Dana Marlowe: Professional Mensch,* Raising Two of Her Own

Dana Marlowe is a social entrepreneur and the founder of two completely separate, but equally awesome, endeavors. One helps people with disabilities access technology; the other addresses a taboo topic head-on to bring bras and feminine hygiene products to homeless women.

Dana lives outside of Washington, DC, with her husband, a mechanical engineer, and their two sons, ages 7 and 4.

* Mensch (der: German, Yiddish): An upstanding, honorable person; AKA a good egg.

Dana’s Work – Accessibility Partners

Dana founded Accessibility Partners nearly seven years ago. Her firm works with Federal agencies and major corporations to make their technology (websites, apps, and lots more) accessible for people with disabilities. 

People with disabilities often use assistive devices to access technology, such as screen readers (devices that “speak” everything on a screen) or speech synthesizers (devices that “speak” text that is entered by a user). As Dana explained, in layman’s terms, for assistive devices to work, the website or other technology being accessed with an assistive device has to have the right “handshake” with that device. Dana’s firm audits a company’s or Federal agency’s website, apps, or other technology to make sure they comply with Federal regulations regarding accessibility, i.e., to ensure they have the required “handshake”. The firm also advises clients on what they can do to improve their technology to make it more accessible.

Enterprising Women Magazine named Dana one of the Enterprising Women of the Year for 2015 for her work with Accessibility Partners.

Dana’s Newer Work – Support the Girls

In addition to the Accessibility Partners work, which Dana notes can easily fill a 60-hour workweek, Dana is also the founder of the brilliantly named Support the Girls. She got into this work simply as the result of having learned there was a need for it. “Usually, there’s a supply-and-demand issue. In this case, there’s a huge supply and a huge demand; they just need to be brought together. If I’m the one to say, ‘let’s do this,’ I’m happy to do that.” Like I said, a mensch.

The inspiration for Support the Girls came last summer when Dana was being fitted for new bras. She asked the woman who was helping her what she should do with her old bras, which were in fine shape, but no longer fit as a result of some weight loss. The saleswoman responded, “homeless women need bras,” and it was like a light bulb came on. Dana realized that, for all the clothes, books, and household objects she’s donated over the years, she’d never thought to donate bras.

The next day, Dana called a homeless shelter in DC about donating some bras. During her conversation, she asked a question that she said she asks people a lot. Recognizing that she hadn’t known that homeless women need bras, she asked, “what else don’t I know?” The man on the other end of the line responded, “feminine hygiene products. We never have enough.” And, voila, another light bulb moment. As Dana said, “holy crap. Homeless women get their periods, too, and they’re on the street.” I’ll pause for a moment so you can let that sink in, and then go grab some feminine hygiene products and drive them down to your nearest homeless shelter. Take your time … I’ll still be here.

Later, Dana was talking to a friend and mentioned the conversations with the saleswoman and the man at the homeless shelter. Her friend had a light bulb moment similar to Dana’s. She said she had a number of bras she couldn’t wear any more, but had no idea what to do with them and kept just shoving them to the back of her drawer. And Dana had yet another realization – she wasn’t the only one who hadn’t known she could be donating bras.

One friend told another, and soon Dana put up a Facebook page about her collection of bras and feminine hygiene products for a homeless shelter in DC. Friends and friends of friends started sending Dana donations. And in October 2015, instead of donating her own 12 or so bras, Dana made a donation of 1,051 bras and 7,100 feminine hygiene products.

Since then, Dana has helped bring national attention to this previously taboo topic. Her donation was featured in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Today, and Yahoo News, to name just a few. She has spent more time than she ever could have imagined talking about bras (even more than when she was a girl at summer camp) – about how bras not only help with lower back pain, they also help bring a woman dignity and boost her self-esteem, which is particularly important for women who are homeless or in low-income situations.

As people all over the country have read about her work, donations from over 35 States and around the world have poured in. Recognizing just how big this project is, Dana’s current goal is to put the infrastructure together to create a national clearinghouse so that people can collect and donate locally. In the meantime, check out the website or the Support the Girls Facebook page for more information.

The Schedule: Mornings

When Dana walked me through a “typical” morning, she prefaced it by saying, “there is no typical.” Things can shift in various ways depending on (among multiple other factors) how much prep was done the night before, whether either Dana or her husband is traveling, and whether Dana has an early meeting for which she needs to look professional. With that said, here’s what a morning might look like.

