Keeping a Team Mentality

By Kevin Tankersley

The Wardlaw Family

Pictured: Photographs by Grace-Marie Brunken, grace-mariephotography.com

Brittney and Gary Wardlaw have been through most of the major life changes since they arrived in Waco in January 2017. They’ve bought and sold a house — and are in the midst of renovating the one they bought — had a baby, changed jobs, moved away from family.

But, they said, it was the right thing for them to do. Brittney was working at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, when a friend casually mentioned a job opening at Baylor. She thought about it for a while, sort of applied on a whim — and then got hired. She started in the Title IX office at Baylor and then moved over to human resources. Gary, who was in a Ph.D. program, accepted a new role as stay-at-home dad. They’ve been married for seven years and have two daughters: 4-year-old Anastacia attends Waco Montessori School, and 1-year-old Justice spends her days at home with Gary. The girls will be joined by a sibling in October.

Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley met with Gary and Brittney in their temporary campus housing near Baylor. They’re in an apartment for now as renovation continues on the house they bought in North Waco.

WACOAN: You haven’t been in Waco long. Where were y’all previously?

Brittney: We lived in Virginia. We were there a little over 10 years. We both went to Liberty University for our undergrad. Then he stayed for graduate school, and I stayed for law school. Then after that, we got married and planted roots.

Gary: Yeah, she worked at Liberty. I worked for a community behavioral health service board in Lynchburg. We were on boards in Virginia. Pretty planted with professional careers, had family there.

WACOAN: And then?

Gary: So I was in school. I was in my Ph.D. program at James Madison University and going into my second year, which is about an hour and a half away from Lynchburg. I was gone a lot. But I really wanted to work on this degree, and we had basically said Lynchburg was it. Lynchburg was where we wanted to raise our family, where we grow.

Then one day she comes in and says, ‘Hey, what do you think about me applying for this position in Waco at Baylor?’ That’s kind of how it went. Is that how it went?

Brittney: Yeah. A friend that I graduated with in law school was working for Baylor as the Title IX coordinator, and so she was building a team. We were just colleagues in the field. She happened to be visiting and was talking, ‘Oh, what’s going on with you? This is what’s going on in my department,’ because I was the Title IX coordinator for Liberty. And so, she mentioned, ‘If you ever want to move to Texas, I’m building my team.’ And I just kind of [said], thanks, but no thanks.

But for some reason, I just couldn’t shake the thought. And I’m like, ‘Why am I even entertaining this and having the thought? I’ll just mention it to [Gary]. He’ll look at me like I’m crazy, and it will be the end of it.’

She mentioned it I think a couple times.

Gary: And this last time, she just couldn’t shake it. She thought I was going to shoot it down because obviously I worked super hard to be in the Ph.D. program, to get accepted. And I think I just got to a point where I was like, you know, I’m really not in control of my life, so you know, whatever happens. So when she approached me, I just looked at her and said, ‘Sure. Why not? Apply. What’s the worst that could happen?’

WACOAN: What’s the worst that could happen?

Gary: You get the job, and we leave everything we know. So, she kind of looked at me like, OK. And that was like October 2016.

Brittney: I put in my application November 2016, and we were on a plane and had a U-Haul going across the country January 2017.

WACOAN: Wow.

Brittney and Gary: Yeah.

WACOAN: You’re now in human resources, right?

Brittney: Yes.

WACOAN: And what’s your title there?

Brittney: It’s a really long title.

Gary: Go ahead. Give ’em something, baby.

Brittney: Human resources project manager for policy and affirmative action.

Civil rights and equity stuff. Baylor is wanting to be on the front side of civil rights related issues. Title IX and civil rights are kind of in the same pot.

So they were building this in HR. They were kind of like, ‘Hey, would you be interested in being a part of this office and growing that area?’ And I was like, ‘Great, love to.’ I was in Title IX about five or six months and then moved and have been in HR almost a year.

WACOAN: How do you like working in HR?

Brittney: Love working in HR. Cheryl Gochis is the VP. She is hands down probably one of the best leaders I’ve ever been under in my entire life. She is phenomenal.

WACOAN: What makes her a good leader?

