Parenting is often a thankless job — with or without a global pandemic. These six Charlotte moms take it all in stride and make managing kids and careers look effortless.
written by Caroline Portillo
photographs by Olly Yung
styling + production by Whitley Adkins
hair + makeup by Elizabeth Tolley and Josiah Reed
Brunotte tries to schedule most of her work calls between 2 and 4 p.m., when her son, Beck, is napping and her daughter, Cora, is curled up with a preschool workbook. “She likes to do homework and pretend she’s working,” Brunotte says. CeliaB Orquidea dress, Five One Five, $415; Eugenia Kim sunny striped straw hat, Coplon’s, $395; Mignonne Gavigan orchid earrings, $235 (similar can be found at Charlotte’s); Jimmy Choo sandals, $795, Coplon’s.
Emily Brunotte’s working-mom-with-little-ones survival strategy: Don’t touch or clean anything until 4 p.m.
“Most of my day, I sit in different spots around the kitchen island, surrounded by groceries I haven’t put away yet, mail I haven’t opened yet, kids’ finger-painting, a bag of pretzels, coffee that’s been cold for two hours,” she says. “That’s my scene right now.”
Brunotte is a branding and marketing maven and a mother of two: Cora, 4, who likes to fill out workbooks and pretend to create video makeup tutorials, and Beck, an always-running, always-bruised 2-year-old who’s been known to dive headfirst off the back of the couch. She’s also a proud stepmom of Ella, 14, and Charlie, 13, who live with her and her husband, Nick, over the summer and most holidays.
As for that kitchen island, when Brunotte is perched in front of it, she’s usually on her laptop, helping small businesses through her content-marketing firm Marsac Consulting. Her clients range from spas to personal stylists to car dealerships, and they turn to her for social-media management, logo design, website refreshes and organic content marketing. Her sweet spot: helping female entrepreneurs help themselves.
“I love the idea of a mom sitting at home working and taking care of her kids,” Brunotte says. “I want to help you help yourself.”
Brunotte, 34, graduated from Queens University of Charlotte in 2009 with a major in business and a minor in Mandarin Chinese. She later attended law school at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She became versed in graphic design and taught herself to code through online courses and YouTube videos. During her second year of law school, she started a blog, Champagne in the Rain, and corresponding Instagram page (@emilybrunotte), which gained traction quickly. Business owners she knew started reaching out: Would she help them with their marketing and branding?
It wasn’t until Brunotte had graduated and taken a job in estate planning for a financial-services firm that she began to see her hobby as a potential full-time job. Her husband encouraged her to make the leap.
Though she’s no longer a practicing attorney, Brunotte still puts her JD to work. “Law school changes the way you think,” she says. “It made me more disciplined. It also gave me this great love of doing research, which I do constantly.”
And then, every day at 4 p.m., she takes a break to tend to that messy kitchen island.
Woman who inspires her: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s hard to go through law school as a female and not be drawn to RBG. She was married and had a 14-month-old when she started law school at Harvard. Her genius, her class and her work ethic were all inspiring.
Favorite app for the kids: ABC Animals
Parenting advice: Prepare to be forever unprepared.
Personal style: Jeans, a white T-shirt, a good pair of shoes and beach waves — that’s what I look like most days.
LaBar says it breaks her heart to hear that the majority of the people who exited the workforce during the pandemic were women. “I know there are things employers can do and policymakers can create that give us more flexibility to achieve a more wholesome approach to how we live, work and play.” Etro silk blouse, $875, and Lafayette 148 blazer, $898, Nordstrom.
It’s the kind of bell you’d find in a boxer’s ring, but this one is mounted in Janet LaBar’s kitchen, where she rings it for family breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“It’s our ‘Order up! Food is ready’ bell,” LaBar says. “And it’s loud.”
In the midst of work-from-home life, it’s impressive to hear that LaBar, president and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance and one of the most powerful players in the 15-county region, is helping prep and serve three meals a day for herself, her husband, James (director of economic development for Charlotte Center City Partners), and their three children: Mabel, 10, and twins Eloise and Gus, both 8.
Well, LaBar says, laughing, “I suck at playing with my kids. … For me, it’s always been, ‘Let me provide for my family, make sure they have a roof over their heads, food on the table.’”
