When Carmen Twillie Ambar tells people about her job, they’re impressed. When she tells them about her kids, they’re impressed, too. So when they put the two together -- that she’s a college president and the mother of triplets who aren’t quite three years old -- they’re in awe.
“I get a lot of 'wow's,” says Ambar, 40, who’s been president of Cedar Crest College, in Allentown, Pa., since August 2008. “People just can’t believe that I’m the president of a college, the mother of young triplets and somehow put on shoes that match each other.”
What makes Ambar notable isn’t just the toughness of the two responsibilities she juggles, but the rarity of her circumstances. In a field that’s predominantly male and gray, it’s uncommon enough to find a female college president who’s only 40, but to find one who’s raising young children -- let alone multiples -- is all the rarer.
“I don’t think you would pay hardly any attention to a male president with triplets,” Ambar says. “Someone might ask, ‘Well, how is your significant other managing it?’ but I think it would just be assumed that the mother is taking on most responsibilities of raising the kids. Part of it’s biology and part of it’s gender roles in society.”
Rather than trying to build a family before a career or both at once, Ambar chose to establish a professional reputation before having children. She practiced law for a few years after earning a master's in public affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a J.D. from Columbia University, and then became an assistant dean of graduate education at the Wilson School.
In 2002, at age 33, Ambar became the youngest-ever dean of Douglass College, Rutgers University’s women’s college. Triplets Gabrielle, Luke and Daniel were born in April 2007 and Ambar started work at Cedar Crest when they were 16 months old.
By waiting until her late 30s to have children with her husband, Saladin Ambar, whom she met while both were undergraduates at Georgetown University, the two knew each other so well that they “were an old married couple in a lot of ways,” says Saladin, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Lehigh University. “Having so many years together before we became parents was critical to the understanding we have that there are no roles, per se, in our relationship.”
Building a career and marriage before having kids, Ambar says, helped her find the grounding she needed. It also means she's at a point where she can have three assistants working for her, as well as a nanny and student helpers.
Though her job is demanding, being president gives Ambar professional flexibility that’s all but impossible to have while trying to get tenure or working one’s way up a corporate ladder. “I do think there are some things about this role that make it easier to manage my kids than would be the case in other jobs,” she says. “I have a schedule that is totally controlled. Being president means being able to say no one o’clock meeting, let’s do 2:30; not 7:30, I want to do it at 8.... I can be straightforward and say I have to skip certain events that aren’t all that important for me to attend.”
But that doesn’t make her an absentee president. “I don’t think you’d hear around campus that I’m not very visible and not at events,” she says. Instead of spending a week traveling from city to city, she prefers to travel for two days and then come home for two days just to be sure she isn’t away from her children for too long.
Ambar’s office assistants, Cheryl Wenner and Karen Dorney, say that though she sometimes has to reschedule meetings and gets stressed, she takes it all in stride. “The schedule has to be rearranged from time to time but it’s not a hardship at all,” Wenner says, “and it would happen with any president, not just one with young kids.”
Dorney says Ambar “doesn’t get flustered by changes or unexpected events,” in part because “she realizes that some things are going to change just by the very nature of being a parent or a president.”
One key to success, Ambar says, “is to put systems in place, like all moms have, to manage everything.” They use a chart in the kitchen to keep track of meals and diaper changes, and maintain the same routine day in, day out. “The kids are on a strict schedule. If you ask me what they’re doing at any time, even if I’m not with them, I can tell you.”
Marie Wilde, Cedar Crest’s director of institutional research and planning, says Ambar “does two very demanding jobs in the same way, with a lot of structure -- timelines, deadlines, meeting times.” Though Ambar is busy and has plenty of reasons to be distracted, “when you’re meeting with her you know she’s 100 percent there with you, you’re not getting short shrift.”
One of Ambar’s strengths, Wilde adds, is that she is “filled with bounteous energy and enthusiasm” and “genuinely happy.” She wakes up at 5 a.m. to exercise and often doesn’t stop moving until 18 hours later.
Ambar says she lives in a state of “low level sleep deprivation.” She last took a nap in January at the Council of Independent Colleges’ annual meeting in Florida and the nap before that came a year earlier at the same event. “She doesn’t drink coffee, so I don’t know how she does it,” Saladin says. “I drink coffee.”
Despite all their energy, “every day we feel too old for this,” Saladin says. “We see the toll bending and kneeling and holding and carrying takes on our bodies and how it has aged us.”
The Ambars don’t do it all alone but with “a lot of support all around.” Her parents helped her move from central New Jersey to Cedar Crest’s presidential house. The same nanny has spent weekdays with the triplets since they first moved to Allentown. Three students in early childhood education each work a few hours a week to help the nanny during meal times. Ambar also has three assistants, two who work out of her office and one who manages her household.
There is lots of outside help but, Ambar says, it’s primarily when she and Saladin are working. They made a conscious choice not to have a live-in nanny, and spend all their free time with the triplets. Gender roles don’t apply in the Ambar household, partly because of ideology and partly out of necessity. “Triplets require from the parents no discussion about what you can’t do or what you won’t do,” she says. “Sometimes a parent will say, ‘I don’t change diapers,’ but with three times as many dirty diapers, you just can’t say that.”
Though necessity drives them both, Saladin insists that his wife is truly extraordinary. “Part of what is amazing is that Carmen has assumed the idea that the incredible things she does are just par for the course.”