3 Misconceptions About Moms & Work-Life Balance–Busted

There’s a lot of contradictory and downright erroneous parenting info floating around out there. We’re not afraid to tackle it head-on!

If there’s one thing moms know absolutely it’s that finding just the right balance between work life and home life can be a challenge. But are there prejudices we bring to this equation that might actually be making that challenge bigger than it has to be? To find out, we asked work-life expert and author of the Expert’s Guide book series, Samantha Ettus—herself mom to 9-year old Ella, 7-year-old Ruby, and 4-year-old Bowen—to bust three bit common myths about keeping it all together.

Myth #1: I’m hurting my kids by working.

Truth: Unfortunately, a lot more moms than dads seem to be fueled by guilt about going off to work. And that, says Ettus, can lead to women blaming their careers for anything that goes “wrong” at home, like kids acting up or sleeping poorly at night. But, she says, “A parenting study just came out that shows that there’s no correlation between the time you spend with your kids and how they turn out—and what’s so great about that is that we now have actual data showing as long as you are engaged in your child’s life, you’re helping them to grow and thrive.” An even bigger plus to our careers, Ettus points out, is that most working parents are immune to becoming helicopter parents, “because we have to focus on something beyond our children.” And that’s a win for the whole family.

Myth #2: I should never talk about my work when I’m at home with my family.

Truth: Says Ettus, “In my own life, what I have seen is that when I bring my work home and talk about what I do all day, my children hear the passion in my voice and they’re proud of me.” And that, she says, is the greatest opportunity to teach them that a career is something to look forward to and to be excited about—surely something that we all want to pass on to our kids. She recalls having dinner at the home of a senior-level executive at a company she was working for, when someone asked the executive’s wife what she did with her time. Says Ettus, “She said, ‘Unfortunately, I have to work.’ I couldn’t believe it—what a missed opportunity for her own daughter to hear that she was proud of what she did!” Your own positive attitude about what you do when you shuttle off to work in the morning can have almost-instantaneous benefits. “A while back, I was working on logo for a company, and back at home I was brainstorming ideas in the living room with my husband,” says Ettus. “My older daughter was listening and she came back with four doodles she thought would work for my project.” Ettus’s project became a family project, and her daughter learned that a job can be fun and fulfilling.

Myth #3: When we have kids, we fall into traditional gender roles whether we like it or not.

Truth: “I’m amazed at how many women come up to my husband and tell him how lucky I am that he’s such a great dad,” says Ettus. But the truth is, there’s no luck involved. “I chose him knowing that he would be great partner and father. But women forget how much control they have over whom they choose, and that choice decides work-life balance more than anything.” And when it comes to having a family, so does setting the expectation bar high—or rather, even—on a full 50 percent of shared responsibility between partners. Sadly, though, says Ettus, women “don’t actually have full expectations for equality so a lot of times, moms take on everything in the parenting department,” either thinking that’s their responsibility or that their “spouses are imbeciles who are incapable of doing their part.” Rather than falling into that negativity trap, she says moms- and dads-to-be should start things off right by going to doctors appointments together when you’re pregnant. That way, she says, “Your family is your creation together.” But even if you missed that chance, Ettus says “There’s always the opportunity for women to change their relationships. Never think your partner won’t change—at that point, you’ve given up. And I’ve never seen a working mom reach her full potential if she gives up on being an equal partner.”

Photography by Renata Lynn via Flickr/Creative Commons

Making the Pump Work at Work: 6 Tips for Returning To Work After Maternity Leave

Vintage breast pump

By Gina Ciagne

Congratulations! You’re a mom who’s heading back to work, breast pump packed, after a few weeks or months spent at home with your newborn. Here are some tips to make it a win-win-win situation for you, your baby and your employer.

1. Make a connection. Every breastfeeding mother has a story about what worked for her when she returned to work. If you know other women who have pumped at work, talk to them about their experiences and solutions to any challenges they may have had. You can also connect with other mothers on breastfeeding message boards.

2. Find time to pump. Plan your pumping schedule to replicate your baby’s nursing times, so that your body gets the necessary signals to continue producing milk. Avoid skipping sessions, as this signals your body to produce less milk.

3. Be flexible, but don’t neglect your breasts. Consider your employer’s needs, as well as your own. Even if you only have a few minutes, still pump and don’t skip a session, if at all possible.
It will be uncomfortable as your breasts fill with milk, and regular stimulation is more important for your body’s response than pumping time. However, a drained breast will replenish more milk, so ideally pump until your breasts are noticeably less full. Set aside time if your schedule is unpredictable, or be creative about when you pump. For instance, it’s possible to read or eat lunch while pumping especially when using a hands-free pumping bra.

4. Find a private place to pump. It’s important to pump without disruption, so that the necessary hormones are released for let-down. Having a lactation room at work is ideal, but other options are a private office or storage room that can lock. Avoid using the bathroom, as it’s not a sanitary place to pump.

5. Discuss the situation with your employer. It’s important to explain your need to have regularly scheduled pumping sessions to your employer. And remember, The Affordable Care Act is on your side! This healthcare law stipulates that an employer must provide the time and space for pumping moms.  And, by the way, it specifically points out that the “space” should not be a bathroom. For more details, you can visit The Department of Labor’s website.

6. Know your facts. Hopefully, you won’t run into any obstacles with your employer.  But if you do, the following facts can help you make a convincing argument to gain support. A study published by the United States Breastfeeding Committee states:

  • Lactation programs are cost-effective, showing a $3:1 return on investment.
  • Breastfeeding lowers insurance claims for businesses. One study showed that for every 1,000 babies not breastfed, there were over 2,000 extra physician visits, 212 extra hospitalization days, and 609 extra prescriptions to treat just three common childhood illnesses.
  • Overall, by supporting lactation at work, employers can reduce turnover, lower recruitment and training costs, cut rates of absenteeism, boost morale and productivity, and decrease health care costs.

