It’s not always a clear path, but mothers persevere

Michaela Brehm has had to repeat her education to keep her career moving forward

Story and Photo by Deborah Lynch

Last month, sports fans sat glued to TVs watching the NCAA basketball tournament. The previously undefeated Gonzaga men’s team’s upset by Baylor in the championship game got the buzz. Nevermind that the Stanford women’s team was 31-2 on the way to its title run over Arizona, earning its first title in 29 years. Except that people did notice. A viral TikTok video highlighting inequities between men’s and women’s programs along with more unfairness pointed out during the tournament — inconsistent March Madness logo and branding among them — have raised the issue of equality.

Women’s college basketball magnifies a disparity often ignored — how hard women must work to get recognition. A happy outcome, however, can be that women often become stronger and more resolved to make things happen for themselves.

Zohreh Akhtar of Camp Hill wanted freedom more than anything. To gain it, she had to close her eyes to a philandering husband so she could leave Iran with him and their two children for his new job in the United States. Like many immigrants, she sought the freedoms the United States promised that most countries couldn’t offer — especially to women. 

Soon after they arrived in the Harrisburg area for his job, Akhtar’s husband became abusive. She left him, but it wasn’t as simple as an American divorce. She also had to sue him in Iran to break their Islamic union, otherwise, she would never have been able to return home again to see family. Without his permission, which he would never give, she would be unable to leave Iran again for the United States.  

It was complicated, but with help from her sister in Iran who was a lawyer, she achieved the second divorce. She finally had her freedom. Then, she was served court papers. He was suing her in U.S. courts for $100,000 for emotional distress.

Because of childhood polio, Akhtar is unable to work long hours or do physical work, so her income is limited. She couldn’t afford more than $5,000 required by a lawyer, and since the case continued without any results in a county closer to Philadelphia, where he now lived, and she couldn’t get pro bono help, she had to represent herself. And she won. The case was thrown out, and her ex- was reprimanded by the judge.

That victory was powerful for Akhtar who said she was seeking freedom not only from the torture she had endured at the hands of her ex-husband who had once hissed at her, “You’re my hostage,” but also from a culture that would have dictated how she should raise her children.

“This is living in peace,” Akhtar said. “It has made me stronger for sure. I needed that inner strength and bliss to raise my kids right — for that alone. If I was in my country, I wouldn’t be able to have them in such a situation. … This is the freedom that sometimes is ignored and taken for granted by those who live in the U.S. and some parts of the world.” 

She might not be able to dunk a basketball, but inequalities and years of standing up to a controlling man gave Akhtar the strength she needed to find freedom for herself and her children.

Starting early, setting goals

Michelle Hall of Harrisburg was a teen mom. She had her son, Amir, after four months of bed rest when she was 17. Despite it all, she stayed on task, graduating on time from Harrisburg’s John Harris High, and working a part-time job so she could provide for her son. “When my mom said, ‘Hey, let me help you,’ I said, ‘Mom, I told you, I’m going to take care of him’ — and I did,” Hall said. “I’ve always been independent.”

When Amir was nearly 5, Hall met her future husband, Lamar Hall, and they’ve been together ever since. They also have an 11-year-old daughter, Cashmere. Amir is now 18 and a freshman at Shippensburg University. Hall and her husband have worked long hours (she was a hospice aide for more than 10 years and now works as a home health care aide, and he works at Hershey’s Reese’s plant) to improve their lives. “It’s always been my priority to make sure my kids had what I didn’t. I always set goals in life, and I always try to achieve them.”

Particularly impressive is how Hall has achieved her personal goals, too. “When I was 21, I told myself I was going to buy a house by the time I was 30, and I did,” she said. “I set goals for myself.”

Covid has made it harder to achieve those goals as she lost one job to help her daughter with virtual school, and now works a new job with long hours. Some weeks, it’s hard to find any time for herself. “With the pandemic, it kind of puts you in a little depression. So much time to think. I’m always making everyone happy, but I’m never making myself happy. … I’m trying to find time for myself,” Hall acknowledged. Her husband encourages her to do that. She’s got new goals — and they involve herself.

Taking turns

Jackie Gordon has always been focused on how to keep her career moving forward. She and her husband started passing the ball with their career advancements even before they were married.

He made the first sacrifice when she started her dream job as a nurse at Hershey. Instead of transferring to a school in Maryland, he went to Shippensburg. The next move was hers when he got a good civilian position with the U.S. Army in San Antonio, Texas. She took a few jobs that didn’t fit and landed a nursing position in a surgical trauma ICU unit at the Army hospital. She also got her master’s in nursing.

