We Don't Know How She Does It
We went searching for Supermom. We found her in Chevy Chase.
Photos by Erick Gibson; See more in the gallery below.
It’s a late Saturday afternoon, and I’ve just finished pouring chocolate ganache over four cakes that are sitting on the kitchen table. Pasta boils in three large pots on the stove, and vegetables are strewn all over the counter, waiting to be sliced into crudités.
My 4-year-old daughter bounces underfoot as I weave from table to counter to stove. I’m catering my first event—a 50th birthday party, with dinner and dessert for 75—and I’m frantic about getting it right.
Suddenly, my husband rushes through the front door and throws a bloody towel onto the table, just missing the cakes. Seven-year-old Emily follows, holding bloodied paper towels to her mouth, with her forehead and knees scraped raw. Emily tripped and fell, Brendan says, and her teeth have sliced through her upper lip.
She has to go to the emergency room, and of course I want to take her. I want to be there to hold her hand, to reassure her as she gets the stitches. But I have food to cook and a party to cater. So instead, I watch my husband and daughter head out the door, thinking, not for the first time or the last: worst mother EVER.
If I sometimes worry that I’m the worst mom, as I did on that day several years ago, a case could be made that Melissa “Missy” Lesmes is the best, a veritable Supermom, the kind of mother just about every woman I know aspires to be.
A fit, petite, vivacious blonde, Missy is at age 46 a wife, a mother of four kids ranging in age from 11 to 18 and all in separate schools, a partner at a prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm whose practice takes her on the road several days each month, a party maven always up for a gathering at her Chevy Chase home, a longtime friend to women who profess she’s always there when they need her, and a woman who still manages to give back to the community.
Ask about women who epitomize the Supermom phenomenon in the Bethesda area, and Missy’s name comes up time and again. That’s why I’ve come to her expansive, Craftsman-style home off Connecticut Avenue: to learn how she does it.
It’s the morning of July 5, and Missy has taken the day off from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, where she specializes in construction insurance litigation. She greets me at the door with a wide smile, looking trim in workout clothes, with perfectly styled hair and wearing makeup, then apologizes for how she looks.
Her husband, Scott, lounges on the couch at the end of the great room, watching the day’s tennis matches at Wimbledon on a huge, flat-screen TV. Tall and broad-shouldered at 46, with receding brown hair, he’s a partner in corporate finance law at Morrison & Foerster in D.C., and also works long hours, but travels less.
Missy tells me about her mother, a fastidious woman who reigned over the family home in Olney like a queen over her castle. “She was always perfectly coiffed. She would never sit in front of you right now looking the way I do,” says Missy, who was 26 when her mother died of an aneurysm. “She was beautiful, the house was spotless; you could eat off our kitchen floor at any given time. That’s not the case here.”
I’d have to disagree. Her French country-style kitchen appears pristine, with its ivory-colored cabinets and gleaming white tile. Then Missy, quick to laugh at herself, fesses up: She called her nanny/housekeeper of nine years, Margarita Arcega, to come tidy up earlier.
On weekends, Missy and Scott typically drive to the girls’ soccer games—Maggie and Anna are on different travel teams—or to Scotty’s Special Olympics basketball games. And the kids often have friends over, Missy says. Weekends are always busy. But weekdays? They’re madness.
On weekdays, Missy rises at 5:30 a.m. to run on the Capital Crescent Trail or head downtown to work out with a personal trainer. She’s back home by 7 to make sure the kids are awake and getting ready for school. Anna, 11, is a fifth-grader at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda; Maggie, 15, is a sophomore at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in D.C.; Scotty, 17, who has Down syndrome, attends The Heights School, a Catholic school for boys in Potomac; and Emily, 18, is a freshman at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
On a given morning, Missy might drill Anna on math skills before she or Scott drives the girls to their schools. Margarita arrives by 7:15 to take Scotty to Potomac. Later, Missy stops at Starbucks for a venti Americano, then arrives at her spacious office by 8:30 or so, where piles of paperwork cover her desk, cardboard boxes full of case files line one wall and family photos and mementos occupy shelves on another.
Missy spends her workdays juggling meetings, conference calls and emails before heading home around 7 p.m. Like lots of working couples with hectic schedules, she and Scott rely on a network of family and friends to keep the household running smoothly when they’re not home. With two substantial incomes, they can have Margarita work full time, though she’s not needed much as a nanny anymore. She cleans during the day, drives the girls to soccer practices, takes Scotty to a weekly program at Imagination Stage, and makes the kids dinner, leaving around 6 or 7.
