There’s a saying among working moms that implies something to the effect that we are all just one bad day away from quitting. That was certainly true of me at one time. When my first-born was six months old, I got stuck in traffic and was late dropping her off with the sitter. I had a conference call that day and, being a little green at balancing the whole work/mom thing, I was terrified of appearing as if I didn’t have my act together—or worse, as if my family actually took precedence over my job! So, in an effort to prevent my colleagues from hearing her coo or cry, I locked my baby in the car while I stood outside in the rain for the duration of that 30-minute conference call.

I laugh about it now—but at the time, it wasn’t funny at all. In fact, the minute I hung up the phone, I drove to my husband’s office, soaking wet and crying, insisting that this just wasn’t going to work.

That was more than three years ago and, yes, I am still working. But, I’m doing it with less guilt and more confidence than I had even before my kids were born. In fact, I’d say I’m doing my job better now that I’m a mom. What’s more, I think I’m a better mom because I work, despite the occasional tug-of-war that sometimes occurs when you try to be all things to all people.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the extreme pleasure of talking to many other working moms in the optometry field. So often, I found their stories mirrored my own, as did their fears, struggles and triumphs. Their advice and encouragement gave me the strength to find my “happy place,” as I now call it, and I believe their stories will serve as encouragement to anyone else who’s considering—or reconsidering—life as a working mom.

Memorable Moments
Once, for my son’s birthday at school, I spent a lot of time making fancy, homemade chocolate cupcakes from scratch. (For any bakers out there, I used the Magnolia Bakery recipe.) One of his kindergarten classmates, an adorable little girl, took one bite, turned to me and said: “Tastes like dirt.” From that point on, store-bought treats have been the rule!—Kelly Nichols, O.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.

The Best Time to Start a Family
Kelly Nichols, O.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., is mom to Brady (age 8) and Cullan (age 5). In addition, Dr. Nichols runs a busy clinical research center focusing on ocular surface disease and contact lenses, and is an Associate Professor at Ohio State University College of Optometry. Her secret to raising kids and growing her career: She waited until she was a junior faculty member before she started her family. For her, that was the “best time,” which is not to say it is necessarily the “right time”—at least not for everyone.

So what is?

“Kids turn out best when you are comfortable and happy with who you are,” says Christine Sindt, O.D., who graduated from Ohio State in 1994 and started her family after securing a position on the professional staff at the University of Iowa. This was, however, before she was offered a faculty position and prior to her taking on any leadership roles.

“Early on, I concentrated my efforts on my practice: establishing my skill set, gaining knowledge, growing my practice, clinic renovations and community based activities,” she says. Dr. Sindt’s greatest challenges at that time were administrative ones. “I did not know how to manage people,” she says.

Dr. Sindt also had to devote herself to learning how to communicate with patients. “I had to learn how to answer the questions that they didn’t know how to ask,” she says.

Bottom line: starting out as an O.D. is difficult. “Not everything comes easily and not everything is fixed with hard work and a positive attitude,” warns Dr. Sindt. Nonetheless, she and many others have made it work.

Karla Zadnik, O.D., Ph.D., is one of them. Like Dr. Sindt, she says balancing professional and personal lives has been one of her biggest challenges in life. Her solution: “I chose to combine them.”

Dr. Zadnik began her family when she was in her third year as a staff optometrist in the Department of Ophthalmology, School of Medicine, University of California, Davis. While she admits this path has had its pitfalls, it was apparently a wise choice—Dr. Zadnik is now Associate Dean and Glenn A. Fry Professor in Optometry and Physiological Optics at The Ohio State University and President-Elect of the American Academy of Optometry. More importantly, her two daughters, ages 24 and 19, are happy and healthy and growing into professionally successful women like their mom.

Although waiting to develop professionally before starting a family has some definite advantages, it can also make things more challenging if life throws you a curve ball, as was the case with Jill Autry, O.D., R.Ph.

Dr. Autry graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Pharmacy in 1993 and, in 2000, graduated from the University of Houston College of Optometry. She was out of residency five years, and was on track for partner when she had her first child. A year later, she was patiently awaiting the arrival of her second son when the unexpected happened: Her baby was born three months premature, in another hospital many miles away from home. Dr. Autry was hospitalized for a month, and then her newborn was in the neonatal ICU for three more months. 

She and her husband commuted between cities, each working half the week and spending the other half in the NICU, and then rotating. The other optometrists in Dr. Autry’s office covered for her absence and she hired a nanny to take care of her one-year-old at home. “It was rough,” she says. “I could have thrown my hands up and surrendered, but I did not abandon my work or my family. Sometimes you just have to put your head down in a storm and keep walking through it.”

