“Motherhood is the exquisite inconvenience of being another person’s everything.”
Motherhood is a unique, rich and captivating experience, and it’s impossible to encapsulate what it’s like for every woman — whether you’re a mom yourself, or you’re the daughter of a wonderful mom. We talked to some dynamic mother-daughter teams to learn why their bonds are special and how their mutual support is rock-solid.
By Shayna Mace and Hywania Thompson | Photography by Marla Bergh and Hillary Schave
Emily & Stella Balsley
Emily Balsley’s art is joyful, colorful, powerful and just a little quirky — like the woman herself. But it turns out that her 13-year-old daughter Stella’s art is equally as intriguing. A glance at Stella’s Instagram account (@stellapuppystar) reveals whimsical animal sketches, strong superheroes and playful cartoon characters.
A sketchbook is a constant companion for Stella, and she has it in hand when we chat via video interview, and again at the photo shoot for this story. Even her fast and furious sketches done on the spot are brilliant. I tell her that I love a particular sketch of hers that she brought to the shoot. It has a vintage vibe, and it’s of a girl wearing an outfit Stella owns. “That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten,” she beams.
That’s just who Emily and Stella are — genuine people who are comfortable in their own skin, both with a disarming friendliness — and without a hint of superiority that they indeed possess immense talent.
Emily was an art major at UW-Madison, and upon graduation started working at Pacific Cycle doing design work. She met her husband, Stephen, there too. After Stella was born in December 2007, Emily struck out on her own in 2008 and did free- lance design and art work because of Stella’s “significant health issues” at the time, which includes a serious heart condition.
In 2012, she started Emily Balsley Illustration. She’s already had a prolific career, doing book illustration (including two American Girl books), magazine work and various projects from promotional materials to illustrating games for Mudpuppy. The inspiration for much of her work hearkens back to simpler times. “I love thinking about things I liked to do as a kid. A lot of my stuff features outdoor activities, like climbing trees or playing baseball or riding bikes. I love drawing animals … or, any opportunity to put a smiley face on some sort of inanimate object — I love doing that.”
Even if you don’t know her name, you’ve probably seen Emily’s work. She’s most proud of her mural at the Memorial Union, but she’s also paired up with artists Ray Mawst and Brian Kehoe to craft large-scale, inspirational murals on the sides of buildings with messages like “Love Your Neighbor” in Middleton and “This Too Shall Pass” in Monona.
Her cheeky “Flamingo Swirls” mural on East Johnson Street was co-created with Liubov Szwako — a nod to the city’s official bird.
Art is a constant companion and source of comfort for both Balsleys. They spend a lot of time in Emily’s studio, hanging out. For a while, Stella took private art lessons, but now she “does her own thing,” says Emily, admitting with a gentle smile that Stella doesn’t love accepting mom’s feedback about her art. Both have such incredible ease and openness with one another that Stella shrugs, admitting that’s true. When asked about her own artistic inspirations, Stella answers decisively, stroking her 19-year-old cat, Rothko: “Pinterest, my imagination and music.”
She’s equally sure about what she wants to do when she grows up: “author and artist.” When pressed by Emily, she elaborates she not only wants to write books, but illustrate her own tomes. This tidbit of information is somewhat new to Emily, and she seems to delight in hearing this. After all, Stella’s a teenager now, and sometimes information at this age can be hard to come by.
“I’m really cherishing this last year and the time we’ve been able to spend together,” Emily reflects. “Being able to bond over art is definitely a huge thing. I mean, people joke that Stella is like my mini-me, which I’m sure she hates hear- ing, but for me, that makes me so happy. But she’s [still] definitely her own person … we’re just very proud of the young lady she’s becoming.” — Shayna Mace
The Roach Family
A family with five daughters and no sons is relatively rare. Having the family’s matriarch and all five of her daughters go into the nursing field is probably record-book-worthy-rare. Therefore, Mary Koenig-Roach’s family is one-of-a-kind.
Mary, 61, has had a nearly 40-year nursing career, all of it in Madison. For the majority of it she worked at UnityPoint Health-Meriter as a mobile unit nurse, which is a nurse that “floats” from department to department, depending on what the needs are on that particular day. In 2016, she transitioned into being a perinatal float, working in postnatal care and the hospital’s NICU.
“I love nursing, because it’s never predictable,” Mary explains. “It’s not a boring job, and every day brings new situations. As a nurse, you’re always touching somebody’s life — and they actually touch your life also.”
This enthusiasm for her career in healthcare didn’t go unnoticed by all five of her daughters: Alicia, 37; Andrea, 35; Abby, 28; Alison, 23 and Ava, 18. On the day we spoke, all but Andrea (who was at work) joined on a video call.
Mary’s boundless energy and ambition has carried her through working nearly full-time (again, with five children!) all throughout her daughter’s younger years.
It didn’t come without challenges, though. She frequently worked 12-hour shifts on weekends while her husband, Terry, a teacher, would be with the kids. During the week “sometimes I’d meet my husband in the parking lot at school and pick up a child, go home and just nap if they took a nap. We rarely had childcare,” says Mary.
Working while being present for her kids was, and is, of utmost importance to Mary. “You have to put your children and family first, that’s for sure. And I feel like we did that together, as one of us was always able to be home with our children,” she says. “Nursing is a great career to be a mother because … there’s such a variety of jobs out there for nurses. You can work in a school, hospital, clinic, home health. You can work part-time, too, which helps to be able to work and be home with your kids.”
Luckily for Mary, she gets to work with two of her adult kids. Abby, a NICU nurse, usually works with Mary a few shifts a week. Alicia is a neonatal nurse practitioner, so she’ll be scheduled every so often during Mary and Abby’s shifts, too.