Missy gets home between 7:30 and 8, about the same time as Scott—unless she has to pick up one of the children or shop for last-minute school supplies. She checks in with the kids, makes sure everyone has had dinner, then forages for something she and Scott can eat, which they usually do while standing around the kitchen island, catching up on the day.
Scott often spends much of the evening helping Scotty with homework, which can require “hours and hours of one-on-one time” since the teen takes regular classes and has only slightly modified assignments, Missy says.
It’s important to the couple that Scotty lives as normal a life as possible. That’s why they worked so hard to get him into The Heights, knowing that few private religious schools accept special needs students. Missy and Scott began talking with Heights officials two years before Scotty was to start high school, working with the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, a nonprofit advocacy group that provides grants to support special education in Catholic schools.
Now, “we all work very hard at trying to have him do as much work in the same subject areas as the other guys are doing,” Scott says.
“Scott’s taken a huge role in helping Scotty with his homework,” Missy adds. “[But] honestly? There were times when we’d say [to Scotty], ‘You just go to bed; we’ll do it.’ ”
By 10 or 10:30, Missy and Scott go to bed, too. But they often take work with them. They usually turn out the lights around midnight—though sometimes Missy remains
up hours later to finish a brief.
Then the alarm rings the next morning and Missy does it all over again.
But Supermom? Nah, she says.
“I’m always feeling like I’m doing it halfway.”
It’s a safe bet that mothers of previous generations didn’t feel the pressure that today’s moms do—especially those of us living in the high-achieving Bethesda area—to be the perfect parent, to do as much as or more than other moms do.
Raising a family in Connecticut in the 1960s and ’70s, my mother kept a tidy house, cooked the meals and made sure my two brothers and I wore nice enough clothes. But she didn’t arrange playdates or make sure our summers were filled with enrichment activities. She didn’t feel compelled to attend my summer softball games, or even to drive me to them since the coach lived nearby and could always give me a lift.
Missy’s mother didn’t let her life revolve around Missy or around Missy’s twin siblings, Jennie and Jeff, either. She didn’t help with homework or cut short a night out to pick up the kids from a social event. “You could have friends over, but you’d have to clear it well in advance, and she’d want to know who it was and how many people. It was never even multiples,” Missy says.
Attitudes about child-rearing began to change in the 1970s, around the time Missy and I were growing up. More mothers began entering the workforce, and people started worrying about parents spending “quality time” with their kids.
These days, women make up 47 percent of the workforce. And the employment rate of married mothers with kids has jumped from 37 percent in 1968 to 65 percent in 2011, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of recent U.S. Census data. But conflicted feelings about working mothers persist. In a Pew survey in April 2013, 74 percent of adults said the growing number of working moms has “made it harder for parents to raise children” because the mothers aren’t home as much.
Suzanne Bianchi, the UCLA sociologist who died last November, spent her career studying family dynamics and found that today’s working mothers actually spend as much as or more time on child-rearing activities than stay-at-home moms did in the 1960s. This “intensive form of child-rearing” intensifies the maternal imperative to do everything ourselves, Bianchi and others have found.
“All women today are dealing with [trying to achieve] perfectionism, regardless of their family background,” says Silver Spring social worker Kathleen Smith, who often counsels Bethesda-area women dealing with emotional difficulties and addiction issues resulting from stress. “The pressure to excel at everything is pretty unrelenting.”
Brigid Schulte, an award-winning Washington Post reporter and self-described “harried mother of two,” spent more than a year researching a new book on that very topic, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time (Sarah Crichton Books, March 2014). “The standards on how to be a good mother have become so ratcheted up as to be crazy,” says Schulte, a 51-year-old Alexandria, Va., resident who admits to adding fresh lemon slices to powdered lemonade to fool other mothers into thinking she’d made the real thing. “Fathers don’t have the same standards.”
Every day, women are bombarded with messages preying on their anxieties about not being good enough. Consider this recent radio ad for Math Made Easy DVDs: “I thought I was a good mother,” a woman intones, before explaining that her son struggled with math until she turned to the products for help. The implied message? That her son’s math struggles were her fault.
