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Emily Williams Knight focuses on the things that matter

Updated: December 14, 2012 8:12AM

I attended the World Business Forum in New York right after I learned that I was three months pregnant — with twins! I remember listening to each speaker, searching for answers to all the questions I had running through my mind: “How would I manage being a senior leader and having twins?” “How did these ‘experts’ do it?” “Was it even possible to ‘have it all?’ ”

Jack Welch and Colin Powell were among the forum’s speakers, and while I was inspired, I could not shake the “what was next for me?” feeling that weighed heavily on my mind. I had struggled for years through painful fertility procedures. I was finally becoming a mother, and now my fear moved to determining how I would remain a professional woman who always exceeded goals and took care of others and now had to care for a baby — times two.

On the last day of the event, Andrea Jung (who was then the CEO of Avon) stood up and addressed the crowd. She talked about leading a global company while taking care of her young family. She said, “As a working mother, you will miss the little things, but the goal is to never miss the big things.” There, I had it: The answer to how I would manage my life moving forward. I would miss the little day-to-day activities as I traveled the country leading sales for an education company, but I would be there the first time they walked, for their first words, the first day of school and more. I felt relieved.

For the next six years as a working mother, I felt OK about my decision. But that all changed last summer when I went to Brazil with Gov. Pat Quinn’s Trade Mission. I was watching a soccer game out of my hotel room window, and as these young children from Recife played soccer for hours a day on the beach, I started to think about my daughters and all the practices I had missed due to meetings and travel commitments. As I watched them high five one another, I thought to myself, “I want to be a part of these moments, too.” Sitting in the window in a nameless hotel room, I began to get an ache in my soul and a clear feeling that I had it all wrong.

I had been missing so many little moments, like struggling with Olivia to pick out clothes for school, making it to the Halloween parade to see them march around the grounds in costumes with their friends, being there for weekly basketball practice as they learned to tackle a new sport and sharing a pillow when they fall asleep and reveal their deepest thoughts.

As president of Kendall College, Chicago’s top-ranked culinary and hospitality school, I have the opportunity to change lives. Never has the responsibility felt greater than when I now look into the eyes of my two daughters. I commit each day to doing what is best for the students, and to ensuring I am present for their “little” moments: when they achieve greatness in the classroom or in clubs, when they successfully complete an internship and find employment, and when they graduate and cross that stage — many of them the first in their families to earn a college degree.

I’ve not given up on the dream of having it all, but I have given up on the idea that there will be perfect balance in my life. For me, sometimes I’m a better president than mom, and other days I’m a super mom, and not a great president. The goal for me now is to just be the best I can be, showing kindness and support to the people in my life as many days as I can, and to forgive myself when I have a day where it all just feels like a little too much.

Emily Williams Knight donated her fee for writing this column to the Wounded Warrior Project.

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