Kel Kelly

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A Working Mom’s DNA

March 30, 2011 1:50 PM

Since I was 15 years old, I have always had a job. My jobs have ranged from scrubbing toilets as a chambermaid to selling pots and pans door to door to working at a fruit stand to donning a very gay looking blue uniform as a security guard. My mother was a single working mother long before there ever was such a thing and I unknowingly inherited my work ethic from her. The thought of not working never crossed my mind, in the same way getting up and putting on a dress, pantyhose and high heels never crosses my mind.

Following all three pregnancies, I took whatever maternity leave was allowed, tagged on a couple of weeks of saved vacation and made the best of it. It usually meant I had about three months off. And then I was right back into my full-time job feeling ragged, out of shape and missing my kids. But still, the thought of not working never crossed my mind.

I think I was a better mom because I worked. While I cherished the time I had with my kids, having time away from them allowed me to be a multi-dimensional person with better balance. I know my kids saw my struggles as I tried to juggle work and them. And, I failed a lot. Sometimes the milk was sour, sometimes I missed a deadline to sign them up for a sports team, sometimes their shoes were too small, and sometimes I just forgot they needed to be somewhere. Regardless, instead of failure I think they saw an unwavering commitment to get over the endless stream of the obstacles life throws at you. And, more importantly, they saw that I was happy in spite of what some might describe as chaos.

Now, let me tell you something about my three oldest kids. They are all very different. I often like to use a coloring analogy to describe them. My daughter Julia was — and still is — one to always push the bounds and always colors outside the lines. My son Shaun is someone who always took rules very seriously and would never, ever color outside the lines. And my son Patrick didn’t know you wanted him to color, but would be happy to start coloring now if you still needed him to.

For as astonishingly unique as they are, they are bound by one clear strand of my DNA — the need to have a job. Each of them has had a job since they were about 15. Shaun and Patrick work 60+ hours a week in the summer at a very busy restaurant on the Cape. Julia has always somehow juggled two jobs at the same time while consistently making the Dean’s list in college. Yet, I don’t ever remember saying to them: “You need to get a job.” It’s as if they inherently knew at age 15 that in order to achieve balance and accountability in one’s life, work is something that you just need to figure out. Trips with friends, tickets to concerts, or meals out don’t just happen. Having the independence to do the things they love comes at a price. And, if they have learned in the process that you can be happy while maintaining the requirements of life — school, work, whatever — then I’ve done my job.

I must have blinked. Today, I have two kids in college and one graduating high school in about eight weeks. Yet I have an incredible calm when I think about their future. I don’t know what they’ll be, but I have a feeling they will be happy. Because as innate as having a job is to them, I know that they are driven by a greater cause — the need to be accountable, responsible and self-sufficient — independent of me but forever marked by my DNA (and, thankfully my mom’s).

Do you think having a working kid is nature or nurture?

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Posted by Kel | in Featured, Uncategorized | 29 Comments »

29 Comments on “A Working Mom’s DNA”

  1. Dee Dee Says:

    Love this post Kel. I, too, started working at a young age. Started babysitting at 12, and my first “real” job was filling donuts at Roche Bros on Sat mornings when I was 16, and aside from my maternity leaves, and a the two years I took off to battle my son’s illness, I’ve worked (and a majority of the time, I’ve had two jobs at the same time). And like you, I am confident that my sons have learned to appreciate all they have, and the value of the dollar, and good work ethics because they have always known me as a working mom.

    I do occasionally curse my stay at home mom friends, dream of winning the lottery so I can be at home and get my kids off the bus everyday.

    But I do believe that our children learn through example, and when they see the sacrifices, struggles and successes their parents endure to provide them with a happy life, they will do the same for their own children.

    My oldest started mowing my neighbor’s lawn to make a buck when he was 12. Last year, he and his younger brother pooled some money together, bought candy bars in bulk at BJs, and set up a candy stand in my driveway – my little budding entrepreneurs!

    Your children have absolutely learned some incredibly valuable lessons from you, and you have so much to be proud of! They will all go far in this world because of your examples.

  2. Monica Young Goldfinger Says:

    I love you and am so glad you are my friend! And I’m so happy you are part of my kids’ lives. Thank you for writing this I am so often surrounded by entitled, well-off suburban kids who have no sense of responsibility or work ethic and I find it devastating and discouraging.

    I got a job when I was 12 as a paper girl, and worked my way through college, footing most of the bill on my own. When I had kids, I had the incredible luxury of staying home with them. I am so grateful for that. However, it’s bizarrely guilt-inducing going back to school/work. I keep telling myself that we are all better for it for all the reasons you wrote about here. I know in my heart that’s true. Still, it was hard for the first time this week to leave a streppy, feverish son with the nanny for the first time.

    This is the absolute truth: I think about you and your three amazing kids all the time as an example of the way I want my own kids to turn out, and the way I’d like to be able to embrace and appreciate the value of the chaos that comes with being a working mom.

    The way you described J, S and P is perfect – I love it!

    You are an incredible mom and your kids are so lucky for all you have taught them about life. Bring on the Pringles …

  3. Kel Says:

    dee dee, i have no doubt your boys are who they are today based on the example you set.

