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Putting it all in Perspective

April 22nd, 2013, posted by Aimee

Monday morning, 10:15 a.m. This is the time and day of the week when you would typically find me tapping furiously through emails, juggling media calls and rushing from one team meeting and client call to another. Certainly the last place in the world you would ever expect to find this this hard-charging, Type A workaholic working mom on this day at this hour whiling away her time in a coffee shop down the street from her office.

Well, to be honest, I was actually sobbing uncontrollably to my husband on the phone as I recalled a difficult conversation I had just had with someone at work. As I gulped for air and rubbed the last of my tears away, struggling to regain composure before going back to the office, I knew I was probably overreacting, but truthfully it had been a tough couple of weeks on the job and I felt close to throwing in the towel. Nobody seemed to appreciate me, I didn’t seem to be going anywhere with my career and I felt like a failure.

Isn’t just one of life’s wonderful ironies, though, that just when you’re about to give up, you encounter someone whose experience and wonderful spirit puts your whole situation in perspective?

That’s exactly what happened later in the week when I had the privilege of meeting a fantastic and inspiring woman named Gretchen Witt, the founder of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. Gretchen – who had been invited to speak at a professional development event for junior staffers – told the personal story of how she came to start Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, whose mission is to inspire individuals and organizations to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. According to Gretchen, the story began when her first son at age 2 ½ was diagnosed out of the blue with a form of cancer and she learned that pediatric cancer is actually the #1 disease killer of children. At the same time she also learned that pediatric cancer, which kills one of the five children who receive the diagnosis, gets less than three percent of the National Cancer Institute’s research budget.

“How could this be? Why have I never heard about this? Why aren’t people talking about it,” she recalled. “And then I realized, it’s because everyone is terrified to talk about it. It’s sad and hard to think about children and cancer.”

Gretchen – who by the way still works full-time as the director of PR for OXO kitchen products – came up with the idea of what she saw as an easy and approachable way to raise funds and awareness about this situation: the world’s largest bake sale. Enlisting the help of friends in the culinary world and many volunteers, she spearheaded a bake sale of 96,000 cookies that raised more than $400,000 for pediatric cancer research. From there, the idea bloomed to create an organization to continue this mission and inspire others to hold their own sales and donate in other ways to the cause. Today the organization has raised nearly $5 million to fund the development of new, more effective and less toxic treatments for pediatric cancers.

Sadly, Gretchen’s son, Liam, passed away in 2011 at six years old. I can’t imagine in my worst nightmares surviving that tragedy; my mind won’t even go there. And yet she is now working even harder to grow the organization so that other children might be saved from the same fate by new and better treatments in the future. Oh, and by the way, did I mention she still also has her “day job” managing PR for a huge, national consumer products company?

It just seemed so important to tell Gretchen’s story and learn from it that there are people out there going through things much more difficult than me who are also turning these personal crises into much great good … even helping to save lives. I’m humbled and inspired. I want to help. The good news for this Womo is, too, that Cookies for Kids’ Cancer even offers gift boxes and other ways to donate … without subjecting anyone to my lousy baking skills. Check it out and please spread the word.

Thank you again, Gretchen Witt, for putting it all into perspective for me. PR can do great things, and there are still great people in PR using our storytelling powers to make change.

It’s All About the Commute, Baby

April 4th, 2013, posted by Aimee

“Lean In,” as I opined in a recent Op-Ed for PR trade, The Holmes Report, was a fantastic and inspiring book, even for this admittedly conflicted and slightly burned out Womo. For the past couple weeks since reading the book and writing the piece, I find myself strangely obsessed with Sheryl Sandberg, sopping up every article and TV interview with the author/Facebook exec that I can find. I love this woman, want to be her best friend, think she’s a long lost sister/soulmate, etc., etc. And so naturally I found myself watching her interview with Oprah Winfrey the other night, lapping up every word out of her mouth until one small thing hit a nerve.

“I leave every night at 5:30 … so I can be home by 6 to have dinner with my kids,” she explained to Oprah. The “I leave every night at 5:30” part I had already read in the book and heard excerpted a million times of course and basically shrugged my shoulders. My office closes as t 5:30, and I scoot out the door at that time, too, knowing full well, that like Sheryl my imaginary BFF, I also am back online working at 8 p.m. once my little dude hits the hay. Most nights I put in a good 2-3 hours before turning out the lights myself.

