Alison McConnell: The woman behind the mother

Who is Alison McConnell?

My life is similar to that of many women throughout the world who balance many different things in a single day, week or month. It is hectic, but incredibly joyful too. In short, I am a working mom of two wonderful children and an amazing husband.  I work full time in a global role at a large advertising agency and focus a lot of my time on emerging markets.  As such, I spend a good deal of time traveling on airplanes and learning about different cultures.

I grew up in Austin, Texas, which I still consider to be one of the best places on Earth, listening to a lot of excellent music and surrounded by great friends.  I studied Art History and French in college and spent most of my free time and money (which I made working as a cashier at Whole Foods) traveling to new places.

Growing up, my parents considered giving back an essential part of life.  They were very active in the community and always instilled the same values in my sisters and me. I still recall spending time each week delivering meals or visiting nursing homes where my sisters and I would sing songs or hang out with the residents.

I met my husband while sitting on a non-profit board many years later in Chicago where I had moved for work.  Working on behalf of vulnerable populations is an important part of our life.

Every day is an incredible balancing act for me and my family, but it is a positive and happy time in our lives and we are thankful for all the great opportunities we have.

How would you describe your kids?

We like to say that my daughter, Avery (8), lives out loud.  She is artistic, creative, adventurous and has an imagination that just blows me away.  She is fiercely independent and incredibly loving at the same time.  She has a great ability to make people feel safe and comfortable.  As a result, she has many close lovely friends who share her creative spirit and zest for life.    Avery can also be a bit eccentric.  She loves woodland creatures – squirrels are a favorite at the moment.  Every person she meets will eventually love squirrels too – she will make sure of it.  Why squirrels?  I wish I knew, but I do not. I just let her go with it and allow her to be who she is – which is beautiful.

My son Liam (6) is a relaxed and easy-going with a great sense of humor. He is incredibly content and truly enjoys every moment of life.  We always say that Liam has more fun per minute than anyone we’ve ever known.  He loves to play sports (anything with a ball makes him happy but soccer is his specialty) and dance hip-hop which he is happy to do in front of huge crowd when given the chance.  At the same time, he can be very quiet and studious.  He is sensitive, loving and has a gentle spirit.  And he is the only one in our house who would watch the Royal Wedding with me and I just love him for that kind of devotion.

While my children are quite different in many ways, they do share one trait.  And that is an incredible curiosity about the world.  You can often find them in the non-fiction section of the library making little books on topics like lemurs or Africa. They love language, music and culture.  Their curiosity is one of the things I find most inspiring about them.

Tell me 3 sources of inspiration for you

  1. Women.  There are so many other women that inspire me.  My girlfriends are primary among them.  I am fortunate to have a group of very close friends who I admire deeply – they are amazing women doing incredible things for the world.  They are a never-ending source of encouragement and inspiration. Beyond the great women in my life that I get to see up close, I am inspired by women I see from afar.  Those who I hear speak on important issues and those who I see fighting like hell to improve their situation and change the course of their families future. Recently I was in Cambodia and visited a place where women from villages come to learn a craft to help support their families.  These women were working incredibly hard to find a way to afford an education for their children and bring money into the household.  Life is hard for families around the world – studies prove that women in particular can make such a difference in the future of a family.  When given micro loans and a skill, they can change the future of an entire village.  This is something that pushes me everyday to do my part for womankind.  It helps me understand that I am part of something bigger and that I have a responsibility.
  2. Travel – fortunately this is one thing I can easily do in my current work role.  But I must say I have been traveling or dreaming of traveling my whole life.  I worked all through school with one goal – to travel at every break to a new place.  I have been hooked on exploration of new places and cultures as long as I can remember and there are few things I find more inspiring.  When I go to a new place, one of the first things I do is visit a local market –  just observing people there is wondrous.
  3. Art/Design.  I have a great passion for art and design. I can spend hours pouring through design and art books if given the opportunity.  A beautifully constructed space or powerful painting/drawing/image is something I find incredibly inspiring.  I love modern art and mid-century modern design in particular and have always been moved by the art of Oceanic cultures, which I studied in college.  I will always remember the first time I saw one of my favorite Jackson Pollock paintings at the MOMA in NYC when I was in my early twenties – it was just a magical moment (my children would be seriously rolling their eyes at me right now.)

What have you learnt about yourself since becoming a mother?

You know the end of the story “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” when the Grinch realizes that stealing the Who’s presents did nothing to assuage their holiday spirit?”  That is analogous to how I felt after having children – my whole world changed perspective.  I feel in some ways that part of me woke up at that point.  I became more confident, more fierce, more loyal and more determined than ever.   I give my children a lot of credit for making me a better person.

With a demanding global role in the corporate world, how do you juggle the “family, work,  self” balance?

With a lot of support, flexibility and planning. As Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook says on the topic of women in corporate roles, “Make your Partner a Real Partner.”  Partners can come in many forms, but for me that partner is my husband – we support one another in every way.  Life is like a dance, sometimes he is leading and I am following and sometimes I am leading and he is following.  It changes day to day and week to week.  It takes a lot of respect and organization to make it work.   We also have incredible help: from a great caregiver to parents who are willing to engage and pitch in when we need them.

I also believe that ‘self’ is critical.  For me, it is being fit and healthy. We spend a lot of time playing, dancing, bicycling and walking as a family.  But I also spend a couple hours a week practicing Pilates with an instructor – once early in the morning before the kids wake up and once late at night after they go to bed.  Pilates is something I do completely on my own – it keeps me strong physically and centered emotionally.

