My Latest, Perhaps Greatest, Meal Planning Tools

For years—maybe my entire adult life, definitely since Emme was born nearly four years ago—I’ve been attempting to stick to a realistic meal planning system. I’ve diligently saved recipes, made lists, and shopped weekly, only to let too much food go bad when I didn’t actually prepare the meals I had planned. I’ve spent too much money on takeout, relied heavily on frozen burritos for lunch, and defaulted to pasta + bottled sauce as my go-to dinner more times than I care to remember.

When traditional meal planning fell short of my expectations and energy, I switched up my game, trying strategies that should have helped me lighten the load—services like Blue Apron and Fresh20, freezer meals, and locally prepped dinners that you just have to heat up in the oven. They all had their merits, but nothing stuck.

But lately, I’ve found peace and some actual success with meal planning. With a few tools and one secret weapon (Spoiler alert: It’s my husband), our family manages to get dinner on the table most nights of the week (not to mention having several work-week lunches prepped for me and plenty of do-it-yourself breakfast options for everyone). How did we do it? The first step might surprise you and will definitely bring to mind therapy sessions and support groups rather than grocery lists and recipes. To make meal planning work, I had to find some acceptance.

Let me explain: Last year, I worked with a health coach for a few months. In talking to her, I realized that meal planning was a source of anxiety for me. That made me realize I had to let go of both perfection and control in the meal planning process. After years of feeling proud that I wasn’t a perfectionist, I finally realized that I mayyybbbeeee had some perfectionist tendencies and I mayyybbbeeee was an eensy, weensy bit controlling. Having a young child who makes so many things feel out of my control can do that to a person.

But I digress… Anyway, I know all of this sounds awfully intense for, you know, dinner, but when I finally accepted that meal planning, meal preparing, and meal eating didn’t need to be perfect, shit got easier. Then I found some tools to complement my new breezy meal planning attitude.

Game Changing Meal Planning Tools

Plan To Eat

In some ways, Pinterest might function the same way for many of you that Plan to Eat does for me. But with Pinterest, I find often myself lost in the weeds—I log in to get that one recipe I saved six months ago and three hours later, and I’m pinning lake houses to a new board, cleverly titled Lake L-I-v-I-n. Plan to Eat doesn’t offer me that kind of distraction, and while the interface leaves something to be desired, the functionality works for me and my brain.

First, it gives me a place to save all those recipes that I randomly come across. It allows me to look at a calendar, compare it to our family’s shared calendar, and schedule an appropriate amount of meals for the week (which is not seven, it’s more like two or three). And, it compiles a list of ingredients based on the recipes I choose. Is it perfect? No. But Plan to Eat gets me farther in the meal planning process with less pain than anything else has.

Weekend Prepping

This isn’t earth shattering. The amount of legwork I do varies, but spending time prepping meals for the week on Saturday or Sunday always makes me feel like I’ve done something productive. This usually includes two to four of the following: Making 3-4 lunches for the week (see next section), cleaning and chopping vegetables for weekly dinners, making a breakfast casserole, and prepping sauces, meatballs, or other meals that have a longer fridge and freezer life.

Mason Jar Salads

You know how mason jar salads were totally a thing a few years ago? Well, I discovered them like six months ago! And let me tell you: Game. Changer. Not only do they make it easier for me to eat more green stuff, they are perfect for advance planning and portable. I also figured out my optimal number of mason jar salads for the week–three. I bring the same salad three times, then do my best to make a different salad for the following week. This seems keep me from suffering from lunch fatigue. I end up buying my lunch one day a week, which feels like a treat, and I usually work from home on Fridays, so I just eat leftovers or something.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend investing in a set or two of mason jars (wide-mouth, 32-ounce jars are key). We have started using them to store everything. As for salads, they have to be filling and tasty for me to actually eat them. Here are a few of my favs right now:

Chicken, Apple, and Pecan Salad (I ditch the kale and use something like Pullman or Boston Lettuce.)

Chopped Black Bean and Corn

Paleo Taco Mason Jar Salad

Sweet Potato Pear Wild Rice Salad

Trader Joe’s Frozen Meals in a Pinch

In an effort to eat better, my default is to think that our family should be making all meals from scratch. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s not realistic for us at this point. Trader Joe’s to the rescue. We keep a stockpile of a few TJs frozen meals on hand. Our favorites are Shiitake Mushroom Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken. We serve both with rice, and often add whatever extra veggies (or for the Kung Pao Chicken, some pineapple) we have on hand.

