Desperate Housewives: The Reinvention of the Main Line Mom

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

Even for those with actual talent and taste and, in Seidman’s case, the coursework to back it up, there’s all kinds of trouble brewing when your success relies on the kindness of friends. And as for the others—the ones just pretending?

For them, it can all go very, very wrong.

BUT FIRST, A WORD about the women who are getting it right.

For a long time, Corinn Rocker was being a nice friend. A very nice friend.

We all know a Corinn Rocker. She’s the mom whose effortless creativity and well-behaved children have everyone asking, “How does she do it?” (And secretly thinking: Haaaate her.) But what everyone really wanted was to throw a birthday party like she did. Around Lower Merion, the celebrations for the Rocker kids, now six and two, had become the stuff of legend. Predictably, Rocker began getting calls: “How did you think of that?” “Where can I get that?” “Can you help me with my birthday party/baby shower/bar mitzvah?”

So she did. Out of the kindness of her heart, and because she loves planning parties. A workaholic in her pre-kid life, when she traveled all over the country as a sales manager, she didn’t think twice about spending her Saturdays “working” at someone else’s house, with someone else’s kids, tying grosgrain around someone else’s party favors. But then friends of friends started calling. “It’s a boundary nightmare,” says Linda Abrams, a psychologist with Philly’s Council for Relationships. “What’s the expectation then? When do you start asking to be paid? And how does asking reflect on the original friendship?”

Or your marriage? Rocker’s husband saw the writing on the sheet cake and decided something had to be done.

“You can keep doing what you’re doing, exhausting yourself, spending so much time away from us, not getting a reward other than, ‘Wow,’” he told her. “Or you can make it something real.” And by “something real,” he meant “something you get paid for.” So in July 2010, Rocker launched Corley Designs. Since then, she and her partner/sister have done at least 50 events. (The one where the pint-size guests got monogrammed aprons and cookie favors in boxes fashioned to look like teeny-tiny stoves? That was theirs.) This September, they had two or three parties booked every Saturday and Sunday. “When I decided to make this a go, I was going to be 100 percent or not do it at all,” Rocker says. “I wasn’t going to half-ass an event, especially not for a friend.”

Because even if you’re adept at what you’ve reinvented yourself into, like Seidman and Rocker, taking money from your friends is another sort of boundary nightmare. The trouble is, they’re friends. And relationships can end up exploding over unpaid invoices or too-sweet buttercream.

“That pressure stinks,” says Deborah Lamprey, who opened the gluten-free (and Best-of-Philly-winning) Main Line Baking Co. last year, after relearning to bake for her allergic kids. To start with, her success came with an unexpected price—the realization that owning a bakery meant being there all the time. (Her kids started asking if she would please “get fired.”) “I had this image that owning a bakery was just going to be ‘really sweet.’ I figured out quick that there’s a big difference between your fantasy world and the real world,” Lamprey says. Especially when you open up shop in the middle of your “real world”—right in your Wynnewood neighborhood, where the people you sell cakes to are also the people you drink Stella with at the annual block party.

“I see neighbors walk in to pick up a cake and I think, ‘This was for you?’” she says. “‘You should have told me on the phone it was for you! I don’t know if I would have done anything differently, but I definitely would have lost more sleep over it!’”

It’s a relief that people, including her neighbors, dig Lamprey’s goods. Because her goods are, in fact, good. She’s legit. Lamprey is what she says she is.

The trouble really starts with the women who aren’t. For every Corinn Rocker, there’s a Jane Off-Her-Rocker, a delusional Main Line mom who thinks that just because she can match napkins and place mats she should hang out a shingle, call herself a designer, and infuse her friends’ homes with her “vision.” And that’s when the Reinvention of the Main Line Mom gets downright ugly—for the women who don’t have a clue, and for the women who legitimately do, but get painted by association with the same “Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s doing” brush. And then there are those poor mutual acquaintances, left desperately trying to figure out a very basic question: “Whom can I trust?”

The apotheosis of all of this comes when someone like the “make-believe” publicist actually lands a client and then realizes: Oh my God, what now? So she calls her friend—the working-in-the-field-for-20-years polished PR rep with dozens of notable clients—for help.