout it.”

Meanwhile, an incendiary summer cover story in The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” by former State Department official (and Princeton University professor) Anne-Marie Slaughter argued forcefully that without fundamental changes to the very fabric of our society, American mothers simply cannot expect to ascend to the professional heights that their male counterparts do.

That debate seems very far away, however, from the Lutherville home of Molly White, 35, which doubles as the offices of her social-media marketing firm; she often works with her laptop perched on the kitchen table and her two young daughters nearby.

For White and others, the path to work-at-home-motherhood was paved in part by the realities of a cold, hard bottom line. After the birth of her first child, White, a former magazine editor who had also worked in sales and marketing, was dismayed to learn that working retail for $10 an hour a couple of days a week—with free childcare from her in-laws—would actually bring home more money than returning to work and having to pay for full-time child care. White went on to take a part-time job, but after a friend hired her to create a Facebook page for her company, the lightbulb went off, and Molly White Marketing was born.

“Because I work from home, I enjoy the fact that my kids see that I try my hardest to be a good mom, and I try my hardest to be a good worker,” says White. “Especially because I have girls. I want them to see there is a balance. Somewhere. Sometimes. It can work.”

Some moms end up working from home simply because they can’t bear to leave their children in other people’s care.

“When she was born, and I held her and looked at her, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to work in a few weeks or even a few months,” says Bregel of bhealthybmore.com, who also has a personal-training business. “I was determined to make it work somehow and still be contributing to our income.”

Bregel also found she needed a way to flex her dormant creative and professional muscles, a need many women find is left unfulfilled by full-time mothering.

“I was seeking a sense of identity that I wasn’t finding from being home with the baby all day,” says Bregel. “The longer I was home, the more I wanted to do professionally or creatively outside of taking care of a baby. But wanting, equally, to be with my child is what drew me toward a work-at-home option.”

While Bregel concedes she’s making less money, “it’s just so worth it for me to have been home every day for two-and-a-half years,” she says. “There are so many moments I didn’t miss.”

Like Bregel, stay-at-home mom Erica Wolfe, 41, of Riderwood, found she needed to fill a void once her daughter, now 7, began school.

“I didn’t want to just clean and run errands. I wanted to do something fulfilling for myself also,” explains Wolfe, who had quit her job in corporate marketing to stay at home.

Following a passion for what she calls “girlie stuff,” Wolfe spent a year doing research and studying aromatherapy before launching Becca & Mars, a natural bath and body products company, and is “extremely happy” with the path she’s chosen. “I do have the best of both worlds.”

Voss, who runs Raw Olive, also followed an unlikely path into the work-at-home field. Her professional experience was in advertising and photo styling, but she quit after her first child was born, finding it too difficult to keep up with the travel demands. The inspiration for her company simply “happened overnight. It all just came to me—the name, the idea. It’s not really related to what I used to do at all, but I’ve always had a passion for anything healthy and natural.”

All of these women say that without the Internet and the ubiquitous access to technology, their jobs would simply be impossible; social-media jobs like White’s didn’t even exist a few years ago. The ability to work from any location makes it possible to be free of the confines of the traditional workday and the cubicle, allowing mothers to work around their children’s schedules. But that same flexibility can be a double-edged sword.

“My in-laws have a house in Rehoboth. We can go to the beach for weeks at a time because I can work from anywhere and that’s lovely,” explains White. “The con is . . . I can work from anywhere. I have an iPhone and an iPad, and I never, ever, turn work off.”

On the flipside, Miranda Blakely, 27, who runs Spry Sprout, an online shop for hand-sewn baby goods, tries not to be distracted while she’s in work mode and her boyfriend is caring for their infant son, Rocket, in their Charles Village home.

“My studio is part of the living room, which is part of the kitchen, so there’s no real closed-off area for myself,” says Blakely. “You learn to quell the urge to run over every time you hear a scream.”

But Voss says she cherishes the ability to put work aside and do something as simple as drive her daughter to the mall.

“In my job, everything can wait an hour or two,” she explains. “I’ll stop what I’m doing if I can and try to spend those little snippets of time with them because I feel like it slips away so fast. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Issue date: October, 2012
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