My (not-so) Secret Weapon: My Husband

Remember that thing about control? In the division of labor in our household, meal planning, prepping, and cooking has always been my thing, but when I went back to work full-time in January after freelancing for a year, something had to give.

It’s not so much that my husband expected me to be in charge of all things kitchen; we just had very different ideas of how to manage a week’s worth of meals. He would eat out every meal without a second thought, while I wanted us to be eating home-cooked meals every night. Once we had a conversation about it, we found some balance. I plan our meals, do some light prepping on the weekend, and typically do the grocery shopping; he cooks.

Cooking on the week nights was always been the point at which my whole meal planning system breaks down. I walk in the door after a 8+ hours of working and 1.5+ hours of commuting, and I would struggle to find the energy to actually prepare the dinners that I had so diligently planned. My husband’s work day tends to end before mine (it also starts before mine), and his commute is less than 10 minutes on foot. When I come through the door at 6 p.m., to dinner on the table, it’s a relief, for real. In many ways, it’s the best of both world’s — I get to plan what we eat without actually having to cook it.

Anyway, I’d love to hear: Do you have any meal planning secret weapons?

Is a Freelance Career Right for You?

Last year, I left my job as a marketing professional in higher education and took a career detour (I may have mentioned this). I quit my job of six years — a field I had about 15 years of experience in — and gave myself a new title: freelance writer. Being a freelance writer seemed to be the answer to many problems. It took my career in the direction I wanted to go (writing), while giving me the flexible schedule I had craved since my daughter was born (freelance). But striking out on my own was unlike any choice I had ever made. I was starting a business after being employed by someone else since college, which was scary and unchartered territory.

Like with most life choices, I consulted the internet. I read lots of freelance websites, and many of them were helpful. But I could never find information about of what type of person is a successful freelancer — or at least, what kind of traits help a person manage the quirks of a freelance career. In fact, I even asked this question in a freelance forum run by a well-known writer, and received a somewhat rude response along the lines of “how would [she] know,” which was, you know… not helpful.

So I’m writing that post myself. After a year of being a freelance writer, I’ve compiled a few… I guess I’d call them life or coping skills that seem to be critical to not only actually building a career, but managing the vast differences between being employed by someone else and being self-employed.

A freelance career sounds like the answer to work-life balance, but here are a few things to consider before you make the leap. Do you have the kind of personality that can cope with the reality of a freelance writing career. Find out...

You can handle uncertainty — lots of uncertainty.

Being a freelancer, especially a new freelancer, means your income is inconsistent, the number of hours you’re actually working and getting paid is inconsistent, how much you’re charging might even be inconsistent… basically there’s a lot of inconsistency. For me, the most nerve-racking part of those inconsistencies was the money part.

If you’re comfortable hanging out in that uncertainty, at least for awhile (at least one year, maybe two), then a freelance career might be a great choice for you. I find this is only palatable if you can reasonably live without a second income, i.e., you have someone bringing home a paycheck that covers all of the bases: mortgage, bills, groceries, and so on. But even if you do have this, and we did, going from two full-time and steady incomes to one plus whatever you make freelancing, which can vary significantly month to month, can be a huge, huge shock to the budget and the system.

You don’t mind being alone.

When you work freelance, you spend a lot of time working alone. There’s no one down the hall to chat with, and you’re not in the mix with any office gossip (for better or worse). Sure, head to the coffeeshop, but chances are you’re just going to sit there by yourself. Being a freelancer is often very quiet. If you’re a person who lives in your own head, this can be dangerous. I didn’t have too much of a problem being alone, but when I ended up back in an office environment, I was practically giddy to have people around.

You are able to set boundaries about when and how your work.

Doesn’t a freelance career sound like the answer to all work-life balance issues? You can work when you want and how much you want, on projects that interest you, etc. The flip side is that being a freelancer means your start time and your stop time are entirely up to you. I often felt like I could and maybe should be working around the clock. Without the artificial boundaries of 9-to-5, stopping work (however work was being defined) was sometimes hard. For me, turning off the to-do list was difficult even during the evenings or to stop for an hour mid-day for some of that “balance” I was so hoping for.

You are self-disciplined and self-directed.

If you’re not self-disciplined and self-directed, a freelance career is not for you. I am definitely disciplined enough (I think), and I’m self-directed when I have a project for a client, but the business of setting up a thriving freelance career means that you have to market yourself (more on that in a minute). This part was particularly hard for me. I struggled to figure out what direction I should take my writing career in (Do I pitch publications, work on the blog, or focus on marketing copywriting? Do I sell myself to a particular industry or will I take whatever I can get? There were a lot of options/questions.) There is a literally endless and mostly undefined list of things a freelancer could be doing to forward her business goals. I often felt stuck in the business of being a freelancer, unsure what would be the most bang for my time-is-money buck.

