Mothers who work on Mother's Day

Instead of breakfast in bed on Mother's Day, Michaela Ells will most likely be eating on the road, trucking goods cross-country. She's one of many working moms for whom the holiday, by necessity, rates little more than good wishes or a hug. But for four women profiled here, being a mother is more complex than the sentiments on a card.

Michaela Ells likes to go on long drives with her husband. Nothing unusual for many women. But when the distance is 3,000 miles, it's not your average Sunday drive.

Mrs. Ells is a truck driver from Bellows Falls, Vt. She and her husband, Bill, haul everything from brush bristles to maple syrup. They met at truck-driving school, after one instructor complained: "I can't get her to

shift right. I give up. You try." So Mr. Ells did. They hit it off

and soon married. Now they are one of only a handful of husband-wife, long-haul trucker couples in the United States.

"I hold my head high when I say I drive a truck," Ells says. "I take pride in that."

What sets this couple apart is that they sometimes take Morgan, their 4-1/2-year-old daughter, along. On a recent trip, armed with coloring books and Jack and the Beanstalk stories on tape, the Ellses headed to California with a truckload of furniture.

Husband and wife alternate driving every five hours. To save money (they're paid 35 cents a mile for their nearly coast to coast trips), they plug a cooler into the cigarette lighter and fill it with food, which they buy at a discount store ("The Dented Can," Ells calls it) back home. It's a tough job for a mom, but Ells manages.

Things promise to become trickier next school year, when Morgan starts kindergarten

"I will be the one that ... stays home. I've accepted it. And I'm certainly not kicking and screaming about it. [But] I will miss ... being out on the road."

For now, Morgan usually stays with a nanny (another mom, with kids at home) when her parents are gone. But Ells feels the needs to be home when school starts, especially since Morgan can be "a handful."

"Both of my kids have got very stubborn streaks," she says, referring to her son from a previous marriage. "My daughter especially. Oh, man. And if she gets her mind set on something, it's like trying to push a donkey; it can't be done. I always have to be on my toes about trying to finesse her into changing her mind."

Mother's Day isn't a big deal to Ells. She says she and her husband acknowledge it, but don't do anything big. Still, she never forgets her own mom, wishing her a happy Mother's Day via fax, phone, or e-mail. Ells's mom has kept a low profile when it comes to helping her daughter through parenthood.

"She's pretty much letting me feel my way through it," she says. "She hasn't abandoned me per se, because she's there if I need her, but we always felt that the best way is to try to do it yourself first ... because nothing teaches better than experience."

Toll taker offers advice per axle

The second she saw the trucker, Cynthia Simkins, a toll taker on the Massachusetts Turnpike, knew something was wrong.

"There was one gentleman that came through, and he was in such a sad condition," Mrs. Simkins says.

"He started telling me how he lost his wife through the [Internet]." The trucker's wife, it turns out, had met another man and run off with him, and Simkins heard all about it.

"We talked for a good four minutes," an eternity at a toll plaza. Simkins told him to get some help, to talk to somebody and "don't do anything crazy with yourself," his wife, or the guy she took off with.

Simkins evolves into part psychologist, friend, and mother while she's making change. Her chats to commuters are exercises in brevity, ranging in topic from President Clinton's turmoil to home and family. But when she gets on a roll - especially about Mother's Day - she can't stop.

"I didn't always take to [working on Mother's Day] too well," she says. "I felt I should have been home with my family because that's my day. All mothers should be home relaxing on that day."

About motherhood, she says: "I had this idea everything was going to be so great. I was living in a fantasy world. I had this dream I'd be home all the time. Everything I dreamed, it was the opposite."

She says the toughest part was "going through the change mentally. You're so used to being by yourself. It's a lot of work mentally, emotionally, and physically. I took my motherhood very seriously."

Simkins also battled guilt. "I wanted to be home with my daughter. [At work] I stayed within myself, I never expressed it to anyone, but the emotion was very hard."

Among the biggest tests of her parenting came during her daughter Cynthia's teen years - when boys came along.

"I let her feel I trusted her, and that way it would teach her how to trust herself," she says. "Love yourself and try to control yourself, because us women are made up of emotions. We have a tendency to express ours more than [men] do."

When asked about her parenting style, Simkins says she strives to be calm. "If you come to me straight up, face to face, I can deal with you," she says. "If you come to me, trying to play me, and lie to me, that angers me. I'm not calm with that."