Despite her own hardship, Dr. Autry is still a firm believer in getting your career moving before having children. But, there are others who endorse a very different approach.

Immediately following graduation from The University of Houston in 1992, Nikki Iravani, O.D., accepted a position in corporate optometry. At the time, Allergan was looking for someone to help with its study of the Array Multifocal IOL. Dr. Iravani had done her externship with Allergan and was very excited about continuing with the company for a while before going into clinical practice. So, she accepted the position because it allowed her to see patients and follow an FDA protocol.

But, life got a little sticky for Dr. Iravani when she met her husband, to whom she’s been married for 13 years. Allergan is based in Southern California, and her husband lived and worked in Northern California. So, to avoid spending too much time apart and to not let her employer down in the middle of a clinical trial, Dr. Iravani commuted. She spent Monday through Thursday in Southern California and boarded a plane for San Francisco every Thursday night.

The novelty of jet setting wore off quickly, so as soon as she completed her work with Allergan, she moved upstate and accepted a position with PBH, which later became Wesley Jessen. The ink had barely dried on her contract when she became pregnant with the first of her three daughters.

Dr. Iravani is a household name in the corporate circles of optometry, having worked for a number of major corporations in capacities ranging from director of clinical research and professional affairs to her current role as president of her own successful consulting business.

“If you start a family early on, you learn to set up the infrastructure from the beginning, and no one knows any other way,” she says. “If I had waited and gotten too comfortable with married life and building a career, it would have been a huge adjustment when the kids came.”

Memorable Moments
It’s possible to nurse and work—even if you travel a lot. I’ve been stuck on delayed flights and have had to pump on a plane. In fact, once on an international trip, I couldn’t bring myself to discard the milk that took so long to collect. So, I made friends with the hotel staff and got them to store it in the kitchen—on three different nights in three different hotels! Actually, though, that was the easy part. My bigger concern was getting 17 bags of breast milk through agriculture and customs. When I was stopped at security, I whispered, “It’s OK. It’s just my milk.” —Anonymous

Love and Marriage
Most of the women I spoke with for this article attribute much of their success to the help and support of an understanding partner or spouse. “I could not have juggled children and travel without a great deal of support from my husband and my mother,” says Dr. Sindt, who has been married to fellow optometrist Steve Sindt for 16 years.

For Dr. Iravani, juggling work and family was especially difficult; her husband often travels overseas and, when he is in town, he doesn’t get home until 8:00p.m. Some men in his position might pressure their wives to stay home to keep things running smoothly and care for the children. “But he gave the green light and never made me feel guilty,” says Dr. Iravani. “He just kept saying ‘It will be OK,’ and that made me feel better and relieved.”

Dr. Iravani’s husband is a true believer in mommy being a role model as a professional and is dedicated to his wife’s career fulfillment. So, the family syncs their calendars such that, even though they have a live-in nanny, two parents are never out of town at the same time.

“It has to be a 100% partnership in order to get it all done,” says Dr. Nichols. But, unfortunately, not every woman hits the spousal lottery.

“I know a lot of young women that I would describe as having a ‘husband problem,’” says Dr. Zadnik. “By that, I mean that their husband overly influences their professional decisions.” Dr. Zadnik’s advice? “You and your husband should be true partners; just because he’s the man doesn’t mean that his career/leisure activities and priorities always come first.”

Everyone has to make compromises, but in most cases, when partners are on the same page, everyone wins—especially the kids.

In 1996, Dr. Zadnik was offered a faculty position at Ohio State. Before making a move across the country, she sat down with her family and together they discussed and analyzed the things about family life that they didn’t like. “Specifically, our (then 6- and 11-year-old) daughters hated after-school care,” she says. Fortunately, moving to Ohio also enabled Dr. Zadnik’s husband to work part-time and be home when the children came home from school. “It made all the difference,” she says.

‘Because I Am a Woman’

One of the most common misperceptions among young professional women is that they believe they need to behave like men in order to succeed in their careers. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, some say a woman’s unique qualities are precisely what help her succeed professionally. Take Geraldine Laybourne, for example. Laybourne is chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media, a women-focused cable TV and media conglomerate that she launched in 2000 alongside partner Oprah Winfrey. Before Oxygen, Laybourne served two years as president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks, a position she took on after 16 years at Nickelodeon.

In the 1980s, when she was transforming children's television at Nickelodeon, Laybourne was asked to give a speech about why she had succeeded. Her answer, and the title of her speech, was “Because I Am a Woman.”