You’re comfortable with self-promotion.

When you’re working for yourself, you have to market your services, which ultimately means that you have to market yourself. Now, there are totally freelancing writing jobs that you can get without marketing yourself. I definitely got jobs by simply applying for them — the gig is a good example of that. But, my best gigs came about from networking and reaching out to contacts I already had. One great gig I got was with a university, which came about from a letter of inquiry I wrote to a woman I interviewed with a year an a half earlier. Another came from someone I met in a running group who ended up being a VP at a higher education marketing agency. Writing that email to the woman I barely knew was hard. Talking to the VP about what I did and what kind of work I was looking for, and straight up asking her to pass along my resume to the people who make these decisions was hard. For me, self-promotion was… unpleasant — it felt like I was constantly asking for favors — but it was doable, and I got better at it as time went on.

You’re capable of advocating for a fair rate in exchange for your services.

So this isn’t a personality trait, exactly, but I found that advocating for a fair rate was extraordinarily difficult and very, very important. First of all, it’s hard to find good information about what exactly you should be charging, and freelance writing rates are literally all over the board. There are people making well below the minimum wage writing for Upwork and other content mill-type sites. There are people charging over $100 an hour for copywriting services. Most publications typically have a set rate that they pay — blogs, if they pay at all, can pay as low as $25 or $50 with online media sites like Jezebel clocking in at $250. Consumer magazines typically pay more, trade magazines often higher still. In the interest of getting the work I desperately felt I needed, I had trouble asking for what truly deserved. I worked in exchange for services sometimes, my rates were all over the map, and I took whatever I could get.

Here’s the good news: I got better at this, and with a few exceptions, by late summer 2015, I had set a rate of $40/hour for copywriting services, which cut me out of the running for a lot of local and smaller businesses looking for writing services. That, I learned, was OK. But here’s the bad news: As I saw very clearly this week while looking at a freelance writer’s proposal that I should have been charging more.

You don’t mind working with minimal direction and appreciation.

I’ll give myself this much — Working with minimal direction, dealing with gray areas, and coping with missing information about what a client or employer actually wants when it comes to copywriting, I can easily live in this space. I have a sense of when to push for more direction and when not to, and my instincts on how to approach something totally undefined are often close to spot on. I don’t know how I got here, but it’s definitely one of my strengths. Writing for media outlets, I would say this is less true, but I’m comfortable with a swing and a miss, which might just be a byproduct of age and experience. The bottom line: When you’re a freelancer, no one is holding your hand, and you can’t walk down the hall to get clarification. You have to have the confidence in your ability to just move forward and get the work done.

As for appreciation, as a freelancer, you will not find an overabundance of it. You’ll have clients who are grateful and clients who like you, but you’re not really part of the team. You’re the hired help, quite literally, and the whole point of being a good freelancer — IMHO — is that you can quickly do the work with minimal direction and without being coddled. That’s what they are paying you for.

You’re patient.

Taking a sharp career turn to freelancer often means playing the long game when it comes to building a reputation, a client base, and an income. That marketing and self-promotion I did? I sent the email to the woman at the university in February or March. In October, I was contacted by another woman in her division — my resume had been passed along. The running group VP? I gave her my information in July. I heard from that agency in October too.

It takes awhile. Since the beginning of February, I’ve been contacted by another higher education institution and another agency, both because I had contacts who knew me, with gigs that would have paid well. I had to say no. But, it drove home the point: It takes some time to really establish yourself as a freelancer. If I would have stuck it out, I likely would have had a lot more options today than I had this time last year. But the thought of a steady paycheck and boundaries of a normal work day were too good to pass up after a year of uncertainty.

An Interview with Kelley Kitley, Therapist & Business Owner | Work Life Mom

Sometimes when you’re a blogger, you receive email about your blog. Often, these emails are random and shady, and I’ll be honest, I tend to automatically side-eye everything that shows up in my inbox. But sometimes, I receive a legit email from someone who sincerely feels a connection to what I’m trying to do doing here and wants to contribute in a way that is incredibly beneficial for me, as well as you, the reader.

The email I received from Kelley Kitley after I published my interview with Abby Brennan of Brennan Spa was the second kind of email. Kelley is not only a mom to four adorable kiddos, she’s also a therapist specializing in the treatment of postpartum depression, anxiety disorders, and couples. And (AND!), she is passionate about helping women navigate the transition to motherhood.

