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Making it work: 3 women blazed trail as working moms, learned art of balance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2010 - The women profiled here have little in common, at least on the surface. One's a senator and one's in the circus. There's a doctor and a woman who has her own start-up. There's a law professor, a Science Center executive and a well-loved broadcast journalist.

They're all moms, true, but what they share, across a range of ages, professions and cultural backgrounds, is the way they've gone about being mothers.

All nine women work -- and have for all or most of their children's lives. Some began when it wasn't common or approved of. Others stepped in when it became the norm.

Mom Talk

What have your children learned from watching you and your career?

Karen Foss: "I think they learned the only way to get ahead is hard work."

Pat Wolff: "They did not learn how to clean ... Independence, self-reliance, and that relationships and having fun are the most important things, but I'm guessing also knowing how to work hard, because they are working hard."

All of them, though, love their careers and seem to have succeeded both there and at home.

For a few generations now, the term working and mother have been put together under various lights. (It's worth pointing out there are few mentions of working fathers.) Working is often seen as an option, but the truth is that a majority, nearly three quarters, of mothers work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For many if not most, it's an economic necessity, not a hobby.

Still, both women and society seem to struggle with this reality.

In a 2009 study from the Pew Research Center, 12 percent of those polled thought having full-time working mothers was the best situation for children. Forty-two percent thought it best if the mother didn't work at all.

How working and stay-at-home moms viewed their success at raising children also differed. According to the study, 43 percent of stay-at-homes gave themselves an nine or 10 out of 10 on job performance. With working moms, that number was only 33 percent.

Ultimately, the Pew study found, working mothers felt conflicted and guilty about working. But the women profiled here rarely expressed that sentiment. Most have to work, most love their work, and all were clear that the choice for them wasn't to work or not to work. The choice was how to make it all work together.

In this first story, the St. Louis Beacon spoke with three women who were pioneers in their careers -- broadcast journalism, medicine and politics. All achieved striking success in highly competitive, male-oriented professions at a time when women were just breaking through.

All three pursued their work while raising children, and all three met with some of the same obstacles, from issues with child care to sexism in the workplace to giving up things that no longer fit in their lives.

As Karen Foss says, though, those decisions weren't great tragedies, just the facts of being a mother and having a career when the two were far from common.

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JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM

In the editing booths in the TV stations where she began her career, no one had photos of their children.

"Most had pinup calendars on the walls," says Karen Foss, a long-time St. Louis anchorwoman and since 2007 vice president of public relations at Ameren.

"You did not have pictures of your family on your desk," she says. "You did not talk about the fact that you had children."

But Foss, one of the only women at the station and older than most of her co-workers, got a late start in her career and already had two children in junior high. She was also a single mom.

After her children started elementary school, Foss went back to work and school. In her last semester at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she worked three part-time jobs, had a full load of classes and was working nights at the TV station.

"Mother's guilt" for working wasn't an option. In her home, Foss was the breadwinner, and her children knew it. Kary and Scott understood why their mom was working, Foss says, and worked with her as a team.

"We really had to make it up as we went day-to-day."

Foss advanced in her career, moving to St. Louis and to KSDK, where she'd spend 25 years as an anchor. And by the late '80s, she noticed things were changing in the newsroom. Baby pictures replaced the pin-ups.

"The whole tone changed," she says. "I think that companies became more aware of families and the importance of families."

Foss continued raising her children, and making choices that affected her entire family. She had no time for fitness, no time for friends.

"All I did was work and raise my children."

And when the opportunity came to move up to a station in New York city, Foss turned it down. The money wouldn't be good enough to live in Manhattan, near where she'd be working. She feared her kids would be stranded in a strange neighborhood.

"It's obvious your kids come first," a producer told her, and she realized he was right. They did.

"It didn't seem like a sacrifice or a terrible ordeal," she says. "It simply was the facts."

Today, she sees a different world for young mothers than the one she entered years ago.

There seems to be more respect for families and family obligations, she says, more flexibility from employers who realize the value of their female employees.

"I think some of them are really doing it all," she says. "And I'm quite amazed."

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A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE

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Pat Wolff remembers her mother ironing, talking on the phone with unhappy women as the telephone cord stretched across the room. Wolff was just an eavesdropping child, and she didn't understand, really, but something stuck with her about all those sad women at home with their children, calling her mother to talk.

"I determined early on that I was never going to be one of them," she says.