  4. Kel Says:

    monica, thank you for the amazingly kind words. i am so glad you are my friend. i love that you worry about things and it makes me smile to think about how truly exceptional and different jack and julia are as people. you are a great mom! and now that you let them eat pringles, i’m sure they love you just a little bit more. haha.

  5. Karen Says:

    Here, Here! I couldn’t agree more. My grandmother was one of the “Rosie the riverters” during WWII at GE, and worked long after my grandfather returned home from the war, into her 60′s. My mom worked full time, and often a second job. And here I am working 2 jobs, a single mom. My son’s still very young–but I can only hope he gets our family’s cherished New England work ethic. Self sufficiency is of paramount importance as a life skill. Nice work passing on the value of that in your own kids!

  6. Trudy Says:

    This stirred so many emotions in me: from my childhood, to young motherhood with my son, and to middle-aged motherhood with my daughter. (I hadn’t fully realized just how clearly delineated the chapters of my life are!?!).

    As a parent of two non-bio kids, I believe all the good stuff is Nurture!! And while good care & coaching can’t not cure all, it extremely valuable.

    Thanks for this post – it helped me in more ways than you can know.


  7. Kel Says:

    karen, that is so cool about your grandmother. i never knew anyone who was a real “rosie the riveter.” what an amazing work ethic example to pass down through the generations. sounds like you and your mom were both influenced by your grandmother. i have no doubt your son will have extraordinary respect for working women. thanks so much for sharing your experience with everyone.

  8. Kel Says:

    trudy, here’s to nurture! and here’s to your new daughter! it will be so incredible to watch her grow up. knowing you, i can’t imagine your influence will be nothing short of spectacular. enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. and bring tia by drydock soon!

  9. jules Says:

    mama i love you!

  10. Kel Says:

    i love you too jules! i am so proud of you. come home soon!

  11. Kendyll Says:

    Amazing post, Kel. This really hit home for me as I come from parents who like yourself are an incredible support system and who continue to teach me day in and day out the true value of hard work. I definitely agree with what most have said here, it’s all about the nurture!

  12. Kel Says:

    thanks kendyll. make sure your parents know you say kind things about them on blogs. any parent would like to know that. ha.

  13. Maura Says:


    Thank you :) I read this today at 0′dark thirty while I was getting ready to leave the house for meetings before my 2 girls got up. It made me a little teary eyed – or maybe I was just having a hard time waking up…

    My mom had 3 of us cherubs and while we were really little, she stayed home and took care of her two parents who had health issues and lived with us for as long as I can remember. As soon as my brother entered Kindergarten, back to work she went. My dad was a State Rep and back then, they were in session all hours…so he wasn’t home often. Neither of them ever said “no” to anyone. We grew up knowing no other way…

    Now, my parents live with us, and luckily right now they are in pretty good health – all things considered – and they take care of our girls while Jason and I are at work. The blessings part of the arrangement definitely outweighs the curse part.

    My parents definitely gave me my work ethic, and I’m hoping that my working is teaching our girls so much more than Mommy works a lot and isn’t often home. I can only think that it is since I am the way I am…

    I struggle with the balance – and I know I’m a better mom for working like a dog outside the home. I also know I’d go bananas if I didn’t! So thank you for bringing it up in such a fantastic post. Its helping me get through the week :)

    Hope to see you soon!

  14. Kel Says:

    maura, i have to tell you — this was one of the best days of my life. lots of different things happened that brought incredible happiness into my world. and then i ended my day by reading your comment…and i gotta tell you, it elevated my happiness to an even higher level. thank you for sharing your story. it is amazing. you are amazing. your family is amazing. having your parents live with you is one of the greatest gifts you could ever give them. sadly, my mom passed away to early and we never had that opp. go to work tomorrow knowing your kids will be fine! sending hugs….

  15. Noreen Says:

    Very interesting blog Kel. Like you I had a job starting at the age of 15 and worked 2 jobs to help pay for college. All of my brothers and sister worked. It was just unspoken. We followed by my parents example. My Dad worked very hard supporting all 6 of us working long days and I had a stay at home Mom who worked hard too. I followed in her footsteps. My husbands job played a part in our decision. Traveling so much would make it difficult for both to be away. We made a choice and I decided to be a stay at home mom. It was a sacrifice financially at the time. I don’t regret the decision though. I love my job! That said, sometimes I do miss being in the work force. Instead of corporate meetings I transitioned into lunch duty, craft projects in the kids classrooms and volunteering in the community. Not financially rewarding but priceless just the same. Both of my young adult children work hard and I know my young children will too. I don’t think its nature I think work ethic comes from the nurturing of our children. I agree with you it’s the examples we set for our children whether working in or outside of the home. I think it’s important for our children to work hard and most importantly to always be compassionate of others. Look at the family you have raised. Your children are all hardworking and what I love most is how they all give back to the community. They are so giving just like their Mom. Love you Kel

  16. Deb Says:

    Great blog! I hear a lot about you and Ginny from Shawn and love reading your posts to learn even more. You are so truly inspiring and should be very proud! Life is such a balancing act and we all question our decisions every day and hope we are showing and teaching our kids all of the important stuff! I am proud that my husband stays with the kids and he’s ok with that–and he’s great at it! Although its tough at times and he works the wknd and nite hours, I sure hope it’s teaching our kids that you do what you have to do, make the best of it and find a good balance. I love to hear about hard working kids and understanding the need to earn what you want. It is a hard thing to teach nowadays! Keep the blogs coming we all enjoy them!