We know that pumping takes extra effort, especially at work. But it can be worth it for your baby, for you and even for your employer!

Gina Ciagne, Lansinoh’s Global Vice President, Healthcare Relations is a nationally recognized expert on breastfeeding.

18th c. image of breast-pump and nipple-shields, Pierre Dionis, via Creative Commons

Kid-Lit Author Linda Urban on the Joys of Reading

By Lela Nargi

Having just released her latest book, an action-packed mystery for kids age 7-10 called Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, kid novelist Linda Urban took time out of her busy author schedule to chat with us about the importance of reading, writing, and building worlds on a page to allow kids to explore who they really are.

There’s a lot of talk about why picture books are so important for kids. But what’s so special about middle grade? When we’re in kindergarten, people say, What do you want to be when you grow up? And we can say, I want to be a fire fighter, or a doctor. And people say, That’s so great! In the middle grade years, when people say, What do you want to be and you say, I want to be a doctor, they say, Well you better start studying! Suddenly, the future has this weight that before was all play, but we want that play to persist. Middle grade novels let us figure out who we are and where we fit; they let us hold on to that childish imaginative past while also recognizing that the decisions we make might have an impact on the future.

My son, Jack, is about to turn 11. He reads adult-level physics books, but he also believes it’s possible that he’s going to get his Hogwarts letter. He both knows and doesn’t know, believes and is skeptical. That’s what so perfect about writing for that age and being that age. My daughter, Claire, is 13 and it’s harder and harder for her to hold on to that magic.

Many kids still love to be read to in the middle grade years. Are you hoping that will happen with MiloMilo is written with a rhythm and I hope it will be read aloud with a parent or in a classroom. It also has a relationship between a father and son, and I hope a parent reading it aloud will get a connection with his kids as he’s reading to them.

Did anyone read to you as a kid? I have a memory of being read Charlotte’s Web in the 2nd grade by a teacher who was otherwise terrifying. She had a bad temper and was nearing retirement and could see it waiting for her outside the classroom door. But at read-aloud, it got very quiet and we all sat in what we now call criss-cross-applesauce on the green carpet in front of her chair. And her voice changed and her demeanor changed, and it was this magical bubble where we were all safe. At the time, I identified with Fern and Wilbur, but years later when I read the book aloud to my kids, suddenly I was Charlotte—I had never identified with her before. By the end of the book I was bawling and my kids were like, Mom she’s a spider and Wilbur’s fine!

What was the importance of books in your childhood? I grew up outside Detroit, a suburban existence in a subdivision—kind of a Judy Blume childhood. Although, I always felt uncomfortable reading her. I was such a late bloomer I would think, Is that going to happen to me? Am I supposed to be thinking or feeling that? Because I don’t!

But the books that made the biggest difference to me when I was young were all the Beverly Cleary books. I loved Ramona; she was so not like me. I was very well behaved and wanted to please. The audacity of Ramona was just so appealing to experience on the page. I loved the Little House books, too, and I was Laura Ingalls for many a Halloween. I also was child of the bicentennial year, which was so formative. I read every revolutionary biography that there was. I begged to stay up late to see the Bicentennial Minutes on CBS. It made me wish I was an East Coast person, so I could be truly a patriot.

But after 4th grade, I went to a Catholic school where the library was locked all the times unless there was a volunteer, and most of the books were 30 or 40 years old. So when you did get to take a book out, it was about a girl who was deciding whether to become a nurse or just get married. I kind of stopped reading then. But when I did read, I liked a book that saw me in one way or another, and that’s what I want to do for kids—write about small things that matter in a big way to them. Milo Speck is an exception, because it’s an action adventure, but even then, Milo is a small boy in a big world who’s in over his head. That is how I felt often.

We’re sitting today in BookCourt, a great independent bookstore in Brooklyn. Do you think it’s important to bring kids to places like this? Very early on, kids learn by watching us what things are important to us. I lived with my parents near Detroit during a recession and there wasn’t a lot of disposal income around. But when my parents had the money, we got a book. That said to us, This is a valuable thing, and we value you enough to give you this thing. It can be hard at the picture book age to spend $17.95 on a book that has 32 pages that may or may not become that favorite book the kids reads over and over. But when you get one of those for your kids, you’re telling them, This is where our priorities lie. My own kids know I never say “no” to books and art supplies.

Your son is about Milo’s age. Does he identify with him? Milo was actually written for Jack. My first three books are very introspective and, even though I don’t believe in girl books or boy books, they have girl protagonists and they’re quieter. But my son came to me and said, Your books are pretty good but I want you to write something for me. I said, What’s that? And he said, I want HAM. I said, Like lunchmeat? No, like Hero, Action, Mystery.

As I was writing, Jack was reading and he would tell me when he didn’t understand something and he’d laugh at the good jokes and squint at the not-so-good jokes. He was incredibly valuable to me. As far as identifying with Milo, Jack is not as mechanical as Milo is, but he liked that Milo could look at the internal workings of a dryer and figure out how that would work and how you could ruin it, and foil the plot. For Jack, that whole idea of “even a kid can make a difference” was really, really appealing.

Everyone has their own answer to the question, Why is reading important? What’s yours? On a hard day, my daughter can go to the stairs to the attic, where we keep our picture books, and she’ll take down some of her favorites from when we were little, like Miss Rumphius, and some that I didn’t even know meant something to her. She’ll grab those and will be in her bed with them for the evening. It’s a total comfort.

But I think one of the best things that books do is they allow you to say, What would I do in that situation? What would I do for my friends? What skills do I have, abilities, weaknesses? Am I strong enough to say “no” in a terrible situation? Both my kids are really good at “what if.” They don’t always make the right decisions, but they’ve practiced through stories to think outside what everyone else is doing. And that gives them power.