That’s the kind of mother LaBar’s mom was. An immigrant from the Philippines and the wife of a sailor in the military who was always traveling, Rosalinda Magno often worked two or three jobs to provide for LaBar and her two brothers as they grew up in Pensacola, Fla. She ended her career as a medical lab technologist supervising a team of more than 50 other lab techs.
LaBar, who had held a similar chamber CEO role in Portland, Ore., was hired to lead the newly formed Charlotte Regional Business Alliance in early 2019. The alliance was created by uniting the Charlotte Chamber and Charlotte Regional Partnership, two groups that had been plagued by turf wars. Overseeing a team of 33 people, LaBar, 44, is the first female — and certainly the first Asian American woman — to lead either of the now-merged groups.
More than half of LaBar’s time at the helm has been marked by the frenzy of the pandemic and the resulting upheaval of an industry grounded in handshakes and getting people together in one space to talk about the region’s challenges and opportunities. “You lose that in a Brady Bunch-style screen meeting,” she says.
When Mabel, Eloise and Gus first transitioned to remote learning last spring, LaBar spent months posted up at the kitchen table with them, working on her laptop while the three learned to negotiate iPads, Zoom, meeting IDs and time management. “It was complete, complete chaos,” she says.
But her kids are now on a first-name basis with many of the city’s movers and shakers. They often ask “what Ms. Carol said” (that would be Carol Lovin, an executive vice president at Atrium Health and chair of the CLT Alliance), or “what Mr. Michael called about” (that would be Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners).
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, what’s going on with racial equity, mom?’” LaBar says. “I feel like we are unintentionally cultivating these little community leaders in our home.”
The whole experience has also brought a sense of shared humanity. LaBar isn’t fazed when Timber, the family’s Sheepadoodle, pushes the door open with his nose, or when the sounds of one of her kids’ musical instruments ring out from a few rooms away.
As for the boxer’s bell — if it makes a cameo on a Zoom call, it’s a reminder that family time is important, LaBar says. “We’re all still in this together.”
Women who inspire her: Our family is pretty enamored with the U.S. Women’s National Team (soccer). I admire these high-performance athletes — some of them working moms — who are leveraging their platform to champion equal pay for women, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights. They are incredible role models living their best lives and leading by example so our daughters and our sons can “see it to be it.”
Go-to pandemic outfit: Is this a thing? I never leave home without a 704 Shop mask.
Pandemic pastime: Taking family walks with our Covid pup, Timber; he is what we didn’t know we were missing in our lives.
“When the kids are in bed, I …” … do laundry (constantly washing soccer uniforms!), make their school lunches, inevitably discovering that we need more groceries, which leads me to late-night online shopping at Whole Foods for (fingers crossed) next-day delivery. Then my husband and I compare notes for tomorrow’s schedules, and finally, I wake up the sleeping laptop to catch up on emails and get more work done.
Go-to workday lunch: When I’m heading into the office and know I’ll be on back-to-back Zoom calls, I try to grab a good culture cottage cheese or a Kettle & Fire bone broth. If I’m out of those (see above re: online grocery shopping), I take my amazing colleague Colleen’s offer to pick up lunch for me — The Sandwich Club’s Healthy Choice (#19) on a croissant is an easy go-to.
In pre-Covid days, Fogarty and her husband would try to coordinate one family dinner halfway between their house and the WCCB Charlotte broadcast studios. Afterward, Sawyer and Sadie would stop by the station and run around. “They loved it,” Fogarty says. Sika handmade dress, $396, Chinese Laundry sandals, $79, and Primaura Lucite box clutch, $65, all from Chosen; Silvia Furmanovich earrings, Tiny Gods, $5,940; Anne & Valentin Silvana sunglasses, Sally’s Optical Secrets, $365
When you meet a TV personality like Morgan Fogarty, you might expect her off-air nights and weekends are marked by high heels, craft cocktails and small bites at a rooftop bar with a skyline view.
Nope, Fogarty says, as she drives into the WCCB Charlotte broadcast studios, where she anchors the news at 10 p.m. and the popular WCCB News Edge at 10:30 p.m. Even before the pandemic, Fogarty, one of the city’s most recognizable names for over a decade, preferred pajamas to nightlife and “dirty barn clothes with zero makeup and unwashed hair” to pretty much anything else.
