Ashley Bryan was almost 40 when she looked up from the career she loved and noticed her biological clock was near midnight. The prospect of becoming a caregiver for her mother was the last thing on her mind.
“ I forgot to get married! I forgot to have a child!”
This is a confession I hear from many frantic women in their mid-to-late thirties. They have followed the contemporary “lean in” philosophy to reach for their highest career ambitions —without backing off for fear they might miss having a family. Somewhere between their mid-30s to 40s, they are struck by a fervent desire to become a mother.
“I had nobody in my life,” Ashley Bryan told me. “I was looking into adoption.”
The prospect of being drafted as a caregiver for her mother was the last thing on her mind. And Alzheimer’s! A horrific thought! Her grandmother suffered from it, but her mother took loving care of the older woman.
Indianapolis, the midwestern city where Ashley was born and raised, is not a place one thinks of as producing unconventional outliers. But Ashley began dating a man 11 years younger, thinking it was a lark. “Can’t you find somebody your own age?” she would tease Chris Gabbard. A year into their casual romance, she came home from a photo shoot at four in the morning to a proposal of marriage. “Isn’t that cute,” she thought, and put him off with a “Let’s talk about it later.”
A year later, she realized that he was serious. She reconsidered: here was a prospective husband who was happy to sign up for supporting her career goals and happy to share child care – if it wasn’t too late for her to conceive. “I had a significant fear because I had endometriosis. I dated my future husband for two years before we got married – and all that time I was getting older.”
In Ashley’s generation, many women who marry late also become Alpha Daughters. In their 40s or 50s, they suddenly find themselves sandwiched between caring for their own late babies and drafted to care for their aging parents. Only months after Ashley finally married Chris and became pregnant, her father was sickened with cancer, her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers, and clearly she could no longer care for Ashley’s grandmother, who was in an advanced state of cognitive decline.
Between flying back and forth between her divorced parents in different cities, she tried valiantly to keep up with her demanding job. “It launched me into a state of anxiety and fear I had never experienced before.
“I had panic attacks, even felt sometimes like I was having a heart attack.” So a year later, she sold her mother’s house and moved both her mother and grandmother into her married home with her husband of only one year.
That was a daring move. She was risking her new marriage. She just couldn’t bear the idea of failing her mother, her best friend. But how on earth could she do all the meal planning and preparation for two virtually helpless people, keep them socially engaged, and go to work, too? She worried that the stress of caregiving would probably prevent her from getting pregnant.
“The first fertility treatment failed, second one failed. Adding crazy hormones to the mix – that was a lot of fun! But if I had any chance of getting pregnant, it had to NOW! We had only one frozen embryo left. That that turned out to be Ethan!”
Her son Ethan was conceived when Ashley was 43. How did she celebrate the news?
“I went to sleep!
She had been so worried and worn down, when she found out, she just fell asleep. bEing pregnant was blissful, giving her a surge of renewed energy. She worked until 8:30 p.m. the night before her C- section. In the hospital, her husband told her he was prepared to be the stay-at-home dad for the first year or two. He recognized that her job made the most money, and she loved it. He was not excited by his work, but thrilled with the new baby.
“After two years, my husband and I became interchangeable in Ethan’s eyes,” Ashley told me. “There’ s no crying if Mommy goes to work, or if Daddy puts him to bed while I’m away traveling for business.”
Research backs up this outcome. A father who takes family leave and builds a stronger than usual bond between father and son is more likely to become accustomed to dividing up the child care with a working wife, and enjoying it.
The unexpected bonus to Ashley’s birth of a treasured late baby was a bold business idea. She was frustrated with the lack of information and support for people caring for family members with Alzheimer’s. Doctors told her it was important for patients to eat well, but what did that mean?
“I tried everything – with no solid information,” she admits, laughing. “I made my mother eat so much coconut oil, she got the runs. I pumped her with supplements, until I said, ‘This is ridiculous. I need an actual plan. There must be research out there.’”
She turned away any offers of help from friends, like so many Alpha Daughters do.
“My answer was always, ‘Don’t need a thing, I’m fine.’ In fact, I was hanging on by my finger nails. I had to learn that it’s not an imposition to ask a neighbor to bring a meal.
They really want to help. If you can change your thinking from: ‘I’m asking for help’ to ‘This is their way of expressing love,’ then everybody wins.” That freed her to take the dare of giving birth again –but this time, not to a baby.
She gave birth to herself as an entrepreneur. At 45. The Flourishing Forties is the stage in which women’s startup companies have the best chance of success.
Ashley Bryan’s new dream was to build an internet technology health company to help Alpha Daughters like herself, who are caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s.
Plunging into medical research, she learned that nutrition and exercise and social engagement could help to slow cognitive decline and ward off depression. She began working with nutrition consultants from Mt. Sinai Hospital, New York Presbyterian – Weil-Cornell Hospital and Rush University in Chicago. They happily gave her access to their research. And together, they developed nutrition standards that have been tested in clinical trials and shown substantial benefit:
These nutrition standards can slow cognitive decline by up to 6 ½ years.
The hospitals worked with Ashley to develop some algorithms that allow the testing of recipes against a computer code. That enabled Ashley’s website to suggest recipes that optimize brain health. She got excited about building a computer platform called “Life in the Moment.” It will be available early in 2016.
The intended customer is an Alpha Daughter, Ashley’s idea. She defines them as women like herself, age 45 to 65, typically the eldest daughter, a professional with a college education. She still has kids at home, a parent or parents she’s caring for, and a career she’s trying to maintain. What “Life in the Moment” is intended to do is help her work through the practical issues – like meal preparation, triaging the care among family and friends, and how to keep everyone socially engaged. For example, how do you bring together young kids and an older relative with Alzheimer’s so that living together can be beneficial to all the generations?
She talks about how her son, barely three years old, has learned the signals when his grandmother is having a bad day. He’ll climb down from his high chair and go over to take her arm and murmur, “Nana, cumb sit me,” and lead her to the couch.
Ashley’s first product is called Memory Meals. Family caregivers can order a meal plan customized for the Alzheimer’s patient – or for anybody who is concerned about cognitive decline. The macro and micro nutrients are also helpful to combat inflammation, a major culprit in arthritis. If the caregiver and the patient like the recipes, the website will send back meal plans, offer an automated grocery list, have it emailed to a friend or siblings who want to help, and even have it emailed to a delivery service to get the groceries dropped off.
How did this midlife entrepreneur find the resources to give birth to a startup healthcare company? I asked.
Ashley started with a $25,000 investment from her own savings. Her years of devoted and talented work as a video producer for her advertising company had earned great respect from her boss. He offered to continue paying her salary while she took the time she needed to attract angel investors and create strategic partnerships with the hospitals she had worked with on Memory Meals. Working on a shoestring, she spent only about $300,000 in the first year.
“But in that year I was a 50 % employee, a 50% mother, and a 50% caregiver, and failing a little at all of them.”
Her husband went back to work full-time so she could take the next really big dare. Ashley told her boss she’d have to quit. It was time to put more attention on starting up her business, and stop shortchanging her family. He offered her a free office so she and her team could go full steam ahead. That was the golden passport, allowing her to cross the border from the idea stage to a functional product with the financing to keep it going until the business has revenue. She projects it will make $100,000 in the first year.
“I’m not going to cure Alzheimer’s,” she says with a smile, “but I have found ways to slow it down and to help caregivers enjoy the time left with a loved one, instead of being stressed out and angry all the time.”