Clean-Water Activist Andrea Neal on Raising Eco-Conscious Kids

Couple swimming

By Dawn Van Osdell

It started with an unexpected life-changing moment at a Jack Johnson concert—a performance often celebrated for its conservation message as much as for its music. In 2008, Andrea Neal, an avid surfer, was newly graduated with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and lipid biochemistry, and celebrating her birthday when famed oceanographic explorer and environmentalist, Jean-Michel Cousteau, took the stage to speak about the need for better marine conservation efforts.

“Hearing him, I knew I needed to leave academia and pursue helping people and the environment in a different way,” says Neal. The next day she was in his office, offering her help and embarking on a journey in which she explored 8,000 miles of pristine ocean; studied devastating marine pollution—including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California and the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power meltdown—and ultimately, founded Hope2o, a company that enables consumers to test their tap and filter water for harmful toxins.

Andrea Neal and her team at hope20


“It’s my way of making my safe water dream a reality,” says Neal, now a new mom and step-mom living with her family in Noleta, a wee, tiny California town wedged between Santa Barbara and Goleta. If, as she maintains, “Everyone has a right to both understand and make decisions about their family’s resources,” then with Hope2o she’s giving them—giving us—an affordable, reliable way to do just that.

Here, Neal shares six ways that her fervor and commitment to clean water translates into raising environmentally conscious kids. Maybe there’s something in here that will inspire you to talk a little differently to your kids about what they see at home and in your own neighborhood, and to involve them in making changes that may well improve the world.

1.   Share your passion. Neal’s family is involved in her work, which—lucky for her—also happens to be her passion. Her husband, Stephen Proulx, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at University California Santa Barbara, is credited with naming Hope2o and being a constant support system and sounding board. Neal’s father, Dr. Gordon Neal, is the company’s chief operating officer and a major investor “in both time and money,” she says. Her stepdaughter, Sabrina, helps educate and spread the word at informational booths. And baby Rowan is the star of the company’s advertising campaign. “They are very exposed to my work,” she says. “My environmental passion directly links to a healthy, happy future for them.”

2.   Do your best with the resources you have. Neal admits that her family isn’t always as green as they aim to be, but she’s found simple, healthy approaches that are realistic for her busy family life. For instance, they do not drink from plastic (plastic constitutes approximately 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, a whopping 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. They eat local and organic when they can. And, she confesses, they have more reusable bags than anyone on the planet.

3.   Choose an environmental cause that speaks to you. No surprise—Neal’s cause is anything that has to do with water. “I have been to the middle of the ocean and have seen our trash floating there,” she says. “This makes me a huge advocate for environmental solutions.”  She supports many eco-conscious organizations, including Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society for which she is an advisor; Mission Blue, led by famed National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia A. Earle; Blue Frontier Campaign, which inspired Neal’s Operation Water Legacy program (OWL), an initiative to chemically map the New Jersey water system; and Blue Marble Project, a program that links mental and physical health with a connection to water.

4.   Go outside to play. Both in and out of the water, Neal’s family spends a lot of time outside. She and her husband surf, dive, and snorkel. “We don’t get in the water as much right now with a small baby, but I am very much looking forward to some board time with him,” she says. Their daughter occasionally surfs and is the resident boogey boarder. They also enjoy hiking and camping as a family, and they all play soccer. “As Jacque Yves Cousteau used to say, ‘you protect what you love,’” says Neal. “There is something special with nature that is healthy for us both physically and mentally.”

5.   Encourage critical thinking skills. “You can’t protect what you don’t understand,” says Neal, again paraphrasing Cousteau. “With so much information on the Web, it is hard to sort out what is real and what isn’t.” Help your kids find accurate information and help them process it. “You want them to put their energy and time into real causes,” says Neal.

6.   Commit to your kids’ future. “I hope that our efforts help secure clean water and a clean environment for our kids,” says Neal.  “With the rate of population growth, our ability to support everyone with the resources we have is diminishing quickly. It is going to take a global effort to try and change the current path that we are on. But my kids are 100 percent worth all of my efforts.” The above tips will hopefully help you to maximize the impact you have on yours!

andrea neal and her son rowan


Photographs courtesy of Andrea Neal

Julie G. is the Pied Piper of Tiny Urban Scientists

Julie G.

By Lela Nargi

For the past several years, kids have been STEMed up the wazoo as the national conversation about education—and more particularly, what’s wrong with it—has centered on a perceived lacking in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  Also lacking in the face of much high-minded assessment? A sense of fun, and of the integral, integrated way that science flows through our lives and the lives of our children, (yes, even city children), if we just know how to pay attention.

Enter Julie G. and her uncluttered outpost hunkered on a bright corner of Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace, Tiny Scientist. Here, for the last two years, the former metal singer turned elementary science teacher shows area kids what’s fun and oh-so-relevant about science in the city. She’s uniquely suited to the task: “I was never interested in science in school,” she confesses. “We had a third grade teacher, ‘Mean’ MacLean, who was actually mean and didn’t teach us anything.” As a result, she initially shirked college until, enrolled in her 20s in an adult learners program at City College, she found herself taking a basic science course. “The teacher showed us slides of cells multiplying and I was immediately hooked,” says Julie, who went on to get masters in biology, math, and science elementary education at Hunter College.

After 10 years teaching science to public school kids, and having just become a first-time mom herself, to daughter, Quinn (Julie’s husband, Andrew Schneider, is a sound engineer for Blue Man Group), she took the plunge and opened her own little science oasis. We caught up with her to get her take on what’s so fun, and what’s so relevant for city kids, about all kinds of science.

Rocks: In the Tiny Scientist class “Rock Cycle Riot,” geared towards kids aged 5 to 10, children put on their paleontology hats to study the Jurassic period and recreate an excavation. Says Julie, “We use lots of visual references and discuss how all rocks started as one type of rock, and changed into other types of rocks over millions of years with pressure. In a class like this, there’s also measuring, sequential thinking, history, sensory development and literacy, because we read books about it.”