The barn is the Union County spot where Fogarty keeps her two horses, a Haflinger named Macaroni (“Mac” for short) and Saint, a thoroughbred and former racehorse. It’s where Fogarty unwinds from the hours she spends each week researching, writing and interviewing some of the region’s highest-profile leaders.
Fogarty’s parents owned a farm in Lancaster, Pa., and growing up, she competed in horse shows. But she didn’t rekindle her love for horseback riding until her son, Sawyer, 8, expressed an interest several years ago. Sawyer’s equestrian hobby was short-lived, but Fogarty found herself smitten once again. Now, she rides her horses nearly every day, and she and her 5-year-old daughter, Sadie, spend the lion’s share of each weekend at the barn.
Fogarty graduated from Penn State University with a degree in broadcast communications. After a brief stint at an NBC affiliate in Hagerstown, Md., Fogarty moved to Charlotte, where she’s spent most of the last 16 years.
In the first few months of this year, Fogarty’s days unfolded like this: virtual schooling with the kids, riding at the barn, working from home, driving to the studio to meet a skeleton crew, then heading back home around 12:30 a.m. She and her husband, Jeremy Spring — who, believe it or not, was her fifth-grade boyfriend — did a lot of tag-teaming, from horse shows to lacrosse games to caring for the family’s lizard, hamster, three cats and Doberman pinscher named Rachel.
As for that remote learning, Sawyer didn’t mind it so much. But Sadie wasn’t a fan of kindergarten by computer screen.
“God bless the teachers,” Fogarty says. “I would get text messages from Sadie’s teacher that said, ‘Sadie has wandered away from her computer and is putting makeup on in the background. Can you put her back at the computer?’ or ‘Sadie is lying down on the ground playing with her dog.’ Or ‘Sadie has taken the hamster out of the cage and is playing with her.’” Fogarty laughs. “I think she got pretty tired of our shenanigans.”
Fogarty turns 40 this month. In honor of it, she says she made “the most exciting purchase I think I’ve ever made”: a used horse trailer. To her, it represents freedom — for her, Sadie, Mac and Saint.
“I was so thrilled to have this filthy, used horse trailer,” she says. “We can hit the road and do whatever we want. That’s a good 40th birthday gift.”
Local woman who inspires her: Kristie Puckett Williams. She’s a force to be reckoned with in Charlotte and across North Carolina in the fight for social justice and equity.
National woman who inspires her: Abby Phillip, a Harvard-educated journalist on CNN. She’s supremely wise, talented, brilliant. I love watching her news coverage.
Best mom hack: I bought a pack of TableTopics questions (the family version) and I keep them on our dining-room table. When we eat dinner together — which doesn’t happen every night because of my schedule — we pull cards and ask each other fun, interesting questions. I love listening to the answers my kids come up with, and it’s a great chance to segue into other conversations.
Personal style: Stevie Nicks vibes.
Before the pandemic, Chef Joya spent a year working on recipes for her first cookbook, though she didn’t have the bandwidth to flesh it out. But when the world stopped? “I wrote the cookbook in three days.” Farm Rio mixed print tropical maxi dress, $450, and Christian Louboutin Bodrum espadrille sandals, $795, Neiman Marcus; Noble Collective necklace, $245, and earrings, $54, Chosen.
Nothing about Adjoa Courtney fits the granola-and-Birkenstocks stereotype of a vegan chef. She wears crop tops and fake lashes. She has pink hair (for now) and prefers jewel-toned chef coats over the standard-issue white. And when she is making her soul food — yes, vegan soul food — she cranks up the Isley Brothers, Patti LaBelle and Anita Baker.
“Some people will say, ‘Joya, what makes your food so good?’” she says. “It’s my energy. I have to make sure my mood stays lifted. I’m grooving.”
Courtney, better known as Chef Joya to her more than 69,000 followers on Instagram (@cookingwithjoya) and TikTok (@chefjoya), has a robust personal chef clientele and is swarmed at every pop-up food event she hosts, both in Charlotte and beyond. Before the pandemic, she was known for her in-home tasting events — Chef Joya and a few other chefs and servers would gather 50 people for a seven- to 10-course themed tasting meal. Her signature: veganizing soul food and dishes with Afro-Caribbean, French and African cultural influences — and doing it so seamlessly you won’t believe there’s no meat.
