Desperate Housewives: The Reinvention of the Main Line Mom

Interior designer? Closet organizer? Publicist? Party planner? The truth about Philly's new career women

Michele Seidman didn’t know what to do with herself.

In a few months, her only son, Jared, would be starting first grade at Gladwyne Elementary … Jared, for whom she’d quit her past life as a publicist, and with whom she’d spent as many hours as possible for the past six years. And now he’d be gone, from nine to three every day.

“I couldn’t play tennis and do yoga and go to Whole Foods more than one day a week,” she says. “So I’d do that on Monday. What would I do Tuesday to Friday?”

And so it was decided: She would become—voilà!—a decorator.

Why not?

After all, she already pored over every design magazine on the newsstand. She blogged about the fabulous finds she made trolling estate sales and shopping at Anthropologie and Three Potato Four in Manayunk and Vintage Home in Paoli. She trucked to every show house that popped up between here and the Hamptons.

Plus, after she’d married Eric, a real estate developer, she’d decorated their house—a Penn Valley fixer-upper. When the couple, with a preschool Jared in tow, moved to Gladwyne two years ago, she repeated the feat, this time under the tutelage of interior designer Michael Shannon. But she picked out the furniture and the wallpaper, including the powder room’s stunning floor-to-ceiling birch trees by Cole & Son. Last spring, her house was featured in Main Line Today.

Everyone knew: Michele Seidman had excellent taste. And what else did a decorator need?

Turns out, a lot. “People think they can pick out fabric and wallpaper and that’s it. That’s not it,” Seidman says. Eric gave her a little pre-reinvention sit-down: “I don’t want you to go out and start another company. I want you to learn.” So she took a graphic-design course at Moore College of Art and Design, then enrolled in Philadelphia University’s interior design program. She even appeared on Fox’s Good Day as a spokesperson for new dorm-decorator biz Dormify, which gave her some real-life cred. She was approached by two aspiring pro hockey players to decorate their homes.

“But I’m not ready yet,” she says.

Still, Seidman is one of them—the women who forsook fancy careers in exchange for “being a mom,” as so many on the Main Line (and in Main Line-y places) did. “It’s become a status thing,” suggests one affluent ’burbite. “Their husbands don’t want them to work, because then it looks like they don’t make enough money.” But status or no, when the kids go off to school—whether it’s first grade or freshman year at Hamilton—these ladies inevitably end up in the same spot: standing at a cocktail party sipping an appletini, and not having a thing to say when asked the ubiquitous “What do you do?”

For some, that’s terrifying. They feel irrelevant, and often too far removed from what they did before to go back to it. “If you don’t do charity work and you’re not involved with things, what’s your meaning?” asks one woman who says she has this conversation with friends at least once a week.

All of this has wrought a new phenomenon: the Reinvention of the Main Line Mom. You can chair a fund-raiser, sign up for yoga-teacher training, finish that master’s in art history. But one avenue has clearly surfaced as the path of choice for the peanut-free-cupcake-baking, tutor-hunting drop-off diva looking for new purpose: Take a hobby, declare “I could do this for a living,” have fancy business cards made (with Facebook page sure to follow), and—poof!—you’re an “interior designer.” Or “stylist,” or “organizer,” or “publicist,” or “party planner,” or “novelist,” or “handbag designer” or “spirit guide.” One Main Line mom was recently spotted at her kids’ elementary school drop-off handing out new cards: She’s advertising herself as a publicist, designer and party planner all rolled into one.

“They decide they did such an extraordinary job as decorators of their own homes that they want to give back and decorate for others,” says Lisa Birnbach, who, through her snarky rich-girl tomes The Official Preppy Handbook and True Prep (which comes out in paperback this month), has become one of the nation’s wryest observers of the tennis set. “Really, though, it’s an excuse for getting new stationery and buying a brand-new wardrobe.”

It’s also an excuse for exploiting your friends. Who else will hire you but those who know firsthand what a gorgeous chaise you picked out for the three-season porch, or the Pucci scarf you found at the estate sale, or the pirate ship you (had) built for your son’s second birthday?

Danger! Danger, Mrs. Robinson!