But what do prehistoric times have to do with the science we see in the world around us today? “One of the big things we learn is that things change over time,” says Julie. “That’s a big skill for kids, to be able to observe things that happen in some sort of sequence. One of the ways that kind of thinking is applicable to any environment, but particularly the city, where people think we don’t see any nature, is with leaves changing with the seasons. But there are so many ways it works for kids. Kids living in the ‘concrete jungle’ see buildings being built up from big holes in the ground.  And they can experience how forceful and important nature is by taking a closer look at the ground right beneath their feet. Very few living things can break rocks, but trees can! And especially here in Brooklyn, we see the sidewalks breaking from the tree roots growing out of them.”

Candy: Working with treats isn’t just about satisfying your sweet tooth. In fact, for kids as young as 4 who are enrolled in Tiny Scientist’s “Candy Chemistry” class, there’s almost no sugar-eating at all. Even though Julie does show kids how to add agar agar to sugar syrup to make gummy candy, “Actually,” she says, “it’s just a fun anchor for studying real science concepts, like pressure, which we use to smash things like marshmallows.”

Air pressure, she points out, is literally everywhere, even though we can’t see it. Standing on a subway platform, almost every kid in New York has felt air pushing through the tunnel as the train has neared the station. But even a task as mundane as blowing bubbles on the sidewalk is loaded with useful information for kids who are learning to observe closely.  “Bubbles can tell you about the wind, how fast it’s moving, the direction it’s coming from, how air moves around corners,” says Julie. “Learning about this is training kids to think about what doesn’t seem to be there but is actually all around you.”

Making: Julie’s class “Maker Magic” is a kind of free-for-all of engineering and tech concepts, where kids in grades 2 through 5 make things like lava lamps and put together working circuits. These are building blocks for all manner of things that shelter us, and keep us comfortable as we live and work and move from place to place. “We just looked at propellers and talked about sustainable energy versus fossil fuels. Then we built solar panel circuits attached to small motors,” says Julie.

How does all this pertain to city living? “There’s a block right here in Windsor Terrace that’s becoming a heavy topic of conversation, because there are locally based organizations trying to get homeowners to put solar panels on the roofs of their houses. A lot of schools are experimenting with using them to power machines, and the panels are becoming more and more a part of city life. Even the Brooklyn Botanic Garden uses them, and some of the bridges have solar lights.” And possibly the best part of all for parents hoping to help their kids become keen observers, even after their class at Tiny Scientist has draw to a close: “Trips to see these things cost nothing!” says Julie.

Photographs by Roy Beeson.

Courtney Brockmeyer Pays it Forward with Backpacks and School Supplies

Courtney's family

By Dawn Van Osdell

Parental guilt can be a powerful motivator. In 2013, Courtney Brockmeyer, like many working moms, felt enslaved by the long, stressful hours that often come with working for a big company in a big city. When her youngest daughter—then 7 years old—asked her why she worked so much, she couldn’t find an answer to justify the time she spent away from her family.

“I knew something had to change,” she says from the home her family now shares in Moraga, CA, a quaint residential town east of San Francisco and the headquarters of Sydney Paige, a “social good company” Brockmeyer started in 2014 and named after her and husband Dale’s daughters, Sydney and Paige. “If I was going to work that hard, my work needed to have an impact. I needed to make a difference,” she says. Brockmeyer can now tell her kids that’s she’s working to help supply the more than 16 million kids who live below our country’s poverty level with the materials and tools they need to stay in school, and to make their own mark on the world.

She started Sydney Paige from her previous home in Los Angeles with little more than a sense of responsibility to her family and the families of others, a desire to do good, and a few other moms willing to lend a hand. It operates on a buy/give business model, similar to the way shoe company Toms and optical outlet Warby Parker work. Through the company’s websiteAmazon.com, or local events, buyers purchase high-quality backpacks; accessories like lunch boxes, nap blankets, and bag tags emblazoned with inspiring messages, such as Give Back, Respect and Creativity; and children’s books that Brockmeyer has written to illustrate the importance of education. For every purchase, the company fills a matching product with school supplies, hygiene items, food, clothing, and monetary donations secured through partnerships. It then distributes it to a child in need through a non-profit organization of the buyer’s choice—everything from local schools to national and global organizations like Baby2BabyVolunteers of America’s Operation Backpack, and the Salvation Army.

Why backpacks? Searching for a way to have a positive impact  on education, a cause that spoke to her, Brockmeyer found that kids most frequently drop out of school because of lack of confidence and lack of supplies. “If you don’t have a backpack to take to school, everybody knows it. It makes you stand out and shouts to the world that you’re poor, “ she says. No kid deserves that stigma, she says, and every kid deserves the chance to proudly go to school, graduate, and eventually break the vicious cycle of poverty that entraps so many disadvantaged kids.

Sydney Paige’s mission originated from more than just anonymous research. A decade-long employee of food giant, Nestle USA, she conducted market research in her role as business manager by meeting with lower income consumers in their homes. She also took them food shopping to observe their buying habits and budgets. She saw first-hand what need looks and feels like. “We all know poverty exists, but we have no idea how others live or how little they have,” she says.  During focus groups and home visits, she saw not only empty refrigerators, but also a lack of books, crayons, and art supplies. “You can’t buy these things when the choice is between that or food,” she says.  And, yet, how can a kid be a kid without them ?

All this helped Brockmeyer to channel a sense of personal responsibility she’d carried since college. She’d won a scholarship to attend Pepperdine University, a highly regarded private institution with a price-tag to match its reputation and Malibu, California zip code. When the scholarship wasn’t renewed her second year of college, a second award—the Raleigh Runnels Memorial Scholarship from the chancellor of her university—allowed her to continue her education. “Winning that scholarship gave me a huge responsibility to prove to myself and to others that I was worthy of such a gift,” she says. “I knew I had to someday make a huge impact.”

