21st Century Moms: Women Create New Ways to Tackle Motherhood

By Lisa Armony

On just about any weekday Cyndi Berti is awakened at 5:30 a.m by the blast of the alarm clock in her North Hollywood home. Like clockwork, the accounts receivable clerk gets herself ready for work, wakes her two children, dresses and feeds them, then delivers them to school and daycare. Berti then drives downtown to arrive at 9 a.m. to her clothing company.  

When the clock strikes 5 p.m., Berti’s “second shift” begins. After braving rush-hour traffic on the notorious 101 Freeway, she picks up her kids before heading homeworking mom tipstoprepare dinner. At home, Berti oversees homework, gets the kids ready for bed, and then attends to household chores before finally going to sleep.  

The routine makes for a long, hectic day for the single mother.

“It’s really tough,” says Berti, who works one, and sometimes two, jobs to make ends meet. “You’re on 24 hours, there’s no one to help out, and little time to yourself.”

With so much to do each day and little work-hours flexibility, attention focused on Kyle, 11 and Makayla, 3, has to wait until the weekend.

Across town in Valencia, Suzanne Ennis also starts her day early. She too has a full plate, but as an at-home mother, Ennis’ routine revolves around her children. Mothering three boys, ages 7, 4, and 1, Ennis says, is the hardest task she’s ever tackled.

Still, Ennis says she eagerly traded in her marketing job eight years ago to adopt the career of a full-time mom. She says she is postponing personal and business projects until her children are older.

“I wanted to be there to see them take their first steps, and to instill in them our values,” says Ennis, 38, whose responsibilities now include a busy schedule of child-related activities. 

“I’m room mom, I volunteer at the school, I’ve got my hand in everything at MOM’s Club, I’m really, really busy,” says Ennis, who admits to “living on Starbucks” coffee to fuel her day.

Berti and Ennis are examples of just two ways women in Los Angeles are tackling their roles as mothers. One of the few common threads about motherhood in 2004 is that the majority of women with children work. Either driven by economic necessity or by career desires, three-quarters of American women with children under 18 are now in the labor force.

But rather than conform to a particular mold, a look at contemporary women reveals that motherhood is being painted in very different and personal colors in the 21st Century. Whether working full-time, part-time, taking a break from their career or staying at home with children, L.A. moms feel free to disregard the strict portraits of motherhood from the past.

L.A. Parent talked to women throughout the greater Los Angeles area to find out how they handle the challenges of motherhood. Their stories reflect trends in motherhood nationwide.

Career Interrupt

A small but growing number of women are choosing to leave the workforce, at least temporarily, to raise their children. Among the ranks of these new at-home moms are, for the first time, an increasing number of women from the professional and managerial classes. According to U.S. Census figures, an unprecedented 22 percent of mothers with graduate and professional degrees are home with children full time.

In 2001, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the first ever decrease in the percentage of working women with infants since the government began tracking this information: 55 percent down from 59 percent in 1998. A subsequent report released last June found that nearly 11 million children were being raised by moms at home full time in 2002, up 13 percent in less than a decade.

“The tide is changing for mothers of young children,” says writer Jen Singer, whose Web site offers support to at-home moms. “In the ’80s, women who stayed home were considered to be turning their backs on the women’s movement and throwing away their educations.”

Today, educated women with career training, like JoBea Holt of Altadena, are choosing to say goodbye to careers or put their professional pursuits on hold while they focus on family.

Holt had worked as a rocket scientist for 25 years at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) when her twins arrived in 1997. With the birth of her children, Holt’s priorities shifted away from a life dedicated to advanced scientific research and space shuttle missions.

“Full-time work for NASA means working all the time,” Holt says. Cutting back to half-time hours after her children were born left her frustrated over her inability to give neither her job nor her kids the time they deserved. As a result, when her children turned 2, Holt left her job at JPL to be a full-time mom.

“I loved every minute of my job,” Holt says. “I had even wanted to be an astronaut. But when I left, I felt that I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I was satisfied.” For Holt, it was time to chart another course.

She has since embarked on a second career as an author, while remaining at home with the kids. When her sons were younger, Holt  wrote during naps and outings with their father. Now her days are free to write while they are in school. She published her first book, Baby’s Day Out in Southern California, last year and is currently writing children’s stories about space travel.

Necessary Work

The harsh reality for most women is that full-time work is a financial necessity. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 72 percent of U.S. mothers with children 18 and under are in the labor force. In Los Angeles and Orange counties, the percentage of working mothers is slightly lower: an estimated 54.4 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Meanwhile, 78.7 percent of single mothers are working according to national labor statistics, while in greater Los Angeles over 365,000 kids live with single working mothers, or about 15 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

Viki Bokra needs to work full time. Her job, however, has one particularly soothing benefit: as receptionist at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks, she spends much of her day with her children close at hand.

Bokra’s oldest daughter, 8-year-old Hadar, comes to the center every day after school for enrichment, while 5-year-old son Shay attends pre-kindergarten and afternoon care at the center as well. Bokra’s youngest child, 19-month-old Libby, is too young for the center’s programs, but Bokra wants to enroll her in a full-day class for 2-year olds in the fall.

