Is the dream of simultaneously successful motherhood and entrepreneurship really possible?
In the '70s, women started "entering the workforce in droves," as the papers and nightly news anchors put it. On they marched, a mob of frustrated zombies just awakening from the dead in search not of blood but of a sense of fulfillment that didn't involve Windex or pie crust.
Fast-forward to present day and we haven't merely politely taken a seat at the table; instead, we've snapped the legs off that bad boy and started to rebuild our own. American Express commissioned a report in 2017 and, according to the findings, more than 11.6 million businesses are owned by women and they employ nearly 9 million people, and 5.4 million of those firms are majority-owned by women of color.
Many of those badass ladies constructed those companies from the soil, and some with a baby on their hip and another wrapped around their ankle. As Brittni Brown, owner of Detroit public relations firm The Bee Agency, put it in a recent Facebook post, "It's 2018. We making babies and building empires." What it means to be a woman, a mother and an entrepreneur has evolved, and we can do and have it all, albeit it's a bit trickier than Brown's "Yaaas!"-worthy post suggests. It takes a certain finesse – but, if you haven't heard, we're kind of magical.
Melissa Shelby is quick on the draw when asked whether the desire to be a mother or an entrepreneur manifested first. "An entrepreneur," the mom of two says. "Growing up I never really was the girl that was like, 'Oh, I want to have kids.' I grew up wanting to be successful." In her mind, that meant having an established business, being her own boss and in control of her life.
She's done everything from designing and selling Easter baskets to creating and running her own fashion magazine. Shelby founded Southfield-based Tidal Realty in 2012, and, soon enough, she'd become the successful woman she always wanted to be. But after turning 30, her wants started to expand.
Sunday brunches of waffles and bottomless mimosas with the girls were always enjoyable, "But then afterwards, everybody's going home to their husbands and kids, and it's just me." She says, "Out of nowhere, I was just like, 'I want more. This is not my true definition of success – anymore.'" Now, lazy Sunday afternoons are spent with husband Tayon, 2-year-old Tayon Jr. and little Ivy, 1.
For Arielle Johnson, motherhood wasn't planned. She had son Dorian, now 8, when she was just a teenager. Dorian followed mom to Michigan State University. "He was at the step shows, the whole nine," Johnson says, adding that it was the support she received on campus that led her into entrepreneurship. "There was just this huge network – my peers and older women – who were supporting me to just get through it, get jobs and build my career."
They'd help her get child care grants – she only paid for day care the first two months of her college career – or babysit Dorian. Johnson says, "And, so, I'm thinking back about the girls back here in Detroit, on the eastside and in Brightmoor on Fenkell – where I'm from – who don't have access to those type of women." Thoughts of those girls fueled FIERCE Empowerment, a positive women's network for those who wouldn't ordinarily have access to certain resources.
FIERCE Staffing & Consulting launched this past January, so Johnson's days are especially busy as of late. "I'm trying to put the structure in place that a real company has, and it's tough. I have an assistant finally." She adds, "the glamourous picture that we paint on Instagram" tends to filter out the behind-the-scenes blood and sweat. "There's a whole lot of emotional – for men and women – roller coasters that you end up on."
According to a 2015 study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, 30 percent of entrepreneurs experience depression, compared to 6.7 percent of the general U.S. adult population in 2016, reports the World Health Organization.
"I really think it's like a level of insanity," says Shelby. "It sounds good to say 'I'm a girl boss.' It really does." Yet, "it's not like you get to go take three-hour lunches. Entrepreneurs that are making money and doing what they're doing and depending on this salary to survive; when you're doing that, literally you don't sleep. You work so much harder than if you had maybe a 9-to-5. You're doing all these things" – from training employees to buying insurance to writing procedure manuals – "as a one-person shop, and you can just run yourself completely crazy."
Shelby starts a typical day by getting Ivy and Tayon Jr. up, dressed and off to day care. Afterwards, she may go visit one of her under-construction properties and check on the progress, which means confirming details with contractors and maybe a trip to Home Depot to buy materials. Then it's off to the office where she meets with real estate agents, clients or mortgage bankers. She leaves the office, swings by the grocery store and tries to be home by 5 p.m. – then immediately jumps into cooking dinner. "Of course, they don't care if I'm tired or if my feet hurt." After dinner, it's Sesame Street or The Wiggles and a bit of play time, but bath time is promptly at 7:30. Both the kids are in bed by 9, and Shelby says she doesn't usually trail too far behind.
