"Mommy, Do You Love Your Company More Than Me?"

How female entrepreneurs struggle to find the right balance

Julie Schoenfeld's stomach was in knots. It was 7 a.m., and the CEO of North Hollywood-based Net Effect Systems Inc. was speeding to Burbank Airport to catch a flight for a crucial client meeting in San Francisco. Minutes earlier she had left behind her sobbing, 2-year-old son, Nicholas, at day care. He was rarely so upset, and Schoenfeld might have considered taking off on a normal day. Torn, she decided to leave him behind and phone in 15 minutes. If her son wasn't calm, she would cancel the meeting.

Her strategy paid off. Nicholas was playing quietly when she called back. But the experience was wrenching. It's one thing to make a split-second business bet--entrepreneurs do that all the time. It's another thing to gamble with your kid's feelings. Says Schoenfeld: "The scary part, and the part you don't rest easy with, is that you don't know how it's going to turn out for the child."

BAILING OUT. Welcome to the big illusion: that women who start their own businesses have more time for their families. Hundreds of thousands of women have bailed on Corporate America to start their own companies in the hope of striking a better work-life balance. Women now make up 38% of U.S. business owners, double the number 12 years ago, says the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.

But these entrepreneurs are quickly finding out how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by two all-consuming responsibilities: a young company and young children. The murky judgment calls bedevil every day. Does a wailing child desperately need more mommy time or just a different toy? Can a soccer game trump an angry client? That's not to mention all the domestic engineering women entrepreneurs still do, spending three times as much time on child care and housework as male entrepreneurs, according to the Entrepreneurial Research Consortium.

Researchers are finding that when women first start businesses, they often experience a halcyon phase, when they have time to be class mom or coach their kids' athletic teams. But that leeway vanishes when the business starts growing fast. Four years ago, Heather D. Blease launched EnvisioNet in Brunswick, Me., a company that provides tech support and customer service for clients' Web sites. For two years she did have more time with her three sons, cutting away to attend sporting events and volunteering at kindergarten. But now that her company employs 1,000 people and has hit $12 million in revenues, Blease says it dominates her life. "It almost feels as though my time is not my own," she says. When she kisses her 7-year-old son, Carter, goodnight, he sometimes asks: "Mommy, do you love your company more than me?"

Blease tries to achieve a balance by drawing a firm line between job and family. She reserves evenings and weekends for her kids. "But life is not perfect," she says. "We often eat dinner too late and have to deal with tired, hungry, fighting children because we get home late from work."

Sometimes the only solution for women entrepreneurs is to hang on until their businesses--and their children--mature. Pamela Hopkins, CEO of DataSource Inc., a Silver Spring (Md.) software-development and network-services company, has seen her company's revenues grow one hundredfold in five years, to $20 million. The success has enabled her to hire a full-time nanny, a three-day-a-week housekeeper, and a personal assistant whom she hired when revenues hit $15 million. In addition to secretarial duties, the assistant arranges Hopkins' dry cleaning, dentist appointments, and her children's schedules. This leaves Hopkins time to take her two children--Kelsey, 6, and Hunter, 4--to afterschool classes and on two-week European vacations.

She recently asked her kids whether they wanted her to quit working, pointing out that if she stayed home, they'd have to downgrade houses and switch out of private schools. The kids' response? A resounding. "Work, Mommy."

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