Balancing Act

By Connie Barnard

Balancing Act

Meet three young women you’d love to hate – if they weren’t so nice. They’re gorgeous, stylish, and smart. They are acknowledged over-achievers with prestigious academic credentials, impressive careers, handsome, helpful husbands and adorable children. The three good friends, attorney Ashley Morrison, speech pathologist Amy Wilkes, and physician Jennifer Merritt, sat down with Sasee to discuss the joys and challenges of Having It All.

Amy

Amy Cummings Wilkes grew up in picturesque Troy, Pennsylvania, where her family owns a veneer company. From a young age Amy was drawn to the medical field. While in high school she became interested in brain injury and speech pathology after her grandmother suffered a stroke with debilitating residual effects. Amy received a Bachelors Degree from Ithaca College and Masters Degree in Speech/Language Pathology from West Virginia University, both with highest honors. She completed a clinical fellowship at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh and worked in a private practice in Corning, New York, until 2000 when she was drawn to Myrtle Beach where her family has had homes for many years. After working at a Pee Dee Speech and Hearing Center and Loris Healthcare for several years, Amy took a position with Horry County Schools. She diagnoses speech and language disorders and works with a team to determine and treat traumatic brain injury. Shortly after moving to the Grand Strand, Amy met David Wilkes through mutual friends in her church. They married in 2002 and have a 2 1/2 year old son, Owen. At the time of our interview Amy and David were eagerly anticipating the birth of a second child, a daughter, due on Valentine’s Day. [Editor’s note: Shortly after our interview, on January 24, the Wilkes welcomed the arrival of a baby girl, Kennedy.]

Ashley

Ashley Proctor Morrison is a Myrtle Beach native. Her parents, Lee and Linda Proctor, and both sets of grandparents, are Conway natives. Ashley knew from her physician father and grandfather’s examples that she wanted a respected career which would continuously challenge her abilities. She became interested in the legal profession while participating in the Myrtle Beach High School Mock Trial program, coached by faculty member Bubba Lewis and local attorney Tommy Brittain. During this time Ashley also became fascinated with the legal system through the O.J. Simpson trial which dominated television screens for months. She graduated from Clemson University’s Calhoun Honors College in 2001 with majors in accounting and pre-law. In 2004 Ashley received a J.D. degree from the U.S.C. School of Law and returned to Myrtle Beach where she took a position with the Bellamy Law Firm. Utilizing her accounting background, she specializes in real estate law. At Clemson Ashley met the love of her life, Joe Morrison from Marion. They married after college and in December of 2008 welcomed the arrival of a daughter, Mary Hannah, the new center of their universe.

Jennifer

Jennifer Holland Merritt grew up in Woodruff, S.C., near Spartanburg, where she excelled both in academics and extra-curricular activities. After graduating as valedictorian of her high school class, she majored in biology at Furman University, graduating with honors in 1996. She then attended the Medical University of S.C. where she received her M.D. and completed a residency in surgery and ophthalmology at M.U.S.C’.s Storm Eye Institute. Jennifer is an ophthalmologist and surgeon at the Coastal Eye Group. She says, “I can’t think of anything more rewarding than helping people regain and preserve their eyesight.” During her first year of medical school Jennifer met Myrtle Beach native Jay Merritt, a teaching assistant in her gross anatomy class. They have been together ever since and married in Charleston in 2000. In 2005 the Merritts moved to Myrtle Beach. An orthopedic surgeon, Jay is affiliated with Strand Orthopedic Consultants. The Merritts have two young daughters who bring great joy to their lives, JuliAnna, born in May of 2007, and Jennifer Hope (“Jenna”), born in August of 2009.

