Only Good Options

Asked what her parenting rules are, Jennifer Shemwell, president of Phyllis Browning Real Estate, chuckles and goes to retrieve a list from the kitchen bulletin board where she keeps it for everyone to see. It’s titled “School and Home Responsibilities,” and it’s practically a comprehensive guide to leading a good life. “Your father and I expect you to give God your best and to give us your best in everything you do both at school and at home,” states one entry that’s later followed by specific suggestions on how to fulfill the expectations, including: Wake up on time; Thank God for the day and what he has given you; Show love to your family at breakfast; Eat something good for you; Try your hardest in school, no late assignments, no excuses … This is followed by a list of consequences that would follow if the kids fail to fulfill their responsibilities. A couple of relevant biblical verses are also on the sheet. Clearly, faith is important to this family. “We want the children to know that God loves them and made them each unique in the world. We want them to be grateful and also to see other people as unique and special,” says the chic and slim Shemwell. “They are kids and they fight and get into things, but deep down inside, they are listening.” Shemwell and her architect husband, Robert Shemwell, have three children ages 9, 11 and 12. She was already a star saleswoman in the real estate field when her first child, daughter Paris, was born, but she took time off to nurture her firstborn. After seven months, however, her boss — who happens to be her mother and the agency’s namesake — summoned her back. “I always knew I would go back to work, but I was having a good time at home and would have stayed longer if I could,” she notes.

Like so many women today, Shemwell takes for granted that she can manage both the work and home fronts. Her job is not only important in terms of remuneration but also as a source of personal fulfillment. With five offices, 25 employees and 150 agents, the president is a busy executive who spends her mornings in meetings and training new agents and her afternoons selling houses. “I really love selling real estate,” she explains. “People think I have a great job because I get to see so many beautiful houses, but what I love more is working with people to help them achieve their dreams.” Outside of work, the Shemwells spend as much time as possible with the kids. Together, they enjoy hiking in the Hill Country, visiting the farmers’ market at the Pearl, playing cards and other games and cooking dinner together on weekends. A lot of what she does as a parent was learned from her mother, she points out, but times have changed and families have had to adapt.

“What’s different is that I had a lot of freedom growing up; I rode my bike to school and all over the neighborhood. No one does that today,” she says. “It’s harder for kids to learn independence. I am challenged to find ways for kids to explore independence. The other big difference is technology. When my Mom took me out for ice cream, it was just the two of us. Now I carry my cell phone at all times, and the time with the children gets interrupted. But I try to spend some time with each child one-on-one every week. I like to surprise them with things they enjoy. Sometimes, however, they end up in my office.” She also finds time to get involved with the children’s schools. Though her own mother stayed home until Jennifer was 12, Shemwell says that her parents “raised her to work,” and her husband likes her professional success. To help her manage everything, the children’s nanny still comes over to cook weekday dinners and lend a hand around the house.

Since a good saleswoman must have insight into human psychology, we ask Shemwell if any of her professional skills come in handy in the parenting arena. “Good question!” she comments. “Well, with my clients I put only good options in front of them. It’s the same with my kids. I want them to make choices, but I only put good options in front of them.”

MOTHERHOOD CHANGED HER

Many San Antonians know Tina Zillmann as the tall, pretty owner of the Skin Rejuvenation Clinic in Alamo Heights that offers a plethora of skin care treatments, from waxing and chemical peels to ultrasound and IPL photofacials. An aesthetician by training, Zillmann is also a savvy businesswoman who, with her husband, Matthew, runs four establishments in town — two skin clinics and two hair salons — in addition to producing an internationally distributed skin care product line called Advanced Rejuvenating Concepts. Her advice is sought on TV, and she frequently speaks at trade meetings and trains other aestheticians. By all standards, Zillmann’s is an American story of hard work, good instincts and willingness to take a chance. A native of Southhampton, Mass., in 1991 21-year-old Tina moved to San Antonio, where her mother had been transferred by her company. “I was looking for a change, and I liked it here,” she says. While working at the Prescriptives counter at Foley’s, she became aware of the many customers who shopped at the adjacent Dermablend stand, where they bought heavy makeup to cover skin discoloration and scars. That sparked an idea. There was clearly a need to treat cosmetic problems of people with melasma or acne and burn scarring. Already a trained aesthetician, the enterprising young woman contacted five doctors offering to work with their post-surgical and laser treatment patients. Dr. LeBaron Dennis responded, eventually inviting her to start her practice in his office. “I learned a lot about skin there,” she notes. “We worked a great deal with burn patients on smoothing out and retexturing skin.”

About that time she also married Matthew, asking him to buy her a washer and dryer instead of an engagement ring. Though money was tight, the couple “had a ball” starting and growing their business and enjoying young married life. But things changed three years later when their daughter, Morgan, was born. The baby was six weeks early and after a 13-hour labor had to be vacuum extracted. To the new parents’ dismay, the newborn was soon diagnosed with hydrocephalus — a building of fluid inside the skull that causes brain swelling — and needed an operation to insert a drainage shunt under her skull. That was the beginning of an ordeal of emergencies, operations, not always helpful doctors and even an accusation of child abuse. Because the original shunt did not have appropriate controls, the baby’s skull collapsed at one point, necessitating a trip to the emergency room. The doctor there mistook an internal bleeding caused by the first operation for abuse and refused to listen to the Zillmanns’ explanation.