Serendipitous, right? 

Funny you should say that…


After a few emails back and forth, Kelley and I had a fantastic conversation about the possibility of collaborating. Her passion for helping moms and her holistic approach to mental health and wellness completely resonated with me and the mission of Mommy Sanest. And profiling her for the Work | Life | Mom series seemed like a no-brainer because she is in the process of launching her own private practice, KELLEY KITLEY SERENDIPITOUS PSYCHOTHERAPY. I hope you find her honest and thoughtful responses as helpful and inspiring as I did — I found myself wanting to virtual high-five her as I edited this interview!

Lou: Can you tell us about your family?

Kelley: My husband and I met 15 years ago at my parent’s business. I was bartending while I was an undergrad at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and Ryan was in graduate school at DePaul. He was one of my customers. We have four children with vastly different personalities. We are blessed to have two healthy boys and two healthy girls ranging in ages from 3-9.


Can you talk a little bit about your career as a therapist?

I knew I wanted to be a psychotherapist at a young age after having gone through some of my own personal struggles and receiving amazing help throughout my journey. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work, and I am a licensed clinician with experience working in child welfare, hospitals, residential treatment centers, schools, and community mental health. I am a cognitive behavioral therapist who specializes in the treatment of depression and anxiety (with a special niche in postpartum), addictions (including substance abuse, eating disorders, and sex/infidelity), parenting and self development, and couples counseling. I have worked in group private practices for the past eight years, but owning my own practice has always been a goal of mine. I am excited for the transition to independence.

Can you talk about why you decided to pursue opening your own practice? What has the process of opening a business while juggling multiple other priorities, including continuing to see patients at your current job, been like?

Balance is something that is important to me. I strive for it daily, but can get tripped up when I have so many plates spinning in the air.

Before I started KELLEY KITLEY SERENDIPITOUS PSYCHOTHERAPY, LLC, we had a “family meeting” about what my commitment would look like. I told the kids I would be working more, which would mean less time at home. They asked questions and were supportive.

The entire household has stepped up to the plate. The older kids go grocery shopping with us and help put away their clothes. They take care of each other. I spend extra time at night snuggling, talking, reading, and tucking them in. Family time is important on the weekends.

My mantra is, “One day at a time.” Sometimes it’s one hour or one minute at a time. If I anticipated all of the energy, time, and dedication that the past year would have entailed, I’m not sure I would have signed up. But when I broke it down, it was manageable.


If another mom were to ask you for advice about opening a business similar to yours, what would you tell her?

You absolutely can do it! Create a vision board and identify what you want your business to look like. Put it some place where you can see it daily to inspire you to reach your goal. You also have to network and self-promote. For the past year, I have been out in the community giving talks on mental health and self-care. I have set up several meetings a week with other professionals to collaborate. I would rather use wall phones and tape recorders, but I bit the bullet and joined Facebook and LinkedIn. I serendipitously found an amazing office space. Once I opened myself up to the process, and let go of the fear of failure, my stars kept aligning.

And remember, we are all connected and can help each other out in the most incredible ways. I am forever grateful for the powerful women in my life who led the way.

When you become a mom, did you take time off work? Did you take a “normal,” 12-week maternity leave? How did you decide that going back to work was right for you and your family?

I am a fee-for-service provider, which means I was paid when I saw clients, so my maternity leave was never “paid time off,” which created some financial anxiety. We were always able to make it work short-term; however, not going back to work for an extended amount of time was not an option. But, I’ve had four c-sections, so I never took less than six weeks. When you add nursing and sleep deprivation, I’m not sure how I managed to form sentences returning to work eight to 10 weeks postpartum with my mommy brain. In my professional opinion, it would be ideal for every woman to be on paid leave for a year, but I know that is not most people’s reality.

Can you describe your “typical” work day?

I work four days a week and have clinical hours from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I am a morning person and always found the work hours between 3-5 p.m. to be grueling, so I have been fortunate to create this schedule. My office is located in downtown Chicago at 737 N. Michigan Ave., so I accommodate a lot of professionals before they start their work day. I teach a graduate course in social work so one day a week I head over to UIC after seeing clients.

How do you and your partner manage childcare and the “business” of running a household?

Ryan is so supportive. We are lucky in that we work different hours, but it often times feels like solo parenting as we high five each other at the doorway when I am coming home from work and he is leaving.

