Upfront: Working mothers tell how they do it

Holding it Together. We’ve all heard the stories of women who struggle to hold it together. They juggle raising kids, working full time and trying to maintain their sanity in a world that often appears crazy. Life can be unpredictable, and especially for working moms, life is never calm. But there are some women who manage to make it look easy and who always appear to embrace the chaos that would find many others cowering in the corner. DENVER WOMAN spoke with a few of these remarkable women to learn how they are coping and how they manage to make their lives function in so smooth a fashion.

“This whole concept about balancing motherhood and work is an absolute myth. It feels like we always have to put on our happy face, because if we get off the treadmill, we’ll probably fall into despair over everything that needs to get done!” Having voiced those somber words, Chantal Unfug, special assistant to Mayor John Hickenlooper, sits up with a gleam in her eye. She leans forward and brushes the air with her hand. It’s suddenly clear that although achieving balance is challenging, this woman is more than up to the task. With two sons, ages 3 and 6, Unfug works hard to make sure all aspects of her life are succeeding in tandem. Her kids attend Denver International School, a well-thought-out decision she made with her husband to ensure the children are exposed to a diversity of ideas, cultures and languages.

“My 3-year-old’s teacher is learning English, and the kids are in a full Spanish-immersion program. The kindergarten teacher is from Peru, and most of the families who attend are not U.S. citizens,” Unfug explains. “So it’s really all about diversity in the true sense, including age, gender, race, orientation. So far, it has been amazing.” Perhaps Unfug’s insistence on exposing her children to the broader society is in part attributable to her own background. Her father is English; her mother, a fourth-generation Denver native. Both parents are immensely supportive of her efforts, whether in school, work or family. After attending college at Boston University, Unfug pondered what to do with the rest of her life. “When I make a big decision, I put up poster boards all over the walls, kind of like a strategy session,” she says. “After college, my father told me that the world was my oyster. I had an opportunity to choose who I wanted to be. I put up 30 boards and labeled them total risk, medium risk and no risk.

“The no-risk option would be to move back to Denver, live with my parents and get a job. The high-risk option was to move to the Bahamas, live on a banana boat and let things happen. The medium-risk option was to go to a place where English was spoken. I took this option, moved to London and got a job. I was lucky because I was a dual citizen, and I was hired by a PR firm.” Staffed entirely by English women, the firm’s culture was a huge shock. “It was literally as if we didn’t speak the same language,” Unfug recalls. In the mornings she worked for the Spanish Tourist Office, the PR firm’s client. “This office also was all women, and the mornings were passed smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. In the afternoon, I would return to the PR firm, and we were served tea, and the atmosphere was quiet and cordial,” Unfug says. “Talk about jumping into the deep end! I did this for three years and learned everything about Spain,England and Europe.” After three years of living and working abroad, Unfug decided to return to Denver. “I really thought about this. I realized I could stay in England and settle, but was that what I really wanted? I love London, and leaving was a hard decision,” she recalls. After returning from London, Unfug searched fruitlessly for a job in PR that would be both interesting and challenging. Then her father, a pediatric plastic surgeon, approached her with a business idea: “He told me he would pay me for one year to get his idea off the ground. I jumped in, wrote a business plan, and we began a consulting company in the biomedical field.”

Functioning as the interface between new medical products, investment firms and banks, Unfug and her father grew the company to 80 consultants worldwide, all individuals at the forefront of their fields. “We were so fortunate, and we had an advantage,” she says. “My father tapped into his class from Harvard Medical School, so we had heads of medical schools, leading specialists and more, all of whom were ready to retire but not ready to quit. Then we were at a crossroads, with my father wanting to slow down, and me wanting to head a global consulting corporation.” Instead, Unfug began getting involved in different business groups and soon found herself named director of public policy for the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). “This was such a supportive environment, and because I was so young, the other board members saw it as a mentoring opportunity for a future leader,” she says. It was at that same time that the White House Conference on Small Business was taking place. The conference was attracting a huge amount of attention, and in the end, after a lot of political maneuvering by board members, Unfug attended the conference as a senatorial appointee of Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