Brittney: The culture she creates in a department. It’s a culture that people want to be a part of. People enjoy working. People are motivated to work. She is very intentional about every single person that’s in her department. She’s super intelligent but very down to earth and genuinely cares for each person and each person’s story.

Gary: Makes you feel important.

Brittney: Yeah, she really does. And she just sets a tone. One of the things she’s really big about is creating a culture of gratefulness and gratitude for one another. She creates a culture of feedback where you want to get feedback from other people, and we’re creating a space where people are comfortable giving feedback.

And she’s very, very intentional about no gossip in the workspace. That is just something that she does not tolerate because she just wants to create a very healthy workspace. Work-home balance, she’s all about that. Yeah, it’s just a lot of things I feel like when I’m put in a leadership position again I want to take away.

WACOAN: In your job with civil rights and equity, what do you actually do?

Brittney: I do investigations for claims that come in related to discrimination, harassment around protected characteristics. So, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, veteran status. Any time someone brings in a complaint, myself and the [equal employment opportunity] manager, we take those complaints, look at our policy, see if it’s something that could be a violation of our policy, and we do the investigation. That’s one aspect of it.

Then the other aspect is education. Just educating people about bias, implicit bias, explicit bias, diversity, just different things like that.

WACOAN: And when you were in law school, what did you envision yourself doing?

Brittney: I actually had every intention in practicing family law. I had an internship with a family law firm in Georgia. I also worked at Legal Aid. I really wanted to give back to the community in that way. I thought I was going to practice family law.

When I graduated from law school, [Gary] was still in his graduate program. At Liberty, if a spouse works for the university, [you get] tuition assistance, continuing education and all of that. And I was offered a position in student conduct. I was like, oh yeah. That would be something I could do for a little while until he’s done. And then once he’s done, I can get out and start practicing.

What I found out as I started working in student conduct and student affairs, especially when I would go to professional development seminars, I would meet attorneys everywhere. And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t understand why you have this job. I know why I’m doing it. Why are you doing it?’ And time and time again, they said, ‘This is the field to be in. I’m telling you, this is a good place to be. Higher education for JDs is a great spot.’

So, I realized, hmm, this might not be a bad idea. And then shortly after that, that’s when all the Title IX stuff hit the fan, and most institutions were putting juris doctorates or attorneys in those positions. So, I was there, and they said, ‘Can you do this for us?’

Gary: Yeah. It was like three promotions.

Brittney: Very quickly. Just because of right place, right time.

Gary: And skill set, being able to be a leader. And it fit her. She was actually enjoying what she was doing.

WACOAN: And what was your undergraduate degree in?

Brittney: International business and marketing.

WACOAN: Gary, what was your undergraduate degree?

Gary: My undergrad was in communications, advertising and public relations.

WACOAN: And then you got a master’s?

Gary: In marriage and family therapy.

WACOAN: And then you were working on a Ph.D. in?

Gary: Counseling education, which was under the graduate psychology. So, it was a Ph.D. but in counseling education. I would also be able to teach when I finished.

WACOAN: And so, are you going to go back and finish that Ph.D. sometime?

Gary: You know, that’s a great question. I don’t know right now. I looked at Baylor’s program, and it would be a Ph.D. in psychology, so I’d have to start all over. But I was going to be a psychologist. But for right now, I don’t know if it would be the time with having two little ones in the home.

WACOAN: So, your title now is?

Gary: My title now is a stay-at-home dad.

WACOAN: How’s that going?

Gary: [Laughs.] Oh man, it was the roughest transition ever. It was good though because I think it really taught me how to serve my family. It really taught me how to take care of my girls and my wife, of the household all-day, everyday as opposed to just a few nights for the few hours in the evening, read a book, bathe them and put them to bed. I’m responsible for feeding and nurturing and growing and reading and helping hit developmental milestones.

I think at first it was really fun because I just had a 2-year-old, and [Brittney] was still pregnant when we got here. She was 36 weeks pregnant when we got to Waco, had the baby four weeks later. And then we added a newborn to the mix.

That’s when it got really challenging because now I’m having to cater to a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old and the newborn, [now] 3- or 4-month-old. It was really tough trying to learn how to care for each of them in their different stages of life.