Things continued to go back and forth like that in their careers (including a long distance marriage and another stint for her in a leadership position at Hershey Med) with a master’s degree for him and a doctoral degree for her over the next few years until they landed in Germany for his job. She had just had their first child, a son. 

Now she was a new mom, living in a hotel in a country where she didn’t know the language. She used her free time to publish her doctoral work, then found adjunct teaching through the University of South Florida. She also was able to volunteer at an Army clinic. Then, her husband got a new opportunity in Austin, Texas. 

“This time it was really hard for me,” she said. “While I thought I was going to commit career suicide, my backup plan worked. I loved Germany. I loved our lives.”

She taught remotely during the first year back in the U.S. (June 2019-early 2020) until a perfect fit came along as director of Professional Practice and Innovation at a hospital 15 minutes from her home. “I absolutely love what I do,” she said.

Gordon says she and her husband have learned from every decision and move. They identify their values, then look at pros and cons and how they relate to their values, which now revolve more around their son. “You might be sacrificing the known, but what you’re doing is experiencing the unknown,” she said.

Repeat and move forward

While Gordon had to immerse in German culture, a German nurse had to make a similar move when her husband was recruited for a job at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Michaela Brehm had worked for more than 10 years as a cardiac surgery nurse in Germany, but found upon arriving in the United States that not only did she have to learn English as she knew she would have to before she could get a job, but also that she would have to retake an entire B.S.N. degree — and that was after waiting four years to get a Green card that would allow her to work.

After taking prerequisite courses, she was able to enroll in Penn State’s World Campus to complete her B.S.N. That worked well for her new employer, Holy Spirit Hospital, which had made her hire conditional upon completion of her degree within five years. Prior to getting hired, in 2013, she had to complete the NCLEX, which is a nursing competency exam. In between, in 2014, she gave birth to her son. She got the B.S.N. in December of 2017 with no plans of ever returning to school.

On a bored whim, she applied to a master’s in nursing education program in 2018 thinking she’d never be accepted, but she was. She is due to finish the master’s program this month after starting classes in spring of 2019. Along with finishing coursework and working per diem at Holy Spirit in the cardiovascular ICU — and sometimes in Covid units — she’s been homeschooling her now 7-year-old during the pandemic.

When she and her husband had first moved to the United States in 2009, Brehm pictured a much greater opportunity for herself than was her reality. “When do you have the privilege to move around the world and see a new country? We were both excited to come here,” Brehm said. “The reality is sometimes a little bit harder than you expect.”

Ever since her son was born, work, school, and two careers have made a difficult juggling act for Brehm and her husband. “It is not possible — in my opinion, you cannot raise a child when both have full-time demanding careers,” Brehm said, noting that while some can make that work, she could not.

That means she works part-time, and she and her husband try to coordinate their work schedules with day care and babysitting. Brehm has worked night shifts the past year when her husband is home, and he works days. Somehow, they make it work.

“Moms have to figure out how to do child care and do everything, and then go from there,” Brehm said. “The easiest thing is to not listen to other people.”

A new direction

Porcha Johnson, who was a regional ambassador for the One Lens project that documented the Covid-19 pandemic in Pennsylvania through photos, also realized that something had to give when she had her child in 2018.

After working as a journalist for 13 years, traveling to different cities as a reporter and anchor, 10 of those years at WGAL-TV in Lancaster, Johnson was ready to step away from that career to focus on her newborn and the businesses she had started in 2014 — she’s CEO of Black Girl Health and executive director of Black Girl Health Foundation. Black Girl Health is a burgeoning business with 6,000 newsletter subscribers and 11,000 Facebook followers.

“A lot of people have sacrificed for their husband’s career,” Johnson acknowledged, adding, “I have not, but a lot have probably lost their identity from that.”

Understanding that has helped Johnson with a growing business “that’s 100 percent mine.” The mission of BGH is to help women, specifically African-American women, in the workforce, with finances that affect mental health, with how foods affect mental health, with racial trauma, and with social trauma. Her company recognizes the many external pressures affecting women’s health, and strives to help them overcome them.


Women constantly battle the need to balance, to prioritize, to put their partners or their children first. Covid has made that even more complicated. It has magnified what was already an inequality in the labor market for women. Between February and August of 2020, mothers of children 12 and younger lost 2.2 million jobs compared to 870,000 jobs lost by fathers, according to a survey cited in a Brookings Institute report. 

The economy is hard on women as is finding adequate and quality child care. Some women must be creative in advancing their careers while following a partner’s career. Others are stuck in low wage jobs trying to support children. Now more than ever, women are becoming the superwomen they need to be to help advance opportunity for all women. For some that has meant compromise, for others it’s a balance between two careers, and for all, it is inner strength.