She recalls, “I loved the experience, and I’ll never forget some advice that someone once told me. She said, ‘When you’re younger, you need to volunteer to be the secretary of whatever it is you’re doing because you become the gatekeeper, the one with all the information, the one whom everyone knows.’ “So at the White House Conference, when I was asked to be secretary of the group of 35 women, I would stay up all night long, keeping notes, tracking all the information and becoming more and more interested in the process. Later I volunteered for the Clinton/Gore campaign, and then took a position in Gov. Romer’s office, working as deputy director for the Office of Boards and Commissions.” Today, Unfug’s work focuses mainly on preparation for the upcoming Democratic National Convention. Her work has brought her to the White House, and it is this experience that cultivated her deep appreciation for various working methods. She explains, “I’ve had the opportunity to work with women who are so bright, and I have such a deep appreciation for their wonderful styles. I always leave wondering, How can I adapt elements of their style into my own work?” Unfug’s appreciation for women who are as unique as they are innovative is rooted deeply in her relationship with her mother, a woman she refers to as “the quintessential mom and doctor’s wife. She always pushed me to be independent and strong. For the last 25 years, she has been working in holistic healing, including getting her doctorate. She was the kind of mom everyone wanted to talk to, and she set such a wonderful example for me.”

It is at this point in the conversation that Unfug for the first time becomes a bit introspective, remarking, “There is a book about off-ramping and on-ramping. Basically, when women have children, corporate America needs to realize that losing them as employees is unbelievably detrimental to the company’s bottom line. So by allowing women to off-ramp, or cut down their hours or quit for two or three years and then return at the same level they left, a company can remain much more productive and profitable. “But we don’t work this way in the United States. My husband and I realized the only way we could do this was if he acted as the primary parent. I would not be nearly so confident in my ability to do this without the commitment from my husband,” she says. Clearly, Unfug has a deep-rooted understanding of the situation: “A couple of years ago I did a fellowship in Europe and studied women’s rights in emerging countries in the European Union. I realized in the United States we have terrible maternity-leave policies and that the government here simply does not support the family. In Scandinavian countries, for example, maternity and paternity leave is offered for two years — to both parents! “But I’m one of the lucky ones,” Unfug says with a satisfied smile. “I’m working for a person who truly values family time and will go to great lengths to make sure it is placed in a position of importance.”

Heather Maurer is definitely not your typical working mom. She’s eclectic, she’s funny, she’s sincere, and yes, she’s incredibly passionate about her work. Though she’s seemingly a free spirit, there is one thing that really sets her off. “Did you know that the United States is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t have required paid maternity leave? This is America, and it makes me so mad. Here we are living in a country that is asking whether we’re ready for a woman leader. They make it so hard to succeed!” she says. As owner of One Home in Cherry Creek North, Maurer can easily recall a time in her life when possibilities were limitless. The problem was, she was not exactly sure what those possibilities looked like. The multitalented young woman already had experienced a wide-ranging world, including life as a dancer, teacher, interior designer and collector of antiques. But something was still missing, and that something remained an elusive, if not tantalizing, notion. In the late 1990s, Maurer was doing interior design work for architectural firms, concentrating on what would become Denver’s first five-star hotel in Cherry Creek, when 9/11 occurred. Plans for the project were scrapped, she was laid off, and job interviews were few and far between. Around January of 2002, Maurer was becoming increasingly bored. Married, with no children, she began collecting vintage “antiques,” which she would fix up, arrange in vignettes and offer for sale. “The problem was, modern vintage pieces didn’t fit in with the antique concept, so I decided I needed a space to sell them,” she recalls. She found a perfect location in Denver’s Golden Triangle district and had a great time fixing it up.