Dana’s little one wakes up early, “like, not appropriate early” – often between 5:00 and 5:30. As soon as he gets up, he comes to tell Dana that he has to go to the bathroom. She keeps reminding him that he can just go, and doesn’t need to ask first, but so far, that hasn’t sunk in. After the bathroom, he usually wants some warm milk and a snuggle, which is lovely, but not quite serene enough for Dana to continue sleeping, which means her day starts whenever the little one gets up.

Dana wakes her older son by 6:30 so that he can be dressed and ready for school when the bus comes to pick him up at 7:07. Ideally, he’ll be sitting down to breakfast by 6:45, which is particularly important to him because he’s both a foodie (he knows which restaurant serves the beef bibimbap he likes) and a big eater. He helps Dana prepare breakfast, which might be eggs, chicken breast, fruit, oatmeal, or anything else that is protein-heavy and substantial enough to sustain him until his first snack of the day.

While the older one eats breakfast, Dana is usually running around assembling lunch, getting his backpack ready, grabbing his jacket, etc. This is not to say Dana doesn’t have a system in place to try to get everything ready the night before; it’s just that reality often interferes with that system. Meanwhile, Dana’s younger one, who had his warm milk an hour earlier, usually isn’t hungry and is playing somewhere under foot while Dana’s trying to get the older one ready to go.

By 7:09, Dana’s older son is out the door and she can focus on the little one. They usually have enough time to play (Legos, puppets, or something alone those lines) before she needs to give him breakfast and get him dressed for school. By this time, Dana’s husband is usually up and getting himself ready for work so he can be out the door between 7:45 and 8:00.

Dana and her younger son leave the house by about 8:30 to drive to his school, which is located three-fourths of a mile from their house. The school is open at 7:30, but Dana tries to get him there between 8:30 and 9:00. That way, he can get a little bit of time in before-care, which he loves, but they don’t have to drive themselves crazy rushing out of the house.

After she drops off her son, Dana goes back home to her home office to start her day, typically close to 9:00 AM.

The Schedule: Afternoons

Most days, Dana’s older son gets off the school bus at 4:30. After he arrives home, Dana typically takes a break from work to give him a snack and help him with a bit of homework. Once he’s started, she’ll run back upstairs to do some more work, and come back down every now and then to check on him. Then, at about 5:00, the two of them go to pick up her younger son. (Her younger son’s program runs until 6:00, but she tries to pick him up earlier than that.)

Once both kids are at home with Dana, she tries to stop working until after they are in bed, although she’s not always successful. If she’s not working, they all play and unwind together. On days when she does need to work, however, the kids get screen time. “It’s not something I’m proud to say, but the reality is, if I need my kids to be quiet because I suddenly have to hop on a call, that’s what happens.” She occasionally even takes calls in her car in the driveway, where it’s quiet and private, but where the kids can easily come get her if they need her.

Diversion – Support … and the Lack Thereof

As other featured moms have discussed, it takes a village, and Dana is feeling a bit desperate to build up her village at the moment. Her husband does a ton for the family, but he has a 40-minute commute (each way) and is expected to be in the office every day. That leaves a lot of the day-to-day to Dana or someone else, and right now, there really isn’t anyone else. Dana has no regular babysitter and no local family to help with the kids, and the way she’s doing things now just isn’t working.

In addition to the fact that sticking the kids in front of the TV is generally not a great way to get work done, there have also been some particular incidents that have driven home Dana’s need to get some help. For example, a couple weeks before we spoke, Dana had a documentary crew filming her for a mini-documentary about Support the Girls. She had asked a babysitter (a college student who happened to be home for break; not someone who’s usually available) to come for the afternoon of the shoot because Dana was going to have to go out with the crew for a bit.

On the day in question, her older son was scheduled to get off the bus in front of the house at 3:10. Dana had asked the sitter to come over at 3:00, but the sitter texted to say she was running late. Because Dana was on a tight timeline to go out with the documentary crew, as soon as she got her sitter’s text, she decided to run out and get her younger son before her older son got home. It was 2:50, which should have given her plenty of time to do the 2-minute drive to school, scoop up her son, and be back before the 3:10 bus drop-off. But, as she was running out the door, she said to the crew, “if for some random reason a bus pulls up and a little boy walks in the house, introduce yourself. Say who you are and just wave to the bus driver. I know you didn’t sign on for this, and I doubt it will happen, but if I don’t say this, I’m sure it will.” And, of course, as she was picking up her younger son, she got a text that her older son had arrived at 2:57. (The babysitter showed up at 3:02.)