Brittney: And one of the things he said was this was by far the hardest job he’s ever had.

Gary: I’ve been more in tears here than ever in the past. And it’s just because it’s a different skill set. It was muscles I had never used before. It was a huge learning curve to be thrown in because you’re just not taught. Men aren’t supposed to stay at home or think they can stay at home. I just think the way the culture is set up. So, for me to just be thrown into it with two kids —

Brittney: Two girls.

Gary: Two girls. It was, it was challenging. But just like anything else, I started learning, started getting in the groove. But it is challenging because [as a dad] you just don’t have the community that a lot of moms have when they stay at home.

WACOAN: So it sounds like in a space of a month, you left jobs, you moved to a place you had never lived before and you had a baby.

Brittney and Gary: Yes.

WACOAN: So, three major transitions all at one time.

Gary: Does selling and buying a house count? Trying to sell a house.

WACOAN: And having to deal with that while moving and about to have a baby. How was the transition?

Brittney: That’s a loaded question.

Gary: Yeah, it’s a loaded question. So, at first it was cool.

Brittney: Exciting.

Gary: Yeah, it was really exciting. It was like, wow, we come here, house is on the market, we get here to Baylor, new place. We actually stay on campus but about half a mile over. It’s all great. You know, apartment life, we’re on campus, food wherever we want. Nice big areas to play in.

Brittney: Meeting people.

Gary: Meeting people, it was great. And it was like we’re really getting acclimated to Waco. The people of Waco were great. They love, they surrounded us. When we had a baby, they bought us gifts, they brought us food. I mean, it was really tight-knit community it felt. But then things started getting hard after that started to wear off. Our house wasn’t selling, so now we’re paying rent and we’re paying house mortgage and utilities in both places.

Brittney: And I’m the only one working. [We have] two kids.

Gary: We couldn’t do anything until the house sold. And that took nine months.

Brittney: Ten months.

Gary: So you kind of fast forward. We moved to a different place.

Brittney: And obviously missing family. But we’ve always been pretty tight; he and I have always been a really tight unit. So, [it was] an adventure to us, we’re like, ‘Yeah, now let’s go!’

Gary: Wardlaws to Waco. Yeah, that was our tagline when we got here. Our hashtag was #WardlawstoWaco.

Brittney: And we were excited about all of that. But reality is, like he said, we’re really close to our family. And we left all of our family on the East Coast. And so, when things started getting a little harder, and you feel like you need a break, you want somebody to watch your kids, but you don’t really know anybody like that, and you don’t have family. Those things start to get to you a little bit.

Gary: That was, so that was tough. Because, again, we’re so tight, so tight-knit as a family. So when, like holidays start coming around and we’re by ourselves, it kind of started sinking in, like, this is not what we signed up for.

Brittney: We did find a lot of community though, we did.

WACOAN: Where did you find community?

Brittney: Antioch [Community Church].

Gary: Your job.

Brittney: My job, too. There’s definitely people that have been intentional that we’ve built relationships with. When I was in the Title IX office, there was another couple that moved here from Virginia a few months before we did. So, people like that and —

Gary: Antioch was a huge blessing. When we got here, we had [Waco Birth Center & Clinic], Brenda Keep, deliver Justice. She was one of the first people to invite us [to church]. So we went there. We definitely found community, found people that we connected with.

WACOAN: And in one of your emails, you said this is temporary campus housing?

Brittney: Yes.

WACOAN: So that means there’s permanent housing somewhere?

Gary: That’s another challenge, yes. Add this to the list. It was so challenging because it’s not what we thought it was going to be. This is not how it was going to play out. We were going to come here, find a nice home, maybe even get a fixer upper, right? We’re new to the area. We just couldn’t find anything. We couldn’t buy anything. And then we bought a home in North Waco.

Brittney: The week after our house sold.

Gary: Our house sold in September. We found a home, it was friends of ours [selling it]. They were selling it before they put it on the market, and it was exactly what we wanted because it has a separate guest house detached from the house. And what we’ve been looking for is a place I can start my private practice for mental health and see couples and families. And so it was perfect.

We walked through the house. It needed to be fixed up. We saw some things. We went outside, and we both looked at each other like, this is it.