Sydney and Paige Brockmeyer
Sydney and Paige Brockmeyer

Paying it forward through Sydney Paige—like starting any new business—has been a bumpy, and at times serendipitous journey. Just after starting the company in 2014, Dale, also a Nestle employee, took a job as chief financial officer of Dreyer’s, a promotion that moved the family hundreds of miles north of their hometown LA to the San Francisco Bay Area. Amidst the move—getting kids settled in a new school and setting up a home while getting her business off the ground—half of her first product line, a shipment of backpacks designed by a talented designer friend in Austin, Texas and manufactured overseas, was destroyed at the port of entry into the U.S. A second shipment from another manufacturer came back with inferior stitching. They wouldn’t do. “I want shiny, awesome backpacks that kids can be proud of,” says Brockmeyer. “They need to last through school and even beyond.” Already saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal debt, she trekked on.

As luck, or fate, would have it, she found a “mompreneur,” a seamstress in a neighboring town, who agreed to reinforce thousands of bags for a fee that wouldn’t break an already tapped-out budget. “We took bags to her, load by load, until they were sturdy and ready to go,” says Brockmeyer. Coincidentally, the seamstress is married to a small business loan officer who agreed to coordinate an additional loan, one that ultimately kept the business afloat. “I just kept going, and I just keep going,” says Brockmeyer.

Today, she works at her home, surrounded by loads of inventory—some 10,000 backpacks in a nearby storage unit. Her new best friend is the PTA president at her kids’ school, who is now also the company’s director of sales.  She says her view is far better than it was in LA—rolling hills and pine trees. Her workforce is a collection of dedicated do-gooders, many working without compensation. Together, they have given nearly $1 million worth of backpacks and school supplies to children in need.

“Believe it or not, backpacks can really make it or break it for a kid who is struggling to stay in school because his family is too poor to provide the supplies he needs to attend,” says Brockmeyer. Dedicated to her business of keeping kids in school, Brockmeyer hopes to expand her product lines, partnerships, and retail outlets; and eventually offer scholarships like the one that ultimately inspired her to make all the difference to kids in need.

Photographs courtesy of Courtney Brockmeyer

Chudney Ross is Bringing Literacy to a New Generation at LA’s Books and Cookies

Ross and daughter, Callaway
Ross and daughter Callaway enjoying the sunshine out on the Books and Cookies turf.

By Lela Nargi

On a low-slung strip of street halfway between the skate shops of Venice’s Muscle Beach and the boutiques of downtown Santa Monica, Chudney Ross has opened her kid-centric outpost, Books and Cookies. Twice.

Aiming to provide what she calls a “literacy-based experience” for the area’s burgeoning young family population, in 2011 Ross fell in love with a storefront that was wedged in among the area’s myriad coffee shops and palm trees, even though she knew the space was much too big for what she had in mind. “I had positive aspirations!” she laughs.


Books are arranged at toddler height, so kids can easily select their faves.
Books are arranged at toddler height, so kids can easily select their faves.


Those aspirations began even before Ross was a mom herself—to daughter Callaway, now age two. Back then, she lived in Venice (as she still does, with Callaway and fiancé Joshua Faulkner), rode her bike “everywhere,” and was writing her first children’s book at a nearby branch of the Coffee Bean. Wherever she looked, she says, “I noticed there was nothing at all for children. There’d be moms in the Coffee Bean but it was just a place for them to meet up with each other and chat before going for a walk somewhere else with the kids.”

That vision of a klatsch of moms-without-a-base stuck with Ross. And so it was that when this former teacher and youngest daughter to legendary Motown singer Diana Ross opened Books and Cookies in its first incarnation, she already knew that she wanted to create an environment that was welcoming and nurturing, not just for children, but for their parents as well. It’s an environment she likens to the ’80s TV show Cheers, “Where everybody knows your name,” Ross says.


Art time at Books and Cookies!
Art time at Books and Cookies!


The old place, like the new, significantly more manageable place—which Ross opened across the street from the original locale just this past September—was conceived as part bookstore, part event space. Parents could shuffle in for Books and Cookies’ ever-popular storytime, order up cups of strong hot coffee for their own bleary selves and some home-baked cookies for their kids. Then casually spend the morning hanging out with like-minded moms and dads who were elated to have a safe, fun place to park their strollers and veg out for a while. If they were feeling slightly more ambitious, they could drop in for a Mommy & Me yoga class or a craft-making event. Above all, says Ross, it was a place where “parents could bond.”

It’s been a work in progress since its inception. Says Ross, “Originally I thought of it as three separate businesses: a bookstore, a café, and an enrichment center.” Re-conceiving it as an all-in-one destination not only streamlined her original concept; it helped her create a place that is not quite like any other. “There are a lot of baby classes in LA that teach parents how to do all kinds of things. I’m not trying to teach parents anything—I’m learning everyday myself. What I know how to do is make reading fun.”

The fun starts when you walk in the door of the new narrow but bright space. Right up front is Ross’s continuously revolving and highly curated selection of books for kids of all ages, within easy reach of even the smallest of mobile tots. “We may not always have exactly the book you’re looking for, but we’ve got unique bestsellers and classics from when I was young,” says Ross. Certain titles are always on tap, like James Dean and Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat. “It’s got singing, and fun colors—basically, it’s a good read for all the age ranges we see in here,” says Ross. Infants and toddlers dominate the morning; toddlers on up to kids around age 6 show up after nap time and stay well into the afternoon.