“CPS (Child Protective Services) came, and they wanted me to say that my husband had done it,” recalls Zillmann, referring to the bleeding wound. “They were going to take our parental rights away, and they refused to talk to the baby’s pediatrician.” Desperate, the parents engaged lawyer Stephani Walsh to fight for them, and within days the judge who handled the case dismissed the charges and made CPS apologize to the parents. Not surprisingly, there is still anger in Zillmann’s voice as she recounts these events. The couple subsequently found a more competent and more sympathetic neurosurgeon, Dr. Micam Tullous, to take care of Morgan. As her brain grew, the little girl had to have several more operations to enlarge her skull. For a young mother this was a challenging time. “If I didn’t have my husband to help me cope, I don’t know how I would have made it through it all,” admits Zillmann. “We never asked why that happened to us and never blamed each other. Also, we didn’t want Morgan to feel like a victim. These were the cards we were dealt, and we just had to get through it.” Work-wise, it helped that their staff was understanding and supportive. “We couldn’t have held jobs if we didn’t have our own business,” she adds. “We took shifts to be in the hospital with our daughter, and there was always that fear of E.R. trips and hospitals.” As Morgan’s condition stabilized, Zillmann was able to bring the toddler to work with her and later enrolled the child in a nearby day care.

During those early years, the Zillmanns had pretty much decided not to have more children, but their son, Matthew Jarrett, made his healthy entrance into the world three and a half years after Morgan was born. “I didn’t let any OBGYN near me the second time. I did it the natural way,” says Tina. “He’s the happiest, easiest child. His big sister looks after him, but she also envies him, I think, because he’s had such an easy time.” Now 17, Morgan is a bright and active teen who loves running, skiing and track and field, and even cooks dinner for the family frequently, but she will always need her shunt. Her ambition is to study neurochemistry. Being a mother has taught Zillman a few things. “Before I was a mother, I was a businesswoman; I was not very tolerant of other people’s family needs,“ she admits. “I was like, ‘I am working through dinner, you can miss dinner, too!’ I was a workaholic; work was my identity. Now both my husband and I are much more tolerant; we know people need family time, days off. We try to make people who work for us happy. So I learned tolerance and patience. Employees like me better; most of them are women and mothers.” And she believes that her children benefit from having a successful working mother. “I have stronger children because I work,” she states with conviction. “They can wash their own clothes, cook their own meals, they can do a lot of things for themselves. My kids also know the value of the dollar. They know Mom and Dad have to work, and they’ve watched us work hard. I think they will be better prepared for life.”

BORN TO BE A MOMMY

Growing up in San Antonio as an only child, Courtney Skarda Pena watched her mother, who never went to college, build a successful career in the insurance business. Having a working mom was normal to her. Today she, too, is a working mother, who spends her days at San Antonio’s largest IT company, Rackspace, where she is the VP of online sales and marketing at age 37. In 2012, the company nominated her, and the Business Journal chose her, as one of the 40 Under 40 rising business stars in town. Her responsibilities include managing and training a sales force of about 100, developing sales strategies and collaborating with other departments to provide the best web hosting and cloud computing services to a great variety of business clients. “I am one of those people who need to go-go nonstop, with many irons in the fire. That keeps me moving and charged,” she tells me even before we sit down in a corner area of the company’s food court to talk. Rackspace occupies a huge building that once housed Windsor Park Mall. As a child, Pena often came here to shop, so she is in familiar territory. “My passion is to figure out how to motivate my people and create an environment where they can fulfill our mission,” she adds a moment later. She’s clearly good at that. Her strategies have helped increase monthly revenues by 250 percent while the number of customers has grown from 12,000 in 2006 to 190,000 today.

Yet she always wanted to be a mom, too. “I was born to be a mommy,” says the willowy VP with enthusiasm. As an only child who longed for a sibling, she also knew that she wanted more than one child. Today, Pena and her husband, Matthew, are blessed with two boys, ages 8 and 5. When they fight, as all kids do, their mother is always dismayed. “Don’t you know that your brother is the greatest gift that your father and I gave you?” she asks them. With so many responsibilities, Pena’s days are long, starting at 4:45 a.m., when she rises to make breakfast for the family and drive the children to school. To allow their boys to enjoy and explore nature, the Penas chose to live on a rural property in Bulverde, which unfortunately means long daily commutes for the parents. After a day spent largely in meetings, she leaves around 6 p.m. for the drive back. A student-helper picks up the kids from school and gets them going on their chores and homework before their dad takes over at 5:30. Dinner is “catch as catch can,” admits Pena, a combination of sandwiches and going out.