“You could hear a pin drop,” she says. “It wasn’t fashionable to talk about the differences between men and women [in the 80s].”

But she was so right! There are enormous differences between men and women, and to point them out does not highlight our deficiencies. On the contrary, what makes us different may also make us more capable of succeeding.

“Women are great at multi-tasking,” says Dori Carlson, O.D., who is mom to two boys, ages 13 and 10, and is also running for President-Elect of the AOA this month. “Sometimes, I think the busier I am, the more productive I am. I know I only have a certain amount of time to get things done so I tend to not waste time.”

“As moms, we also have maternal instincts, which is very helpful in the healthcare arena, where patients often need to be pampered,” adds Nikki Iravani, O.D. “Women in general tend to have excellent bedside manner and are great listeners.”

Adds Kelly Nichols, O.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., “We’re also great communicators.” You have to be if you are regularly trying to reason with a 2-year-old.

Similarly, women are known for being empathetic, which, according to Jill Autry, O.D., R.Ph., is “essential in dealing with patients and staff.”

And, women—moms in particular—are notorious for their persistence. “Every day, we deal with nagging kids,” says Dr. Iravani. So, when you encounter that nagging patient who’s off by a quarter diopter, you’re more likely and better equipped to “keep on keeping on,” as Dr. Iravani puts it.

Mothers also tend to be highly organized, says Dr. Nichols. “A mother’s ability to constantly shift and re-shift focus also comes in handy when running a busy office,” says Dr. Iravani.

But, although many women appear to have these particular characteristics in greater abundance than many men, don’t get pigeonholed—into either a masculine or feminine faction. Success is not ultimately determined by one’s gender, says Dr. Zadnik. “There are people-specific skills, regardless of gender, that make better and worse optometrists and businesspeople.”

Planning for a Family?
There is no valid evidence to support the fact that gender alone disables us in the working world. But, some might argue, when you add kids to the equation, everything changes. “They make life harder,” says Dr. Sindt. “But, they make it more wonderful too,” adds this mother of four.

So, what does it take to do it all? Excellent planning—both before and after the children arrive. “I’m a firm believer in infrastructure,” says Dr. Iravani, who believes that having a plan and a routine is essential. “You have to run your household like an organization, not haphazardly.” For Dr. Iravani, this meant hiring a live-in nanny and, when she is out of town, a tutor comes to her house to oversee her children’s homework.

“Meal preparation and pre-planning are also critical,” adds Dr. Nichols, who refuses to ever eat in her car.

While life as a working mom takes excellent planning, that’s not all it takes. All the planning in the world won’t solve all of your problems all of the time. When you have kids, you also need to be able to adapt, often at a moment’s notice. “I constantly adapt my way of doing things because kids’ schedules require that,” says Dr. Nichols. “It is a constant balance. Creativity and flexibility are also important qualities.”

Dr. Carlson has experienced the need for both on more than one occasion. “Several times, I’ve received phone calls saying my child was sick.” With a full schedule of patients, it was difficult to cancel everyone. “So, a sleeping bag, snacks and a DVD player on the floor of my office became the place for my child to hang out for the rest of the day.”

And, unfortunately, children don’t get easier as they get bigger. “The size of the problems just increase,” says Dr. Sindt. What’s more, as your kids age, so do your own parents. For some, this means adapting yet again for events no one wants to plan for.

In 1999, Dr. Zadnik’s father died, and her 80-year-old mother then lived alone in Santa Barbara, four houses from Dr. Zadnik’s sister. When her sister retired and wanted to spend summers away from Santa Barbara, Dr. Zadnik’s mom moved to Ohio to be with her family from Memorial Day through mid-October. “It made for lots of conflict and necessary adaptation to make it work,” she says. “But it also made for wonderful grandmother-granddaughter relationships in high school for my daughters.”

Multitasking Mama
Working moms are poster children for efficiency. We don’t have time to hang out at the water cooler, which makes us tremendously effective and efficient in the workplace and at home. “I know I only have a certain amount of time to get things done, so I tend to not waste time,” says Dr. Carlson.

Dr. Nichols brings her laptop to her children’s swim practice for her work, and runs laps around the soccer field during soccer practice for her exercise. “It isn’t always completely relaxing ‘me’ time, but at least it is multi-tasking ‘me’ time,” she says.

With children ranging in age from five to 22, as well as too many professional obligations to list, Dr. Sindt has a lot on her plate. So, she’s become an expert at killing two birds with one stone. “When I go to the store, I take one of the children with me to give them one-on-one time.” But that’s not to say that Dr. Sindt’s kids don’t get their fair share of her undivided attention. “I make sure that when I am home, I am available to them,” she says. “Every night, each child gets one half-hour of uninterrupted mom time.” She also frequently takes one of her children with her when she’s travelling for any length of time, possibly tagging on a day or two of vacation.

