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The Comms Mom Story

#COMMSMOMS

August 1, 2019

“There is nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.”  – Leslie Knope

Sound familiar? Sadly, that was me. For a long time. A working mom’s conundrum.

I’ve spent the last 20 or so years of my career in communications, PR and marketing, watching the industry evolve from faxing press releases and having coffee with reporters to pitching bloggers via Twitter and monitoring social media 24/7 in case of a reputation management issue.

And boy, did I get tired.

Like many comms pros, I am a perfectionist to a fault. We’ve all had that experience where something has gone out, under our watch, with a spelling, grammatical or formatting error, and we’ve felt the wrath from a boss, client, customer or journalist. My slip-up came early in my career and it further fueled my control freakishness and anal retentiveness. It gave me an excuse to obsess over everything detail (and to be honest, I almost relished the power of my red pen).

And I got even more tired.

From Career-Obsessed to Shift in Priorities

Then, my beautiful baby girl arrived in my arms, and the moment I held her, I decided I didn’t want to go back to work. Which was a shock to me. I was always striving for the next thing in my career, getting restless and bored quickly because I managed to fly through my KPIs like they were a daily task list.

During my paltry six-week maternity leave, I tried to start both an Etsy shop and a freelance business.

But I was tired.

And, we needed the health insurance my job provided.

So, I went back to work.

In fact, an all-staff retreat had been rescheduled in order for me to be there on my first day back to work after having my sweet girl. But, it wasn’t scheduled like that to welcome me back. No, it was scheduled like that so I could present.

I’m not kidding.

Up, in front of my peers, having not slept for weeks, barely squeezing into my “business casual” khakis we were supposed to wear on retreat days (and no offense, khaki-wearers, but I wasn’t about to go buy a new pair to shove my post-partum body into, since I knew I wouldn’t wear them again), my brain mush and my heart broken because I had to leave my baby girl for the first time.

And, I was expected to speak (coherently) in front of 50+ people?

I did, and according to my boss, I excelled. That’s why he promoted me when I was seven months pregnant, he said. He knew I could do it, and he, much older than me, told me now that I was a mom, I was going to be even more efficient because I wouldn’t want to take work home or stay late like I used to.

He was right.

Lean, Mean, Efficiency Machine

I spent the first three months of my pregnancy throwing up in the trash can during Lean Six Sigma classes, wondering why the heck I had to do advanced math when I was in charge of communications. But the skills I learned came in handy when I organized my baby’s new room. I set up an assembly-line style nursery where one could just open a drawer under the changing table and go left to right: diapers, socks, short-sleeved onesies, long-sleeved onesies, pants. Boom. Baby changed and dressed in record time.

I took that efficiency to work, creating processes and systems to cut down on waste. I despised sitting in unproductive meetings or going back-and-forth over email on issues that could be resolved in a quick, face-to-face chat. I was a machine, leading a team that would rebrand an entire university and redesign a website in under three months. And for those of you who know the process, that’s an absolutely insane timeline. But, I wanted to get my list checked off so I could get home to my family.

Empty Promises and Broken Hearts

When my babe turned one, I was headhunted with the promise of a big salary and the opportunity to work from home. I told the headhunters, under no circumstance, was I going to travel more than once a year. The promised me I would have a few days once or twice a year, but it would be in-state travel.

I took the job. And found out they stretched the truth. A lot.

When I started, I was told by my new boss that my, “…opinion is so valuable, we need you on all statewide strategic teams,” and the travel turned into a few days each month. I was miserable and started looking for a new job. The money wasn’t worth it. I wanted to be home with my little girl.

And then, at her 18-month check-up, the new pediatrician thought he heard a murmur. No big deal, he said. It’s probably nothing.

Two weeks later, after a miserable afternoon of getting stuck in the hospital parking lot’s elevator, trying to comfort an overly tired toddler during hours of testing (I still don’t understand why they schedule pediatric cardiology appointments during nap time), the soon-to-be-retired cardiologist assigned to us walked into the room and said, “I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“The good news is, we can fix it. The bad news is, she has three holes in her heart.”

Wait, WHAT?!

NOT MY BABY!

Four minutes earlier, we were just talking about how horrible the rush hour traffic looked out the window while trying to figure out where we should grab dinner.

Is She Going to Die?

Less than six weeks later, after hours of surgery where she was put on a machine to be kept alive while a huge team of specialists worked on her tiny heart, my baby girl emerged with a massive scar, albeit perfectly straight, down her chest. She had tubes coming out of her mouth and stomach. She had a large scar on her neck from where they had to administer an alternative form of anesthesia because of a family history of malignant hyperthermia (she was the first pediatric cardiology patient in the country treated this way – a story for another day).

