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Brown-Baggers Mix Briefcases and Child Concerns

In an era when neighbors can be strangers, working moms find camaraderie and useful tips at office lunches

At noon on a winter Wednesday, nine working women are giving new meaning to the phrase "Let's do lunch."

Instead of meeting friends or colleagues at a restaurant, they have come to a law office in Chicago's West Loop to join an unusual brown-bag session for working mothers. For an hour, they will share experiences, ask questions, and trade practical solutions to the sometimes daunting task of nurturing children when time is short, extended families are scattered, and neighbors are often strangers.

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"When you're a working mom, there's not much opportunity to talk with other mothers," says Dawn Gray, who founded the group five years ago as president of Moments, a resource company for working parents. She experienced isolation firsthand when she returned to work as vice president of a public relations company after the birth of her first child.

Today the kaffee klatsch is going corporate as lunch-hour sessions like this gain popularity nationwide. Most brown-bag groups for parents are sponsored by large companies and feature outside speakers. They typically focus on a single topic, such as discipline, sibling rivalry, and helping children with homework.

By contrast, Mrs. Gray's discussions rely on conversation, which can range from toddlers' sleep habits and children's school challenges to infant care and alternative work schedules. Groups - two in downtown Chicago and one in suburban Northbrook - meet every three weeks. Participants pay $10 a session.

"Some people come only when they're having a problem," explains Gray, the mother of two children, ages 8 and 5. "Others come no matter what."

As the women settle into blue swivel chairs in a 36th-floor conference room, munching sandwiches and salads, an easy informality prevails, along with refreshing candor.

"I haven't gotten this gig figured out yet," says Erin Drury, referring to her dual role as an assistant partner at Andersen Consulting and the mother of a 10-month-old daughter. "I'm up at 5 and don't go to bed till 11. I run all the time. I think someone has the key to survival, and I'm on a hunt to find it. I want to find that 25th, 26th hour in the day to spend more time with my daughter."

Less juggling, more family time

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Finding ways to carve out more time with children and husbands is, in fact, a recurring theme in this day's discussion, as it is in all Gray's groups. Several years ago, she says, women talked about juggling. "Now I'm hearing more emphasis on finding family time. Women say, 'I really want to have a quality of life.' "

Linda Saran, whose daughters are 2-1/2 and 1-1/2, offers one small idea for achieving that. "We all have breakfast together," she says. "It just gets me grounded for the day." She adds, "You also don't do as much talking at the end of the day. They're more wired then. In the morning, we end up having different conversations than we have in the evening."

As it happens, most of the women in today's group work less than full time, reflecting a pattern Gray has seen increase during the past five years. Yet even reduced schedules, for all their advantages, can pose challenges.

"There's animosity in my office toward part-timers," says Jan Stoner, a court reporter who works a 70-percent schedule. "You have to remind them that you're taking a pay cut. They're jealous." Mrs. Stoner and her husband have four children, ranging in age from 12 to 2-1/2.

Until recently Mary Santry, an executive recruiter, worked three days a week so she could care for the couple's two preschool sons. She says, "The two days I was home I faced decisions: Do I pick up the phone [when clients call], or do I walk around the block and smell the roses for an hour, or do I fold the towels?"

Group members laugh as they tell of tactics they devise for handling business calls at home on their day off. "Sometimes I go into the closet and make phone calls to clients, just to grab a few uninterrupted moments," says Ms. Saran, a marketing consultant to a nonprofit group.

What is an ideal schedule? "Three days a week really gets the point across that you're part-time," says Ms. Drury. "With four days, you might as well be full-time." Ms. Santry agrees. "You're there four days a week with your head down, whereas if you work five days, you can sometimes leave early for an appointment or a haircut."

Spurred by the success of her lunches for mothers, Gray started a group for fathers, led by her husband, Rick. But only four men signed up. They also rejected the brown-bag approach. "They decided they wanted to meet in a restaurant," says Gray. The group soon disbanded.

Networking has its rewards

For the women, this networking, domestic-style, yields rewards. Some advantages are practical. When Lori Shapiro, a media buyer in advertising, tells the group that she is looking for day care for her 18-month-old daughter, Gray offers her a list of child-care centers by ZIP code.

Other benefits are intangible. "It's always interesting to come," says Stoner as the lunch ends. "Here are these women who are professionals and highly educated, and they're all as frazzled as I am. It's reassuring."

Comments like that gratify Gray, who says, "I feel like I'm really doing something good. I'm pursuing my dream. This is helping people to be better parents, which is the most important thing we can all do."

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