Whether or not to keep such tender merchandise within grabbing and gnawing distance was a matter of some debate. “People cautioned me from letting families pull down books,” says Ross. “But for me it was more important for them to spend time reading. And our families are pretty good about buying a book that has a bite mark in it, or a cover that’s a little mangled.” Ross also set up a bargain bin near the cash register—one of many unique solutions Books and Cookies adopted right from the get-go.

Another is found in the small details that turn up all throughout the shop, which welcome children to stay. And stay. And stay. Says Ross, “I found a picture of an amazing bookstore in Hong Kong, where kids could climb into holes in the walls and sit in there with pillows and books to read. I didn’t have the resources to recreate that, but Mimi Shin, who helped me design the space, made shelving structures you could climb under, and a hammock up front the little ones can sit in.” Also inviting intimacy with reading material is the teepee in the shop’s turf-topped, 600-square-foot outdoor playspace.


Sneaking a peek
Sneaking a peek.

Since babies and toddlers often prove to be such fickle and short-attentioned visitors, that playspace, which was tiny and indoors in the old location, was an unexpected boon to the business. “People love it—they walk in and say, ‘This is awesome!’” says Ross. Kids can run amok and burn off energy in the almost-always-balmy So-Cal weather—including Callaway, who Ross says used to be content to sit in the shop, propped up by books, but who now “tears the store up.” And parents don’t have to worry about losing a toddler, since the area is enclosed. It doubles as a party space for the myriad birthdays the shop hosts.

Although literacy always remains a focus. Says Ross, “A lot of times when they come in to book a party, people will say, ‘Oh we don’t need to do storytime—our four-year-old won’t like that.’ And I say, ‘Please give it a shot.’ Their kids always wind up loving it. They see us read with enthusiasm.” More often than not, they’re excited to bring that positive energy home with them.

Ross says it was simple enough to reinstate all the old favorite classes from Books and Cookies’ old outpost to the new. Although storytime remains the shop’s most popular recurring event—it happens four mornings a week at 9:30AM, led by one of Ross’s personally-trained staff members—there is also toddler yoga, and sensory playtime, and various music classes, run by a cadre of local kid specialists. But even these activities contain a subtle literacy bias. After all, says Ross, “We can also story-tell thorough our bodies, and through music.”

One thing that didn’t quite make the full transition: the cookies that comprise half the shop’s name. In the old space they were hand-baked daily on site. But in planning for the new space, Ross says, “I met with some of our regulars and asked what was the most important part of Books and Cookies for them, what would they be sad to find missing? Mostly they said they liked the sense of community, the classes, the varying array of books for kids in a broad age range. No one said food.” Which was lucky, because the new space had no room for a full kitchen. So, the cookies and a whole array of healthy snacks were taken off the menu. And Ross discovered that even without a health permit she could have 100 square feet of pre-packaged food available for purchase: cookies and muffins, mostly. But she says customers noticed a difference between store-bought and homemade, which are “baked with love.”

Coffee for the parents had to go, too. And although Ross admits that’s something of a problem, despite the profusion of coffee shops in the neighborhood—“People like to stop once”—bringing it back is beyond her capabilities. But she is working on resurrecting the homemade cookies. The week she spoke with UrbanFamily, she was trying out deliveries from Jojo’s Dozen in Inglewood. “We’re experimenting with having multiple kinds of homemade yumminess,” she says. “The cookies will be small, so you can mix and match: maybe one oatmeal raisin and one red velvet. We’ll get new deliveries of different kinds of cookies every two days. Our books rotate; why shouldn’t our cookies rotate, too?”

Visit Books and Cookies to learn more.


Books and Cookies


Photographs by Kyle Monk

Around the World & Back to Brooklyn with Samantha Brown

Samantha Brown

By Lela Nargi

On October 4, jet-setting TV hostess with the most-est Samantha Brown will launch “50/50,” her latest show on the Travel Channel. In putting the first season together, she spent weeks filming around the world—everywhere from Abu Dhabi to the Philippines—in each episode taking two random folks plucked off the streets on a quest to spend $50,000 in 50 hours, on the getaway of a lifetime. How does this Brooklyn-based mom of 2-1/2-year-old twins juggle her dream job—and her family? We caught up with her to find out.

Obviously, you love to travel. Have you had a chance to do much of that yet with your own kids? The first thing I did after Ellis and Elizabeth were born was sleep for a very long time! But when they were 8 months old, we got them their passports. So far, they’ve been on a cruise, and they’ve been down to Florida many times, and they go on many road trips with my husband and me— anywhere from a nice weekend away to 12 days in various hotels and relatives’ homes. They are already amazing travelers and have lot of patience, which I don’t see when they’re home. I think they love the newness of airports, and running down the hallway of hotels. It’s not too complicated yet, and we don’t have to do much to entertain them.

Where do you think you’ll go to use those passports of theirs for the first time? Probably somewhere close, like Europe. It would be tough to take them on a 15-hour flight to Asia; I wouldn’t want to put them through that yet.

Is there a stand-out trip from your own childhood that made you want to see the world? I think it was going to California when I was 12. It was my first time on plane, and it’s interesting for me to think about that. Now, kids get on a plane almost as soon as they’re born; everyone sees a plane as the main mode of transportation. But when I was growing up, it was the car. We’d think nothing of driving eight hours to Pennsylvania in our station wagon. So going to California, it was a big deal to get on a plane and go to Sea World, and Disneyland, Beverly Hills.

A lot of parents are afraid to travel with their children. Do you have any words of advice for them? I always sympathize with parents who are scared. I was scared the first time, too. Going through the security line can be scary, and it can bring you to another level of stress. But I do think it’s very important not to show them you’re stressed. And it’s important to remember that the purpose of traveling is not to get things right, but to have an experience. Things can go not how you planned: a place is closed, or it’s raining. But then you have the chance to say, What can we do now? It helps kids develop problem-solving skills.

