In Her Shoes

Working Mother - - Contents -

A mar­ried cou­ple bal­ances run­ning a business and a fam­ily to­gether.

Ser­a­fina Pa­lan­dech and Jen John­son aren’t your usual co-work­ers. For starters, they’ve been mar­ried to each other for nine years, and they have a 7-year-old daugh­ter, Ruby­rose. They’re also proud co-own­ers of six goats, five cats, three dogs, two horses, two don­keys, two pigs, one baby cow and count­less chick­ens—and a fast-grow­ing business, Hip Chick Farms. Ser­a­fina serves as CEO of the line of hu­manely raised chicken fin­gers and other kid­friendly foods (now in 5,000 stores), while Jen, a chef who trained un­der Alice Wa­ters, cre­ates the brand’s prod­ucts and over­sees a new res­tau­rant—a chicken-finger tast­ing room, of course. If it seems a lit­tle too seam­less, Ser­a­fina and Jen will be the first to as­sure you it’s not. Like all work­ing par­ents, they strug­gle with find­ing enough time for work and fam­ily. But the cou­ple’s big­gest chal­lenge is man­ag­ing the guilt that comes along with that. Both worry they aren’t pulling their weight—Jen at work, and Ser­a­fina at home.

Jen’s Side

“Be­fore we launched Hip Chick Farms, I worked as a per­sonal chef for many years. I was used to be­ing in charge and be­ing the boss. And now Ser­a­fina is the boss. That was re­ally hard for me to grap­ple with be­cause I don’t par­tic­u­larly like be­ing told what to do. At all. So it’s been chal­leng­ing. I had to learn how to be a bet­ter lis­tener. I had to learn how to re­spect her in this po­si­tion, and I also had to fig­ure out where I fit in this com­pany.

“For some rea­son, I al­ways felt like I was go­ing to be the one to make all the money and sup­port my fam­ily, and my wife would stay home and raise the chil­dren. But, as the days went on, it was re­ally clear, in sup­port of Ser­a­fina run­ning this very large com­pany for us, I needed to be the one who stayed at home to take care of Ruby­rose as much as I could. I felt some re­sent­ment around that, but it just made the most sense for us. I ab­so­lutely am not qual­i­fied to run this com­pany, and she is. She’s a to­tal pow­er­house CEO.

“I def­i­nitely feel guilty that I don’t have the same ca­pac­ity and fo­cus she has to run this thing—and the thick skin to deal with the crap she had to go through with fundrais­ing. I would’ve failed years ago.

“Things aren’t fine the way they are. I think she wishes I was more of an equal part­ner in the business. I try to push my­self, but she just ends up frus­trated and does it her­self. Which makes me feel hor­ri­ble. Her fault is that she is über-con­fi­dent and über-com­pe­tent. And I end up re­ly­ing on that. I try to do other things re­ally well, like tak­ing care of Ruby­rose and the an­i­mals, to make up for the deficit.”

Ser­a­fina’s Side

“I was home full time with

Ruby­rose un­til she was 3 years old. When Jen and I switched roles, it was a whole new ne­go­ti­a­tion for our fam­ily. Now I fo­cus on run­ning the business op­er­a­tions—ev­ery­thing from sales and mar­ket­ing to our fac­tory op­er­a­tions, na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion, growth plan, fi­nances and staff man­age­ment. I also do all of the ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity plan­ning for our fam­ily, like sign­ing up Ruby­rose for Girl Scouts. I do 90 per­cent of the sched­ul­ing. I’m pretty much the de­ci­sion-maker.

“For­tu­nately Jen and I have a real syn­chronic­ity of opin­ion, but we don’t en­vi­sion things in the same way. I can hold a big pic­ture and ex­e­cute to that vi­sion with­out a lot of fore­thought. I’m very lit­eral, process-ori­ented and prag­matic. I’m more of a doer, and she’s more of a del­e­ga­tor. I could work 24 hours a day and be con­tent.

“Here’s one ex­am­ple: I wake up at 4:30 a.m. By 7:00 a.m., when Jen wakes up, I’ve al­ready been go­ing full-steam ahead for the last three hours. So I will just tap at her with ideas, ques­tions, strate­gies and plans. It’s com­pletely over­whelm­ing for Jen to wake up and be as­saulted with a mil­lion ideas.