But what caught me this time was the “to be home with my family for dinner by 6 p.m.” part. Hmm. I leave at 5:30 p.m. and am lucky to be home by 7 p.m. most nights … and I live in one of the closer in suburbs of the City.
I am NOT in the minority here. The vast majority of working parents in any of the major metropolitan areas of the country, e.g., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago – do not have anywhere close to a measly 20-30 minute door-to-door commute these days. The issue mostly is financial – living “close in” to the major urban centers typically means huge housing costs (a typical 2-BR condo in one of San Francisco’s popular family neighborhoods runs upwards of $1 million) as well as – often – private school tuition. The rest of us relocate to the closest suburb with highly rated public schools and settle for a commute. Living in the City is pretty much left to the super affluent/highest paid echelons or the young and childless.

This damn commute becomes the the bane of existence for most of the working moms I know, myself included. I realize dads face the same issues … but read my last post. Men lack the guilt factor that we suffer over these kinds of things. But for us moms, after years on end of missing morning drop-offs and teacher conferences and family dinners while waiting for trains or sitting in traffic, most of us literally hit the wall. Either telecommuting becomes an option at least a couple days a week – or consulting/freelance work begins to hold a whole new appeal.

I’m honestly interested in what Sheryl Sandberg, aka, my hero, would say about this commuting conundrum. In my opinion, it’s the lack of flexibility with hours and workplace location that is a critical factor holding women back that doesn’t have an easy answer we can all solve on our own just by pushing through biases and not giving up. She talks in the book about Marissa Mayer and the amount of unfair criticism her former Google colleague received when, upon taking the job as CEO Yahoo!, she declared she’d forgo a traditional maternity leave when she gave birth to her first son. According to Sandberg, we should support other women’s choices even if they are not our own.

However, I would be interested to see what Sandberg thinks about the more recent decree by Mayer that Yahoo! would be eliminating its telecommuting policy. Much as I believe in Sandberg’s general idea that women should support other women, I can’t get behind Mayer on this one. Telecommuting is literally the only thing that can keep many talented working moms in the workforce rather than hitting the road as a freelance consultant.

I don’t know all the answers here – and I do not believe in any kind of government-mandated flexibility for employers. But I do know that the brain drain of working moms from corporate America (and startup land, too) is not going to end until we open up to the idea of alternative hours and telecommuting – or other to be determined creative solutions – to enable all of us to have that same nightly family dinner routine that Sandberg herself enjoys.

The Guilt Trap

March 19th, 2013, posted by Aimee

“Show me a woman without guilt, and I’ll show you a man.” That line, cited in Sheryl Sandberg’s (bewilderingly) polarizing book, “Lean In” (from The White House Project founder Marie Wilson) literally stopped me in my tracks when I was reading on the train home from work tonight. Not only did I laugh out loud, eliciting annoyed glances from fellow passengers, but I actually grabbed a pen and paper to jot down the line for use in this column. Sandberg was talking about how much anguish women, most particularly working mothers vs. fathers, put themselves through over the daily decisions we make on the job and at home. It rang so true, I could almost hear out loud the favorite phrase of my best friend, Karen, every time we get together or chat on the phone – “I feel sooooo bad,” or worse, “I’m sooooo bad. I’m the worst mom.”

When I got home, I asked my husband a simple question. “Honey, can you recall the last time you felt guilty about something?”

“What do you mean, guilty?” he asked.

“I mean, like ‘I feel guilty for missing Tav’s game’” or ‘I felt guilty for not getting enough done on a project at work last week,” I explained.

“But, I never miss Tav’s games.”

I clarified, “I know that. I just used that as an example. Can’t you think of anything?”

“No, nothing. Is that wrong?” he asked.