Talking Points
Women often make no bones about the fact that family comes first. Of course, many men feel this way too—they might just be less compelled to announce it to their colleagues. Women, on the other hand, are quick to point out that their top priority is their kids. Perhaps it’s just our guilt talking, or maybe it’s simply our way of building an honest rapport with staff, supervisors and patients by “opening up” with these obvious details. But, either way, when kids come, we talk about them, brag about them and commiserate over the super-sized particulars of the challenges they inevitably bring.

But, is it okay to talk about your kids in a professional setting? “If a group of people are telling cute children/grandchildren stories, it’s okay to chip in,” says Dr. Zadnik. But, she warns, if you dominate every conversation with stories about first steps or use your child as an analogy for every topic that comes up, you could find work colleagues avoiding you.

Dr. Carlson agrees: “Be careful that family doesn’t dominate the conversation. In order to be taken seriously, some of the conversation in a professional setting must be about the profession.” Nonetheless, she adds, “Talking about your children humanizes you.”

“I don’t want to turn into Kathie Lee Gifford,” says Dr. Autry, “but patients like to know you on a personal basis as well as professional one. It provides a connection.”

The bottom line is this, says Dr. Nichols, “If your family is part of who you are and the conversation is appropriate, there should be no reason not to talk about family at work.” But, she adds, remember to call the bathroom a restroom, and not a potty!

Eye Care Companies Help Women Achieve a ‘New All’

“Once upon a time, big bad corporations employed women because they were cheap, made good coffee, suggested diversity, and, let’s face it, looked a heck of a lot better than most men,” wrote ABC News’ Claire Shipman and the BBC’s Katty Kay in the groundbreaking, Womenomics. The authors cite one study after another, all illustrating the power of what they call “Pink Profits.”

Women, they say, are among the world’s most valuable workers, and their installation into top positions is a key predictor of a company’s financial health and forward momentum. As such, the authors argue, companies would do well to hang onto their female workers by giving them what they really want: A “New All,” or “a tapestry of family and work in which we define our own success in reasonable terms.”

This may sound like wishful thinking, but in fact, companies are buying into it and some of the major manufacturers in the eye care market are catching on as well, recognizing the indisputable value of their female employees and working hard to keep them happy. In 2009, the following eye care companies were ranked among the top 100 best companies to work for by Working Mother magazine. Here’s what the Working Mother editors had to say about each of them:

Abbott (AMO)
(Products include the Complete line of solutions and drops, Blink Tears, laser systems including Star and IntraLase, and IOLs such as the Tecnis and ReZoom.)

This firm strives to support working parents throughout their children’s lives. Mothers-to-be receive infertility counseling and prenatal breastfeeding education, while those who’ve given birth, used a surrogate or adopted receive up to six weeks of fully paid maternity leave. Back at the office, breastfeeding staffers can access “lactation stations,” phone 24-hour nursing consultants and receive discounts on pumps, diaper bags and baby formula. All parents receive discounts at more than 2,600 U.S. child-care centers (generating a total of $280,000 in savings last year) and can stash cash in a pretax childcare account to help pay for it. Coaching on securing scholarships is available to staffers with older kids.

Women managers/execs: 41%
Women promoted last year who utilized a formal flexible work arrangement: 97%

Johnson & Johnson
(Parent company for Vistakon, maker of the Acuvue line of contact lenses.)

This company ramped up its efforts to create a “culture of caring” by introducing an additional 40 paid hours off for anyone who needs extra time to tend to family and personal responsibilities. Meanwhile, six weeks are partially paid for those who give birth, in addition to at least eight weeks of job-guaranteed leave. The company offers all parents discounts at six national child-care chains, plus sliding-scale tuition at seven on-site facilities with fulltime, backup, sick-child, holiday and summer care. Kids in grades four through 12 can take advantage of new discounts on homework and tutoring services.

Women managers/execs: 41%
Women promoted last year who utilized a formal flexible work arrangement: 60%

(CIBA Vision is this company’s eye care unit, developing product lines such as Air Optix, Dailies, FreshLook, Clear Care and AQuify. Novartis also recently acquired Alcon.)

