Photo by Robert Jacob Lerma

For an industry based on hospitality, restaurants are notably inhospitable to workers who want children, says Erin Smith.

Erin Smith
October 08, 2018

Editor’s note: In November, we launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: [email protected]. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.

Erin Smith opened in Houston with her husband Patrick Feges in March 2018. With their combined fine dining experience and Patrick's barbecue expertise, Feges BBQ offers a new approach to barbecue combining traditional flavors and modern interpretations of classics.

Why am I awake at 3 a.m.? I’ll tell you why: hemorrhoids. They’re uncomfortable. Just one of the many unpleasant side effects of pregnancy. The miracle of life is a rather unpleasant business. Maybe that's why God, or whomever or whatever you credit with the creation of life, chose females to bear children. We can handle it. We’ve been handling unpleasantness quite well since the beginning of time.

If I’m really being honest with myself, it’s probably anxiety that is keeping me up. My husband and I had our first “baby” a few months ago when we opened our restaurant, Feges BBQ. I’m not entirely certain why people call new restaurants “your baby,” but I gather it has something to do with the amount of time, stress, money and sleep you lose while getting the damn thing open. Once it’s open, you have to manage it, and I imagine that is a lot like parenting. You do your best, try to give it 150% all the time, even at 3 a.m. on very little sleep. You read books and talk to people to prepare and you save all the money you can because you know this thing will cost a lot before it generates a single penny. But what you’re really doing is closing your eyes, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best because you don’t really have a good back-up plan. And if it’s your first restaurant, you don’t have a goddamn clue what you’re doing.

So I guess it is like having a baby.

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When I first decided to go into food, my dad urged me to make a list of questions, which we took with us to the local culinary school. He obviously knew something I did not. He knew this industry would be hard and wanted me to approach this career choice with open eyes. What he didn't know was why this industry would be so difficult. He was focusing on the obvious challenges, like low income, long hours, lack of benefits, and more. Those things are challenges, but they are only compounded by the fact that I’m a woman who’s also facing some unfair circumstances in the outside world: increased cost of healthcare compared to men, discrimination, and little to no federal or industry support for pre- and post-partum situations.

Throughout my career I’ve had formative discussions with other female chefs about how to be a woman in this industry. Those conversations and the advice within them were invaluable in helping me navigate my career with grace and respect. I wonder if my husband was ever advised on how to navigate his career as a man. I doubt it. In fact, I would wager all my money on the notion that most men never have to consider their gender when approaching a job. Every single day, women in all fields think, consider, and contemplate their every move to avoid being misunderstood or looked over. I can assure you there is a right way and a wrong way to be a female doctor, lawyer, president, chef, you name it. This is a concept that doesn’t even exist for men.

Until now, I thought I’d figured out how to be a woman in this industry. I’ve been an executive chef for eight years and have a very successful career. I made sure my voice was loud when it needed to be loud and quiet when it needed to be quiet. I followed all the rules, worked really hard, but now I’m staring into uncharted territory. I’m six months pregnant and have no idea how to prepare for my career as a restaurant owner and mother to a newborn. The mentor pool of successful female chefs who managed to maintain their careers with children is limited. So limited in fact, that I can’t think of one from my inner circle. Certainly I know women who are chefs and have young children but they have taken a step back from their careers to find something more amenable to raising a family. In some cases by choice, but in most cases, because there was no choice. The high costs of childcare and relatively low incomes, difficult hours and lack of supportive resources make it very difficult for a new mom to stay in this industry. I own my business so I can’t step back from it, nor do I want to. In fact, it was with family in mind that my husband and I ultimately decided owning our own business was our best and possibly only option.

I’ve been cooking for 13 years, eight of those years in a leadership position. In those eight years as a salaried employee, I have not once worked for a company that offered paid maternity leave, a guarantee my job would still be available after returning from my unpaid leave of absence, or any sympathy or flexibility for the various inconveniences which will arise from pregnancy.

The biggest career challenges usually come after the baby is born, but there are many things during pregnancy that get in the way of one's career path. Morning sickness (which can be very severe and not nearly as cute as the moniker it’s been given), physical limitations and increased doctor visits can and most likely will be viewed as inconveniences to an employer. I work with my husband. We own a restaurant together. Even he is sometimes guilty of not adjusting to the needs of an expectant mother in his workplace.

We have one office in our restaurant. It will soon double as a pump room. I even plan to have a sign made that when lit says “Pump Room: Enter at your own risk!” Yes, I realize that will be inconvenient for others. So. Is. Breastfeeding. Deal with it.

In an industry where women are the minority, it’s easy to see how expectant and new moms could be easily ignored and discarded as “dead weight.” Ironically, we’re considered less useful at a time when we our bodies are performing an act far more incredible than anything a man is capable of. Sure I might have my face in a toilet throwing up breakfast when I should be in the kitchen helping you strain 40 quarts of chicken stock but I’m growing a life inside me and it gets complicated sometimes!

I am a founding board member of an organization in Houston called . This organization was birthed from necessity to raise both funds and awareness of the plight facing women’s healthcare in Texas and around the country. We’re asking to be treated fairly and given fair access to essential and affordable healthcare options. Now, more than ever before, I am aware of how disproportionate the cost of women’s healthcare is.

Not getting pregnant can be expensive. If you consider the out-of-pocket cost of birth control and the annual exam required to get birth control, you’re looking at an average of $20 to $700 per year depending on your healthcare coverage. Just to be a healthy, sexually active female. Now consider the flip side—pregnancy, which is considerably more expensive. Out of pocket expenses can range anywhere from $6,700 to $9,775 if covered under a healthcare plan and $27,000-$33,000 if there is no healthcare coverage for a healthy, vaginal birth. Challenges arise during pregnancy (which is very common), and the price goes up. Epidural—price goes up. Planned C-section—price goes up. Emergency C-section—price goes way up.

From the moment we become sexually active, we have very few healthcare paths as women. We are either actively preventing pregnancy, not actively preventing pregnancy, actively trying to conceive, or pregnant.

Because of this reality, more women are driven away from fields that do not provide easier and more affordable access to healthcare and other valuable resources. We need more women in leadership positions. I don’t feel that way because I’m a woman. I feel that way because some change is necessary for the health and long term viability of our industry.

I’ll Have What She’s Having—fronted by female chefs, sommeliers, servers and bartenders—has raised more than $150,000 in a year for organizations like Planned Parenthood and Legacy Community Health that are available to women who are underserved like most women in the culinary industry. But that’s not enough. Things need to change quickly if we want to attract smart, hard working, dedicated, and passionate cooks who have the skills to become successful chefs in a healthy and sustainable way. It takes more than lip service to be inclusive. It takes buy-in and action from leadership to change a culture. I hope to raise my son in a world in which female leaders stand beside male leaders in equal numbers and with equal respect. I believe his future and ours will be better for it.

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