She threw a lavish grand opening party and thoroughly enjoyed showing off her beautiful teak finds, her wonderful sofas covered in silks and mohair and a fabulous modern Danish dining set. “But then the party was over, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Now what?’” she recalls. “I was having a great time, not making much money, but it was fun.” Soon, she began throwing monthly parties to recognize local artists, and before she knew it, she was carrying some hard-to-get designers who clearly appreciated her eye for beauty and originality. “It took me more than a year to realize I could be more than an antique store,” she recalls. Then reality hit: “I was 37 years old, and I was pregnant. My lease was about to expire, and all I could think was that this is ridiculous. How can I continue lifting and moving furniture and take care of the baby once it was born? I was in my late 30s, and we’d been trying to get pregnant with no luck. So I was shocked on many fronts.”
Luckily, Maurer found a wonderful space in Cherry Creek North, successfully competing against two larger corporate types for the lease. With the help of a friend, she was able to stay home full time with newborn daughter Lily, a short-term arrangement that suited them both. “Then I found out that the day care I had arranged for Lily didn’t have us in their system. It was a crazy seven months. Lily was a very colicky baby, crying a lot and hard to feed. But then I found a small inhome day care, and things fell into place,” she says.

Even with the day care problem settled, Maurer still found it challenging to keep business and family separate. She tried picking up her daughter every day at 3 p.m., but found her business was suffering the consequences. “I realized I had to keep things professional, because in this type of business people don’t want to see a child running around,” she explains. Maurer found a nanny, who now lives with the family and watches her daughter when she’s not in school. “At first I was worried about how Lily would adjust to this change. But just this morning when I was getting ready for work, I heard my daughter playing with the nanny and laughing. I felt such a huge relief. I used to be such a private person, but I’ve realized I have to make sacrifices to make this work,” she reflects. Maurer says Lily’s schedule is filling up with play dates and outside activities now that she is 3 years old. “I feel like I’m straddling two worlds. I’m not a typical mommy, and I really had to up the ante to be able to do this. But somehow it works,” she says. And up the ante she did. Her business quickly grew from $70,000 to $700,000 in annual sales and now has topped $1 million. And through it all, she’s managed to remain calm, cool and collected.

“My parents were kind of hippies, and this whole life is so different from what I knew,” she says with a smile. “I never thought I’d have live-in help, but then again, I don’t really have the time to worry about it. My mom’s parents were very liberal, to the extent they would not let my mom take a typing class because they did not want her to become a secretary!” Like mother, like daughter. “I never learned to like cooking or cleaning, and I was never taught to value these skills,” she reminisces. “My husband and I are both skinny. Sometimes we’ll open the fridge and close it back up, because it’s too much work. But with Lily, we try to get her balanced meals, and as long as she’s healthy and growing normally, I figure that, like us, she probably has better things to do than worry about food.” Obviously, this is not your traditional American family, which sits down together every night over a well-balanced homecooked meal. “We have our own routine, but I admit it can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want to give it all up and go raise goats in southern Colorado!” Maurer admits. “But for now, this is where I am. I have loans, people who depend on me, and obligations. But more importantly, I want my daughter to see that she has choices and that if I want to be a fulltime, stay-athome mom, that too is a choice. I’ve come to realize that it really does take a village to raise this one child.”

For Maurer, the future looks bright indeed. Recently, she became the exclusive dealer for B&B Italia, a high-end Italian furniture line, which took two years of hard work to line up. Considered the Hermes of furniture, the line appeals primarily to men, which Maurer believes gave her an advantage. “I grew up around a lot of ballet dancers, and many of the guys I knew then were not your typical macho types. I was always one of a handful of women when I worked in the architectural firms, and I was the first woman on a design committee in that industry. I was aware of the distinction, but it was never a problem. I’ve always been comfortable in my role, and I’ve never questioned how it works,” Maurer says with an easy smile.

Last year, when Kimberly Smith was nominated one of Denver’s outstanding businesswomen in real estate, she finally realized the impact she was making on the community. “For the first time, the nomination put things in perspective,” she recalls. “I was able to say, ‘Wow, I’m not all about runny noses!’” Smith, who owns Corporate Housing by Owner and Avenue West Corporate Housing, wears a variety of hats, including that of busy entrepreneur, wife and mother of two. Yet for all the demands life would seem to place on such a full and demanding schedule, she is amazingly together, both in demeanor and appearance. Smith and her husband, Eric, started in the real estate industry in 1994, while living in San Francisco. The couple moved to Denver in 1999 and opened a real estate company that provides furnished temporary corporate housing and property management, focusing primarily on the business traveler market. Today, Avenue West has offices in San Francisco, Denver and Colorado Springs. Two years ago, the couple started Corporate Housing by Owner, a firm designed to fill an unmet niche in the market.