So, if anyone out there knows of someone in the DC area looking for a gig as a regular after-school sitter, please let Dana know. (Candidates must drive, speak English, and be able to help her older son with a bit of homework.)

Back to the Schedule

At some point between roughly 5:30 and 6:00, Dana gives the kids dinner. There is no specific dinnertime; “we’re not good about that.” Most days, it just depends on when she can wrap up work and how hungry the kids are.

Although Dana is the one feeding the kids, her husband does most of the food shopping and much of the prep. He often cooks something the night before and leaves Dana instructions regarding heating and accompaniments. On the days he doesn’t have time to prepare dinner, Dana gives the kids something simple – something like a frozen package of breaded chicken breast, spaghetti, or Dr. Praeger’s fish sticks, supplemented with some fruits and veggies. She knows that when she’s in charge of preparing the food, it could be a lot better, but also recognizes that she would have to put in a lot more planning to make that happen. “I don’t have that space, that bandwidth. … They get fed.”

Although Dana usually eats with the kids, her husband is hit or miss, depending on his work schedule. After dinner, the kids get to play. Usually Dana’s husband walks through the door while they’re playing if he’s not home already, so everyone gets to be together for at least a bit before baths and showers.

Sometimes the boys shower together, but other times the little one wants a bath. Either way, Dana has to stay on top of them to make sure they don’t get too sidetracked, and she’s usually doing that while she’s also trying to catch up with her husband at the same time.

After the bath or shower, it’s pajamas, brushing teeth, possibly a snack for the older one, then books and bed. Bedtime is anywhere between 7:15 and 7:45.

Once the kids are in bed, Dana and her husband may have dinner (if Dana didn’t eat with the kids), or just hang out and decompress for a bit. Then she goes back to work. Before she started Support the Girls, the additional evening work might have been for an hour or two. These days, she’s often up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning working on Accessibility Partners or Support the Girls or both. Luckily (and understandably), she’s usually asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow.

Kid Stuff and House Stuff

Dana is responsible for signing the kids up for school, camp, and activities; making their doctor and dentist appointments; and taking them to those appointments. She does the laundry and most of the dishes. She takes care of car maintenance. She is also the presumptive parent to skip work and stay home with the kids when they’re sick. As busy as she is with her work, it’s still easier for her to be the one doing these things, given some flexibility in her work schedule.

Dana’s husband does the food purchasing and preparing. He also does all financial-related paperwork, including the taxes and health insurance forms. (Dana and her husband make decisions together; he just handles the paperwork.) He also handles minor home repairs as well as bigger house projects.

Dana’s Own Stuff

Even with everything else she has going on, Dana makes space in her life to do a lot for herself. She said she’s not exercising as much as she should, but she is getting some exercise, for example, running on a weekday morning before work. She belongs to a book club. She goes to a lot of live music, including concerts and indie music festivals. She prides herself on listening to music before everyone else has heard of it (her next few shows are Grimes, Santigold, Metric, and Joywave), although she knows everything that’s playing on the radio, too. And she goes to early morning raves. Yes, raves that require her to leave the house at 5:15 a.m. and that feature club-thumping music, dancing, and fresh-pressed coffee. And she’s able to do all of this with help from her husband, who’s usually with the kids when she’s out.

Dana explained that she needs to do all these activities to keep her sanity. She described herself as a “true extrovert,” whose “dopaminey-thingies” in her head light up when she’s with other people. Her husband, on the other hand, is a true introvert, who needs his own space to recharge. The yin-yang of this works out well for them, as Dana can be out while her husband is home, and they’re both doing what they need to do for their own sanity.

Where She’s Doing Well

Dana is happy.

Her kids are well adjusted and happy with who they are, and are growing and learning and contributing to society.

Despite her crazy, frenetic lifestyle, she’s still finding time for herself.

Where She’s Letting Go

She’s struggling with managing her time.

She’s not exercising as much as she needs to be.

She’s definitely not getting enough sleep.

Lessons Learned

Everything counts. You never know how a person may come back into your life later, so every single interaction, and every action, counts.

You never know why someone is homeless or how they got into whatever situation they’re in, so treat everyone as an equal and as part of your community.

Take time to enjoy the little things.