In principal, Bokra’s job has little built-in flexibility: she needs to be present daily on weekdays. While she takes time away from work for family matters, it is at the expense of vacation and personal days. This is the norm for the vast majority of working mothers in this country. However, some mothers are taking matters into their own hands, proactively re-crafting what it means to be a working mother. For these women, motherhood is not an all or nothing equation, but rather a matter of finding balance.

“We are the first generation of mothers to want the best of both worlds, whether or not we work,” writes Sheryl Gurrentz in her book, The Guilt-Free Guide to Your New Life as a Mom. “We believe we can balance our personal, professional and parental roles, have an individual identity outside of motherhood and work, and continue our relationships with our partners as adults, not just parents.”

At age 46, Susan Dale Ross was seeking a broader fulfillment in her life. A vice president of production at NBC, Ross, had devoted her life to her career, having worked her way up to her current position within 8 years. But Ross was single, and found she wanted more than her career offered. In 2002, she adopted daughter Carly.

To accommodate her new role as mother, Ross simplified her life. She bought a house seven minutes away from her work to eliminate commuting. She cut back on her hours in the office and on job-related travel. She hired a full-time nanny who is “co-raising Carly” with her and her husband, whom she recently married. She also refocused her professional goals.

“I’m not striving to be my boss at this point,” Ross says. “If Carly had not come into my life, I probably would be more aggressive in my career. But work is not the be-all and end-all for me. I’m happy where I am right now.”

A New Blue Print

To be home more with her three daughters, Marla Abraham changed from a more demanding management level position to one that offered greater flexibility.

“I have always worked full time and I find my work fulfilling,” says Abraham, who is now assistant director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College. “However, my willingness to work nights and weekends dissipated after Nicole was born.”

Combining career and motherhood was a carefully thought out plan for Abraham. She had worked for six years to establish herself in her field before having Nicole 12 years ago. She then quit her job at an L.A.-based fundraising organization, where long hours and weekends were the norm. She found a new job in the same vein but, which is more conducive to family life. Abraham now has the freedom to drop everything at 5 p.m. to pick up Nicole and her two sisters, Anna, 8, and Ally, 4 from after school care, and to spend her evenings with them.

She can also take time out on occasion to visit the girls in school and to help with field trips. Though the price for this flexibility is many late nights making up work long after the girls are asleep, Abraham says it is worth it.

One Burbank licensed clinical psychologist who wished to remain nameless is wagering that by working more now, she’ll be able to work less in the future. The mother of a 2-year-old son, she recently left a 30-hour-per-week counseling position at a community mental health center for an administrative post. Her new job added 10 hours to her workweek, but also increased her salary.

“My goal is to earn more money now and to have a stable income so that I can try to establish a private practice,” she says. Once out on her own, she hopes to cut back to 20 hours a week because she can charge more. If all goes according to plan, she and her family will eventually enjoy a financial cushion that will enable her to spend even more time with her son than she could in the past.

Of all the women interviewed for this article who have taken steps to accommodate motherhood, Davida Sims of Woodland Hills has made by far the most significant lifestyle changes. Sims, a 29-year-old native Southern Californian, left a successful law career in Boston and moved her family cross country to make more time for 2-year-old Miles. Before becoming a mother, she had been clocking over 60 hours weekly and working her way up to being a successful attorney.

With her husband on a flexible work schedule, Sims envisioned working full time while he was home with the baby. After Miles arrived, however, she found herself wanting to be with him more than her burgeoning career and fiscal reality would allow. So when her father, who owns Sherman Oaks-based Gabriel Publications, offered her part-time work handling the company’s legal affairs, she grabbed it.

“There was no way I could have worked part time in Boston,” says Sims, believing that she would have been chastised in the legal community if her personal life were perceived to be interfering with her career. She is delighted with her new found freedom to spend her days with Miles, and though readjusting to life in the San Fernando Valley and to less money has been difficult, she is confident that she has made the right decision.

“My job is extremely flexible, and eventually I’ll be able to work more from home,” she says. That will afford her even more time to be with her son and with a second baby due in the fall.

A Home and More

Straddling the line between working and at-home moms are women like Andrea McNeill, who owns and operates Sleepy Angels Inc., a children’s clothing company, out of her home. What began as a creative outlet years ago for this Woodland Hills mom turned into a full-scale operation after she and her husband divorced.

“I am a stay-at-home mother,” McNeill says. “My children have never spent a day in daycare. They are my primary focus.”

The hardest part about running a home-based business, McNeill says, is deciding whether to invest extra time to grow the company or to spend that time with her kids. When first divorced and Sleepy Angels was her primary source of income, McNeill expanded her business due to financial necessity. Now remarried and enjoying a second salary, she is content to keep the business at its current capacity.

McNeill handles all aspects of the company on her own, from design and manufacturing to accounting and shipping to over 500 stores nationwide, sometimes putting in as many as 16 hours a day. But, McNeill maintains, she is always there when her children, Michael, 10 and Natalie, 8, need her.

“I work when they’re in school, or while they’re doing homework, and when they’re in bed,” says McNeill. “It gets squeezed in but it works.”

For a significant number of mothers today, squeezing it in and making it work is the key to happiness. 

Lisa Armony is a freelance writer living in Sherman Oaks. The mother of two boys ages 5 and 2, she wrote this article during naps and after bedtime.