Common Threads

Though Ashley, Amy and Jennifer’s lives have varied in many ways, they share a number of common threads. The first is unconditional parental support, particularly from their mothers who provided constant encouragement as well as practical tools to follow their dreams. Jennifer says, “My biggest influence growing up was my mother. She was a high school English teacher and always amazed me with her ability to balance work and family. My parents instilled in me the belief that I can achieve my highest goals if I work hard enough. In addition to academics, every day was filled with after-school activities which taught me time management. These early experiences, and my mother’s example, help me balance work and family as an adult.”

The young women talked about the example of their parents’ strong marriages and their continued support and encouragement. All three are fortunate to have their own and their husband’s families currently living in the greater Myrtle Beach area. This extended family presence provides practical and emotional support unusual in our current culture. Ashley, Amy and Jennifer are the first to acknowledge its importance in their own and their children’s lives. Ashley says, “My parents have been married for over 35 years, and their strong marriage is an inspiration to me. Joe and I live by our parents’ example and want Mary Hannah to grow up with the same values.”

Perhaps their generation’s most notable cultural shift is the couples’ shared commitment to their children’s physical and emotional support. Parenthood is a co-operative venture, and the couples have each worked out a division of duties best for them. Amy Wilkes usually goes in to work very early in order to be available in the afternoons, so David, the chief operating officer for Dock Street Communities, gets Owen ready for pre-school at the First United Methodist Church Child Development Center. As president of the Morrison Group, Joe’s career as a developer often allows flexibility for time with Mary Hannah and provides relief for her grandmothers who currently share care for her at home. The Merritts work long hours but have also found ways to prioritize time with their children. They have a nanny, but Jennifer regularly takes Mondays off to be with JuliAnna and Jenna. Jay usually gets home first in the evenings and often cooks dinner. Interestingly, Jay, David and Joe are all creative gourmet cooks who enjoy being in the kitchen.

Amy, Ashley and Jennifer all say their favorite time of day is in the evenings when they bathe and play with their children before bed time. “It’s a very special moment in the day,” says Ashley. “I forget about everything else in my life and for an hour or two, it’s just the two of us. Time with her is so precious; there’s never enough of it.”

This awareness of time also impacts the three families’ social lives. They recall their pre-marriage and pre-parent days and joke about the change in lifestyle. “We do things together as families because we don’t want to take more time away from the children – and because it’s fun,” says Amy. They all laugh when asked about opportunities for hobbies or time alone and agree it’s a good week if they can find a few hours to run on the treadmill. Ashley adds, “There is no time for yourself. You just accept that.” However, the women do make an effort to schedule semi-regular date nights, acknowledging that time alone together without distraction is important in the juggling act of their current lives.

The Guilt Factor

Any reader who has ever given birth knows that guilt arrives in the delivery room, along with that bundle of joy. Ashley says, “I feel guilty both ways. I miss her so much when I leave her each morning. Going home for lunch most days helps a lot. I want to be perfect as a mother and as an attorney, and I am max performing all the time. Yet I have learned to accept that it truly is a balancing act.” Jennifer adds, “I think it’s inevitable for every mom to feel guilty, whether it’s missing a school function because of work, or missing work because of a sick child, but overall I am very content with life as a working mom.”

All three agree that you just have to let some things fall through the cracks. Amy says, “People who look like they have it all together, don’t. You just have to accept that the laundry may not get done or the house may not be perfect. For over-achievers like ourselves, this is sometimes hard to accept, but it’s a reality. You can’t do everything perfectly all the time. You must also be willing to ask for help – and willing to accept it.”

The women clearly recognize that they could not achieve all they do without the tremendous assistance provided by their families, particularly the active involvement and emotional support of their husbands. They also credit the example of their parents’ long successful marriages, the close friendship they share with one another, and the role models of women in the community who forged paths for their generation. They are lucky, and they know it. At the same time, the three share a clear sense of pride in the example they are creating for their own children and perhaps for other women as well. “I define myself as a mother, a wife and a physician,” Jennifer says, “and while it can be challenging to find the right balance, all three are very important to me.” These impressive, hard-working young women enthusiastically agree: It isn’t always easy, but you can Have It All.

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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