Also, adults can feel weird talking to strangers, but children are conduits to other people. On our cruise, we had a wonderful cabin operator from Indonesia. We asked, How do you say hello in your country? And everyday we greeted him with that. We also learned how to say thank you. It was just two words, that was all we could handle, but that made him feel welcome, and we felt like we were learning.

After all the traveling you do, it must be nice to get home to Brooklyn. I travel all the time so I’m always a cat on the wrong side of the door. I can’t t wait to be home in my comfortable bed. I’ve lived Park Slope for 10 years and we have great neighbors with twins who are in the first grade. Every summer they go to Europe, and they also do a home swap, where they pick a different place and swap homes with another family. It’s a very affordable way to travel, and it’s so important to them to travel with their children. They’re the perfect neighbors for us!

What are you most looking forward to sharing with your kids about traveling as they get older? What I love most about traveling isn’t all the must-sees, like going to Rome or Paris. It’s the chance to spend time in the everyday lives of people around world. It is extraordinary, simply because it’s different from your life, and that’s where I find joy. Shooting the new show was high octane, but I made a point of spending time in the mundane: getting coffee in the same place every day, going to grocery stores and parks, to be with the people who live there. That’s what fills me up.

But also, the U.S. is phenomenal. I would love to take my kids out west to ride horses, wear cowboy hats, and see the big sky.

Photographs courtesy of Travel Channel

Meet the Family Behind Edoughble: Rana & John Lustyan and Riley & Emma, Westside, Los Angeles

Lustyan family

By Dawn Van Osdell

What better way to satisfy a craving than to share it with others? Rana and John Lustyan did just that with the creation of Edoughble, their Los-Angeles-based company that produces raw cookie dough—in flavors like Birthday Bash and Snicker Dude—that’s meant to be eaten right out of the container.

“I have a crazy sweet tooth and I grew up eating cookie dough despite the dangers that came with the territory,” says Rana, who realized that her preference for eating the dough before it was baked was far from unique. With plenty of restaurant experience, including a stint as a pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills—Rana and her husband, John, a business development director at DreamWorks Animation, created a recipe for eggless cookie dough that’s safe to eat—just as is—without fear of foodborne illness.

Soon after they launched their business in 2013, their first child, Riley, was born. She was a fan of the tasty treat from her first bite. In fact, “She cried when I wouldn’t give her a second bite,” says Rana. Just two months ago, a second daughter, Emma, joined their happy clan. Read on to learn about the sweet life of this family of four on LA’s Westside.

baby emma makes them a family of four

Tell us about a typical day juggling a toddler, a new business, and a new baby.

Rana: I quickly realized when Riley was born that I can’t work from home and take care of a baby at the same time. As a small business owner and a mom, I’m stretched pretty thin but like all moms, I make it work. I have a part-time nanny and my mom to help me take care of Riley and Emma. I do all office work and customer service from home or by cell phone on the go, and John and I work together at home at night and on weekends on more creative tasks related to the business. We have a production kitchen where we make all the dough and taste each batch. We’re getting ready to launch a Pumpkin S’mores cookie dough and starting to play with Peppermint for the holidays.


John: I’m currently employed full time in the entertainment industry—outside of Edoughble. When I have on my Edoughble hat, though, I‘m focused on broader business strategy, marketing, and brand development. And I’m the dedicated lifter of all heavy sacks of flour!

Do you consider yourselves foodies? 

Rana: We are total foodies! John loves all the food competition shows and tries to be Gordon Ramsay when we go out to eat—being overly particular about tastes and textures. I love to examine the plating, service, and creativity and seasonality of the menu. Having worked in the front and back of plenty of restaurant kitchens, I know what hard work is involved with running one and I can really appreciate a good meal out.

John: Rana’s life revolves around planning meals and I am no way close to her foodie level, but I consider myself pretty particular about food. She’s always teasing me and telling me I should be a critic on one of those TV shows. Where I savor a bite of S’mores Cookie Dough and talk about how great the texture of the graham cracker is, she’s already on her fourth bite!

What are your favorite local restaurants and markets?  

Rana: We love brunch with the girlies on the weekends at Little Door Next DoorCafe Midi, where we can sit outside; and Milo and Olive and Huckleberry in Santa Monica.

Grocery shopping is also something I look forward to every week. I enjoy different markets for different things. When I want to explore new products, I go to Bristol Farms and Whole Foods.  When I want ice cream, I head to Gelsons, which carries a great selection. For house staples, I run to Trader Joes.

John: I have a ton of favorites, but really love Milo and Olive, too; and Pace in Laurel Canyon. A staple of ours is Bandera, where Rana was the general manager for a while.

What about your daughters; are they foodies, too? 

Rana: Riley is almost 20 months and is obsessed with sweets. We try to keep her meals balanced, and she has shown a preference for foods like sushi, Thai and Mediterranean—which makes me happy. We lucked out with her eating. She definitely has preferences, but she is not a picky eater.  We’ll see about Emma when she is old enough to eat solids.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

Are you a dessert-every-night kind of family? 

Rana: During pregnancy and while I was nursing, we were.  Now that Emma is eight weeks old, I’m trying to move to every other night. We love ice cream with cookie dough—I’ve created a Pinterest board to collect all my favorite ways to eat it: milkshakes, parfaits, and brownie bombs.

How do you balance all those sweet eats? 

Rana: My philosophy is everything in moderation—I can take a bite here and there. I have the discipline to not sit down and eat the whole tub of dough, but maybe that’s because I am around it all the time.

What’s next?

Rana: Two kids under two and a business is quite a challenge! I really want to focus on growing our business. I would love for every cookie dough lover to have the opportunity to grab a spoon!

Photographs courtesy of the Lustyans

Nona Evans of Whole Kids Foundation Wants to Turn Every Kid Into a Passionate Gardener—And Eater


By Lela Nargi

Nona Evans calls her latest job, as Executive Director of Whole Kids Foundation (WKF), penance for the past working lives of her ancestors. “My grandfather on one side of the family owned an Italian restaurant, and my grandfather on the other side started a candy store. They put a lot of sugar and calories out in the world!” she laughs.