“Avenue West is very area- and quality-specific and caters to high-end business travelers. To be successful, we have to be licensed in a specific region, and we have to know that market,” Smith explains. “For the last decade, we’d talked with five to 10 investors a day who asked why we couldn’t help out on a nationwide basis. So we created a nationwide database that serves as an educational Web site and includes a huge number of tools to educate this market.” The database is increasingly popular among travelers from specific industries, such as entertainment and sports. “We are able to tell investment owners and homeowners who list their properties very specific information, such as how many forks they will need in the kitchen to meet the needs of high-end traveling business executives,” Smith explains. The database reaches far and wide, with information on properties in Mexico and Canada, and plans to expand on a continent-by-continent basis. Last year, Avenue West was listed No. 94 for real estate companies nationwide on the Inc. 5000. The demands of such a company are less obvious, but often more intrusive than those of a 9-to-5 job. “A lot of my vendors have weird hours and work late at night. Because of that, we tend to work with vendors who are flexible and who can work around my schedule as well,” Smith says. Perhaps the hardest adjustment for Smith, who before kids was used to the formal business atmosphere required of a corporate job, was learning to work at home while acting as the primary caregiver for her two young children.

“I was a graduate of Leadership Denver, which was a suittype of thing. I was used to doing the high-powered corporate role, but all of a sudden, I was doing the mommy thing. I would be at home sitting on the couch, and there was a huge amount of humility involved. There are still times I go visit my bankers, investment advisors or attorneys, and I put on my suit. It’s either that or have them come over and sit on my couch, which isn’t an option!” she exclaims. “But I do miss the social/networking part of the job,” she muses. “For now, those things are on the back burner, and that’s all right.” While she may miss the power lunches and corporate interaction, Smith acknowledges she made a conscious decision to be at home with her kids. She is helped by her mother, who watches the children four hours every week, freeing Smith up to schedule meetings and appointments. She also has three sisters-in-law and a mother-in-law who pitch in to help. “I’m a huge believer in karma,” she says. “I feel that whatever you put out there in the universe will come back.” This belief stems from her life experience, growing up in a family that taught there were no limitations on what an individual could accomplish in business. “I was 26 when I became president of my leads business networking group. I didn’t even stop to think that being 26, blonde and invited to be part of an entrepreneurial group was even the least bit unusual,” she says.

This year, Smith’s role in the corporate real estate world is expanding even further as she begins a term on the board of directors for the Corporate Housing Providers Association, the trade organization for her industry. She was honored to be elected to the board and does not take lightly the expectation that accompanies the job. “This helps put in perspective what we’re accomplishing. It helps me understand what I want to be as a working mother,” she says. It used to be easy to juggle the kid/work routine, Smith says. “My son was a wonderful baby, and I could take him with me to the office and keep him there for several hours. Then one day he fell down the stairs at work, and even though he was fine, it pretty much did me in. I changed my routine and never looked back,” she recalls.
“We have so much going on. I like to say that I have five children, including two kids, a stepdaughter and two businesses,” she laughs. “Things get done around here in fiveminute increments, and I try hard to compartmentalize whatever I’m working on. If I’m with my kids, then I’m with them exclusively, and I don’t let other things get in the way.”

It’s difficult to imagine how Smith can remain so remarkably unruffled in the midst of running two businesses, largely from home. She remarks, “All the women in my family are incredibly strong. My grandmother ran the family business in Canada, which was a 170-year-old shoe business. My grandmother was 48 years old when my mom was born, which defied all the odds. She really was incredible. My grandfather was editor and publisher of the Denver Post newspaper, and my dad was an international figure skating judge and Oxford graduate. “I grew up surrounded by an interesting sphere of people, and I was always expected to sit and converse with these people at dinner. Whether we were having discussions with high-end attorneys or politicians or skater Scott Hamilton, we participated in all the conversation. I was put into adult situations as a child, and I now realize how much I learned. “I guess you could say my accomplishments are a reflection of the life experiences my parents gave me. In high school I was given the award Potential for Public Service, which has always remained a mystery to me. What is it I could give? If I can do one thing, it will be to teach my kids how to be good human beings,” Smith says. “In the end, I don’t want to raise kids who are superstars. I just want to raise kids who are nice people.”