Brittney: This is it.

Gary: Asked them how much they wanted. So, yeah within about three or four weeks, working with TFNB, they approved us and we got our things situated, and then boom. So, now we’re back to paying a mortgage and rent.

Brittney: It’s been a long journey to get to renovations. They didn’t move out of the house until about November or December because they were still looking. We were going to start our renovations as soon as they transitioned out. As soon as they transitioned out, we had the cold and the freeze and all that stuff.

Gary: Snow in Waco. The two snows and snow days.

Brittney: The pipes burst in the house.

Gary: I go in inside, and we had a lot of damage, a lot of damage.

Brittney: Yeah. So, enter insurance. Then we start the insurance process. And floors and insurance and all of that, and then tacking on the renovation to that. So, that’s been going on since January.

Gary: So fast forward, we finally found a contractor. And they did all the demo. Now we’re in the last phases of getting the blueprints, layout.

WACOAN: So when should this no longer be temporary housing and you should be in your permanent place?

Brittney: We have this place until August 10. And the contractors say they’ll finish in July.

Gary: And we’ll have a baby in October. So I’m hoping and praying that we’ll be able to be in our home no later than August. That’s the plan.

WACOAN: House struggles notwithstanding, how have y’all liked Waco?

Gary: We’ve loved Waco.

Brittney: We love Waco.

WACOAN: Why do you love Waco?

Gary: I think the community. I mean, I think it’s kind of cliché: ‘It’s a great area to raise your family.’ But it’s true. We love the fact that it’s not as busy as Dallas and Austin.

Brittney: But Dallas and Austin are easily accessible.

Gary: Easily accessible because we do like to travel, do like to get out. I think the support of businesses around here, the support of local businesses, I really appreciate that about Waco. I love the growth that Waco is having.

Brittney: I think one thing that used to be kind of sad where we were is people would have these dreams and start these great small businesses, but for whatever reason, even if it seemed like there would be traffic there, they would shut down within a year. But one thing we absolutely love about Waco is those small businesses thrive, from what we’ve seen. People get a good business started. It’s like the city rallies around small business and really wants to see you do well.

So that really just gave us a lot of hope, and we’ve had so much encouragement with his launch, with his private practice. People have been so supportive and so enthusiastic and so eager to offer whatever, their experience, encouragement, anything like that. I think that’s one thing that I really love. And there’s all these little hidden treasures in Waco too.

WACOAN: Like?

Brittney: When I was on maternity leave, we became friends with Luke and Rachel Whyte, who are owners of Waco Tours. And so, we went on the Waco tour, which was great because it took us to little coves by Cameron Park, Lovers Leap and little restaurants that open in these little random places. I’m thinking of places like Cajun Craft.

Gary: And I love the Tex-Mex. I love Tex-Mex.

Brittney: And we go to a lot of Baylor games too.

Gary: Oh, we love Baylor. And that’s one of the great things about being on campus. You just walk to games.

Brittney: We love sports, oh my goodness.

Gary: I love the relationship between Waco and Baylor.

Brittney: It’s really good.

Gary: And just to see the support of not only the academic side but the athletic side of things.

Brittney: They give back to the community. Baylor’s really intentional about being involved in the community too.

Gary: Food trucks, the events that happen in Waco, like the [Texas] Food Truck Showdown.

Brittney: Yeah, stuff like that. We love that stuff.

Gary: East Waco. One thing I really do appreciate is just getting to know people in the community and how they really are rallying around areas that are really poverty-stricken.

Even when I was driving around East Waco, the rich history, learning about Doris Miller. And just driving through and seeing the mural, and there were even some new construction homes.

I told my wife a couple of days later, ‘I need to take you to see what they’re trying to do to build up that side of Waco, that side of the community.’ What’s the restaurant?

Brittney: Lula Jane’s.

Gary: It’s just where she’s located and what she stands for.

WACOAN: How does Waco compare to Lynchburg?

Brittney: It’s similar in size.

Gary: Yeah. College town.

Brittney: Yeah, Liberty is in Lynchburg. Liberty is about the same size as Baylor.

