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posted: 5/7/2012 11:28 AM

Celebrate women both in the home and at work

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All this talk about women's work, paid or not, during the month before Mother's Day sent me into a frenzy about the women who have made a big difference in my life, paid or not.

For as long as I can remember I've boasted about the fact that, when I was born, my mother's obstetrician was a woman.

My mother's mother was a graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan. With her degree, she married, gave birth to nine children and stayed home to care for them.

My grandparents lived on a farm in Battle Ground, Ind. My grandfather traveled as an agricultural economist for Purdue, and the way I saw it, my grandmother pretty much ran the farm in her apron.

Farming is a humongous job around the clock. In addition to marketing corn, soybeans and hogs, my grandparents raised chickens and their dairy cows needed milking twice daily. My grandmother was a model of stamina with open arms.

My mother worked inside the home except when she volunteered at Ball Memorial Hospital every Monday afternoon for decades. She has a 50-plus year pin of appreciation to show for it.

My dad, now retired, owned a general construction business. Roofing was his specialty. Our family of five never took summer vacations because of my dad's seasonal business. I don't remember complaining, but I likely did.

My mother was housebound most weekdays, not only as a stay-at-home mother of three, but to be available to answer my dad's business phone. His office was in our basement. My mother kept track of his calls, posting them on a magnetic board in our kitchen. She still does.

I could write volumes about my mother's organizational skills that included her serving as a Scout leader, room mother and on committees for fall festivals and charity benefits.

More than once, I've told friends how effortless she always made running a home seem. I've learned it's tough and thankless work.

She played bridge in a few bridge clubs and attended PTA meetings. To make up for vacations, my father took her dancing nearly every Saturday night.

In February, my parents celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary because my mother's always been devoted to her abundance of jobs.

After college, I headed to New York City to seek my fortune about the same time as many self-proclaimed feminists. I was blessed to be enriched and supported by some of the most talented men and women mentors you'd ever want to meet.

I worked as an advertising copywriter with different art directors for the better part of five years until I opened a bakery called Creative Cakes on East 74th Street. Every day I raced nine blocks to work, where I found satisfaction sculpting and designing one-of-a-kind chocolate cakes in all shapes and sizes for somebody's special occasion.

When my cupcake-sized shop celebrated its first birthday in December 1975, my cakes were featured in People Magazine. Back then, the weekly magazine included stories about regular people as much as it focused on celebrities.

At the time, the women's rights movement was just taking hold. I'd been reluctant to embrace wholeheartedly the sometimes militant cause.

After the People story appeared, a woman stopped by my shop, noting the wealth of other publicity Creative Cakes had received from New York Magazine and neighborhood newspapers, all framed for the front window of my shop.

At first, I thought she was paying me a compliment. She then went on to chastise my novelty cake business at a time when women were trying to break through the glass ceiling. She expressed her opinion that my business simply represented a "homemaking" skill, the type of career that failed to move women forward.

Her disparaging remarks were a stunning contrast to the encouragement I'd received from the women and men at the ad agency to just do it.

Many times since then, after I married and became a mother, I've wondered why some women are quick to denigrate other women for following their passions. Whether it's staying home to bake chocolate chip cookies or suiting up for a space flight, I've always respected every woman's right to have the freedom to choose what works best for her.

And who said a paycheck is the only way to value what you do with your life?

• Stephanie Penick writes about Naperville twice a month in Neighbor. Email her at

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