We work very hard to keep the lines of communication about our needs open, so we can ask for help in a non-accusatory way. I think we own the household responsibilities that fall on our “shift.” For example, I do school pick up, homework, dinner, pack lunches, laundry, and bedtime. He does mornings, school drop off, all of the maintenance around the house, with the cars, and the bills. We alternate grocery shopping every other week.

We are respectful of keeping the house in somewhat of an order for the pass off — the garbage is taken out, the dishwasher is loaded. We try to leave things better than we found them. As two working parents, we attempt to manage a 50/50 split to help avoid burnout. We also have our sitter, who is a graduate student, with us 20-30 hours a week when there is overlap in our schedules. We also use her once a week to go on a date and reconnect.


How do you fit in self-care, seeing friends, and staying connected to yourself outside of your professional identity and identity as a mother?

I start my day by lighting a candle, writing down what I am grateful for, and what I need to work on. This activity sets the foundation for my day. I find peace when I am alone in my car, and during my commute, I blast music and sing at the top of my lungs. There is a Starbucks across the street from my office that has become my social escape. I meet a friend or family member there either before work, on a break, or after work several times a week. I try to put my phone in a drawer when I get home from work until after I put the kids to bed so that I can be present with them. I’ve given up exercise on the days that I work because it is an added stress to try and fit it in. I go to spinning classes or yoga 3-4 times a week on my days off. A walk around the block or taking the stairs gives me a pep in my step.

On the weekends, Ryan has a few hours in the morning to do something for himself on Saturdays, and I do the same on Sundays. I am a firm believer in putting the oxygen mask on me first (as they say in flight on an airplane), so I can then take care of my babies to the best of my ability.

In general, does the balancing act you’ve describe work for you? If you could change one thing about how you balance work with other areas of your life, what would be?

I immensely and genuinely LOVE the life choices I have made and how I choose to spend my time, but there never seems to be enough time in the day to accomplish all that I have set out to do. The past six months have been chaotic for my family as I open my practice, write a book, and teach. I could use a couple of more hours in the day. I have to shout at myself to take a deep breathe and slow down. I often give myself time-outs. My kids will also remind me when I need a time-out.

You speak at workshops for Bump Club and Beyond in Chicago about the transition to motherhood. Can you provide a few tips about how to make the transition to motherhood smoother?

Accept help: As women, we try to do it all. Practice getting comfortable with saying YES if someone offers to come over and watch the baby so you can take a nap or go to the grocery store alone. In the first few weeks, a trip to Target might feel like a vacation.

Accept imperfections and limitations: I used to internally beat myself up if I couldn’t get everything done on my to-do list. The more children I had, the easier it was for me to say NO because I am not naturally wired this way. My external barriers gave me clarity of what I could accomplish.

Perfectionistic/overachievers are at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety symptoms postpartum. Having a child/children is absolutely life changing. Try to enjoy the transition, you will find your groove.

Connect with your partner: In the hierarchy of priorities post-baby, many of the men I have worked with report that they feel they are at the bottom of the list for their wives. Nurture that relationship with emotional and physical intimacy. It is a strength that can help you be a team player and get the support you need.

A big thank you to Kelley Kitley for giving us a glimpse into her busy life as a therapist, small business owner, mom to four, wife, and, you know, person. If you are looking for mental health services in the Chicago area, please check out KELLEY KITLEY SERENDIPITOUS PSYCHOTHERAPY, LLC. And this likely won’t be the last you’ll see of Kelley on Mommy Sanest. You can look forward to her popping up on the blog from time to time, lending her expert opinion and advice to some upcoming posts.

Want more working mom inspiration? Check out interviews with Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of Flexjobs and Abby Brennan, owner of Brennan Massage and Spa.

Confessions of a New Freelance Writer

About eight months ago, I concocted a plan to launch a fabulous career/life as a freelance writer and content strategist. I focused in on my goals, took every freelance opportunity that came my way, started writing more, began laying the foundation of self-employment, and set a date to quit my job.

And then, after 13 years of sitting in an office doing “marketing,” I actually quit.

Confessions of a new freelance writer.

Here’s something about me: I’ve never not had a professional job — unless you count three weeks after I graduated from college and about four weeks after graduate school. I realize that makes me very lucky, but it also means that I’ve been very risk adverse, and quitting my job was not something I did lightly.

I’m not sorry I quit — My career in marketing hasn’t felt right for a long time, and I’ve spent years attempting to determine the next step. At my most recent job, I was teetering on the edge of a precipice — I was unhappy enough for long enough that I knew I was dangerously close to jeopardizing my opportunity to leave on good terms after six years of service that (I’m told) “exceeded expectations.” It was truly time to go. And so I went… on good terms and on my own terms.

