To Penny Warner, home is where the work and children are

My fog had lifted only a little when I received Penny's press release. I decided to celebrate Stay Home with Your Kids Day, to try working with a child in tow. Mary Jo wasn't available, of course, but Penny said sure, that I could bring Ben to the interview. Maybe my boy would play with her girls.

On the way to Penny's, I kept flicking the rearview mirror so I could watch Ben in his car seat. He sang his consonant-free version of the ABC song (A, E, E, E, E, Eh, E), and he looked just like Mary Jo did when she was two. When he starts kindergarten, I thought, he'll look just like she does now.

I knew I was wallowing in melodrama. But still: They grow so fast! You love them so much! They change your life!

Rand Carlson

After I extracted Ben from the car, I spit-washed a patch of dried milk off the corner of his mouth. I expected Penny to be one of those hyper-organized supermoms, the kind whose kids never have dirty shirts or boogery noses. I wanted Ben to pass muster.

When I rang the bell, Penny's girls ran to the door and looked through the glass, as wiggly as puppies. When Penny appeared, I was relieved to see that she wasn't what I'd pictured. Her hair was bright red, her Penny's Parties polo shirt was untucked, and she was barefoot.

Katherine, Penny's 13-month-old, was just past the point where an infant turns into a toddler. Her ankles were still buried beneath soft bread-dough rolls of baby fat, but she'd learned to walk the week before, and seemed determined to burn that stored energy. Just before I arrived, Penny said, Katherine had banged her nose; Penny didn't think it was broken.

Three-year-old Madison held a plastic cage containing two little toads. Ben and I admired them -- "Foggies!" he said -- and Madison inflated with pride. Penny looked resigned. Madison and her dad had caught the toads the night before, and since then, Penny had been trying to convince her daughter to set them free.

"They miss their mommy," Penny told Madison.

Madison stared at her blankly: No dice.

The five of us trooped upstairs to the playroom next to Penny's office. The girls, on familiar turf, quickly got down to business -- drawing with washable markers, hiding in their playhouse, making unauthorized forays into Penny's office. Ben, suddenly shy, melted into my lap.

I wrapped my left arm around him, held my notebook in my left hand, and with my right, attempted to take notes. Penny said that she doesn't work at home full-time, at least not yet. She's also a nurse, and still works a couple of evenings a week at Memorial City Hospital's critical-care unit, but she's been trying to find something more kid-compatible. Her first home business was baking banana bread; that one ended in comic disaster. When she called the health department to find out what she needed to do to be certified, she was informed that, basically, a home kitchen could never be certified. She'd busted herself.

But before she made that call, she'd been searching the Internet for custom-made banana-bread boxes. She typed "custom box" into a search engine and was directed to a site selling parties-in-a-box. A good idea, Penny thought, perfect for busy moms who don't have time to scour six different stores for matching birthday hats, cups, plates, balloons, noisemakers and napkins. In March, after the banana-bread business collapsed, she signed up to be a "party consultant." Now she has her own Web site,, and handles maybe 20 orders a month, with more all the time. Her business is growing, she says, but obviously, she's hardly a mogul.

By now, Penny and I had been talking for at least five minutes, almost uninterrupted: a minor miracle, but even miracles end. Ben pawed my breast. "Night-night?" he said hopefully -- code for "I want to nurse."

"No," I whispered, and continued taking notes.

Penny picked her business because it's flexible enough to be molded to her kids' schedules. During the girls' naps, she makes phone calls. She promotes her business to groups such as the Fort Bend Parents of Multiples, and she places ads in small-town newspapers. Small towns are perfect for Internet party supplies, she says, because in a small town, the only places to buy party supplies are Wal-Mart (too cheap) and Hallmark (too expensive).

Ben was growing more insistent. "Night-night," he said, more firmly this time, and pressed his face against my shirt.

"No," I murmured. He was leaning against my right arm. My notes became barely legible.

Some of Penny's customers order through the Web site. Others call her at her home number, usually in the evenings, when nine-to-five moms have migrated back to their houses. Sometimes Penny's husband can take care of the kids while she's on the phone. Sometimes she bribes the kids with chocolate-chip cookies. Sometimes a customer hears her kids screaming. Usually that's okay, because most of the customers are frazzled mothers themselves. Her business is good that way; people understand.

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