  17. Kel Says:

    noni, you are so good at your job! your kids are simply amazing. raising two exceptional children and then adopting two more has to be one of the biggest and selfless jobs on the planet. i love that we are different on so many fronts (politics, religion, etc) yet when it comes to being moms, we are always aligned. i love you too and i’m so happy you are in my life.

  18. Kel Says:

    deb, you guys are an incredible parenting tag team. shawn drips excitement when he talks about your kids. having him home with them during the day must be a fantastic situation for everyone. i know how hard he works at night and on the weekends. i would imagine your kids will have a tremendous work ethic when they grow up because of how hard you two work. be careful not to blink or that moment will be here before you know it. thanks for taking the time to post a comment, deb!

  19. Julia Says:

    Kel, thanks so much for a mother’s perspective on all this. I come from a family of people with very strong work ethic, and recently this topic has been discussed quite a bit in my house. It’s very interesting to see how parents see this sort of thing versus how I (the child) perceive it.

    Seeing my 13 year old sister look forward to the day when she can finally work for her own money really made me think about how eager I was for the same thing when I was her age.

    Because work ethic is highly valued in my family, it never crosses any of our minds to freeload off of our friends or to otherwise avoid working. As a result, each member of my family is able to handle unreal amounts of responsibility and they all still manage to succeed.

  20. Kel Says:

    julia, thanks so much for taking the time to share a child’s (young adult) perspective. it sounds like your parents have successfully passed that strong work ethic to their kids. your 13 yo sister sounds like an incredibly mature teenager. and clearly, you share that same drive. you go girls!

  21. stessa Says:

    thanks for telling it straight up. Good to be reminded I’m not going to be perfect and kids turn out okay. I’m a single mom of 2 kids. My eldest is almost 9 1/2 and I’m already pointing out how he can use his love of kids to babysit (something I didn’t like myself) when he’s a few years older. He sees me working (I work from home) basically every waking hour; he’s had to hold a question or fear ‘cuz I’m on a client call. I hope it counteracts what he sees at his dad’s — a man whose main skill seems to be losing jobs, blaming others & running through money.

  22. Kel Says:

    stessa, i know both sides of that equation more than you know. your work ethic and unwavering love will positively influence and overshadow any negative examples being set by their dad. keep the faith and keep on keeping on. seeing your success in your kids actions will be the greatest reward in life.

  23. Shelley Says:

    I love talking about working moms, mainly because I’m all for them and hope to be one one day. My mom always worked and I was a “daycare kid”. It only bothered me when I was sick and had to stay at a neighbors house or when she couldn’t come chaperone field trips. I never resented it though, I think I was a much more well-rounded kid for going to daycare all those years.

    Other than that, I really admired her career and her independence and now am so proud to talk about all she has accomplished. At one point I thought I might like to stay home with my kids in the future. But then I became a nanny and saw how much more I would cherish my evening and weekend time with them, and how much more balanced I would be as a person, if I worked.

  24. Kel Says:

    thanks for taking the time to leave a comment shelley! be sure to let your mom know how much you appreciate and respect her hard work. i never communicated that to my mom before she passed away and it’s one of my biggest regrets. btw, i always say being a nanny is the best birth control on the planet!

  25. Stephanie Says:

    Hi Kel, I have just discovered your blog & love, love, love it. As for this post I truly believe in a balance of both nature and nurture, but really DNA is a huge driver. Look at all the siblings that are chalk and cheese and have lived under the same nurture rules. I connected with this one as I started ‘working’ as a volunteer as early as 12 and was earning money when I hit 15. My son is only 3 and I am struggling to see yet how I can teach him these values, he’s a bit spoilt (compensating for my inability to juggle everything maybe). As you suggest though staying focussed and strong and leading by example is a huge influence. Thanks will tune in regularly.

  26. Kel Says:

    stephanie, thanks for taking the time to comment and for the kind words. i wouldn’t worry about your son. i’m sure in time you will see little indicators that he is on the right path. and if it makes you feel better, i don’t know any 3 yo that isn’t spoiled. haha.

  27. Dianna Huff Says:

    Love this post. I’ve been working since age 11 and my son, who will be 14 next month, is already asking about getting a job.

    BTW, I used to clean porta potties — the kind on boats. UGH.

  28. Kel Says:

    dianna, the thought of going near any porta pottie makes me gag. you are amazing and i’m sure your son will shine equally as bright. hugs.

  29. Kasey Says:

    Kel – thank you for this post and making me feel that being a working mom does not mean I am sacrificing the relationship I have with my kids but actually means I am enriching the relationships I have with my kids…what a wonderful feeling, especially for this mom who is constantly striving to be the best mom I can be…

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