“Entrepreneurs don’t really get maternity leave,” observes Renée Israel, who cofounded Doc Popcorn with her husband, Rob. Renée noted that most of her friends started withdrawing from the workforce as they began to have children. But for Israel, the opposite was true: her business took off just as she began having children (she has three now: Kyla, 4; Caden, 6; and Mason, 8). At first, Renée managed as many working mothers do: a merry-go-round of au pairs and nannies.
But when Mason was two and Caden was on the way, Renée ran into trouble. The doctor prescribed bed rest for Renée, who had to spend the last six weeks of the pregnancy in the hospital. “Rob and I were just like, ‘Holy crap, what do we do?’ Rob said, ‘Of course we’ll send for your mother, right?’”
Renée’s mother, Maureen, flew out to Colorado from New Jersey to watch after young Mason while Renée was in the hospital and Rob was holding down the business. Maureen was a godsend. A Scottish-born woman of about 5’2”, she’s “strong in her will and her grit,” says Israel. “She never complains. She just gets it done. She’s a task-master, and she’s got a memory like an elephant. She’s just a solid girl from the country of Scotland, a no-nonsense, no-drama kind of person.”
Renée gave birth to Caden, and Maureen stuck around for about six months helping out. Finally Maureen headed back home to New Jersey. Renée and Rob felt bereft–and rapidly, overwhelmed. “I was like, ‘My God, how are we gonna do this?’ We upped our support hours with a nanny, but it’s not the same as having your mom around.” So Renée and Rob got to scheming. What if they could convince Maureen to move out to Colorado?
“It took us a long time for us to find her a place to live,” says Renée now, noting that Boulder, Colorado, isn’t cheap. Eventually through a tip from a broker friend, they learned of a new, nearby development. “We scooped in there and customized a little single family home,” making sure, for instance, that there was a bedroom downstairs. “We wanted to make sure that the layout worked for both now and later,” Renée explains, referring to a future when Maureen, now in her seventies, would prefer not to handle stairs.
Renée and Rob purchased the house, considering it an investment, and Maureen moved out in 2011. “She insisted, ‘I’m paying rent,’” says Renée.
The godsend had returned: Maureen began helping out regularly with the kids (baby Kyla had just arrived). But Maureen, whose job had been to raise Renée and her sister, and who was now divorced and living off of social security, was also interested in finding some work. One day, Maureen saw a check that Renée wrote for a babysitter. It seemed like good money to Maureen. “Maybe this is something I could do,” Maureen told Renée–meaning babysit for other families in the area.
“It scared me,” remembers Renée–she didn’t want to lose the fantastic help that her mom had been offering around the house.
In families, we don’t have a word for a moment like this. But in business, the situation is clear-cut. This is an employee announcing her intention to seek another job. And the solution for that, if the manager is pleased with the employee, is to offer stay pay.
Renée knew that Maureen was very happy spending countless hours with her grandkids, whom Maureen loved. Renée knew, too, that Maureen wanted to earn some income. And finally, Renée knew that she was relying on Maureen far more than one normally relies on a grandmother–this was something approaching a job.
So Renée did something unusual: she offered to pay her mom for her help. Renée admits it felt awkward then, and it feels awkward to talk about it now. And it felt awkward to Maureen, too. “I can’t accept money from my own daughter,” she said.
Renée told Maureen that she’d heard that Michelle Obama did something analogous with her own mother (though Renée can’t find the source, now), and told her mom that if such an arrangement was good enough for the Obamas, it was good enough for Renée.
Maureen gave it some thought. She had been a homemaker earlier in life, raising Renée and Renée’s sister full-time. And she had always felt that that work was not esteemed highly enough. “I think a woman who stays home to raise her kids is totally undervalued,” she says today. “I think it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world.” And wasn’t one basic way of valuing work to be paid?
So Maureen accepted, and Renée and Rob now give Maureen a sum each month. “It just worked out well for everybody,” says Maureen. “It’s win-win,” concurs Renée. Renée has child-rearing help she trusts to the utmost (“I’ve never wanted the rotating babysitter brigade,” she says). Maureen gets to spend large amounts of time with her grandkids, and has some income to supplement her social security. (The only hitch: Maureen’s not crazy about Boulder’s altitude.)
And it’s working well. “I feel blessed,” says Renée. She recognizes that there are so many particulars about her situation that made this uncommon arrangement work for her. But she also sees families around her–many immigrant families in particular–that are structured in such a way that there always seems to be a family member, however extended, watching the youngsters. “That’s inherent in some cultures, and not in ours anymore,” laments Renée. She’s glad that she found a way–however unconventional–to make it work.