A former senior project consultant at an national consulting firm, Michelle Icard left the 9-to-5 world behind to spend more time with her two children, and on the way founded an amazing resource for Charlotte parents and girls. With a memory of the peer pressures faced in her own childhood, a vision to grow self confidence in her daughter and her friends’ daughters, and a passion for educating and inspiring young girls, Michelle started Athena’s Path, a program that helps empower middle school girls by giving them the tools and perspectives they need to become leaders in their own lives. She has since added Hero’s Pursuit for boys. You may have heard Michelle speak at any number of schools and community groups in the area or you might have read about her and Athena’s Path/Hero’s Pursuit in Charlotte Magazine this past fall, but if not, please use this as your chance to get to know this week’s Smarty Mom, Michelle Icard.
Was it difficult transitioning from career woman to a full time mom?
My transition was not a direct path, but a wandering exploration. As a mom, I started off working full time, having to put my daughter into daycare at 6 weeks old because it was all the maternity leave I was given. When I was seven months pregnant with my second child, the company I worked for folded, and I stayed home with both kids then eventually was able to put them into morning daycare a couple times a week, then five days a week. At different times of our lives, different arrangements suited us. I have always worked, and for the past seven years, have worked for myself. I am eternally grateful for a daycare with flexible options that could grow and change with our family needs.
Because of the fluid nature of my work and home life, I never defined myself as either a career woman or full time mom. I am that weird hybrid of crazy that does both as best as I can, sometimes without clear distinctions between the two. That can be difficult – sending emails on my blackberry from Chick-Fil-A, working long past bedtime, not having a predictable paycheck. But it also means I get to go on every field trip, pick my kids up from school every afternoon, and decide when it’s vacation without running it past anyone. As exhausting as it can be, it’s what I want.
Tell us what inspired or motivated you to begin Athena’s Path/Hero’s Pursuit?
When my children were very little (newborn and 2 years old) I began a small tutoring practice to bring in extra money and reconnect with my passion for teaching. It was during my time spent tutoring middle school students that I realized how much brain space is taken over by social stress at that age. I was taken back to my own middle school experience and recalled how derailed I was by social stress. I began doing research, reading books and articles, and interviewing everyone I could about their middle school experience. Once I gathered up enough information, I created a curriculum to give adolescents the tools they need to build life skills. I didn’t want to create a program where kids could sit around and talk about how hard life is…I wanted to create the tools to manage social challenges and then give them an environment in which they could practice using their tools. The curriculum is now being taught as a class during the school day at 13 area schools.
Tell us your greatest accomplishment with regards to Athena’s Path/Hero’s Pursuit?
I’m most proud when I hear from a parent or child whose life has been impacted by one of my programs. I’m trying very hard not to sound sappy or give what seems to be a canned response, but there is no avoiding the fact that hearing “Thank you. This changed my life.” represents my greatest accomplishment.
How has leading this wonderful cause changed your life as a mother and your approach to parenting?
I’m building my parenting philosophy every day. What Athena’s Path gives me toward that philosophy is perspective. Keeping an eye on what is coming down the road, makes 6 and 8 year old troubles more manageable. I try to say, “It could be worse” as often as possible. It’s too easy to get caught up in the drama of our struggles with our children.
It’s not that I don’t engage in that drama sometimes, but when I realize what I’m doing I pull back for perspective. I pick my battles. You will notice this most obviously in the way my children dress. I do not get involved in their “sense of style” and I’m hoping this does not come back to haunt me.
What would be the #1 piece of advice that you would give a parent for successful raising an adolescent?
I think the most important lesson I’ve taken away from my work is that when it comes to my children, I am in the business of keeping the door open. No matter how old-fashioned or uncool or embarrassing my children may come to find me when they enter adolescence, I hope we will have already established the fact that I am a non-judgmental listener. I hope I will have earned their trust that no matter what they come to me with, I will not overreact and I will not freak out. By establishing this relationship early on, I hope that they will know my door is always open no matter how tough the conversation may seem.
Now tell us more about your family. What is your favorite family activity?
To begin with, I must give huge thanks and recognition to my husband Travis. Without his belief in me, Athena’s Path would have gone nowhere fast. Travis and I have an 8 year old daughter, Ella, and a 6 year old son, Declan. We also have a Golden Doodle dog, named Rocket. Our favorite family activities are bike rides and board games. At the moment, we are really into playing Zooreeka by Cranium.
What is your favorite activity without the kids?
The cold weather has us staying in. Here is an ideal evening: Good beer, party food for dinner (cheese and crackers, olives, appetizers), and renting a favorite series on DVD. We just finished up Big Love and have moved on to The Wire.
What is your favorite restaurant to take the whole family?
We love going to breakfast. Eddie’s Place or Phil’s Deli are our top picks.
Your favorite place to eat without the kids?
Roosters. All the fire-roasted veggies are delicious and if you want something less good for you but really amazing, get the mac and cheese.
What is your favorite park or community activity in Charlotte?
Both of our kids learned to ride bikes at Carmel Road Park. There is a perfect little hill leading onto the playing fields, and if you start them off at the top, they can get just enough momentum without being scared. Plus, the grass is a nice buffer for falls.
Our favorite indoor spot is the Levine Museum of the New South. Thank you to the person who clued me into this hidden treasure! It’s an interactive, ok-to-touch-everything museum where kids can step back in time to see what things were really like way back when. Here comes that perspective lesson again.
What is the funniest thing that either of your children has ever said to you?
They all involve body parts you don’t want to write about. This one falls under the gross category, too, but I happen to like weird humor. When my daughter was two years old she used to love to play restaurant. We had the whole setup of mini-stove, pots and pans, and plastic food. One day, I was a customer at her restaurant and she was cooking a big pot of “soup” for me on her play stove. All of a sudden she stopped stirring and got a look of serious concern on her face. Then, in her most professional voice she turned to me and asked, “Ma’am, will you watch my soupy while I go poopy?” It’s become a standard line in our house.
The best birthday party you ever attended or gave for a child?
My daughter really wanted a sleepover party before she or her friends were really ready. For her fourth birthday we had a practice sleepover from 5-8. Everyone came in PJs with a sleeping bag and stuffed animal. We played musical sleeping bags and telephone, ordered pizza, and as a play on midnight cookies and milk served a giant cookie cake with school sized milk cartons for drinks. When the party was over, everyone went home to sleep in their own beds.
Minivan or SUV?
I was all about the minivan when our kids were very little. The captain’s chairs, the third row seats, the tailgate option…they were all great features for a time. I am seriously over the minivan now.
What is the best thing about raising your family in Charlotte?
Charlotte is starting to get big enough to get more diversity of thought, but still small enough that you feel you are part of a community. We live in Costwold and I love that my children know the names of the people who work at the stores where we shop.
You could not live without?
Unsweet iced tea. I realize I am in the South but I grew up in Boston. I drink it all day long. My kids call it my precious baby. If it’s an addiction, I would like to remind you of one of my favorite sayings, “it could be worse.”
Thank you Michelle. If you have a Smary Mom that you would like to “mominate” please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.