My first career was creative, challenging and included travel around the world. As a product director in the footwear business, I led teams to design and develop shoes for women and men, but mostly for kids. Young and single, I’d jet off to Paris and London in search of “inspirational” shoes to copy for the American market. This was my job! Back in our Boston office, and working with teams of designers, we’d transform the ideas into styles for our brand. Then we’d send the artwork to factories in Thailand or China, and I’d get to travel there too.
Every time someone asked, “What do you do?” my answer always solicited varying degrees of “How cool!” At parties everyone loves talking about shoes. Passions run high when people describe the type of shoes they love, the heels they hate, and that unicorn style they can never find. As a creative person, and someone who cares about the environment, I always felt lucky that I designed in a product category that people actually needed.
The work was fun, financially rewarding, and had room for promotion. I leveraged my advertising degree, and gained business strategy experience. The company I worked for was even progressive for working women and families – they had female executives, and on-site day care for those who needed it. But even in this best-case scenario, the complications of a working mom’s reality crept in. Once I had a child, my male boss at the time assumed I wouldn’t want to travel, and told me so. Even though I was the main earner in our family, and I wanted to stay, we parted ways. I held a few similar jobs over the next ten years. In hindsight, I can see that this was an extended, stalled career. Eventually I led product development in the baby division of an accessories company, creating a line of crib shoes. Those tiny, three-inch foot coverings that babies don’t actually need. Crib shoes are fun and cute. They’re also unnecessary, and essentially landfill fodder.
Meanwhile my personal life got complicated. I’d had unexpected twins, so was parenting, luckily with an engaged husband, three kids instead of the two we had planned. The job turned into a grind. Buried writing aspirations haunted me, and I pined to be my own boss. The twins were morphing from exhausting toddlers into demanding kids. Frazzled, we decided to abandon our urban lifestyle. We sold our brownstone, and moved to a New Jersey suburb, hoping a quiet, grassy home would calm life down.
Balancing career and family remained complicated, maybe even more so by being in a new town, with longer commutes. Our first summer, we were excited to join the town pool. To me, pools weren’t just loaded with water, they were filled with memories. As a kid, in Houston, Texas, I’d spend whole summer days at our neighborhood pool. To survive the heat and humidity I’d play endless rounds of Marco Polo, launch cannon balls off the high dive, and attempt to eat orange Creamsicles before they melted.
My sisters and I raced in swim meets. We started in the five and under age group, and every summer earned shiny ribbons that we pinned to our bedroom bulletin boards. I was good at racing, and joined a year-round team. At thirteen I qualified for a statewide meet in the 200-meter breaststroke. But as the sport got more demanding, and my height stuck at 5’ 3, I gave in to teenage laziness. I quit, and swimming became something “I used to do.”
Confronted with that concrete rectangle filled with water, I started swimming laps to relieve stress. Away from people, my phone, and as the water drowns out the sounds of children and even my own mind, I drift into something like meditation. My worries sink into the deep end, and although they don’t go away, they resurface bathed in perspective. Meanwhile the water soothed tantrums, cooled down tempers and transported us to a place of pure fun with our kids. Then I’m ready to enjoy the social experience of a community pool — chatting with neighbors and meeting new people.
Swimming helped me cope, but it wasn’t enough. In 2014, with the support of my husband, I left my job. It was hard to leave a well-paying job, and risk stunting further a 30-year career that I had at one time loved.
I wasn’t exactly modeling good habits for my kids when I was still in my pajamas as they got home from school. I needed a routine to get me out of the house, so I started teaching swimming at our local YMCA. I enjoyed resurrecting a lost skill, and it kept me fit. I decided to get certified so I could be a better instructor. My students progressed, and I became one of the most requested teachers. Meanwhile, because of my business background I was able to see the inadequacies of where I was working, and also that the community was underserved.
The next summer I launched LifeCycle Swimming. I rented an outdoor pool, created a website where clients could book lessons on-line. For three summers I’ve taught lessons back-to-back. Now I’m managing the growth of a legitimate swim business.
All I need now is a box of Creamsicles.
Jennifer May is the founder and CEO of LifeCycle Aquatics. With her communications degree and design eye, she forged a career in the footwear industry where she led product development teams for the iconic brands Keds and OshKosh B’gosh. Jennifer left the corporate world in 2014 to launch Kidshoeology.com, a site that helps parents shop for kids shoes. To stay busy, she taught swimming. Since then, she’s been managing the growth of LifeCycle Aquatics. When she isn’t in the pool she’s raising three kids, writing, or cooking healthy meals.