Wolff grew up the oldest of 13 and by the 1960s was challenging traditional roles with other young women at the time.

She would be a doctor, she decided. "And if I became a mother, it would be like a bonus, but it would be on my terms."

When Wolff started medical school, only about 10 percent of her class were women. There were no role models for working mothers, just women who worked and weren't married or had no children, and women who were married, had kids and stayed home.

Wolff thought she could do things differently.

"It's not about rejecting motherhood," she says. "It's rejecting the straitjacket that was the definition of motherhood and beginning to think that you could be all that you could be, and you could be a mother, and how could you do it?"

She decided to find out.

Wolff married Michael Wolff at 21 and had her first son at 26. By then, she was already working. A family tragedy struck a month later when Wolff's mother, father and three sisters came to visit her and were all killed in a car accident.

Grief-stricken and exhausted, Wolff worked three days a week and her younger sister, who was pregnant, came to live with them and helped care for Wolff's new son.

"It was very stressful trying to keep all the balls in the air," she says. 

A year later, Wolff and her family came to St. Louis, where she decided she'd stay home for a year. Again, things didn't work out that way.

A resident at Children's Hospital quit and the job was offered to her. Wolff worked 80- to 100-hour weeks and got help from a babysitter and her husband, but she had little flexibility.

Often, she'd drive home in tears because the babysitter had yelled at her again. For Wolff, the decision was often, who do I let down today -- my patients, my babysitter, my husband or my child?

"I gave up recreation, I gave up sleep, I gave up reading, I gave up exercise, I gave up hobbies."

All she had time for was work and family. Still, she doesn't feel anything was lost.

"I never felt shortchanged or anything," she says. "It was just a decision."

For young women now who are physicians, Wolff doesn't think much has changed. Work weeks may be more like 80 hours now, but that's still tough.

"There's no slack in the system, and everyone needs slack in the system," she says. "You can cut out meals, sleep, vacations and then after that, there's nothing to cut out."

Outside of medicine, she sees a culture that has not only become accepting of women in the workplace, but demand that women work for families to survive economically. "But I don't think there's any real recognition of what that means," she says.

Today, Wolff has a private pediatric practice, is a professor of clinical pediatrics at Washington University's School of Medicine and is the executive director of Meds and Food for Kids, a nonprofit she founded in 2003 that treats malnourished children in Haiti with ready-to-use therapeutic food.

Her husband is a judge in the Missouri Supreme Court, and their two sons are grown. Andy is 36 and Ben is 32.

"It's one of the greatest joys of my life to have had children," she says. "And it's one of the most meaningful things that my husband and I have done together."

Having children added dimension to her life that she can't imagine she'd have otherwise, but it's a dimension she added and one she did in exactly her own way.

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IN HER MOTHER'S SHOES

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One Halloween when Sen. Claire McCaskill was little, her mother took her out and told her to say "trick or treat. Vote for JFK."

"She showed me being a mom didn't mean I had to give up pursuing my interest in politics," says McCaskill through an e-mail interview.

Years later in high school, her mom served as Columbia's first female city council member. McCaskill went on to get involved with politics, winning a seat as a state legislator in 1982, but at the time, there weren't many women or mothers around her.

She was the first woman to give birth while in office when her son, Austin, was born in 1987.

"I definitely spent some time proving myself in Jefferson City and in the prosecutor's office," she says. "I also learned very quickly to prioritize what is important in my kids' lives. I didn't always worry if their clothes were pressed as long as they were washed."

McCaskill had three children from her first marriage, Austin, Maddie and Lily, and spent seven years as a single mom before remarrying in 2002. Her husband, Joseph Shepard, has four children of his own.

In 2006, McCaskill became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri. (Jean Carnahan was named to the Senate seat won by her deceased husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan.)

Throughout her career, McCaskill says her children have kept her grounded and given her perspective about what she's really doing.

"Out in Washington, it's way too easy to forget where you came from. People start treating you like you're a big deal and it's pretty easy to get used to it, but my kids help me keep my head on straight," she says. "They remind me all the time that I'm not really that important and push me to work on important issues rather than just focus on getting re-elected."

It was her daughter who convinced her to endorse then-candidate Barack Obama early in the 2008 race, telling her to do what she thought was best for the country.

When McCaskill, now the grandmother of three, talks to young working mothers, she shares the advice that got her through doing it herself.

"You can't do everything perfectly. You're going to make mistakes. You just do the best you can."

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