In Lynchburg, there’s growth, but it’s not the uptick as it is in Waco. And I think one of the things that we really appreciate about Waco is the partnership, the Baylor-Waco relationship.

Gary: The trust.

Brittney: It’s not there in Lynchburg. You just don’t get the same response, like, you can tell by athletic games. Athletic games at Liberty, you’re not really going to see anybody outside of Liberty. But here, everybody comes. I mean, it’s full. It’s the city. It’s alumni. It’s the students.

WACOAN: Gary, when you told your buddies back in Virginia that you were going to be a stay-at-home dad, how’d that go?

Gary: Oh man. I got everything from, ‘You’re going to be ironing your wife’s clothes’ to ‘You need to get a job. You shouldn’t let your wife work’ to ‘That’s really cool. That’s amazing that you get to be a stay-at-home dad.’

It’s like I’ll call one of my friends in the middle of the day, and he says, ‘Look, I got a job. I can’t answer. I’ve got a job unlike somebody I know,’ talking about me. I’m just like, ‘Y’all don’t realize the work that I put in every day.’

So, I think it’s probably been like 70/30. It’s been like really supportive, and the other 30 percent’s been like, ‘Uh, when you going back to work?’

Once I got here, I started vlogging

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. We created an Instagram page, YouTube channel, Facebook, and I just kind of put everything out there.

WACOAN: Why did you choose to go this route with the stay-at-home dad instead of both working and putting the kids in day care or school?

Gary: A couple reasons. One, when we got here at 36 weeks pregnant, I was like, I don’t trust anyone around here to be able to just watch my newborn.

And, I’ve worked since I was 14. I could probably date it back a little further than that when I was selling fruit. I’m from a real small, country town, so I sold fruits and vegetables on the corner. But I just felt like I had missed a lot of Anastacia’s first year, being away, working so hard.

That’s the mentality. As a husband, you work, work, work. You try to climb the ladder, get this degree, get this license, get this certification. And I just felt like this was a great opportunity to stay with my girls and to enjoy and embrace these moments that I can never get back. And I think also too just knowing how important it is for fathers to be present.

I felt like I could use my privilege. I have a wife who is intelligent and works hard and doesn’t mind going out and working. I just thought, maybe I should use this privilege to be able to put it on social media, to show other people that dads can be involved in their daughters’ lives, in their sons’, in their children’s lives.

And I think the other thing is I didn’t want to just get any job. I actually turned down a research position. I applied to a few positions. I got an offer from Baylor Scott & White as a research assistant, which I would have needed to be able to go to Baylor. If I ever wanted to go into their Ph.D. program, I need research experience.

But at that time, I told my wife, I think I’m supposed to open a private practice next year. And when I told her that, she was in full support.

Brittney: It’s like, yes! That’s it, that’s it.

Gary: She just knew, like, yes, that’s what we need to do. I think that kind of carried me over to, don’t just go get a job. Be patient. Because I didn’t want to start a job and have to leave it.

Brittney: And I would have supported him if he wanted to go, but it felt a little bit like he was getting anxious about staying home, and he felt like he needed to get out. And I really believed in this practice, really believed in it. And if this is what he wants to do, I want to support him and encourage him in that.

Gary: But I think another reason why we didn’t put our girls in day care, kind of a short story. One of our friends, he’s African-American. We grew up together in a small town. Where I’m from, you don’t really get out. If you get across the bridge, you’re really doing something big, you know. And it was just amazing for me to be able to leave, get into a good school, graduate, get married. Where I’m from, a lot of people don’t really get married, have a family.

And [my friend is] really big on education of African-Americans and learning the history and educating ourselves on the things that we’re not taught in school. Like, we’re taught this one pretty narrow way —

Brittney: Mainstream.

Gary: Mainstream American history. And he’s really big about challenging all people, especially African-Americans, ‘Hey, let’s think about.’

He just called me one day. And it was a pretty tough day I was having, and we were talking about white privilege. I kind of understand this buzzword and the term, and he was like, ‘You don’t realize it, but, dude, you’re privileged. You’re privileged to be able to stay at home.’ He said, ‘Take your privilege.’ Because obviously as a therapist and [in] the counseling profession, we always say my privilege is not bad. I think a lot of times people get offended [to be called privileged]. And it’s like, just use it for better. Use it for the good.