It’s been two months.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

I wade through each day unsure of where the hours go.

When I worked in an office the days dragged. In some ways, this is better — I’m not bored — but I’m not actually getting a paycheck for being busy, and I have a feeling that I’ve fallen into a trap of working harder, but not smarter.

So what am I doing? I do have a few client projects each month, but I spend a lot of time applying to freelance or part-time or contract opportunities — emails and applications that apparently disappear into the ether the moment I hit send… Sometimes I start to go down the Elance path, but I don’t even know where to start… I consider, then reconsider, how to market myself and to whom.

I knew it would be like this — I knew it would take time to figure it out; I knew the transition would be rough, but I was so secretly hopeful that everything would just work out and the freelance life would be instantaneously amazing. Here are some of the myths that I let myself believe (while at the same time reminding myself that I shouldn’t believe them). Turns out I should have listened to myself — at least the part of myself that wasn’t coming up with a freelance fantasy:

Myth: If I built it (a website), they (clients) would come.

Last fall, I had three freelance clients and a full-time job, which meant I felt like I was literally working around the clock. With three clients, I reasoned that I had a sufficient foundation and could expect a certain amount of income when I quit my job — then one of my clients closed her business and a few projects didn’t pan out the way I expected. To be fair, I knew this by the time I walked into my supervisor’s office to give my notice, but I figured, hey, everything will fall into place. I’m still waiting for those things to start falling.

Myth: I would immediately lose 10 pounds.

Welcome to the land of magical thinking. Why did I think this? I’ll tell you. I thought that once my pesky job was out of the way, I would spend every morning working on my fitness while sipping an ultra-clean, vitamin-infused, super food smoothie in my suddenly-fitting-again Lululemon yoga pants. I would cook myself every meal, sit down at dining room table, and eat mindfully — never again succumbing to the likes of Chipotle or Panera. All stress would just melt away, along with a few pounds, because, you know, I would be living the dream.

Myth: My house would be clean; my closets organized; and the laundry would be done forever and ever. Amen.

This was part of the point after all — to function better as a family. And to me, functioning better means having a relatively clean and organized home, which is, I have learned, 100 percent impossible unless you LITERALLY spend all day, every day cleaning. The minute I think the laundry is done, my husband’s basket is full again (seriously, why does he need to change four times a day?). As soon as I finish cleaning the house, Emme comes home, pulls out 80 gazillion toys, spills her milk, and manages to smash crackers into the freshly vacuumed rug.

Myth: I would create a work-life balance scenario that worked for our family.

Ah… the myth of “work-life balance.” I thought I would have my day totally figured out with plenty of time for work, household management, and self-care; I would spend quality time with Emme from the time she came home from daycare to the time she went to bed; and then I would relax in the evenings. But mostly, we’re still just trying to survive and get to the next thing. And, I’m still sitting on my couch “working” late into the night. What am I even doing? Just like during the day, I’m not really sure, but nothing about it feels balanced.

None of this is to say I regret my choice, but it will take some time before I get this new life and career figured out. And maybe I won’t. Maybe it’s not the right choice for me — but at this point I’d rather know than be sitting in an office still attempting to make a decision about the next step in my life. At least that part is over.

Also, I would like to point out that I have made dinner more in the last two months than I had in the last two years. Small victories — I’ll take what I can get at this point. 

An Interview with Abby Brennan, Owner of Brennan Spa | Work Life Mom

One of my many goals with the Work | Life | Mom series is to show a variety of mom-owned businesses, including those that have a real, live storefront. So when I started to think about who I could reach out to, I immediately thought of some of my favorite local businesses in the Chicago western suburbs. Brennan Spa in Brookfield, owned by mom-of-two Abby Brennan, is one of those businesses.

Abby Brennan is the owner of Brennan SpaBrennan Massage and Spa has been open for seven years and is housed in a beautiful 100-year-old home near other shops and restaurants in downtown Brookfield. The upstairs rooms are used for spa treatments, including massages, facials, cranialsacrals, waxing, and more. I have tried several of their services and always have an amazing experience — in fact, after leaving the city and struggling to find a place where I could get a great massage, Brennan’s Spa filled that suburban void for me, and in an adorable space to boot. I was thrilled when Abby — a former art teacher who is warm, funny, creative, and engaging — agreed to be featured as part of the Work | Life | Mom series on Mommy Sanest.

Lou: Tell us about your family.