Evans started her own work life in a conventional grocery store, in marketing and PR, before she found her way to organic specialty market chain Whole Foods. There, she headed the company’s foray into educating its customers about what children across the country were eating for lunch, and how it affected how they were performing in school. Response to the program was so successful that it became larger than her job description. So, in 2012 she went to the company’s powers that be and they voted to translate her work into WKF, to provide schools with grants to start gardens and salad bars. Evans has been its fearless and passionate leader ever since.

What were you hoping to get out of this project when you started the Foundation four years ago? 
We fully believe that a school garden is the most reasonable investment a school can make. We did lot of research and found that a grant of $2,000 is adequate for a school to implement garden for first time, or for a school with an existing garden to make meaningful transformation: triple it so every class can have bed, or add an outdoor classroom, or add irrigation. But when we started, the idea of gardening at school was just beginning to become something parents and teachers and administrators could consider. Today, awareness of its impact and importance is so much greater, and there’s an openness to the type of learning that can be accomplished with it. I don’t think we’re at the tipping point of being mainstream just yet—the USDA did a survey at end 2014 and found there are only an estimated 20,000 school gardens across the US—but I’m encouraged by the experience of Whole Kids so far.

Well, what are the benefits of a school garden?
The most important thing that school gardens do for our kids is add a hands-on, nature-based learning environment. There are three types of learners: visual, artistic, and kinesthetic. One and three learn best in school garden, so it enhances educational effectiveness for two-thirds of the population. It actually makes the academic portion of what a school is challenged to do more effective. We know from research, and from what Alice Waters did with her Edible Schoolyard Project, that when kids know where their food comes from, they’re more willing to eat a new vegetable. They want to understand the connection between what they eat and how their bodies work: how it helps them perform on the soccer field, or whatever they’re passionate about. The most powerful ingredient we activate is curiosity.


Do you do garden experiments on your own kid?
I have a 12-year-old son, Patrick. He’s best case study I could ever have been given. He ate absolutely everything till he was 4 years old. Then one day he came home and said word “yuck,” and I almost fell out of me chair. His girlfriend at daycare, Summer, had said “yuck,” and he became a picky eater, because he could. He would pick the green stuff out of everything. We live in Texas, where we have Tex-Mex rice with everything, and he would pick out every iota cilantro. So, we started gardening. Funnily enough, he decided he wanted to plant cilantro . And he started eating it by handful, because he had that connection. He had grown and nurtured it himself. Even now, I bought some cilantro seedlings a few weeks ago and I found him sitting at the kitchen table, with every leaf picked off it. My caterpillar son!

That experience is very similar to what we find and advocate for with Whole Kids. Give kids a choice and the world opens up. Implement a salad bar at school, and kids are empowered to pick what they want for lunch. They may begin by picking lettuce and carrots and croutons, but by end of the school year, they’re experimenting because of positive peer pressure. They’re eating garbanzo beans.

greens-in-gardenHave you always been a gardener?
Actually I have to credit my husband, John Spillers, who’s a police officer. He was a gardener long before it was fashionable; he was a fan of Square Foot Gardening, that PBS show. He really enabled us to garden as family. Once, for Valentine’s Day, he gave me two new raised beds with spectacular soil in them, a mix of compost and vermiculite and peat moss that produced beautifully. Four years ago, when we moved so we had more room to garden, he moved my dirt.

We make a good team. I’m laissez faire and he’s meticulous. I had the good fortune three years ago to visit the White House garden—talk about meticulously cared for! I came back with every intention of having a pristine garden. But no matter how much time I have to spend in garden, nature is an amazing thing and so much grows, both literally and figuratively. We make sure to take care of our pollinator friends, so this year I planted zinnias for them, and we always put in milkweed for the monarch butterflies, which are experiencing a lot of habitat loss. Last year, we had so may caterpillars, they made a chrysalis across our front door. We saw so many butterflies emerge, which is like it’s magic.

How’s your neighborhood for gardening?
We live in Shady Hollow, which has lots of the old-growth oak trees that are native to area, which is wonderful. But in terms of gardening, I think we were the original catalyst in the neighborhood. There’s a wonderful young man next door, Caulden, who when he was 3 years old wandered into our yard. He tugged on some greens and out came carrot. I still remember the amazement on his face. His mom said he’d never eaten that before and in 10 seconds, it was gone. The kids around here expect them, now. I’m constantly delivering fresh greens and tomatoes to people. I always have bountiful rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, parsley, enough for everyone. And we’ve created a neighborhood share; these days, we’re a wonderful gardening community. Our next door neighbors just started raising chickens. All the kids around here benefit.

Do you also cook from your garden every night?
We’re a two-parent working family. Cooking is my therapy, and I specialize in getting dinner on table 15 minutes or less, and whatever I make it always has lots of herbs from my garden. I love to cook with herbs. But it’s important to have go-to paces for dinner when don’t have energy or time to cook. We try and find places that serve locally-grown ingredients. Anything that has a vegetable combo on the menu, it’s definitely on our list.

What’s your advice for starting a garden for other Austinites, or for anyone who wants to plant something in the ground?
Start with what you love to eat, and don’t be afraid to experiment. There are tons of places in Austin for seeds and seedlings: there’s The Natural Gardener, which promotes native species. There’s a nursery called It’s About Thyme that’s locally-owned; I love anyplace where you can get to know the owners. And we love High Mowing Organic Seeds, which is one of the best seed suppliers in the country—you can order seeds online. But it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to have a huge back yard. Your garden can be as small as a windowsill or a pot you put on your patio. Just give it a shot!

Photographs of Nona and Patrick, and bed of greens, courtesy of Nona Evans.