Nevertheless, every night, there’s always time for the family’s “Roses and Thorns” discussion. Everyone shares the best (roses) and worst (thorns) moments of the day. “I discuss with my older son, Jack, the things that he experienced and how he would fix certain things that he was unhappy about,” explains Pena. “I want my kids to be able to solve problems, to be equipped to see 10 steps ahead.” This is particularly relevant today, she adds, because our brave new digitally connected world allows for fewer mistakes and failures. “The best lessons I learned were from my own failures. Now the question is, how do we let kids explore and fail without those failures haunting them for the rest of their lives?” Another issue that concerns her is, ironically, the product of her and her husband’s financial success. Though they can provide a richer, better life for their offspring than they had as children, they would like the boys to still have “that hunger to go out and do things for themselves.”

To lessen sibling rivalry, Pena has also started “dates” with each boy alone. A recent pair of dates consisted of going to Home Depot to buy Valentine’s card supplies and little gifts for their school friends. “Just a silly thing” but a good excuse to spend a little one-on-one time together.

Returning to work after giving birth to her first son was hard, she admits. At the time she was in sales at Dell, Inc. in Austin, and her family needed her income. “Financially, I had to make sure that it made sense for me to work there. I had to feel that the time spent away from my child was time well spent. And I had the need to do something meaningful.” Her present job definitely qualifies. What makes her happy is the ability to promote the well-being and professional success of the “Rackers” she mentors. Asked whether she ever experiences the often-mentioned guilt of working mothers, she responds promptly: “Absolutely. I struggled with it for a long time. I talked to Mom about it. She always made it look so easy. I eventually learned that things are not going to be perfect. I don’t believe in perfect balance. Life is a series of imbalances. Sometimes my family needs 75 percent of my time, sometimes work does. Fortunately, Rackspace is flexible in that regard. My boys have just started to play baseball, so on Wednesdays, I have to leave work at 4 to be at the game, and that’s fine. I can also work from home on occasion.” Still, in an ideal world, she would prefer to work four days a week rather than five.

“I do have friends who are staying home with their kids, and I think I am somewhat envious of them, but they are envious of me,” she says. Then she pauses before continuing on a philosophical note: “A woman needs to do what she feels comfortable with. I have friends who were miserable being away from their children, couldn’t concentrate on work. Other people miss work. Each woman has to figure it out for herself and make sure she has a support system in place for either choice.”

BEING A SINGLE MOM CAN BRING GROWTH

Andrea Cavazos Prescott was happy working as a school nurse, a job that allowed her to be home when her own children returned from school, but a divorce in 2008 forced her out of her comfort zone. Though she continued to live in the family’s Cibolo house with her son and daughter, she eventually realized that as a single mother she would need a higher-paying job. So Prescott now drives an hour each way to and from her job at the Audie Murphy VA Hospital in the Medical Center, but she is not complaining. A whole new world has opened up to her. “It has given me an opportunity to flourish in my career,” she notes. “When I chose to be a nurse, I felt it was a calling that God put in my life. I never felt it was just a job. But here (at the VA) I feel honored to be able to take care of veterans who have sacrificed for our country and therefore for me and my family. I work in the rehabilitation unit, where patients stay for weeks and months, so we get to really know them well, and you begin to feel like they are your family.” Her dedication has been recognized this year with the Outstanding Nurse Award for her unit, and she’s been put in charge of training incoming nursing staff. It’s been “surprisingly rewarding,” she admits.

Nevertheless, adjusting to single parenthood after 14 years of marriage wasn’t easy for either her or the kids. Faith in God and counseling helped them navigate the first treacherous year despite bouts of fear and loneliness. Also helpful to her personally was a mandatory course the divorcing spouses were required to take on how to interact with each other in post-divorce life. “I learned a lot from it,” says Prescott, a pretty brunette with an easy, low-key manner. “Basically you have to treat the other person as a business partner (in raising children), and you can’t let your emotions take over, especially in front of the kids.” The teens see their father every other weekend and once during the week. And then there were all the practical little things that she had to handle all by herself, like paying bills and fixing things around the house. Home Depot and neighbors helped in the latter situation, and her extended family provided emotional support. Though her former husband has quickly moved into a new relationship, Prescott chose not to rush into dating. She also decided not to see men who made her children uncomfortable. “The man I am seeing now treats my children as his own,” she notes with satisfaction.

An especially challenging aspect of her new life has been how to discipline growing youngsters while avoiding becoming too lenient in order to compensate for the hurt caused by divorce. What works well, she found, is withdrawing certain privileges — like going out or using the cell phone — until they fulfill their school and home responsibilities. Recently, Prescott imposed just such a penalty on her daughter, who angrily marched off to her room. “Half an hour later, she came out and gave me a big hug and said, ‘You are the best mom in the world,’” recounts the still amused mom. “I said, ‘I just took your cell phone away and told you that you couldn’t go to the movies.’ She said, ‘I needed that. I feel like you love me so much.’” Wisdom from the mouths of babes!

With all that’s happened in the last few years, Prescott estimates that both she and her kids have grown in many ways. This fall, she will be returning to school to get her master’s, eventually hoping to become a nurse practitioner. And she’s gained a new understanding of marriage: “When I was in my 20s, I just wanted to get married and have that security. Now I want someone to enjoy my life with.”

By Jasmina Wellinghoff