So, translating that to me, he was like, ‘You’re a black male.’ Where we’re from, literally I don’t know anyone else where I’m from that’s doing what I’m able to do by staying at home. And I mean, it’s challenging, it’s tough, it’s tight. But we still get to do it. And it just dawned on me. I didn’t consider myself privileged by being able to stay at home.

So I think another reason why we decided not to put our girls in day care and for me to just go back home, I didn’t go back out and work because people do need to see African-American fathers involved, engaged and a part of their children’s lives. I feel like I can be that model, that picture, that story, I feel like it’s good for the overall community, especially to break down stereotypes of absent fathers.

Brittney: And he’s good at what he does. Like, he cooks great meals.

WACOAN: What’s his best thing to cook?

Brittney: Oh. Oh, man. He makes, I would say, if it’s dinner, he makes homemade French fries, like cuts up the potatoes. He fries them on the stove. They are so good. Homemade French fries with like homemade turkey burgers or bean burgers.

Breakfast, I call them heavenly pancakes. Heavenly pancakes for breakfast. Eggs, bacon. He just finds a lot of creative things to make.

Oh, cauliflower pizza. So, he makes the crust out of cauliflower. It’s a lot of work. But it is so good.

Gary: You take the cauliflower. You steam it, get it soft. Put it in the Vitamix [blender]. Rinse it out, take out all the water. You have to really get it as dry as you can. Put your oregano, Italian seasoning, garlic, and you just mix it all up.

So you make the dough out of the cauliflower, spread it out, form it. Add tomato sauce, cheese, pepperoni, usually turkey, whatever we’re feeling.

There’s a recipe I got, and I kind of modified it a little bit. But I just love doing different things. I made chickpea cookies today and took them to school. Chickpea chocolate chip cookies.

Brittney: Gary’s really intentional about finding good-tasting, healthy options that do take a lot more work. He’s just really intentional about keeping his family healthy.

WACOAN: Who takes Anastacia to school?

Gary: So, my job literally, we get up, I get [the girls], she picks out the clothes. I get them dressed. I cook breakfast for them. I do the girls’ hair. I do my wife’s hair. I do it all.

Brittney: Self-taught.

Gary: Yeah, self-taught. We had big spikes in our following on social media [when] someone in the U.K. got a hold of one of my hair videos and reposted it. I appreciate being able to learn how to do my daughters’ and my wife’s natural hair.

Then I’ll take her to work because we’re a one-car family, then take Anastacia to school about 8:15 [a.m.] and then I come home. And me and Justice, we read, we play, we nap. I cook. I prep dinner. I’ll do laundry. Go pick [Anastacia] up at about 3 [p.m.], and like today, we’ll go to the library from about 3 to 5. Or we’ll go to the museum, or we’ll go to the zoo, or go get ice cream. Fridays are ice cream. We’ll take her to Coco’s right over there by Waco Montessori. Then 4:45 come get this sweetie, [Brittney], pick her up from Baylor, come home. We’ll do dinner here. I’ll prep dinner here, or we’ll go to one of the dining halls. So, and then after that, bedtime routines, bath, and then at 9 or 10 o’clock or so, we’ll get some time to ourselves.

WACOAN: I’m exhausted just hearing that. When you’re dropping off, picking up, are you the only dad?

Gary: No. There’s actually one other dad. He’s a stay-at-home dad.

WACOAN: Is there anything else I need to know?

Brittney: Probably that our faith has sustained us in this transition for sure.

Gary: By faith in Christ. It really has. We’ve stayed strong. This has probably been the most challenging year of our marriage. But I think at the end of it, we’re stronger. And I think when we tell people our story, they’re kind of amazed. I think one of her colleagues said, ‘You guys need to write a book.’ I just don’t think we’ve really realized how tough this has been until we start to tell people. Because we have been on the same page. Because we do keep the team mentality when it comes to this big transition. It’s gotten tested, but I do believe that we always come back to our faith and how that has been really the —

Brittney: Foundation.

Gary: Yeah, of our marriage.

Brittney: Because, I mean, literally what we’ve gone through would either push people apart or bring them together.

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