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Lake Forest Mom Shares Insights on Juggling Work, Motherhood, Family Life

'I’ve been reminded just how much I have to learn and how much our children teach us.'

Lake Forest resident Melissa Oakley recalls vividly the day her first son, Will, was born.

It was two days before her 31st birthday and Melissa anticipated the arrival of motherhood with confidence and conviction.

“I felt like I was growing and learning my way around ‘real life’ – as a wife, through marriage, and as a professional – through pouring myself into work I valued. I felt like I actually knew a thing or two,” Melissa recalls.

Then, Will was born.

Melissa’s sister, Betsy, called her just after the firstborn arrived. She told Melissa, “Your life will never be the same after today.”

“She was right!” Melissa acknowledges.

Humbled By Motherhood

What surprised the now mother-of- three most about motherhood is “how truly humbling it is,” Melissa says. “I went in like most moms focused on the immediate chapters: Chapter 1, mothering an infant; chapter 2, toddler,” she explained.  “What I’ve learned is that it (becoming a mom) envelops you. I’ve been reminded just how much I have to learn and how much our children teach us.”

Melissa’s husband, Bill, believes she has always had the qualities of a great mother.  “She’s totally dedicated to her family, full of love, smart, endlessly encouraging,” Bill said.  “Her boys will always come first.  By the way, I consider myself one of her boys… her first boy.”

Bill continued, “Melissa makes everybody in our family better. She is really great at finding moments to connect with the boys on their terms, and their terms are a constantly moving target. She is the heart of our family.”

Motherhood has continued to evolve for Melissa since her eldest was born. She and Bill have three sons – Will, 17, attends ; Carter, 13, and Spencer, 12, both attend . 

In addition, just two weeks ago, the Oakleys added another son to the family – albeit temporarily – as they welcomed Rotary Club exchange student Thibaut Jauquet to their home. Thibaut, 15, who is from France, will visit with the Oakleys until late May and then Will plans to stay with Thibaut’s family in June.

Searching For Balance

Balance is the greatest challenge facing today’s mothers, Melissa said.

“Balance in the way we juggle our roles and responsibilities… in the way we encourage our kids to excel and achieve versus encouraging them to simply be kids… in our use of and reliance on technology…  in how much we hold on – and how much we let go,” she noted.

“Balance is often elusive, but I never stop trying to find it,” Melissa added.

And balance is a commodity that’s often hard to find in the lives of modern families. Melissa, senior vice president and partner at Fleishman Hillard International Public Relations in Chicago, often does not return home from work until later in the evening.  Bill, who teaches seventh grade at Northbrook Junior High School, is home in the afternoon/early evening to manage the boys’ after school activities and dinner.

“Life gets pretty busy during the week,” Bill said.  “I do some of the cooking, which always keeps thing interesting.”

But on Sundays, Bill said Melissa makes their home a “safe oasis” for the boys, cooking a roast or other favorite dinner, filling the house with a delicious aroma.  Then Melissa spends time with the boys, working in the kitchen or on school projects. 

“I know nothing makes her happier,” Bill said. “It's almost sweeter because she doesn't get to do it every day.  It's a recurring memory that plays out during the year."

Spencer testifies to the value of these moments with mom. “She works so hard, but she's able to spend lots of time with us,” he said. “She's always there for the important things.”

Will said he tries to make the most of his time with mom. “We went on an awesome college visit trip this February. The chance to have Mom to myself for just a little while was so refreshing, and I know we both had a great time learning about potential schools in each other's company,” he said.

Whatever It Takes

Melissa believes strongly that working mothers need to find solutions that work for their unique family situations.

“I have been fortunate to have a very engaged and supportive husband who is willing to do whatever it takes to help,” she said. “I don’t think we should count on organizations and institutions around us to make life easier for employed moms. It’s up to each of us to establish the infrastructure that works for us. And that changes as our children and our lives evolve.” 

One area, however, in which Melissa said working parents could use some help is with the scheduling of critical school and community meetings.

“Schools can do a better job of scheduling critical meetings at times of the week when working parents are more likely to be able to attend – or by setting up call-in numbers where parents can participate remotely by phone,” she suggested.

She added, “Working parents aren’t less interested in what’s going on in their schools and communities – just less present sometimes. Communications tools to help us bridge the gap would allow us to be more supportive and involved.”

Celebrating Mom

The Oakley family has big plans for Mother’s Day. Bill explained, “We'll meet my mom for the 11 a.m. service at church, go somewhere in town for brunch and come home and put on comfy clothes and hang out.”

Bill said the best part of the day will be when the boys present their cards to mom.  “They're always sweet and genuine, just like Melissa,” he smiled. “I couldn't ask for a better partner to raise my boys."

Will says he plans to thank his mom for her patience. Spencer will express his gratitude for mom’s “advice, for being a good listener and for always being optimistic, even when things are hard." Carter will show endless appreciation for mom’s chocolate chip cookies.

The Lake Forest mom said that, though our lives today are more mobile, more diverse and more complicated, motherhood itself remains the same.

“The essence of motherhood is timeless.  It transcends time and geography and ethnicity,” Melissa mused. “What’s at the core of motherhood has always been there; but the playbook has evolved. How we execute has changed because society has changed. One of my key jobs as a mom is to do what I can to simplify our lives and keep our focus on what really matters."

As any good mother would do, Melissa seasons her vision of motherhood with a pinch of reality:  “Just about the time we hit our stride, something changes,” she conceded.

This is why there is true motherly wisdom in Melissa’s advice for new mothers:  “Fasten your seat belt. You’re in for the ride of your life.”

Robin May 07, 2011 at 02:08 PM
Thank you for such a great article on Melissa and her family! We have known the Oakley's since our 17 year-olds sons were in preschool together. She is a Mom I have admired for years and continue to wonder how she does it all with such grace and calm. Have a very Happy Mother's day Melissa, you deserve the best!
Lori Dillon May 07, 2011 at 06:44 PM
I had the pleasure of working with Melissa on the Executive APT Board for District 67 during a period when she was not working outside the home. She had to leave the board when she accepted a job but it was pleasure to get to know her. She is genuinely kind, thoughtful and she makes juggling a busy family and work look easy. It's a testimony to her dedication and commitment to anything she does.

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