Balancing ‘mom’ and ‘executive’ roles


Susan Lavington with her kids Emma, Max, Sarah and Leigh at her Arlington home. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)
May 13, 2012

When Susan Lavington used to leave Gannett headquarters at the end of a packed day, she often took a 15-minute nap so she could make the one-hour commute home. Her job as a senior vice president of marketing was demanding, and her evenings were too, with four children, including her youngest who didn’t consistently sleep through the night for a year.

That nap-before-returning-home routine changed about 19 months ago, when Lavington downshifted, taking a somewhat less-demanding job as vice president of marketing for Sterling Publishing, an imprint of Barnes & Noble. Now she may nap on the train to New York, where she works two days a week, and savor the two days when she works from a home office.

“I did feel the pressure to be in the office, to keep up with my peers” at Gannett, a media company, she said. “It was my own self-induced pressure to continue to keep up a big job.”

Lavington is a distinct rarity among women in executive jobs today: Even as more women rise to senior leadership jobs, relatively few of them are raising families with more than two children. Lavington said she can think of only one other executive across the country who also has four children.

While almost all of past and present 22 female chief executives at Fortune 500 companies have children, only a handful have three, said Douglas M. Branson, author of “The Last Male Bastion” and a University of Pittsburgh law professor. He said he’s never seen a senior-level woman with four or more children.

Most of the women around the Beltway who are running businesses or have serious jobs have one or two children, said Bobbie Kilberg, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. Kilberg said she worked while raising five children in the 1980s and ’90s, and she almost never runs into women with that many children plus a job, either then or now.

She said the lesson she learned is: “You can’t have it all” so seek a balance between work and family responsibilities. “Be comfortable with your choices. Otherwise you will be miserable.”

Gilad Chen, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, agrees.

“Those who do it have extra struggles to overcome,” Chen said. (The school has a partnership with Capital Business, producing the Career Coach and Business Rx columns.) He said he believes it may be even more difficult for mothers in certain sectors — such as finance and law — to manage a large family and a robust career.

But two sectors that dominate the Beltway economy — government and politics and the nonprofits — “are more family friendly than average,” he said, and may provide more possibilities for mothers to thrive.

“They have their own self concept of what it means to be a good mother, what it means to be a good manager and executive — there’s more conflict in these roles for women than men,” said Chen, whose wife quit working when their second child was born. He said he thinks that decision is fairly common.

Successful senior-level women see the key to managing a family and demanding career as compartmentalization, Branson said. Many also strike a deal with their spouse, determining her career will be more important and supported.

Lavington, 43, grew up knowing she wanted to move into the executive ranks and break the glass ceiling. Her father was an executive and her parents instilled high expectations in their two daughters.

Her husband, Mike Welther, works “a good stable job” as an IT project manager for the U.S. Mint. He works regular hours “when mine is a little bit more crazy,” she said.

To take care of the children, they have a full-time nanny who’s worked for them since their twin daughters were eight weeks old. They also have a part-time recent college graduate who takes the children out to activities, plus handles grocery shopping and a few errands.

“I had a pretty good stretch of babies-promotions, babies-promotions,” she said of her decade at Gannett. First came twin daughters, Leigh and Emma Welther, now 9, born when she was director of marketing; she advanced to vice president of consumer marketing, a new job, then gave birth to her son, Max Welther, who’s 5. Her last promotion, to senior vice president, came just seven months before the birth of her daughter, Sarah, now 4. (She told her boss she was expecting again just six weeks after moving into “this huge new role” and her boss was very understanding.)

Often, she said, she felt having four children helped her career. “They assume I’m super capable,” she said. Yet she also ran into people who “are a little patronizing” in assuming that she really didn’t want a senior managerial job, almost like it was a predicament she was in. “I didn’t accidentally wake up with four children and a big job,” she said, laughing.

Despite her zeal for advancement and a “wonderfully supportive boss” with a large family, “it was exhausting to have four kids in five years and three major promotions. I was pretty burned out,” she said.

So when the opportunity to join Sterling Publishing came along, she jumped at it. These days, she enjoys working from a home office in Alexandria two days a week, greeting her children when they get home from school around 3:15. She takes the older ones to horseback riding lessons on Mondays and has dinner with her family at least two evenings a week, something that almost never happened when she worked at Gannett. “I do get more of the small moments” with her children, she said, even though she’s away at least one bedtime a week for her days in New York.

She’s changed her outlook on her career too, and now she’s more flexible and willing to update and redo her expectations and plans as her children grew. “I don’t plan too far into the future” any longer, she said. “Every year’s different.”

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