A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Child and Family Studies by researchers at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., found that women’s “fear of being judged by others exacerbates the impact of feeling that one is not living up to the internalized societal standards of motherhood.”
In a 2013 survey of 7,000 American mothers by TODAYMoms.com, 75 percent said their self-imposed pressure to be perfect was “worse than the pressure they feel from other moms.”
But 42 percent also sometimes felt inadequate after viewing photos of meals, homes and craft projects posted by other moms on the social media site Pinterest.
Friends ask Missy why she pushes herself so hard. Why, for example, does she race 6 miles back to Chevy Chase after her workout with the personal trainer, rather than going directly to her office, about a mile and a half away?
“I have to,” she says. “I can’t just go straight from the gym to work—then all hell would break loose, which maybe is just my own sense of things.” She laughs. Plus, “I need to figure out what’s going on. Catch up with the big girls, too, and fill out forms, permission slips.”
It’s easy to sympathize; my own kids are always telling me to “just chill.” But by all accounts, Missy operates at an energy level far above the rest of us—even on our best days.
She’s “a self-admitted Type A” who likes “to keep active.” Scott? He’s more of a “Type C,” she says.
“I like to think of myself as a 50/50 partner in all of this, but that’s not to say that the management of the household is split 50/50, because it’s clearly not,” says Scott, who handles the bills and “grunt” work around the house. “Part of my role is to be the calming influence when everyone is going 100 mph.”
Missy’s need to be active dates to her teen years, when her stepfather, a builder, told her to get a job if she wanted money for the movies. She did, working throughout high school and college. “That was the point I realized I wanted to keep busy,” she says. And “once I started down that road, I started to realize I like having [money], so that motivated me a lot as well.”
Missy graduated from Duke University and the College of William & Mary law school, then worked either full or part time as a lawyer while raising her family. She joined Pillsbury two years ago. “I like going into work and having challenging things to do,” she says. So much so that she often takes on extra tasks, such as helping to evaluate young associates.
She and Scott also volunteer with several nonprofit organizations, including the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, the Global Down Syndrome Foundation and Imagination Stage, which runs the program for kids with disabilities that Scotty attends.
She also is the go-to party organizer for the nonprofits, chairing galas for Imagination Stage and the Catholic Coalition even as she cooks and hosts parties for family, friends and neighbors. She and Scott promote an “open-door” policy at their six-bedroom home, which was built by Missy’s stepfather about five years ago. “Don’t knock on the door,” they tell friends. “Just come on in.”
When she and Scott were designing their house, Missy insisted on an open floor plan for entertaining. So a great room runs across the back of the house, with a spacious kitchen at one end and a family room at the other. French doors lead out to a big backyard. It’s a sharp contrast to her mother’s stiff and formal style.
“She was the kind of mom who you didn’t go in the living room, you just didn’t,” says Missy, who lets her own children decorate their rooms any way they want. “We had fringe on a beautiful Oriental rug, and she could tell if you walked in there because you’d mess up the fringe. She would totally call you out on it. She’d be like, ‘Who messed up my fringe?’ ”
At the Lesmes house, the front door “is always swinging open,” Missy says. “Somebody’s getting married, and I’m like, ‘Great, we’ll have the party.’ Scott [will] look at them and he’s like, ‘Do we even know them?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, kind of.’ ”
Not that Missy’s laid-back, says Courtney Sullivan, a close friend who worked with her when both were associates in a D.C. law firm in the late ’90s. Courtney’s husband is former NFL defensive back Roger Brown, who was with the New York Giants when the team won the Super Bowl in 1991 and who happens to be Missy’s personal trainer. Courtney, who lives in Silver Spring, is no slouch in the achievement department herself at age 43: She has a 9-year-old son, a 16-year-old stepdaughter and 17-year-old stepson, and she has been prosecuting terrorists for the Department of Justice since 2003. But she likes to tease her good friend.
“There’s an open-door policy with a hint of psycho perfectionism,” she says of Missy as the two of us sip coffee one late December morning at a Panera in Silver Spring.
Missy knows she can be a bit nutty about things being just so. One morning before work, she was staring at two lamp cords trailing off a table in full view behind the family room couch.
She decided she could no longer tolerate that the cords had to travel across the rug to its edge, then go under it to travel back to the outlets right beneath the table. So she shoved aside the table, took a knife and made two slices in the rug so the cords could reach the outlets more cleanly and directly. Then she drove to work.