“Nope, that makes you normal,” I laughed and shared the quote with him, admitting I felt guilty at least a few times a day, dozens of times a week, hundreds of time a month. For example, here are just a handful of the things that induced guilt in this Womo just this week alone (oh, and it’s only Tuesday):
1 – Making zero progress on our tax returns over the weekend
2 – Not securing enough coverage for my client after one-half day of pitching
3 – Forgetting to turn Tav’s homework in last week
4 – Hearing that one of Tav’s kindergarten friends is already reading … uh-oh, we’re behind!
5 – Cancelling on a weeknight dinner with a friend because I couldn’t find a sitter
6 – Watching “Real Housewives” instead of taking an online Excel class
7 – Feeling relieved that Tav has a playdate for Friday afternoon and I might have time to get a manicure
8 – Not talking to my BFF in two weeks (but then quoting her in this column)
9 – Thinking about how little I get around to blogging here these days
10 – Reading “Lean In” and realizing I’ve sabotaged my own career in the past five years and have nobody else to blame

And the list goes on. According to Sandberg, this propensity to wallow in guilt and beat ourselves up is natural for women but obviously horribly self-defeating. She’s right of course, but now I feel guilty about feeling guilty. I guess I still have a long way to go.

Does Marissa Mayer Hate Working Moms?

March 11th, 2013, posted by Aimee

Just call me late to the party. It’s been two weeks since the infamous Yahoo HR memo leaked to the press, and literally everyone and their mother (and a few dads, too) have weighed in on the controversial decision by “superwoman CEO” Marissa Mayer to eliminate her company’s work-from-home policy. What in the world could I even have left to say about the matter at hand? Certainly, this has got to be dead topic by now, right?

Wrong. On the contrary, the issue of working from home and all the complexities surrounding career-home life balance and the telecommuting vs. face time vs. productivity vs. creativity debates only continue to pick up steam. So what do I think about the whole thing? Let’s just say, it’s complicated.

On the one hand, let’s say right off that I am a passionate advocate of at least sometime work-from-home and flexible schedules for working moms. In my circle of friends particularly, this is absolutely the norm rather than the exception. Literally three-quarters of my hard-charging, super sharp and ambitious female friends have figured out a way – whether through some combination of skillful negotiating with employers, scaling back compensation in exchange for flex time or giving up benefits to become a contractor – to spend more than one day a week in a home office. All of us have made sacrifices to get the rare privilege of seeing our children off to school or at dinner time a few times a week, and literally none of us takes advantage of that privilege. To say that this benefit is sacrosanct to us would be a vast understatement – it’s just literally non-negotiable.

So hearing about the Marissa Mayer decree definitely set off some rumbling through my crowd. The first thought in my head? That it’s obvious this new working mom could give a crap about the rest of the womos at Yahoo … seasoned, skilled professionals who happen to have children need not apply here. Free meals and free smartphones (new Mayer perks since taking the helm) are designed to appeal to millennials who don’t have families to feed, kids to help with homework and tuck in.

The other issue I find insulting about what now seems to be a rising trend – Best Buy just issued a similar ban – is that it seems to be a throwback to an earlier era when long hours measured by butts in office chairs into the wee hours of the evening defined the road to success. But none of that makes sense in an time where we are all wired for action 24/7 via smartphones, tablets and laptops. Most of us spend more nights than not firing off emails at 11 p.m. and penning reports before dawn in our PJs, so what does physically showing up in an downtown office building from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. prove exactly?

However, all of this is not to say I don’t understand the benefits to face time collaboration. This past week I was away on business in our New York office, rubbing elbows with colleagues, dropping into offices and shaking hands. Ideas were exchanged, parties were crashed and relationships formed. It was invaluable. But it doesn’t need to be every day. I think the best option for most of us is a combination of work from home and a couple days in office, and it’s hard to see how that kind of a mix – for those who’ve earned the privilege and trust from their managers – can be anything but beneficial for a growing company.

Overall, I’ve got to say it – Marissa Mayer just plain sucks. I thought it was bad when she skipped maternity leave and somehow set the precedent that the traditional healing and baby bonding time was just for non-career-minded sissies. And now the CEO of an Internet company seems determined to turn back the hands of time to the pre-wired era when butts in chairs equaled hard work. All while she is able to enjoy the privileges few other working moms have – i.e., a full-time nanny tending to her baby right next door to her office in her custom-built nursery. Hmmm, must be nice.

What’s Your Passion?

February 8th, 2013, posted by Aimee

Recently, the husband of a good friend walked away from their marriage of 20+ years. One of the reasons he cited for his frustration with her was what he called a “lack of passion” for anything else in life other than the family and being a mom. He, of course, is now on a quest to discover his own passion by rocking out in a weekend band (and presumably dating other women). “You really need to find your passion, the things that make you happy and are not dependent on us,” he told this friend (who by the way, works full time, is a fantastic cook and has a ton of friends – i.e., she’s got a full life and is not some wimpy codependent wallflower).