Every night, you can follow along on Instagram Live as Chef Joya makes dinner for her kids — a 16-year-old daughter and three sons, ages 13, 17 and 19 — and her girlfriend, Ava. None of the kids are fully vegan, but they salivate nonetheless at her dishes with names like “Nashville Hot Chik’n” and “Krab Cake Stuffed Ched’r Biscuits.”
Chef Joya, 37, started a mostly vegan diet long before it was trendy. When she was 7 years old and growing up in Milwaukee, her parents adopted the lifestyle after finding out her dad was borderline diabetic. “My parents literally came home and said, ‘We’re not doing any meat,’” Chef Joya recalls. “It was that quick.”
Chef Joya was a hair and makeup artist for 15 years before entering the world of food service. She never went to culinary school and isn’t classically trained. But her countless hours of experience over her home stove are transforming the way people across the world eat. She’s sold thousands of copies of her three e-cookbooks, which range from $14.99 to $29.99 and cover everything from brunch delicacies to vegan cookouts.
So for anyone looking for a new spin on their outdoor gatherings this summer, take a page from Chef Joya’s book, and pass the mac & cheez, please.
Local woman who inspires her: Chef Lisa Brooks. She’s an amazing mentor and the owner of Heart & Soul Personal Chef Services, which features nine Black women chefs.
National woman who inspires her: Beyonce. She’s the best at what she does, and she doesn’t compete with anyone. She’s her own competition.
Practical parenting advice: Your children have their own destinies. You are only the vessel and their guide.
Personal style: Glamour hippie with edge.
Pandemic pastime: Painting.
“When the kids are in bed, I…” … am already asleep.
Gee uses six puppets in her therapy practice. Each animal (turtle, sloth, shark, dragon, dog and eagle) is a symbol of a different stage of selfhood — the child, adolescent and adult — and Gee has her clients reference them to illustrate their feelings. Sika handmade dress, $396, headband, $40, and Primaura earrings, $125, all from Chosen.
Talking with Mollie Gee while she sits on her porch, her cadence soft and gentle as birds chirp in the background, it’s easy to see why she was a safe harbor for so many during the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Founder of SouthPark-based The Nest Counseling, Gee’s practice focuses on women and moms. And as a mother of a young daughter and middle-school son, she’s attuned to her clients’ particular journeys through anxiety, depression, childhood trauma, grief and loss.
Gee has also experienced many of those conditions firsthand. In fact, her Instagram account, @TheChubbyDebutante, is a nod to her past insecurities, fears and a self-loathing that manifested itself in an eating disorder.
Gee, 41, grew up in a wealthy family in Nashville, Tenn., that had high expectations. “The message I received in my very privileged family was that in order to be loved and accepted, I must be perfect,” she recalls. “And to be perfect, to me, was to be skinny, pretty and smart.” She coped by binge eating, often starting with a couple gallons of ice cream and ending with two packages of Oreos.
After earning a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Gee spent nine years as a nurse practitioner. Her specialty was child sexual abuse and pediatric hematology and oncology, and in her work she saw the impact of mental health on physical health — and realized she wanted to be involved on the psychology side. It wasn’t until she was in the throes of earning a second master’s degree in clinical health at UNC Charlotte that she began to really grapple with her own wounded past — and truly came to grips with her eating disorder.
“Nobody tells you this, but if you do it right, counseling school will break you down and shatter you in a million pieces,” Gee says. At 33, she spent a year recovering, with the help of counseling and a nutritionist.
A licensed clinical mental health counselor associate, Gee says many of her clients have struggled over the last year with anxiety about the unknown nature of Covid-19 and its implications. Others, she adds, appreciated the way 2020 lowered expectations and social pressures.
For Gee, an introvert, there were silver linings. Many of her clients enjoyed the efficiency of telehealth, and it left Gee more time with her family. She and her kids began eating nearly every meal together. They took daylong hiking trips in the mountains. And family movie nights with her husband, Jon, became a time of bonding two or three times a week.
“There was no pressure to be anywhere but together,” Gee says. “That is my jam.”
Best mom hack: Creating safe spaces for check-ins with my children. They give me invaluable insight into what’s going on in their worlds, and it establishes trust between us.
Go-to pandemic outfit: Comfy black sweatpants (my Vuori joggers are my favorite), a warm and cozy top (I love my Dolly Parton sweatshirt) and UGG slippers (pretty sure I haven’t taken them off since last March).
Workday lunch: A grilled chicken sandwich with avocado, pickles and slivered almonds on top; carrots; and an apple.