Thinking about the kids, even while drilling

When Deborah Kelly (better known simply as Kelly) works, she's often hanging 25 feet above the ground, drilling in concrete.

Carpentry isn't what you'd expect from this single mother with a nuclear smile. Ms. Kelly, sitting on a steel girder at a Big Dig construction site in Boston, explains how she got into construction and how she's raised her two children, now in their 20s:

Medicine used to be her passion, and she earned a degree from the University of Vermont and became a medical technologist. But in her off hours, she tagged along with her then-husband, who was a carpenter, and cleaned up around his work sites. She liked the creativity of working with wood.

So Kelly started reading books, talking to people, and learning the trade. She got so good, she built a house for the president of Newsweek in the early 1980s on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

But no matter how many nails Kelly drives, she says, one thing is always on her mind, her children: Justin, who started his own T-shirt company, and Jessica, who manages a shoe store.

"I think about them constantly," she says, grinning from behind the shadow of a hard hat. But being a mom hasn't been a cakewalk, especially after being brought up in what she calls a "Leave It to Beaver" family.

She had trouble with her daughter during her teen years. Jessica mixed with the wrong crowd, started doing things she shouldn't. "A lot of it was because I wasn't there," she says. "I didn't see the picture as clearly [at the time]." Kelly considered quitting her job to spend more time at home. But in the end, she let the phase run its course.

After a few years of living with friends and relatives, Jessica slowly grew up. She met a different crowd and realized she had been heading down the wrong path. Now Jessica is a changed girl, leaving her mom notes on the fridge in the morning, saying, "I love you so much. Have a wonderful day."

"I save them all," Kelly says, a little bashfully.

"I learn so much from her," Kelly says of her daughter. "She's very good with people. She's very philosophical. She just knows what to say to rectify a situation."

Her kids weren't the only people she's learned from. Observing other moms was also illuminating:

"Yelling. It really bothers me. I don't believe you get your point across," she says. "It just shows how out of control [parents] are."

She's also bothered by moms who don't put their foot down, and let their kids have their way.

"It bothers me when I see parents giving in in the grocery store," she says, adding: "I've seen parents hit their kids in the grocery store. You just want to grab them and hug them."

This mother puts out actual fires

Even now, Patricia Donovan gets looks. After all, a female firefighter is still a bit of a novelty. But she's used to it. Mrs. Donovan has been working on fire engines for 17 years - but never intended to.

In 1984, while attending nursing school, she decided to take the firefighting exam just for fun. She passed and became the first woman in the Boston Fire Department. It's a profession that runs in the family: her father, two brothers, and husband were or are firemen.

"It was pretty overwhelming," she says of her vocation. "You had a lot of mixed feelings from some of the men." Donovan is now accepted as one of the guys, but still holds down the more traditional role of being a mother.

Her schedule is planned out a year in advance, a mix of day and night shifts. It's helpful to know ahead, but still tough to negotiate with two children at home. Between Cub Scouts and play dates, she and her husband juggle the kids' schedules. In fact, until last June, nobody took care of the kids other than their parents or a relative. Day care, she says, isn't an option.

"Day care closes at 5:30. I just can't leave at 5:30. Sometimes, it's beyond my control. Sometimes we're tied up at a fire somewhere."

Now, she leaves Liam, 6, and Aslinn, 2, with a friend.

"It's just more personal. You don't have all these [other] kids everywhere."

She's careful not to criticize parents who work 9 to 5, but it's clear that leaving kids at day care is not something she condones. "You don't want to tell people how to raise their children, but..." she says, her voice trailing off.

"Raising kids is a full-time job, not to mention fighting fires. Just the fact of being around is what's important.

"They just take over your life. You think about yourself second," she says of her kids. "I told a pregnant friend, 'Once you have this baby, you'll never think of yourself first again.' "

Even Mother's Day doesn't rank very high. Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving are the big three. And she sneaks her mothering touch into those. Last Easter, for example, instead of baskets of candy she got practical: Each child got a toothbrush, toothpaste, and new underwear.

One thing she now realizes about being a mom is that your kids' friends' parents turn into your friends.

"When you're in you're 30s, you don't say, 'Can you come over and play?' Mostly all of my friends, their children are associated with my children," she says. "Like I said, your life revolves around them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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