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Brenda Barnes: A Working Mother We All Should Mourn

 

A few nights ago, I was late to pick my son up from sports practice because of a business event. When I pulled into the school parking lot, he was sitting alone on the curb looking exhausted. I knew had still had hours of homework ahead of him and I felt awful for being late. I know in the big picture, no one would accuse me of being a horrible mother, but at that moment, I felt like one.

Some days, juggling work and family is more difficult than others. Brenda Barnes knew that juggling act well. 

BarnesI had just started writing about work and family when I met up with Brenda Barnes. She was the first female CEO of PepsiCo and a working mother of three. Brenda Barnes did something few women at her level in business had dared to do. In 1997, when Brenda was president and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America, she resigned after 18 months to become a stay-at-home mom. Her children were then 10, 8 and 7 years old. She told the New York Daily News at the time that "You have to make choices. Maybe I burned (the candle) at both ends for too long."

The backlash from Brenda’s resignation was loud. Many women didn’t approve, and her actions fueled the “Can Women Do It All?” debate over the extent to which family duties keep women out of executive suites.

I spoke to Brenda about the time and she told me she was still engaged in the business world and was sitting on corporate boards. But she was also driving her children to soccer practice and the movies. She sounded happy.

Years later, Brenda did something equally as noteworthy.Not many women return to the highest ranks after taking time off, but in 2004, with her children teenagers and preparing for college, Brenda went back to a full-time job at Sara Lee Corp. She became CEO, and then added the chairman title a few months later. She accomplished the tough task of renaming the company and making it profitable. It was as if Brenda proved that spending time with her children didn’t make her any less of a capable businesswoman.

Unfortunately, in 2010, Brenda suffered a stroke while working out at a gym near her home. She resigned as CEO of the company when it became clear she faced a long recovery. Brenda spent the last 6½ years working on her recovery until recently when during her sleep, she had another stroke that took her life.

When I learned of Brenda’s recent death at 63, it hit me hard. I wanted this strong woman to succeed at everything she did. By my standards Brenda succeeded at the most important job she held, being a mom. Her daughter Erin Barnes told the Sun Times she remembers her as “the best mother you could ever imagine." Erin also spoke to the importance of family in her mother’s life. “Family is what she lived for,” she said.

To me, Brenda Barnes represented the juggle we all do and the tough choices we face trying to be there for our children and our jobs. To me, she was a role model who exemplified that it’s okay to put our family first at times, and our jobs first at other times. I will think of Brenda’s efforts at balance often, and give myself a pass when I fall short of the expectations I place on myself. I hope you will, too.

 

 

Video clip from Interview with Fortune Magazine

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