But her heart was fixed. She was going to be okay.

Trying to Start a Business, Round Two

As a way to calm my nerves before her surgery, I spent my free time crafting, and began making her cute hospital shirts to wear during recovery that snapped in the front so the nurses wouldn’t have to wake her to get her vitals. I figured the t-shirts were made of soft cotton, so they’d keep her warm and snuggly versus the scratchy, thin hospital gowns, or as many heart babies recover, in just a diaper and blanket.

The nurses and doctors went crazy over the shirts and the matching legwarmers I had ordered for her. They asked where I got them and other heart moms asked where they could buy them. “What are they called?”

“Ummm…Peek-A-Boo-Boo. Peek-A-Boo-Boo shirts.”

In the hospital’s library, I checked out a book about writing a business plan. Another great idea emerged: I was going to make and sell the Peek-A-Boo-Boo shirts so I could quit my job and stay home with her. This time, I thought, I’d be successful.

There were just a few problems:

  1. I couldn’t secure the Peek-A-Boo-Boo trademark.
  2. I didn’t have enough money to even attempt to patent the shirts.
  3. We needed my health insurance, as my husband had just started a business.
  4. I felt bad trying to make money off of selling something to a family that was going through the emotional stress (and, most likely, financial stress) we had gone through.

So, back to work I went, quickly switching jobs to one that required no travel and only a 25-minute commute. I also launched The Heal-A-Boo-Boo Project, and instead of charging families for the custom Peek-A-Boo-Boo shirts, I sought out sponsorships and grants. To date, I’ve sent more than 300 shirts and legwarmer sets to children around the world.

New Job With Less Stress, But More Bad News

I was finally happy and fulfilled at work, my babe was going to be okay and my heart was singing, knowing my shirts were putting smiles on faces around the world.

Then, the miscarriages started.

We were hesitant to have another child. “What if he or she has a heart condition too?” we thought. But we loved our little girl so much, we wanted another.

And pregnant I got. Luckily, I could get pregnant quickly; it’s just that the pregnancies didn’t stick.

With our first child, we decided we were going to try for a baby and two weeks later, I was pregnant. Eight months later, we had a baby.

Not this time around.

A Doctorate? Why Not?

Depressed and defeated after back-to-back miscarriages, I did what I do best and decided to keep myself busy. *Naturally,* I applied for a doctoral program.

Crazy, right?

This idea didn’t come out of left field, just so you know. I’ve been wanting to earn my doctorate since I was 25, primarily because I saw so many consulting firms coming into the organizations I was working at, charging $100K+ for their services, which yielded less than my internal research projects did. But I wasn’t being taken seriously because I didn’t have the “Dr.” at the front of my name.

So, my thought process went like this: if I got a doctorate, I could start my own communications firm because I would have the research credentials organizations pay big bucks for. It would keep my mind off of not being able to have another baby, and in just a few short years, I’d be working for myself, from home, spending oodles of time with my family.

I applied to one school and one program only: the Doctor of Education program at the University of Southern California. I attended USC for my master’s in Strategic Public Relations, and because of the phenomenal training I received as a student and the support I still get as an alumna, there was no other choice for me. Plus, USC had just moved its doctorate to a hybrid model, meaning I only had to be out in L.A. once or twice a year for a few days at a time; the rest of my coursework would be done remotely.

The Rollercoaster #MomLife

A funny thing happened the day before my acceptance letter from USC arrived: a positive on my pregnancy test emerged. Not getting my hopes up, and with several scares along the way, I refused to believe it was a viable pregnancy until my 10-week NIPT results came back: my numbers were great and we were having another girl.

Over the moon, and also incredibly nauseous and sick during my entire pregnancy, I forgot about the doctoral program. “Who needs school and a hard-charging career when I was going to be blessed with another baby?!” I thought.

I delievered a healthy girl on a cold February morning, and eight days later, my textbooks arrived for the start of the upcoming summer semester.

I forgot to defer.

Persistance and Perseverance

With an awesome, understanding female boss this time around, I had almost three months off for leave and figured, “Why not? I’m up all night with the baby any way, so I might as well read for school versus sleep shop or scroll through social media.”

Thankfully, all of my previous graduate coursework transferred, so I was able to finish my doctorate in two-and-a-half years. Two-and-a-half years of working full-time (which included switching jobs to a more demanding, higher profile position), going to school at night, doing homework until 2am during the week and all weekend, all while trying to raise a young family.

I’m not going to lie. I was thisclose to breaking.