Personal style: Anything that is comfortable, non-confining and makes me feel confident in my authentic self.
The daughter of one of the world’s top amateur golfers, Perry Swenson grew up on the 16th hole of Carmel Country Club and now lives on the 10th. Once, while playing at Augusta National Golf Club with her father, Swenson got a hole in one. Renata by Renata Gasparian Carolyn Jaguars Wild top, $188, and skirt, $238, renatagasparian.com; Inez Sophia sandal, Inez.com, $238; Primaura cream teardrop earrings, Chosen, $125.
Perry Swenson Livonius can trace her life after professional golf to a couple of airplane barf bags.
Born with her father’s love of the sport, Perry Swenson (her professional name) graduated from the University of Texas in 2005 and joined the LPGA Tour, sponsored by Lilly Pulitzer. She was touted as one of the league’s rising stars. (Swenson even did a brief stint on the Golf Channel reality-TV show Road Trip Myrtle Beach with golfer Charlie Rymer, singer Josh Kelley and Mark Bryan, the lead guitarist for Hootie & The Blowfish.) But Swenson often wondered what she’d do when she was ready to retire her clubs professionally.
A Charlotte native and one of the top senior amateur golfers in the world, Swenson’s father, Norman, hit the links with many of the city’s movers and shakers. So in 2011, just before he flew to South Korea to play in the World Club Championship, Perry Swenson asked her dad, “If I ever get out of golf, what do you think I should do? Who should I contact?”
On the plane ride home from South Korea, Norman Swenson, 64, suffered a fatal heart attack. But in his luggage, Perry Swenson found two barf bags on which her father had scribbled 100 names, ranging from Fred Whitfield, current president of the Charlotte Hornets, to banking executive Mac Everett. Soon after, when Swenson left the LPGA Tour, she grabbed the lists and started making calls. When she got to Chuck Hood, founder and owner of independent insurance agency Hood Hargett, he offered Swenson, a finance major, a job in sales.
Ten years later, Swenson, 38, is still with Hood Hargett, working in a division that focuses on high net-worth individuals with multiple homes and assets. But she’s also making a splash with her new side hustle, The Pearl Pagoda. Swenson and her friend and fellow mom Christina Murphy co-founded the company last year to offer pandemic-friendly shopping via outdoor pop-up shops. The shop is all about chinoiserie-chic items and preppy Palm Beach designs, which infuse everything from kids’ apparel to bamboo housewares, kaftans to weekender bags. The concept exploded.
The Pearl Pagoda’s first pop-up leading up to Christmas last year was held in Murphy’s backyard in Pellyn Woods. The partners painted some backdrops, set up themed tables and posted about it on social media.
“We thought a couple people would show up and we’d wing it,” Swenson says. “We hadn’t even 100% priced everything. We hadn’t thought of the checkout process.” More than 40 people were there to shop right when the pop-up opened, and hundreds more descended over the next couple of days. The partners have since held themed pop-ups for Valentine’s Day and Easter and added an e-commerce platform to the mix, thepearlpagoda.com.
Translation: Night owl Swenson is often working until 2 or 3 a.m. Thankfully, her husband, Justin, knows how to wrangle their 6-year-old daughter, Leighton, and 4-year-old son, Swenson.
“Luckily, my husband is pretty good at school lunches,” Swenson says, laughing. “He knows that’s his deal now.” SP
Local woman who inspires her: Roberta Bowman. She spent more than 25 years at Duke Energy, retiring in 2012 as senior vice president and chief sustainability officer. After her retirement, she became the chief brand and communications officer for the LPGA Tour. We formed a lasting friendship on the golf course, and I can call her up at any time to ask her professional advice in confidence. She has shattered glass ceilings for women in the workplace, and I am in awe of all of her continued success.
Best mom hack: Having an arts-and-crafts room where the kids know they are free to use anything they want. I’m amazed at their creativity!
“When the kids are in bed, I …” … catch up on work and start random projects around the house. You might catch me at midnight with my electric sander on the front porch. I’ve also been spotted by neighbors using the golf cart headlights to see while I paint our brick mailbox in the dark.
Pandemic pastime: Cast-net fishing in the ocean, painting and perfecting my royal-icing cookie-decorating skills.
Go-to workday lunch: Diet Pepsi and Cheez-Its. I know, horrible.