One of the greatest challenges to modern work-life balance is the combination of restaurant work and parenthood.
In the latest episode of The Garnish, we spoke to three moms and two dads from across the restaurant industry to hear about the highs and lows of parenthood in restaurants.
“Being a parent is really unpredictable a lot of the time, and so is working in a restaurant, so you have these two unpredictable factors at play. It's a lot to balance,” says Katie Rosengren, mother to a one year old and operations manager at Juliet Restaurant in Somerville, MA.
Maternity Leave (or Lack Thereof)
Unfortunately, the standard for maternity leave in the restaurant industry is that there isn’t any. This is especially true for paid maternity leave. “But also, there's no real accommodations even while you're pregnant,” said Rosengren. “I think what happens with a lot of women who work in restaurants who get pregnant is that they just end up leaving while they're pregnant because they can't do their jobs anymore.”
Kyleen Atonsen is a pastry chef at Acadia, a two-Michelin Star restaurant in Chicago. She has a five-month-old son.
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Working in a restaurant is physically difficult for anyone, but when you’re pregnant, it’s a whole other ball game. Atonsen worked 12 to 14-hour shifts until right before her son was born. “At month seven, your belly just literally grows overnight… My ankles looked like they needed to be amputated. I was winded all the time. And my back was just on fire, always,” she said. “Sometimes I would duck behind my station and kind of just take a breather and try to make myself look like I wasn't going to die because, honestly, that's kind of how I felt.”
Wrangling the Schedule
Natalie Larson is a sous chef at Mamaleh’s in Cambridge, MA, and she works at least 50 hours per week. When it comes to childcare, she and her son live with her mother, who helps out, and they also have a babysitter.
Larson has Wednesdays and Thursdays off, but every other day, she leaves home at 5am to open the restaurant. “I had to seek out a position where I could work in the mornings so that even though I'm not here in the morning, I am able to get home most nights,” she explained. “When I get to work, I start setting up, and I have an alarm on my phone, so I call them at 6:30 to make sure that everyone gets up — that's the part that I play in most of his mornings.”
Atonsen and her husband, who is an architect, balance taking care of their five-month-old son, and have a part-time babysitter. She works from around 1:30pm to around 10 or 11pm (or later). “I'm allowed to make my own hours at work, and I would love to just do morning shifts so that my family can spend time together at night, but that means that we'd be paying our babysitter twice the amount of money.”
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The Difficult Stuff
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Larson said she’d love to be able to work at night, or even stage somewhere after work at Mamaleh’s. “But it feels almost impossible to balance that emotionally for myself… There have been times when I do that — when I go and work another shift after I'm at the restaurant in the morning, which is mostly for my experience or my own edification, but it means that there are 24 or 48-hour time lapses when I don't see my son.”
Baljinder Nijjar is a restaurant manager and father to two grown children, now in their twenties.
“It can wear down on you after a while, just not being able to spend that much good quality time with them and even with my wife,” he said. “But you know, you’ve got to earn them money so you can pay your expenses. So you have to sacrifice somewhere.”
Atonsen feels real mom guilt about leaving her baby at home — and also about the whole thing getting easier. “I’m just afraid I'm going to miss key milestones — first words or first steps. I'm afraid I'm going to be at work, and most likely I will be. And a lot of people have told me it's going to get easier being away from your child. And in the beginning it was really difficult and I hated it, and now I feel bad because it is getting easier, and I feel bad for saying that.”
Unpredictability and Competing Responsibility
Rosengren said it’s hard to plan for anything when you’re a parent and a restaurant worker, because both have obligations that sometimes compete with each other.
“I'll wake up one day and be ready to go to work and then Henry's sick. So then I have to figure out who's taking care of him, because he can't go to daycare and how are we going to work out our schedules — or I'm at home and trying to juggle him and take care of his needs, and then someone is calling me from the restaurant because they need something. It's just trying to balance all of those responsibilities at the same time, when there is no way to plan for it.”