Abby: My husband is the stay-at-home parent. He also helps at the spa with behind the scenes stuff, like some phone calls, coordinating, and repairs. He’s in charge of the plumber, the carpenter, anybody we have to hire to actually do work, and then he makes sure it happens. He’s home with Harriet, our 3 1/2-year-old who is in preschool part time, five days a week. And then we have Iris who is 10 months.

How did you go from being an art teacher to spa owner?

I was a fine arts teacher at a Chicago Public School. It was mostly classroom management, but we got a lot of artwork done — I figured how to make that happen. I was there for seven years. Emotionally, it was poison, and even though I could positively get through the day, I wanted to make a change. After three years, I started to job hunt, but being an art teacher, there was just nothing. I realized, unless I stay here and become the crabbiest teacher in the world, I knew I was going to be making a career change.

I remember thinking, what would be the most natural thing for me to do; what would be something that would make me really happy? I tried to reflect on what I enjoyed doing as a child because I feel like at that time, you’re connected to what brings you pure joy. This is crazy, but playing in the dirt brought me and my bother and sister lots of joy. So I thought I would be extremely happy doing something with gardening or anthropology. But when I thought more about it, I realized that would mean going back to college, and there was no way I would go back to college.

My second idea was about these dreams I used to have. I had them every night for years; they probably didn’t stop until I was in high school. My dreams were of these glowing hands, and they would go through everybody in my family’s body and heal them. I never even told people about that until I realized why I opened up the business. I remember thinking about energy and healing, so something with Reiki or healing touch. But I was worried about whether or not that would be a sufficient income, so I thought, I can move into energy work, but I’ll start with massage. So I signed up for massage school and just kept going. And now Brennan Spa has been in business for seven years.

Can you talk about the process of opening Brennan Spa?

I finished massage school, and it was time to look for a space. I had worked at a few spas and for a physical therapist, so I had two years of experience in the industry. I knew I wanted my own space, and I always envisioned owning a business in a home.

I was living in Chicago, but I didn’t want to open a business in the city — I don’t want to compete with that. So I drove to all these neighborhoods during my school spring break. I just spent a week exploring and looking for either a rental or an opportunity to buy.

Brookfield was the last place I looked. I was driving down Grand Blvd., and I saw this for sale sign falling out of the bushes, so I jumped out of the car and thought, “If this is zoned for a business, I’ll buy it,” before I even walked in the door. I called the realtor and asked, “What is this zone?” and she said, “Mixed use.”

I had to get the business code changed, which took six months. I had to make presentations to the Village of Brookfield and get the community to vote for whether I could just do massage. They said, “If you want to open up a hair salon you can do massage in the back,” but it’s against code to just do massage because the code was written in the 1940s. The village was all for it, but I had to go through the formality of changing the code. So the minute they changed it, I called the realtor and started bidding on the house.

The whole time, I’m teaching and in business classes through the Hull House. The Hull House was a not-for-profit that had free classes on everything, but they also had a solid business course for eight weeks taught by a professional. That’s how I created my business plan. [Note from Lou: The Hull House closed in 2012.]

So, I bought the spa in May 2007. As soon as I got the keys, we started the work. I did a little work while school was still going and then worked the whole summer. My husband and I got married in August 2007, and Brennan Spa opened January 2, 2008.

I was still teaching then, but the spa didn’t open until 4pm during the week. I would teach all morning, then I would put the petal to metal and fly out here to open the spa. I’d stay until 9, then I would wake up and go teach again. I did that until the end of the school year 2008. At that point, I thought, “I can make this work,” so I quit teaching.

photos of Brennan's Spa

Most small businesses need time to turn a profit. In addition to teaching the first year the business was open, how else did you plan for the uncertainties of opening a business?

We were really budgeted — that’s why I kept teaching that first year, so we had income. But I think we did everything just right with the spa. We started slowly and small. We only used the first floor. When I quit my job, we rented out our house, and we lived here. So we lived upstairs for two years to see if we could make any money.

How did you and your husband decide that he would be the stay-at-home parent?

He was a landscape architect and when the economy tanked, his boss closed their company in 2010. Then, when our oldest daughter was a year and a half, he got a job working for another big architecture firm. We had heard unpleasant things about the work environment, but we thought, maybe he could take it. But it was terrible and making him sick. We decided that he should just leave, stay home with Harriet, and we’ll figure it out. And it’s been fine.

How do you and your partner balance household management with your business?

Right now, I don’t think there’s any balance. It’s just trying to get through. I make sure things keep going at the spa. And then he does everything at home. I do put together the grocery list, but he does all the laundry, all the cleaning, all the cooking. If I can, I do it too. I don’t have a problem doing it. It’s just normally I don’t have time.

