Having It All?

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They may not shoot wolves from helicopters, but like Sarah Palin these high-powered Connecticut career women have learned how to juggle work and family
Every little girl has big dreams about growing up. From the time they can talk, little girls are asked what they want to be when they grow up. So they regurgitate what they know: They want to be dancers, actresses, teachers, even doctors. You might even find one who just knew her whole life she wanted to be a reporter. They aspire to be great at what they take on as their life's work - but her selection to run as John McCain's running mate atop the Republican ticket, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has just raised the bar for working women. The 11th governor of Alaska is the first woman to lead the largest state. She has five children and a bachelor's degree in communications and journalism. Her life in politics started at the PTA level.

The role of "mom" has itself changed. Like Palin, Milford State Sen. Gayle Slossberg (D-14) launched her career in politics at the PTA level a decade ago. Today, she says, it's not unusual for her to be on the phone with the governor while throwing in a load of laundry. She gets her four hours of sleep at night, gets up and does it all again the next day.

"I'm on my way right now to pick my daughter up from school, and then we're going to a meeting with the president of the senate [Donald Williams (D-29)]. I told her we could have anything she wants for lunch," says Slossberg.

For Slossberg, there was never an "either or." When she was a little girl, she knew she wanted a job where she could help people. She wanted to be a psychologist and help children who were struggling.

"Then [psychologist] was a traditional female job," she says. "I never ever would have imagined myself in politics. I'm not the person who, their whole life, dreams of being the President of the United States. Not me. All I've ever wanted to do is help people."

At Cornell University, she studied social work and psychology. But she became interested in the law, and after Cornell enrolled in New York University Law School, and following graduation launched her legal career doing securities work.

"It was exciting work, but when I started to have a family and took time off from the practice, I noticed issues going on in my own community that I wanted to address," Slossberg says.

After three years on Milford's Board of Alderman, she ran for state senate, and won. She's now running for a third term against Orange Town Attorney Vincent Marino, a Republican.

At first, Slossberg said "no way" to the people who tried to convince her to run for the senate.

"When my daughter [entered] school, I decided to run," Slossberg says. Her husband David, also an attorney, encouraged her to do it. Their daughter is now ten and has two brothers, 15 and 13. The boys attend Hamden Hall, while the daughter attends Ezra Academy in Woodbridge.

Her family, Slossberg says, is "very much a part of what I do. I share the specifics. I tell them exactly what I'm working on. Before every election, we have a family meeting and I tell them that if they don't want me to [run], I won't."

That hasn't happened. Her children and husband are proud of her and want her to continue.

"David is the most incredibly supportive spouse I could've imagined," she says. "That's the only way this can work."

Still, drives home from late-night negotiating marathons at the Capitol induce the inevitable feelings of guilt. "Every parent who works wonders if their family is suffering because of it," Slossberg says.

"Were there days when the forms weren't in to school on time? Of course," she acknowledges. "Are there times I feel guilty about it? Sure. I think every working parent has those thoughts. Look - nobody's perfect. We're all human."

She's not alone in the land of high-powered, highly caffeinated moms. When Stephanie Barnes accepted her new job as executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven earlier this year, she hit the ground with her feet running - and hasn't touched down since.

"It's a huge challenge and I have to keep pushing myself. I am about to master the art of the multi-task," she said, speaking on a cellphone from a golf cart at a recent fundraiser for the club.

Barnes has an eight-month-old son, which makes her home-work equation very much a "balancing act."

"I find my days go best when they're scheduled very carefully and I think that there are times when I have meetings in the evenings and it does take me away from him more than I'd like, but I try to make up for the time," Barnes says.

Like Slossberg, Barnes relies on her supportive family for her success. Barnes grew up in New Haven and still has family here who help out with child care during daytime hours. Before joining the Boys & Girls Club, she worked for the city of New Haven's Youth at Work program.

"When I got toward the end of my maternity leave, I was ready to go back to work," she explains. "Even though it is very challenging, I've always worked. My career is part of who I am and I wouldn't have it any other way."

She admits the joys of motherhood more sublime than the more abstract rewards of professional achievement. But they're both important to her. "I applaud stay-at-home moms," Barnes says, "but I'm in a place in my life where I'm glad I work."

She's not exactly blazing a trail - Barnes' mother worked throughout Stephanie's childhood, too.

"I never felt any less loved" because her mother had a job, Barnes says. "We spent lots of time together and we worked it out. I learned the balancing act from watching her.

"I'm still thankful and grateful because I see what she had to do to make it all happen."

Over the past 20 years, there are not only more moms in the workforce - there are more high-powered moms in particular.

Marilyn Burlenski was one of relatively few women who learned how to "have it all" at a time - three decades ago - when not very many did.

"When I was a working mom, it was not the 'in' thing," Burlenski says. She worked her way up the health-care career ladder the old-fashioned way, starting as a nurse and eventually becoming a department head at New Haven's Hospital of Saint Raphael.

"I had to help write the policy for my maternity leave for the hospital because in those days it just wasn't the norm," she says.

Around the time she was having her son, now 29, her department was merged with another at the hospital. She now had to report to a male colleague, but kept her status as department head.

"I remember meeting him when I was nine months pregnant and I knew I'd be coming back to a different situation" following maternity leave, she recalls. "I was worried, but I was unwilling to throw away ten years of working."

As a nurse at St. Raphael's and later at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Burlenski continued to do what they called "breaking the glass ceiling" back in the day.

As her job became more administrative in nature, she became increasingly attracted to accounting and later became a principal at an accounting firm - another career anomaly for a 1970s female.

"I broke through into new territory and became one of the guys," quips Burlenski.

But in the end, she was a mother first.

"My children always knew that they were No. 1 for my husband and me," she says. "If it ever came down to my job or my kids, my children would always come first."

Today her son Matthew is an account executive at Comcast Spotlight and her daughter Jennifer is director of development for the Noguchi Museum in New York City.

Marilyn herself is still on that career ladder - and pretty high up, too. She is president and CEO of the Connecticut Alliance for Long-Term Care, maintains a consulting practice and is actively involved with the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven.

"My mom has been an inspiration to me," says Jennifer Burlenski. "My brother and I always knew we came first. It meant my dad had to do more, but it made us all stronger and it gave me the confidence to start my own career. I was so impressed with Mom's career."

It wasn't always easy to convince others that what the Burlenskis chose was actually feasible."

"I remember my friends' parents making me feel like my mother didn't love me as much as theirs did - just because my mom worked and theirs didn't," Jennifer Burlenski explains. "But you know what? My brother and I both played sports and there was never a game when we didn't have Mom or Dad or both on the sidelines.

"It's how we did it, and it worked for us."

 
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