To say that this couple’s exchange spurred some deep thinking on my part would be an understatement; more like it stopped me dead in my tracks. “Wait a minute,” I began to worry, “I don’t have any passions, either. I don’t ride horses, compete in marathons or even write much anymore. I hate my job, and hell, I don’t cook, craft or have half the social life of Michelle, either. I’m screwed!”

Admitting I’ve lost touch with some of these elements of my “Aimee-ness” is a little painful for someone who identifies as a “4” on the enneagram, or as that personality type is popularly known, “the sentimental idealist” or “artistic/creative.” As an angst-filled teen and 20-something, I had plenty of deep passions, from horseback riding, running and mountain biking to poetry writing and following favorite authors and musicians. Fast forward that to today and you find a woman who hasn’t been on a horse in nine years, jogs about 5 miles a week and devours reality TV and bestsellers in the spare time I do get here and there.

I also used to be significantly more passionate about my career. During the years I was writing for a living, I would stay up all night to get a story the way I liked it. And I talked with deep conviction about the topics I was following and subjects I was attacking. Even after switching to PR in the early days at my current firm, there was a fire in my belly to make a difference, do great work and move up the ladder. Now, I get flashes of that old energy on the job, but it’s much fewer and farther in between.

The thing is, though, I don’t think either my friend or I are all that unusual. In fact, I would say that we are absolutely the norm rather than the exception. Women – especially those who work outside the home – face strong societal pressure to put all of their remaining time and energy outside the job into their families, to maximize any leftover hours you have to be a great mom and a loving partner to your significant other. Women who sacrifice those precious weekend or after work hours for another pursuit or hobby face scorn and judgment. I know, I’ve caught even myself casting judgment on a friend who golfed 18 holes on her one weekend day off or another who took a week-long yoga retreat sans kids or hubby.

Finding a balance between pursuing individual hobbies outside of work and family and staying energized and motivated at work, while still fulfilling what is arguably your most important role – to mother great children and love your partner – is no small feat. But perhaps this is a wake-up call for me to figure out a way to squeeze in just a few more “Aimee-time” activities and interests and reinvigorate my career aspirations this year. What do you all think? Are you able to nurture passions outside family and if so, how do you do it?

The Simple Pleasures of Kindergarten Drop-off

January 24th, 2013, posted by Aimee

first day of school

First day of school

Is there anything more blissfully sweet and joyful than holding your five year-old’s hand as you walk him to his kindergarten class in the morning, listening to the chirp of other children swirling onto the playground and smiling at all the other parents wrangling their offspring onto campus?

Honestly, there are few things that put me in an instantly better mood than making that short little trek to the door of my child’s elementary class and watching his scruffy little head pop in past the teacher. And I know I’m not alone. I see the same type of joy in the faces of all the other moms and dads doing “the drop-off” and pick-ups on the two days I work from home.

The ability to have these little moments with my child and breathe in his elementary school world is exactly why I chose to press pause on my career aspirations and take a hefty pay cut last year to scale my schedule back to three days a week. Believe me, I still make up many of the remaining hours working late into the night and while he’s at school, but for me just being able to be there for even a short time before and after school with him was worth thousands of dollars from monthly budget. And I realize how incredibly lucky I am to have had the ability to do that – stay in my job at a reduced capacity and to withstand the pay cut. I know so many, many women do not have this incredible privilege and I’m so grateful.

It’s funny because, working in start-up obsessed San Francisco, all you ever read about is how companies are struggling to attract and retain people with fun perks like catered lunches, gym memberships, hip loft-like offices and sky high salaries. But if you ask any woman with a child what she wants more than any one of those things, it’s simple – flexible hours and the ability to telecommute at least some of the time to be able to get these small moments before and after school.

And let’s get this straight: It’s not like we are all clambering to be true “stay at home moms” either, or at least that’s the case for me and the dozen or so friends I know who’ve recently left more corporate jobs for consulting or other entrepreneurial gigs (read: where they make their own schedules and don’t commute or travel for work). I cannot imagine filling an entire day, every day, with traditional crafts and activities to keep my child occupied without losing my mind. And I don’t think any of my friends are cut out for that stuff either.