Even with all the family and work obligations that Missy juggles, she still manages to find time for friends. “She is the friend everybody goes to with their problems,” says Courtney, who remembers calling Missy late at night when she and her husband were going through a rough patch.
“Despite how incredibly busy she is, she always had time for me as a friend,” says Maria Leonard Olsen, a longtime Bethesda Magazine contributor and mother of two who has known Missy for 14 years. “She’s intensely loyal, and someone who my kids consider a second mother.”
Missy’s kids describe her as the “cool mom,” always willing to allow friends over for late-night pizza and a sleepover.
“All my friends, even coming home from college, they’re like, ‘We want to see your mom,’ ” Emily tells me during a Thanksgiving visit home from college. “Unlike a lot of my friends’ moms, she’s able to be a friend as well as a mom.”
Emily remembers her mother taking care of high school friends who had been drinking. “She would never judge you. She would say, ‘I’m just here to take care of you and make sure you’re safe. That’s my job,’ ” Emily says. “My friends never took advantage of that—I never took advantage of that—you just respected her more.”
Missy has always been maternal, Courtney says, probably because she lost her mother early, leaving a void that Missy had to fill. She felt so responsible for helping her stepfather care for her teenage siblings, who are 12 years younger than she is, that she and Scott moved to Olney to be near them. They lived there until the twins headed to college, then moved to Chevy Chase. Missy remains close to her siblings, getting together often with Jeff and his family, who live in Gaithersburg. Jennie and her family live in Austria, where her husband is posted with the State Department.
In early December, Missy and Scott flew to Austria to help Jennie fly home for a visit after she said she was worried about traveling alone with two toddlers. The trip provided a rare opportunity for Scott and Missy, who will celebrate their 20th anniversary this spring, to get away together for a few days.
At home, Missy is “the general,” Scott says. She schedules the carpools, doctors’ appointments and kids’ activities, and sets the tone for the household.
“She’s not one to really ask for help. It’s just not her nature,” says Scott, who met Missy in law school and remembers her as driven even then. “I certainly have offered to take some of that off her plate, but that never seems to work for the long term. In her mind, it’s just more efficient to handle it.”
Even so, things don’t always run smoothly in the Lesmes household.
“There were a number of times we’d forget” to pick up Scotty from Imagination Stage, Missy says with a laugh. “They’d call us, ‘Can someone pick Scotty up?’ We’d call each other [and say], ‘You told me you were going to pick him up.’ ”
Work deadlines are always pressing—litigation lawyers live by the court docket, with no control over their daily schedules—leaving little time for last-minute snafus at home. Like the morning Missy found herself “running around like crazy” trying to find “anything blue” for Anna to wear for school Spirit Day. She finally threw up her hands in despair and yelled, “Why did you not do this the night before?”
Then there was the day in mid-November when she read an email from a friend who had already finished her Christmas shopping. Missy felt a rising sense of panic and immediately began checking sales online.
“I feel inadequate all the time,” Missy says. “I look at other people’s perfect lives and say, ‘Oh, gosh, how does she do it?’ ”
Courtney remembers one of the few times she ever heard Missy have a meltdown. It was Christmastime a few years ago. Things were crazy at work, and Missy was trying to decorate the house, wrap gifts for the kids and prepare for her annual Christmas Eve open house, along with the family dinner she’d host on the holiday. She was writing a brief when she heard a loud crash around 2 a.m. “She goes downstairs, and the Christmas tree is on the floor, ornaments shattered,” Courtney says. “She called me and she was crying, ‘My Christmas tree just crashed. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ It was just the symbol of everything.”
Missy remembers staying up hours afterward, cleaning up the mess so her kids wouldn’t see it when they woke up. “The holidays are when I need to show that I can be just like anybody else’s mom,” she says.
The pressure we all feel to keep the plates spinning has spawned a legion of websites and blogs offering tips and advice. On the surface, the advice seems doable, until you consider individual family dynamics.
Take this helpful hint from Parents.com on how to make mornings easier: “Pack the kids’ lunches, lay out their clothes (plus your own), and have everyone shower” the night before, the site advises.
I recently suggested that my 16-year-old might have more time to get ready for school if she selected her clothes the night before. She rolled her eyes. “Why,” she asked, “would I want to wear the next morning what I picked out the night before?”