“It’s kind of funny, the [other] nurses will be like, ‘Oh, the whole family is [working] tonight,’” says Alicia, smiling.
Andrea works as a nurse in Meriter’s Digestive Health Center. “After years of my mom telling me I should be a nurse, because she knows I have compassion and empathy that it takes to care for [people], I received my BSN in nursing, and it was a really great career choice,” says Andrea.
Alison lives in Dubuque and works as chief medical scribe in the emergency room at UnityPoint Health Finley Hospital. She describes her job as fast-paced, and she enjoys working alongside the doctors. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people and … having a positive impact in their lives,” she says.
Ava is a senior at Sauk Prairie High School, and will be attending UW-Madison next year with the intention of eventually working in the dermatology field.
All six women feel a deep-rooted desire to help others — the common thread woven in their family’s tight bond. Both Mary and Alison even worked in COVID-19 units for a time in Madison and New Jersey, respectively. “My family was all against me doing it .. because of my age,” says Mary. “I just could not say no, because I kept thinking, ‘What if one of my family members … was in the ICU and there weren’t enough nurses to care for them?’ I said, ‘I have to do it.’”
The admiration for their mom is clear. Abby, the NICU nurse, was the one that reached out to BRAVA about her mom’s career and her special family.
“We have a pretty unique group of women here, and just the fact that my mom has been in this career for 40 years is something to celebrate. “And then for all of us to follow in her footsteps … to go into the same career field … that was fun to share.” — Shayna Mace
Marla & Layla Bergh
On a recent Saturday in April, Marla and Layla Bergh were in Marla’s downtown Daybreak Studio to photograph another mother-daughter team, Emily and Stella Balsley. While Marla expertly moved through the studio snapping happy shots of Emily and Stella, Layla sat quietly on the periphery, watching videos and occasionally helping her mom.
It’s routine for Layla to accompany her photographer mom to the studio, even on a Saturday. It’s something she really enjoys, and it makes sense for this dynamic duo who are super-tight — and even own a business together, called Sugar Snap.
Sugar Snap first started as an idea discussed around the dinner table, and the business launched during the pandemic, in April 2020. The mother-daughter duo (along with Abby Lipp) run the photo-based craft kit business that mails customers DIY crafts with photos.
As co-founder and junior CEO, 11-year- old Layla helps make decisions and brainstorm ideas to make sure they’re kid-approved.
Last October, Layla had the idea to create a Halloweekend Box as an alternative to trick-or-treating. “I said, ‘Mom, I think this is a cool idea. We can make this box with candy and Halloween-themed stuff for kids that can’t go trick-or-treating because of COVID,’” she says. The box included crafts, photos and a Halloween-themed Spotify playlist. It was a hit, so the Berghs offered a themed box for Valentine’s Day earlier this year called the Cupid Crate. It had goodies including a DIY photo frame kit, candy and a letter banner.
In addition to craft kits and activity boxes, Sugar Snap has a photo club (of course!). “We ask for permission to look at your [Instagram] feed and then we surprise you in the mail with three cool Polaroids or three stickers, or … photos from your feed,” says Bergh. The goal is to help people get photos off their phone, she says.
Layla was even featured this past March on an “Access Daily” (a program put out by “Access Hollywood”) segment highlight- ing young entrepreneurs. She talked about Sugar Snap’s Birthday Box — a kit filled with photos, a small yearbook and candy to make birthday treats. Marla and Layla hope to build the photo club community this year and focus on year-round crafts.
The business is also philanthropic, reflecting a common desire in the younger set to run a successful business, but also make a difference. “When you purchase from Sugar Snap, a portion of the purchase we donate to a food bank or food-related cause — like Feeding America or a local food bank,” says Bergh.
Bergh is also working to grow her photography business, Marla Bergh Photography, after suffering losses due to the pandemic. Her business had no revenue from March through May of last year. And when both of her kids started virtual school, Bergh found it challenging to provide service to customers. She does portrait and company brand work, as well as food and family pictures — work she says is rewarding. “I’m able to use my creativity to capture a moment in time and how I see the person or the family,” Bergh says.
All of those trips to Marla’s studio have been teaching Layla about business and photography, which she says will help her in the future.
“[I’m] being taught about how to sell stuff and my mom’s teaching me how to edit photos.” Layla says, “and that can re- ally help me when I do art. My mom is a great partner.”
And, the kidpreneur has advice to other kids who may be looking to start a business. “There is no such thing as a bad idea. And there’s no such thing as a bad question,” she says. “And do not say there’s a limit to what you can do, because what you can do is limitless.” — Hywania Thompson
We asked our readers on social media: “What’s the best advice your Mom ever gave you?” and here’s what they had to say.
- Continue to make everything around you beautiful, no matter how ugly the world gets. — Christiana, Prima Nail Spa & Salon
- Trust your gut and never hesitate to call. — Colleen C.
- When in doubt, cancel the plans, get the extra sleep; take care of yourself first. — Mary M.
- Don’t dwell on it. — Lisa B.
- Don’t worry about what anyone thinks. Do whatever makes you happy. Always think positive. — Cierra Y.
- There’s not a problem a cup of hot cocoa can’t fix. — Dena F.
- Put your kids in water or take them outside if it’s getting tough. — Laura C.
- Make your decision and forget about it. Move on and don’t get stuck in the “what if” game. — Theresa K.
- A woman is never over-dressed. — Susan B.C.
- Accept people for who they are. — KOSA Ayurvedic Spa
- Mejor sola que mal acompañada. (It’s better to be alone than in bad company.) — Mount Horeb Hemp