But I just can’t figure out why employers even in the current digital age still insist on face-time in an office on a daily basis and cannot figure out an alternate, flex-time scheduling solution that might enable them to stop the brain drain of talented, driven and diligent women from top posts and keep more of us around? Obviously, I’m not the first to ponder this question at all. Anne Marie Slaughter’s famous essay for The Atlantic addressed largely the same issue on a much broader scale (in a much more eloquent way, too). But for me, I like to just bite off small chunks rather than the whole pie. Figuring out a way for us working moms to get more of these morning moments without losing our career goals or our minds has got to be achievable. Would love to know how other people out there are achieving this. Please share.

Christmas Card Conundrum

December 17th, 2012, posted by Aimee

Wells Family Christmas Card 2012

Just about every year around this time, I face the same ridiculous conundrum: How to find at least one slightly less than hideous photograph of the entire family to use for our annual holiday card. You’d think after all these years, I might start planning ahead and stage one of those professional looking photo shoots where everyone’s wearing a matching white shirt and frolicking in the sand or among the fall leaves. Or perhaps – like many of my friends – I could throw in the towel and just use a close-up of the much-cuter-than-his parents offspring.

But nope, I never do any of those things. I mean, for one thing, the kids-only holiday card always bugs me a little. It’s a bit like the women who start using their baby’s photo as their Facebook headshot or only let other kids call them “so-and-so’s mommy” like they no longer have an identity apart from their child. And the staged photo shoot thing requires advance planning and a belief that a pro can somehow make my crows’ feet disappear, neither of which I have in any abundance as a cynical working mom.

So instead I procrastinate and then panic, as December arrives and the first early bird family’s card arrives in the box. This year was no different, although the search for a decent pic in which all three of us were in the same frame and smiling was even more futile than years’ past. Finally, I resorted to the two cheapest tricks of the trade to get this card out the door – photoshop and black-and-white, baby.

But that was only hurdle number-one. Next came picking the design. If it were up to me, that would be a snap. Tiny Prints or Minted have dozens right on the first page that suffice just fine for me. But when you’re married to a designer like me, you have to find just the perfect, unique and creative card unlike anyone else on the block … and you have to drag him away from his X-box to pick that damn design and finish the card before you can place the order.

Finally, said cards arrive and I realized that the mailing list I updated every year had disappeared with my crashed hard drive from earlier this fall. Time to email every friend and relative with a plea for their address in order to get the damn cards in the mail in time to arrive before Christmas.

Why is this whole process so stressful? Why don’t I ever learn and start planning ahead? Guess it’s just part of the holiday madness … and it gives me something to write about other than the sad topics in the news right now. Anyone else experience Christmas Card stress?

Everything I Ever Wanted

November 23rd, 2012, posted by Aimee

Ahi Poke salad and a Mai Tai. That was my Thanksgiving meal this year, happily ingested on the island of Maui with my son, husband, dad and his wife in a decidedly mediocre tourist trap of waterfront restaurant . Despite the balmy evening and tiki tropical atmosphere of the cheesy eatery, the meal was tinged with melancholy after hearing the day before that my uncle had died suddenly of a heart attack. Here I was in paradise while the rest of my family was mourning in dreary, drippy California.

To say I felt grateful for my life and the health of all of my family was an understatement, almost too obvious to even write about. How could I fret about those pesky 10 pounds or the annoying demands of my job when my beloved aunt was dealing with unbearable loss and pain?

Times of tragedy like this are notorious for eliciting these feelings of gratitude. The only good news here is that it honestly didn’t take just my uncle’s death to remind me just how wonderful my life really is. In fact, this moment of clarity occurred for me just about a week prior.

It was a Saturday morning and the sun was just peeking over the hillside into the windows and French doors of our bedroom. I was snuggling in my delicious bed with my wonderfully hot “surfer boy” husband, waiting for my bright and spirited five-year-old son to wake up when suddenly it occurred to me. I really and truly finally had everything I had ever wanted.