Larson has had similar experiences with her seven-year-old son, Noland. “My biggest joy is that he loves what I do. He loves to be a part of the restaurant culture…. He loves to cook with me…. I can already share that joy with him. Nothing makes you feel like your work is more valuable than seeing how it can come right back into your home life and how it really is shaping a big part of who he is already. He thinks I'm the coolest.”
Camaraderie Among Parents
At Max’s Eatery, the parents on staff get to bond over their shared experiences. “My chef, he's got two daughters and we just stand there and cook lunch and talk about our kids. And one of our front of house managers, he's got a son who's a little bit younger than our than our kids, and it's awesome to rehash the stories of what he's going through,” said Titter.
At Mamaleh’s there are seven owners, six of which are in couples, and four of them have kids of their own. For Larson, this has made it an incredibly supportive place to work. “I never feel like I'm the only person with a child. And in fact, most of my line cooks also have children that we speak about and develop community around. So that's really a blessing,” she said. “I've worked in kitchens before where I almost felt like I was aged out because it was me and one other person who had a kid and everybody else was still living this kind of rockstar lifestyle, which has its place, but can be very distracting and can be very hard to find common ground.”
Connecting with Guests with Kids
As Operations Manager, Rosengren spends a lot of her time in the restaurant working with customers. “Oh, what I think my favorite part is talking to other parents when they come into the restaurant. I'm basically known in the restaurant for like going up to every person who comes in with a kid and being like, ‘I also have a kid, let's talk about having kids!’”
She says it puts guests with children at ease. “When you're a parent and you're bringing your kid to a restaurant, there’s this fear: ‘Oh God, what if my kid acts out or is not welcome at this restaurant, then we have to pack them up and leave...’ So when I go over and I'm like, ‘Oh yeah, I also have a kid!’ they're like, oh, great, this person gets it. You can just relate on different things. It's a nice thing to have another that I can connect with the guests.
Life Skills and Parenting Skills
Titter loves that his son will be able to take the skills he’s learned in the kitchen and work anywhere when he graduates high school. “So that way, if you do want to travel the world, at least you can find a job, be a productive member of society, as you go on your life's path, wherever it takes you.”
Nijjar feels that learning to manage people of all types has helped him be a parent. “It's definitely taught me a lot of things, just dealing with different personalities at work. Even how to deal with different situations with my own kids.”
The Emotional Bank Account
Titter’s motto for him and Max is work hard, play harder. “So it might not be an everyday thing, to throw the football around, day-in, day-out stuff. But when we do have time together, we try to crush it as hard as we can.”
“For his birthday, we went to an Eagles game and had the most unbelievable time. I called in every favor I could and we were able to meet some players after the game and get some special treatment. That was the epitome of that roller coaster of ‘look, I've got to work for three weeks really, really hard, but man, we're gonna have a Sunday off and it's going to be the best Sunday you've ever had.’”
He knows that it can be hard that he’s not around at home all the time, but he and Max make it work. “It's that emotional bank account. You got to wait for it to get filled up at times, and then appreciate it when you got it. And then wait for it to get filled up again.”
Paving the Way
Atonsen feels that even though the struggles are significant, she is paving the way for other people to feel like they can work in the industry and have a family. “I [didn’t] really know what having a kid or being pregnant looks like in this industry because I haven't personally seen any pastry chefs or chefs have any kids. The only ones I know own their own restaurants or bakeries.”
“I feel like because I'm one of the first people who is a pastry chef in Chicago, in the industry, who has a baby, maybe what I'm doing or what I say in public about having a kid in this industry will help pave the way for other women who want to have a kid and have a family,” she continued. “Maybe the way that I'm doing it, or maybe the way that our restaurant will change to accommodate for me having a baby, will show other people ‘okay, this is how she did it, so maybe this is how we can do it so that this person can have a baby and still be a pastry chef or chef in the restaurant.'”
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