When I ask Scott if he considers Missy to be Supermom, he tells me: “It’s just not believable that everything always goes off without a hitch and she handles everything so perfectly. She’s a wonderful woman, but everybody reaches their limit and we have a little reset.”
Missy knows that ultimately she can’t totally control everything that happens at work or at home.
“I love to put on a happy face and try to make things fun and happy,” she says, “but there are absolutely times when my head is spinning around and the kids can see it on my face when I walk in. They do know to back off.”
She relieves the stress by socializing with family and friends and having a glass of wine or two. One Friday in late September, Missy and Scott stayed up past midnight, laughing and drinking as they choreographed a dance routine to Don Henley and Stevie Nicks’ 1981 hit, “Leather and Lace,” to perform at an upcoming party.
Friday nights often find Missy throwing an impromptu dance party with Scott and the kids; the time together helps her feel better about having to miss school events because of work.
“That sounds kind of silly, but I feel like I try,” she says. “Maybe I overcompensate because I can’t be…I can’t be the perfect mom. I want to be, but there’s just not enough time, not enough hours.”
Her friend Sara Knoll describes Missy’s house as “a train station; there’s people coming and going all the time.” A Chevy Chase mother of two who works for a communications firm in downtown Bethesda, Sara met Missy eight years ago when their daughters were trying out for a soccer team. We’re talking at Starbucks on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, where she and Missy have come after finishing a 5-mile run on the Capital Crescent Trail.
“If I didn’t see how happy and connected her family is, I would worry more,” Sara says. But, she tells Missy, “I feel that somehow you have the energy to make it all work. I definitely worry that you don’t get enough sleep. But I never feel like: Oh, she’s working too much and not home enough. Your house is just like this happy place.”
A few nights before Halloween, I stop by Missy’s “happy place.” She arrived home from work at about 7 and is enjoying a glass of red wine with her mother-in-law, Dorothy Shetterly, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Purcellville, Va., and is visiting overnight.
Dishes of Margarita’s roast chicken and mashed potatoes sit on the kitchen table for Anna, who’s still at soccer practice. Scott has taken Scotty on a last-minute trip to buy a Halloween costume.
Missy has promised to wait for Anna to carve pumpkins in between her homework and finishing a school project later that night. Maggie flips through a book of elaborate pumpkin designs, declaring an intricate haunted house and a cat face to be her favorites.
Still dressed in the white sweater and black pants that she wore to work, Missy decides shortly before 8 that she can’t wait any longer. “I’m just going to get those pumpkins ready,” she says, taking a carving knife to a large gourd on the counter. Dorothy laughs. She and Missy are cut from the same cloth, always needing to be busy. “Everyone says Scott married his mom,” Dorothy says.
It seems as if Missy can’t relax for more than a few minutes. But Courtney later explains that carving pumpkins is “a way to unwind from the hyperdrive [of work]. For someone like Missy, who’s multitalented, all of that other stuff [she does] is an outlet for what you don’t get to do in a very highly focused career.”
At about 10 that night, Missy emails me photos of four pumpkins she has carved with her daughters: the haunted house and cat face from the book, plus a monster and one with ghosts.
We all make choices. I chose to leave a newspaper career and to work part time in order to be home with my kids. Over the years, I’ve often wondered about my choice as I’ve watched former colleagues advance in their careers.
Missy and Scott both chose high-pressure jobs that require long hours but enable them to afford household help, a beautiful home and private schools for their kids. All choices, though, come at a price.
Missy recalls a conversation she had with her youngest daughter last fall. She was preparing for yet another business trip to Tennessee, and Anna wondered if the family could move there so Missy wouldn’t be away so often. If we did that, Missy thought at the time, we wouldn’t have our house and all our stuff.
“We want to live a certain way,” she tells me. “I think it goes back to that certain work ethic. If you want it, you’ve got to work for it. That requires long hours. It will be interesting to see what my daughters think one day, whether it was worth it to them. I don’t profess to say that what I’m doing is the right way. It’s tough because I’m always racked with guilt about something.”
When I ask Emily, who describes herself as “very, very close” to Missy, she tells me she used to get upset in elementary school whenever Missy missed a school performance. But her mother always managed to keep in touch throughout the day by phone or text.
“She always kept me in the back of her head,” says Emily, who now appreciates how hard her mother works at home and in her career. “I want to be that kind of person that does everything, making our house that happy place.”
Julie Rasicot is the associate editor of the magazine. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.