How many hours a week do you work?

Our receptionist is here about 20 hours a week, so I’m here the other 45 hours that we’re open. But it goes beyond just that — it doesn’t end at 45. There’s events and after-hours planning. Sometimes I have to sneak away just so I can think. My marketing intern and I are headed to the library because I can get a lot more work done there. So all in all, with my staff’s help, I’m up to about 55 hours a week.

How did you handle taking a maternity leave?

With Harriet, I was able to take a good nine months off because I had two people running the spa. I had a lot of time to be with Harriet when she was little, but then it shifted so I needed to get back in full time. Since then, it’s just been full time, overtime, double-time, quadruple-time. When Iris was born, my receptionist had left, so I was definitely on 80 hours a week. It was crazy. That’s why sometimes I look at Iris, and I’m like, “You’re pretty cute, but I don’t know how we got here.”

Are you passionate about what you’re doing, and how does the reality of owning Brennan Spa fit with the picture you had in your mind when you were sitting in your apartment contemplating your path 10 years ago?

It totally works. I feel blessed that I paid attention to, I guess what you would consider pure joy, and making that work as a career. People don’t get that luxury, or they don’t realize that that could be an option — thinking back to what they loved as a kid. I feel completely satisfied. I’ll probably be doing this the next 30 years until I retire, as long as I can keep it going. But I’ve also figured out that, in the future, if I need to downsize and make it work as a smaller business that would be fine. I don’t have an interest in too much expansion. I don’t want to be too big because I want to keep things under my guidance.

Part of taking on all the responsibility of a small business owner is loving what you do, but you also have to be business-minded. Do you feel like those two things are ever in opposition?

Luckily for me, I feel like some of that came naturally. I learned a lot about being business-minded by running a classroom. People ask me all the time, “Did you take business classes; did you take marketing classes?” No. The business classes I took were at the Hull House and then, running a classroom. I think being fair and professional — a teaching career will ingrain that into you. I always want things to feel really positive around here with my staff. I think they feel that way. We have a lot of fun, and I don’t let the small things really stress me out. There are tweaks here and there that we have to make so that we continue to do our best work. I always make an extra effort to be professional, but we can still have fun and be goofy. I have a friendly relationship with my team and with customers, but there are boundaries.

How did becoming a mom changed your ambition or how you work?

It’s definitely made me more protective of my time because I don’t get to see my kids as much, so that has become a priority. The time that I’m at the spa, I try to manage it the best I can so that I don’t have to bring work home. If I’m working I work, if I’m playing, I play. It’s also made me want to work harder, and those boundaries with customers, that’s a bit more important to me because family is what matters first.

If you could change one thing about your current situation to provide your family with more balance, what would be it be?

Where we’re at right now, things are really good, at home and here, minus not seeing them as much as I would like, but I have to work, so there’s no way around it. I keep trying to force my husband to hire a babysitter. He needs a babysitter at the house every once in awhile. So today is a Wednesday, so I’m here from 9:30am to 9pm, so he should have a babysitter come and help him. He needs a break.

As a mom to two girls, how important to you is the example your setting as a business owner?

It is important to me. Suze Orman, the personal finance adviser, said something that stuck with me. It was, “Don’t whine and complain about going to work in front of your kids, it’s going to make them think that work is a bad thing.” So even if you don’t like your job, you don’t voice that in front of your kids because whatever their experience could be, you want them to feel like working is a positive thing. Your kids want to see mommy loving her job. So even though it’s hard, I do say, “Mommy loves to work, I have to go.” I keep the attitude that somebody has to do it, and I like working.

Do you have any advice for moms who want to start businesses?

Get a babysitter or childcare because starting a business is like having two full-time jobs. Once you’re up and running, you can create more of a balance with your time. But to open a business and you’re a mom, you’ve got to hire a babysitter. You have to be like, I have that person for three hours, so for three hours, I’m working solid, there are no breaks. You also need willpower and motivation. I know that seems mundane. You have to take it seriously, and you have to make it professional. If you need a designer get a designer; if you need a realtor get a realtor. Get your paperwork and finances in a row, and don’t cut any corners. It’s never worth taking the easy way out.

A big thank you to Abby Brennan of Brennan Spa for giving us a glimpse into her busy life as a small business owner and mom to two young girls. If you’re in the Chicago-area, check out their website, sign up for their mailing list, and like their Facebook page so you don’t miss any of their great monthly promotions or sales.

Want more working mom inspiration? Check out the first interview in the Work | Life | Mom series with Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of Flexjobs.