Being there for the kids isn’t the only reason this company offers its employees flexible schedules. “I’ve used my arrangements to allow more time for friendships, community activities, fitness and personal interests,” says mom Laurie Letvak, M.D., who serves as global program head for its Glivac and Tasigna divisions and now compresses her weeks after years as a part-time worker. Jobsharers, telecommuters and other flex fans can rely on the firm’s easily customizable child-care offerings, including discounts on full time care at national chains with budget-friendly backup (just $15 to $25 per day) and in-home sick care ($5 per hour). Impressively, anyone who saves $4,000 in a pretax child-care account is gifted another $1,000 by the company. Summer camp fairs and college coaching programs help make life a little easier for the parents of older kids.

Women managers/execs: 44%
Women promoted last year who utilized a formal flexible work arrangement: N/A

(This New York City-based pharmaceutical firm makes Xalatan.)

Last year, Pfizer helped employees firm up career plans by launching a leadership development initiative for female managers and directors, as well as an array of new mentoring programs—like one in the Global Manufacturing division that features small group discussions. Moms seeking further education to climb the ladder can tap up to $10,000 in annual tuition reimbursements and an allowance for books and supplies. A brand-new Mobile Work policy allows users to telecommute with Wi-Fi cards and phone forwarding technology; they can even reserve “Pflex” workspaces at larger offices (with just an hour’s notice) when they need a desk.

Women managers/execs: 36%
Women promoted last year who utilized a formal flexible work arrangement: 92%

Coping with ‘Failure’ and Guilt
You don’t have to be a mom to make mistakes. However, as a mom, you do need to be able to brush it off and prepare for another day and life’s next battle. “All moms harbor some guilt,” says Dr. Nichols. “But, in fact, every working mom is succeeding—it is a matter of personal expectations.”

“You are not a bad mother for working outside the home,” says Dr. Autry. “So, let go of the guilt and let your children see how strong you can be.” Your kids will learn a lot by watching you do so much, and they’ll learn to be more independent.

“Being a busy professional female has not hurt my boys in any way,” says Dr. Carlson, whose sons see a family with shared household responsibilities. Both boys have chores and duties around the house. Both know how to do a little cooking. Both know how to wash clothes. While they certainly are allowed to be children, they have seen the cooperation it takes to run a busy household and are expected to do their share of the work. “I think those are good skills for anyone to learn,” says Dr. Carlson. “I have often joked that my job is to raise understanding husbands of
the future.”

We spend a lot of energy worrying when, in fact, “Kids do well,” says Dr. Sindt. “The best thing about children is that they always tell you what they need; as parents, we just have to listen.”

Many working women also spend too much time envying other moms, who seem (on the surface) to have it better or to have their lives more under control. “The grass seems greener on the other side,” says Dr. Nichols. “Working moms envy the play dates and community the stay-at-home moms have; stay-at-home moms envy the grown-up conversations and experiences the working moms have.”

If you choose to work and need childcare, Dr. Zadnik recommends you go with your gut. “The day care center around the corner may have been perfect for your best friend’s children, but it may or may not suit you, your child, and your family and work situations,” she says. Whatever form of childcare you choose, it needs to be tailored to your unique family needs.

Many women also elect to wait until their children are school-age before returning to work. While this is a great decision for some women and may alleviate the guilt associated with leaving young children in the care of others, Dr. Iravani warns against overlooking the realities of this choice. “When your children are at school age, you need to be there more for homework and activities,” she says.

But, adds Dr. Iravani, when your children are very young, if they are safe and fed and loved, you have nothing to worry about. “Logistically, it’s much easier to work when they are babies,” she says.

Memorable Moments
I was attending a meeting on the Big Island of Hawaii one year and I had exactly one half day off to myself. I was hiking this beautiful trail and, just as I was about to reach the summit and enjoy just a moment of quiet reflection to myself, the cell phone rings. The big crisis was, “Where is my basketball game?” From the top of a hill in Hawaii, I managed to surf the Internet and make at least four phone calls to solve the sports crisis. And you know what? It was worth it. We have all felt guilty over the years, taking a quick work phone call on the weekend or checking our e-mail when we are supposed to be on vacation. It is all about balance and grabbing the moments when you can, but being flexible. —Jennifer Smythe, O.D., M.S., Dean, Pacific University College of Optometry

‘Mommy Track’ Redefined
According to Wikipedia, the mommy track is “a career path determined by work arrangements offering mothers certain benefits, such as flexible hours, but usually providing them with fewer opportunities for advancement.” Maybe that’s why none of the women I interviewed for this article really knew what the term meant.

I’d propose that the mommy track means different things to different people. It is whatever works for you and your family. Whether that means taking some time off, taking no time off, or leaving your career for good, all that matters is that you feel like you have it all. And, these women surely do.

In the words of Dr. Sindt: “It’s not about what you do; it’s about how you do it.”