How Chef-Mothers Strive for Work-Family Balance

Being a chef is intense work. So is being a mom. Being a chef-mother? That’s a next level challenge. Finding a balance between the sometimes conflicting obligations of family and work can be a difficult proposition, and one that is ever evolving, since duties and schedules on both fronts are always shifting.

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The struggle between the opposing poles of responsibility begins even before childbirth. Barbara Sibley, chef-owner of La Palapa in New York City (pictured above), remembers the morning her daughter, Arielle, was scheduled to be induced, she was called into the restaurant at the last minute to finalize the Cinco de Mayo specials.

Once a baby is a part of the equation, achieving equilibrium becomes even more problematic. Shortly after pastry chef Megan Garrelts (pictured below) and her husband, Colby Garrelts, opened Bluestem in Kansas City, Missouri, their first child, Madilyn, was born. Though Megan was able to take a few weeks off for maternity leave, she was soon back on the job with the little one in tow. “We had a pack ‘n’ play that we set up in the bar where she slept during the day, since we were only open for dinner,” she says. “I would come out periodically and feed her. We even had a swing in the kitchen at some point.”

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Not everyone has the luxury of bringing the baby to work. Executive pastry chef Jennifer Paul of Atlanta’s Canoe, had her son, Jeremy, when she was 19-years-old. The baby’s father didn’t stay in the picture, so she raised him on her own with help from her parents. Within a short time of giving birth, she was baking again, while simultaneously earning an online bachelor’s degree in pastry. She remembers being constantly tired and skipping out on socializing with her colleagues. “People would go out to unwind after their shifts, but I never really did that,” she says. “I had to go straight home to the baby.”

Though Lisa Ito (pictured below) took 12 years off to be a full-time mother, she is now the pastry chef at Umi in Atlanta; her four children are all teenagers. “There are days I only see them for five minutes in the morning before they go to school,” she says, though she always texts or calls them in late afternoon. “When I come home, they’re already asleep.”

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Parenthood is a seismic shift no matter how you earn a living, though cheffing presents unique lifestyle alterations. Sibley, who also has a son, Alex, 13, often used to work seven or more days in a row and was on the line. Now she takes off days based on her children’s needs and isn’t on the line. “There are not enough hours in the day,” she says. “You can’t do everything 100 percent and I’m someone who likes to do everything 100 percent. You have to make compromises.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many chef-moms are focused on the culinary aspects of parenting. “I’m always concerned about what they eat because I want them to eat well,” says Ito. “Even when I’m on the night shift, I want to make sure they have good food, so I usually make their dinner before I go to work”

Garrelts and her husband set their schedules so they are home all day Sundays and Mondays, and they are back in time to make dinner on Wednesday and Thursday evenings for Madilyn and her younger brother, Colin.

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Constantly striving to strike a good balance between the needs of the kitchen and those of the kids doesn’t always go well. Recently, Paul (pictured above) planned to attend one of her son’s tee-ball games. Unfortunately, she had to cancel at the last minute because she needed to finish a wedding cake for a client, so her parents texted her updates from the game instead. One of Paul’s parenting goals is to consistently leave work on time, so she can be at her son’s events and always be there to help him with his homework. “It seems like a small thing, but to me it’s a big thing,” she says.

Overall, the 26-year-old feels like she’s doing well as both a parent and a professional. “I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I didn’t have him,” she says. “I have more drive and I take my job more seriously than most people of any age.”

There’s still time to find the perfect Mother’s Day restaurant reservation to celebrate the mom in your life. And, there’s still time  to enter to win the mother of all brunches in our Mother’s Day #MomSquadBrunch giveaway.

Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell

Photo credits: Bonjwing Lee (Megan Garrelts).