Juggling career and motherhood on her own terms

Published Nov. 20, 2012

Somewhere deep down, Kim Woitkowski knew she was doing the right thing.

The part of her that once upon a time was a single mother struggling to make ends meet poured adrenaline into her veins and begged her not to do it. Her husband, a commercial plumber, told her she was crazy. She told herself she was crazy. They really needed both incomes.

She remembered how her husband looked in intensive care last year, and how fragile life felt. She remembered her father succumbing to cancer the year before. Then she remembered the countless basketball games she missed raising her first son while building a career. She thought of her daughter, Sophia, then 9 months, who was at that moment in a day care she didn't like. She imagined all the first moments she was going to miss if she didn't do it, mustered her courage and quit the $45,000-a-year job processing payroll she'd held for six years. Then she walked to the restroom and threw up.

"We went from upper middle class to lower middle class overnight," the 37-year-old laments. "It's been tough."

She emptied her retirement account and in May opened FiFi Ruffles, a baby girls clothing store in downtown St. Petersburg with the goal of spending every day with her daughter.

Opening in May was a mistake. Summer was worse, as she drained her husband's plumber salary to stay afloat. In October she broke even for the first time. The jury is out on November. Business is slow, but comes in bursts usually during Sophia's pre-nap meltdown.

"This is a one-butt store," Kim joked as the sixth customer entered the tiny shop last Thursday, "but come on in!"

Sophia started to cry from the storeroom. Kim excused herself to get her daughter out of her high chair. Lunch would have to wait.

A mother from Baby Boot Camp wanted to know about who makes the pillow dresses. Sophia pulled off her shoes, screamed and started pushing a clothing rack.

"We're going to eat in a minute," Kim assured her daughter, if only she understood language.

Two grandmothers decided to buy two headbands.

"Could you look to see if she's trying to climb back into her high chair," Kim asked a fellow mom as she looked for the credit card scanner.

She was.

"Excuse me."

Kim fumbled with running a credit card while holding the crying, wiggling baby, realized she was one hand short, and decided the unhappy baby had to go on the ground.

Best-Customer-Mom had picked out four dresses, Ho Ho Ho Santa bloomers, red leggings, terry cloth leggings, some ruffle socks, a pillowcase dress and was looking at a fuzzy pink winter jacket.

Sophia toppled a Christmas mannequin and started yanking holiday dresses off the hanger.

"Thank you. Can you put that back?"

Kim rang up Best-Customer-Mom and let Hurricane Sophia blow around the store until the last customer left. You can't blame a kid for being hungry, and moms understand moms.

They finally got back to lunch and, blood sugar back up, settled down next to a portable crib in the store room with Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

" 'Mmmm,' she sighed, 'this porridge is perfect,' and she ate it all up."

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"Mama," Sophia yawned, and curled deeper into her mother's lap to cuddle.

And somewhere deep down, Kim Woitkowski knew she was doing the right thing.