To keep it all in sync, I try to maintain a relatively flexible work schedule. Because I have a global role, I can work late in the night when Asia is awake and early in the morning during Europe’s work day.  I take advantage of that time and leave the office every day between 5:00 and 5:30 so I have the evening with my kids. Then I am often back to work on my couch from 9pm to 11pm.

I also work from home on Fridays whenever possible.  This helps me to maximize my time with my family and toss in some volunteer time at my children’s school for an hour on Friday afternoons – working at their school is one of the great joys of my week and I get to spend time in their world, which I love.

The only thing compromised in all of this is sleep and while I know how critical sleep is, something has got to give!

What advice do you give to other mothers in high-powered corporate positions?

I think one of the toughest things for mothers working in demanding jobs is accepting that they will have less time with their families – even if they are really proficient at working flexible hours and getting creative about their time, the reality of travel and other pressures mean that there will simply be less time.  I truly believe that it is not about the quantity of time, but the quality of time we have with our families that matter.    With that in mind, here is one piece of advice I often give.

Create rituals with your family.

I work hard to make every moment I have with my family count.  I want it to be positive and free of distraction.  Many women I have spoken to over the years that raised their children while holding down demanding jobs have also shared this as a key tip.   A woman I spoke to the other day told me that when she asked her now 20 something sons about what they most remembered about their childhood, they mentioned a ritual they all did as a family every week.  As she explained to me, she has raised really happy loving children who respect the choices she made as a working mom.  So, another good reason to give it a try.

Here are some rituals we have created to maximize our family time together.

Reading together.  We choose a book that is meaningful in some way – usually something classic, longer in format (Gulliver’s Travels, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, etc.)  We read one or two chapters together every night as a family, snuggled together in someone’s bed just before lights out.  We have found this tradition to not only be a time of great family togetherness, but also a way to share a great story and talk about what it means.

Family Walks.  We also have “family walks” with our dog, Milo.  Sometimes we managed to do this during the week, but mostly these special walks are reserved for the weekend.  We typically walk for 45 minutes to an hour around the neighborhood or through nearby woods.  Walking is a great way to hang out together, look around at the world and just talk about what you see.

Sunday dinner.   I wish this were every night dinner, but it just isn’t possible, so for us Sundays nights are special.  This has been a tradition since the kids were little and many of our friends will tell you that a McConnell family Sunday dinner is something to behold!  We start at about 4pm on Sunday and cook a lot of food.  Usually my husband, the grilling master, prepares about 6 different types of meat and fish while the kids and I stick to the side dishes.  We cook together – the kids set the table (this is often an exercise in creativity) then finally sit down and eat together.  There is also a practical side to this as well, we use the meat items throughout the week to toss into salads and mix into other dishes to save time.  And of course, we always have enough food on the table should friends stop by – which we totally encourage.

Giving back is an important part of your life. Can you share more about this?

My husband’s work as a pro-bono attorney for a large law firm in Chicago really helps to make giving back a central part of our lives.  His work is critical to many vulnerable populations and is incredibly inspiring.  We talk about his work and the issues facing his clients often as a family and while the kids and I aren’t directly involved in what he does day to day, we do our part to support his efforts so he can devote the time and energy needed to make a difference.

A few years ago after several years of service on the board of Seguin Services, , a nonprofit serving developmentally disabled individuals, a house in Oak Park was named for my husband.  Several residents live there with a part time caregiver.  One of the things we do as a family is work together to support the residents and keep the house looking its best (this year my friend Anne Marie’s girl scout troop planted flowers in the Spring.)

We also try to do small things like save our pennies or donate clothes and toys – things that help teach our children understand that small acts can add up to something much bigger.

Personally, I try to give back to communities that I visit when I travel for work. Recently in Cambodia I spent some time at Sunrise Children’s Village in Siem Reap which is run by a friend of Hip-Mum’s Julie McBroom.  I took a few of the guys from our management team with me as well.  We brought food, toiletries and other supplies the orphanage requested and I made a donation on behalf of my children.  We spent time with the kids and learned about the program.  One benefit of the program is that you can sponsor a child from afar – something my children and I will do together.

Other than that, my husband and I try to donate to causes we feel passionately about and provide support for people in general.  We have always believed in having a welcoming and open home.  At various times in our marriage we have had nieces, nephews and friends take up residence for weeks/months when they needed a place to stay for whatever reason – whether they were trying to figure out what to do next or in the case of my friend, Rachel, moving temporarily from Africa to have a baby in the States.  These experiences have been so enriching for our family and have made our house a much lovelier place.  Instilling in your family this kind of openness I believe is the first step in developing the compassion required to embrace service to others as a critical component of your life.

When your children grow up, what do you hope they admire the most about you?

That I did my best to live an authentic life and I always made sure they were surrounded by love and support.

If you had a whole day to yourself – no kids, no work, no financial restraints – how would you choose to spend your time?

I would gather my 3 best friends from Austin, all of our children and husbands together in my friend Liz’s back yard in Austin, TX and do nothing together all day.  We would start the day with coffee and tea and lots of fun things for the kids.  And end the day with bottles of wine and great beer while all the kiddos sleep soundly inside within our reach.  We would just be together.  Maybe we’d go for a walk at some point.  And of course, as we are all lovers of great food, we would have a chef cook wonderful meals throughout the day and do all the cleaning up after.

What is something you know for sure?

20 years from now when my husband and I look back on this time when we are balancing so many things and each day is more hectic than the one before, we will remember it as the best time of our lives!


One Comment

  1. Penny Bjorkmann said...

    I really enjoyed your story Alison. I especially liked your comment “I give my children a lot of credit for making me a better person”.
    Thanks for the tips.

    Jun 20, 2011 at 11:38 am

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