During my 20s and even early 30s before Nate and I finally hooked up for good, it seems like I was always pursuing the dream I was now living: a small family, an adorable house, a great husband who loved me and who I cherished, a satisfying career. I remember being 28 years old – gorgeously line- and cellulite-free yet tortured, conflicted and depressed, wondering if I was ever going to meet “the one.” It felt like I was never going to experience the joys of a wedding and building a home with someone, let alone giving birth to a healthy and happy little person. It seems like I dreamed every night even just of having one thing – a big sundrenched bedroom with French doors opened to the fresh breezes, shared with the person I loved – and could not imagine how this would ever materialize in my life.

On this Saturday morning, I woke Nate up to tell him what I was thinking. “Honey, I love you. Do you know this is all I ever wanted?” I told him. “I can’t believe how lucky I am. All those years I thought I would never have this and now I really have it all.”

He nodded and kissed away my tears, just as we heard Tav calling “Mama!” from the other room. I know he really didn’t understand what I was talking about, but it didn’t matter. It was only important that I remember this moment all the time and any time I start to forget how much I really have. This was my true Thanksgiving.

Halloween Edition: Ways to Scare the Crap out of a Working Mom

November 1st, 2012, posted by Aimee

With all the sad and scary news in the world right now, it seemed like a good time to lighten it up. Plus, it’s Halloween, and it seemed natural to start thinking about all the things that really scare the living daylights out of us working moms. Hint: It’s not zombies, ghosts or ghouls.

So what is the easiest way to cause a Womo panic attack? Try a few of these …

o Remind her of the “No store-bought costumes, homemade only” rule at her kids’ school Halloween parade
o Tell her a new study came out showing white wine has double the amount of calories and carbs than previously known.
o Sign her up to bake cookies or (worse) build a scarecrow/mission/erupting volcano for her child’s annual fundraiser
o Announce that Trader Joe’s recalled all of its frozen meals due to a Salmonella scare.
o Send an Outlook invitation for a critical client meeting for 5 p.m. on October 31st.
o Tell her she’s pregnant again … with twins!

Embracing Mediocrity

October 15th, 2012, posted by Aimee

Recently I was at dinner with one of my good friends who also happens to be the CFO of a fast-growing Silicon Valley startup and a hotshot on the fast track to entrepreneurial superstardom. She’s also fantastically witty, stylish, a social butterfly and the mom to two boys under six … basically the kind of chick who makes the rest of us cringe, check our chipped nails and dotty resume before reaching for a second glass of chardonnay to dull the pain of inadequacy in her shadow.

So imagine my surprise when, in answer to my question about how she manages to “do it all” in terms of career, motherhood and social life, she admitted bluntly, “I don’t. I try to do the best I can at work, but honestly I basically suck at my job sometimes.” She went on to admit she has simply decided that it was better to find a way to live with what in her mind is substandard performance on some aspects of her job than to shortchange other areas of her life.

Given the fact she’s the CEO’s right-hand woman and that her company’s on a meteoric rise in the Valley, “Lisa” is definitely exaggerating a bit in her description of failure at work. But it’s still amazing to me that she truly believes she is performing at what she calls “C minus” level – but has chosen not to lose much sleep about it.

That’s exactly how I have felt for the better part of five years since the T-man was born, when this A+ student realized I could no longer pull the 4.0 at work. Instead, I have slowly settled into a life of what I call, “Embracing Mediocrity” … not just at work, but in other areas of my life as well. A few examples where I’m lucky to score a “C” these days:

o My body – I can’t seem to get the discipline I used to have to track my Weight Watchers points and lose these damn last 10 pounds and feel good about baring my tummy in a bikini anymore.

o Career growth – I’m a VP at work but basically that’s where I stalled out six years ago. I used to think about managing and building practice groups and landing new clients … now I focus just on the results right in front of my nose for the current client I’m serving. If they’re happy, I am happy, end of story.

o Learning to cook – I tried for a while to get some kitchen skills and move past frozen Trader Joe’s options for dinner, but then trying to watch points/calories got in the way. Nothing in the low calorie category tastes edible to my family and it’s too much of a pain to go to all that effort for an entrée I can’t even sample. Pass.

o This blog – I used to post 3-4 times/week, now I’m lucky if I eek out a post every two weeks.

What about you all? Is “good enough” good enough for you these days? What are some of the ways you’ve embraced mediocrity in your life in order to remain sane? Please share.

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