Taylor Pardun is in the business of making memories — memories within her family, memories within the lives of other families. As owner of a production company that produces videos, she takes pride in her ability to create beautiful recollections that are interwoven in the fabric of people’s lives. A Denver native, Pardun was always taught to believe that when it comes to accomplishing great things, the sky is the limit. This was a message communicated by parents, grandparents and others who impacted her life. “My family was infused with a sense of that good old- fashioned Western pioneer spirit, so that I believed anything was possible. Even today, when I doubt myself, I know I still have parents and family who will support and encourage me,” she says. That support has enabled Pardun to succeed in so many ways, whether as a devoted wife and mother, a business owner or a civic volunteer. Yet Pardun is quick to acknowledge that regardless of where she is or what project she is tackling, family remains her priority.

“I’m lucky to have married a wonderful guy who’s such a great and involved father. He’s calm and stable, where I’m more volatile, in the sense that I’m always going. It’s a great dynamic, and while we may not have the expertise in the parenting arena, we’re figuring it out and doing the best we can to make it wonderful,” she says. Pardun and her husband took great pains to establish a more traditional family routine, one that includes sitting down together for dinner every night, and joining in the time-honored family game night. “It is a challenge to keep the consistency, but I’m constantly intrigued by how it can work,” she acknowledges. “I’m always questioning whether I’ve made the right choices when it comes to my family. The best part is that there’s a huge amount of creativity in this family, so we’re always learning, exploring and doing.” Being a mom is truly “the ultimate juggling act,” Pardun acknowledges. “But I’ve come to realize that I’m a far better mom when I’m doing something outside the home.”

Pardun’s life as a working mom is a far cry from earlier years, when she worked at the CBS news affiliate in Denver as a field producer for the consumer and investigative reporters. In fact, her résumé reads like a catchy spy novel: When not conducting surveillance in an undercover van or wearing the “jean jacket” cam, she was covering high-profile court cases for the station. “I loved this work, and it prepared me for so much more,” she muses. In fact, this job truly served as the launching pad for her future in video. While working in Denver, she met her husband on a blind date arranged by her grandmother. The couple settled for a time in San Francisco, where she worked for TechTV, researching, planning and producing shows for the station. She became pregnant and stopped working, a difficult adjustment for someone with her energy and drive. “I am someone who values work, and it was so hard for me to just stop,” she recalls. “I
needed something to do, so I began a news editing business.” At home with her newborn son, Pardun started experimenting with editing software, developing creative home videos of her family. Working with standard video, she would add text, music, titles and graphics and eventually purchased professional editing software, which brought her efforts to a whole new level.

After a client in California hired her to do a professionally edited home video, her home business quickly grew to include creating treasured video memories of families, rehearsal dinners, trips, birthdays and everything in between. There are now clients as far away as St. Louis, and she shows no signs of slowing down. “I love what I’m doing. It’s so emotional for people, because it’s about their lives and their memories. Picture someone at a 90th birthday party watching a professionally edited video of her life. People are touched by this in so many ways,” she says. Last fall, Pardun decided it was time to bring her business to a new degree of sophistication, explaining, “I had an established business in the editing field, which is more intimate and touches people’s lives more directly. But my kids were getting older, and I began to wonder what else I could do that would be challenging and fun.”

The contemplation led to the creation of Taylor’d Production Group, which does more commercial-grade videos. One of her most notable projects is a video she produced and edited for the Lower Downtown (LoDo) district. The group was seeking a highdefinition video that could be shot on a day when the Rockies
were playing, the skies were blue and the mayor could appear. “It’s always a juggling act, but then again, I’m a crazy producer type, and I’ll do what it takes to bring all the elements together. I like to think I have leadership skills, and while others may call this bossy, I just think I’m very thorough,” she smiles. “It’s so much fun putting projects such as this together. I like to be different, and I like to make a difference. I love the fact that I can have one-on-one contact with my clients and that I can listen to their needs, help them and create something they will love,” she remarks.

Photography KIT WILLIAMS

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