Johnson's son is currently homeschooled. She says she was getting reports from his school that they believed he had ADHD, autism and other learning difficulties that mom didn't feel Detroit Public Schools Community District was properly equipped to manage. Also, Dorian's father is incarcerated, so he'd been wading through that murky water. "I'm like, 'Bring my baby home. I'll teach him myself.'" So that's what she's been doing and, in the process, she says she's found that the difficulties the school alluded to are just the exhibits of "a rambunctious little boy."
Deciding to hand her babies over to a child care provider was a painful experience for Shelby. When she got pregnant with Tayon, she naively thought it'd be "a breeze." She figured she'd work from home, take care of the baby, and all the elements of womanhood would seamlessly meld. "I used to think (stay-at-home moms') lives are so easy because all they do is stay at home and watch soap operas," Shelby says. "There's no way! Their lives are so much harder than I could have ever imagined. I was in that role and I was literally overwhelmed. I had so much anxiety. I struggled with who I was. I felt like I was invaluable, inadequate. It was bad."
She wrestled with the narrative that says, "'You're not a good mom if you go put your kids in day care and work a job and you don't have to. You should only do that if you have to,'" she says. "I was really struggling internally with myself so bad." Shelby decided to try taking her kids into the office with her one day last year in late summer – a day when they were particularly fussy. On the car drive there, both children finally fell asleep; that's when Shelby pulled off to the side of the road and broke down in tears. "I was like, 'God, help me figure this out, because I am like losing my mind here. I don't know what to do.' I didn't want to be a bad mom."
It was that day that Shelby made the decision that for herself, her kids and her sanity, she had to put them in day care. She couldn't do it all. "It is absolutely the best thing I could have done, for them and for me. As a mom, you cannot pour from an empty cup, and I was completely drained."
Johnson says, "There's some days when you just feel like you don't have any more to give, those days when you just don't have it in you. You just don't have any of the energy or the emotion or mental capacity to give to this other human being right now. If you're in that place with a job or even with a business, you're off for the day. You're not going to work. But you can't take a day off as a mom. You've got to find somewhere to pull it from."
She adds that a constant struggle as a business owner is "choosing between my family and my work." Her son takes priority, but each day is different, she says. Some days family takes the majority of her time and attention, and on others, work must take precedence. "Work-life balance doesn't really exist because they'll never be equal," Johnson says. "If someone says they've got work-life balance figured out, I dare them to show me." Watching Dorian grow and come into his own and the unconditional love he gives her makes the struggle worth it. She says, "Maybe mommy wasn't so nice yesterday, but he's just hugging me and loving on me. It's like I've never made any mistakes."
Shelby doesn't claim to have worked it all out since that fateful day on the side of the road, but she tries her best with prioritizing and being proactive, setting schedules and, most importantly, organization. She also makes sure she and the kids get out regularly so everyone can take a breath and have some fun. "I like to make money, I like to work. I love who I've become in my business, but my family is very important for me. If I'm on a date with my friends or my husband or out with my kids, I am always present in the moment."
Young professional black women sometimes look at our foremothers with a certain level of pity – condescension, even. But we should be careful to remember that with greater freedom of mobility comes greater room for error. And it takes a special grace to powder your nose with your wrists shackled.
Shelby talks of her grandmother who married as a teenager, gave birth to four children and never worked. She says growing up, she couldn't understand why she hadn't amassed her own money and that she wasn't "a woman that I could see as a go-getter." But as Shelby grew older, she developed a deeper respect for her. "I admire her strength and her ability to be able to take on that role and still be powerful and strong. To this day, my aunts and uncles – and my mother – they will do anything for my grandmother. She is the rock of our entire family."
Johnson was raised by a baby boomer mother. "So, when she was raising kids, it was a whole different world. … My mom's an old-school mom, so she has the expectation that you're with your kid 24/7 and that's where you've committed your entire life. And while I've committed a significant amount of my life to my son, I have not forgotten about my own dreams and my own goals."
For Shelby, she says, "I feel like I am the hopes and the dreams of the slaves. I feel so awesome about that. There's so much – and I know this is somebody else's term – black girl magic. There's so much magic amongst women. You see women leading marches and standing up and doing great things, and I'm like, 'Wow, we could rule the world.' For so long, women fought for that and it was just being overlooked. So now that people are taking notice, I wouldn't want to be the one to drop the torch."