But, thankfully, I had amazing classmates who were all in the same boat, my mom was there to help out as much as possible and my amazing husband fully supported me and my goals. And when I walked across that stage as Dr. Holdsworth, my family recognized this was an achievement by all of us, not just me.

Working Mom Does Not Mean Uncaring Mom

I’m sure many readers are thinking, “Why the heck didn’t you just quit your job and stay home instead of trying to balance it all?” Valid question. And the answer is pretty simplistic: I love working.

I’ve known what I wanted to do for a career since I was 15. I earned three degrees in communications by the time I turned 23 and was a director of PR for a major non-profit at 25. I didn’t become a mom until a couple of months before my 33rd birthday. That’s a lot of time climbing the career ladder at a fast pace, and a lot to quit, cold turkey.

But, you saw the twists and turns my path has taken. Since having my girls, and particularly since my oldest’s heart surgery, everything I’ve done in my career has actually been focused on them first: which job will give me the best health benefits? Which job gives me two weeks off at Christmas and generous vacation time? Which job doesn’t require evening and weekend events?

Complete 180

A year or so after I finished my doctorate, I left a demanding full-time communications director position to become a full-time assistant professor and to officially launch my consulting business. I figured I’d have more flexibility in my schedule and because I had been an adjunct instructor on and off for 15 years, I would be in more glory, teaching the next generation of practitioners. So, I took the 50% pay cut and traded my stilettos for comfy (yet stylish) flats and said, “See ya!” to the traditional 8-5.

Unfortunately for me, I walked into a hot mess. My courses hadn’t been updated in years and I had never taught seven of the eight I was assigned. Meaning, not only did I have to fully learn seven new subjects, I had to completely redesign five courses on the fly.

At one point, halfway during my first semester, my husband gingerly said, “Let me get this straight: you took a 50% pay cut, yet you’re still working 50+ hours/week, and that doesn’t include what you’re doing for your business…how is this better?”

“I work from home on Mondays and Fridays,” I thought. “I can bring our oldest with me to work if there’s a snow day,” I reasoned. “I don’t have to leave the house until after 8am and am home by 4:30pm,” I countered.

But, who was I kidding? Teaching is a pretty darn thankless profession, and contrary to what people think, professors don’t get paid a lot. Oh, and unless you’re at a large university, you don’t have someone to help teach your classes, answer students’ emails or help you grade. You get gruff from students who don’t do the work, but want As. You get pressure from administrators to attend every campus event, to serve as an admissions advisor and guidance counselor, to teach more, etc., etc. And you really don’t get much respect.

More Doors Open While Some Doors Shut

In general, I loved my students. Yes, some of them drove me nuts, but I loved sharing my knowledge and experiences. I would get excited when they asked for career advice and help with their resumes. It was fun and kept me on my toes.

Being an assistant professor also opened many professional doors for me, as organizations and conference planners began asking me to present my research on organizational culture, internal communications, employee engagement and PR burnout.

My business, which had been on the backburner, was building quite a following and small referrals began leading to larger projects.

Then, out of nowhere, my teaching position was cut. I was told it was no longer needed.

An overachiever without a full-time job to fall back on…what would I do? What would I tell people?

Blessing in Disguise

The next day, I was contacted on LinkedIn by the head of an organization looking for someone to help him with a project that aligned with my research and experience.

“Huh. This business could be a real thing after all,” I thought. “Not just a pipedream.”

So, here I am, months later, sharing not only my career and communications resources, but also my life, with you, on this blog. I have professional websites for my two companies (yes, two, because what’s better than one?); however here, I can be more real, more unabridged, more me.

I am no longer stressed because of the demands someone else puts on me. I’m able to volunteer in my kids’ classrooms and get them on and off the bus each day. I travel only when I want and if there’s a snow day or they’re not feeling well, they can stay home, snuggled up with me.

Business has boomed and I’ve had to turn away both clients and teaching opportunities.

Life is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn awesome.

Why The Comms Mom?

I will get into why I started The Comms Mom in the next blog post, but in short, I’ve done SO many things in my career and life, and really just needed an outlet to share my experiences and resources with those who could be helped by them.

What I can say, in closing, is that I am grateful for the winding road that led me to start The Comms Mom, and I hope that you will share your experiences with me along the way.

  1. Shaunna Lee says:

    I can relate to so much of your story. No PhD here, but I have struggled and persevered when it didn’t look possible. You are setting an incredible example for your children. 🙂

    • Amanda, The Comms Mom says:

      Wow, Shaunna, thank you so much for the compliment! Congratulations to you for working through difficult times!

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