“As Ruby­rose gets older, all my trav­el­ing is more dif­fi­cult for her, which is heart­break­ing but true. Jen has re­ally stepped up in terms of her par­ent­ing while I’m gone for these ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time. What Jen might not re­al­ize is that I do strug­gle with the typ­i­cal con­flicted feel­ings work­ing moms face: When I’m work­ing I want to be with my kid, and when I’m with my kid I want to be work­ing. My in­ter­nal con­flict has only got­ten worse as I’ve taken on more re­spon­si­bil­ity. And that can spill into re­sent­ment di­rected at my wife.”

Hear­ing Each Other

When Ser­a­fina learned that Jen feels she doesn’t con­trib­ute enough to the business, she wasn’t sur­prised—but she dis­agrees. “I think that’s not true at all. I think Jen is one of the smartest peo­ple I’ve ever met. She might not see her­self this way, but she’s a cre­ative ge­nius. We wouldn’t have this business if it weren’t for her vi­sion.” And it’s not just Jen’s cre­ative tal­ents that have helped Ser­a­fina thrive in her role as CEO, she adds. It’s also the com­fort of know­ing Ruby­rose is be­ing cared for, and the emo­tional sup­port that comes from hav­ing a sup­port­ive spouse. “It lessens the fear of fail­ure be­cause I know Jen is go­ing to be there no mat­ter what. I know my mar­riage and my daugh­ter are the most im­por­tant things, and that al­lows me to move through my fear in a way that makes me a calmer and bet­ter man­ager. I wouldn’t have been able to do this with­out hav­ing her as my foun­da­tion.”

Both said they would try to give each other the space to be them­selves. “When we first started the business, I wanted Jen’s in­volve­ment and opin­ion in ev­ery de­ci­sion we made,” Ser­a­fina says. “And I have to re­al­ize that I’m try­ing to make her be some­body she’s not. She’s not in­ter­ested in run­ning spread­sheets and de­cid­ing which font to use—just in the same way I couldn’t care less if we use gar­lic pow­der or onion pow­der.” Still, they also promised to con­quer their own faults. Ser­a­fina said she will no longer pep­per Jen with ques­tions at 7 a.m., and Jen said she will take on more of the men­tal load, by learn­ing how to use the cal­en­dar. “I have 30 years of re­mem­ber­ing ev­ery recipe in the world in my head, and I thought I could do that with dates, but I can’t. I’m go­ing to start writ­ing ev­ery­thing down so Ser­a­fina doesn’t have to man­age my life and my schedule.”

The key, they said, is to tap into their deep and abid­ing mu­tual re­spect for one an­other. “As a woman and a mem­ber of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity, I’m in a bunch of classes that are dis­crim­i­nated against,” Ser­a­fina points out. “And I think a lot of women do this—we take out those frustrations on our­selves or the peo­ple we love the most. I’m try­ing to be as con­scious as pos­si­ble not to do that to Jen.”

Most im­por­tant, Ser­a­fina notes, they want to be good role mod­els for Ruby­rose—and that means ditch­ing the work­ing-mom guilt.

“I want her to grow up know­ing she can have ev­ery­thing and do ev­ery­thing. I do think it’s pos­si­ble. I think it’s about be­ing present at what­ever I’m do­ing at the time, in­stead of try­ing in my head to be some­where else.”

So just how does she plan to do that? By squeez­ing in as much med­i­ta­tion and self-care as she can, Ser­a­fina says.

As Jen wisely adds: “It’s like they say when you’re get­ting on the plane. Put the mask on your­self first, and then put it on your kid.”

By Au­drey Good­son Kingo SER­A­FINA AND JEN (right) are part­ners in all things: mar­riage, par­ent­ing and business—in­clud­ing a new kid-friendly res­tau­rant.

FAM­ILY AF­FAIR Ruby­rose helps out too, feed­ing the an­i­mals and clean­ing out their stalls.

SWING­ING IT Both Ser­a­fina and Jen have been their daugh­ter’s primary care­taker when needed.

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