Returning to the workforce can be a daunting job for full-time moms. It requires reigniting old contacts (including co-workers who were once their junior), marketing themselves strategically, and battling the diminished self-image that plagues most women who have been off the career track—whether it’s been two, six, or 15 years. Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin understand, because they’ve been there. Here’s an excerpt from their book “Back on the Career Track”
CHAPTER 1: Relaunch or Not? You Decide
I always assumed I would return to my job at Drexel Burnham Lambert after maternity leave. Three years into a promising investment banking career, I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend each day. There was fast-paced excitement, big stakes, challenging work, and a close-knit working team—everything I hoped for in a career when I started business school.
But before I could go back, Drexel collapsed and I was out of work, with a new baby and a serious case of mixed feelings. I loved my firstborn son and was applying my customary intensity to becoming a good mother. At the same time, I wasn’t sure I was ready to relinquish my self-image as a career woman. Back in 1990, no one in my female peer group had even been pregnant, let alone left work to stay home with a child. While the same friends and business colleagues who had marveled at my pregnancy now stared curiously at our newborn baby, a part of me longed to be back with them in their high-paying, high-status positions.
As the first year of motherhood passed, I slowly adjusted to my new role. I gradually stopped defining myself in terms of career—or the lack of one. By the time my second child was born seventeen months later, I had thrown myself into motherhood with enthusiasm, and no apologies to myself or anyone else. As any mother knows, there are highs and lows. But I loved it and derived profound satisfaction from providing a caring and enriching environment for my children, including our third and fourth, who arrived within the next four years.
No longer feeling the tug of the workforce, I began to volunteer at our children’s school. For the next five years, I poured my energy into making their school the best it could be, serving first as treasurer, then co-president of the school PTO, enlisting scores of talented new volunteers, securing a major technology grant, and leading our school’s fight in a contentious citywide redistricting campaign. But as interesting and rewarding as I found these pursuits, there also seemed to be a never-ending pile of laundry, dishes, doctor’s appointments, and the like at home. Gradually, troubling questions started to gnaw at me: Why, despite my education and experience, was I in the same place as women of a generation before me—the traditional volunteer/housewife?
The Floundering Period
Like Carol, some of you may go through a floundering period during which you feel vaguely dissatisfied with your life, but aren’t quite sure what to do about it. You’re still deeply enmeshed in your children’s routines—getting them up and out in the morning, transporting them to after-school activities later in the day—and in community volunteer projects, especially school-related ones, but you aren’t getting the same satisfaction out of them as you once did. Floundering can manifest itself in resentment, anger, desperation, or a combination of these emotions. If it’s misplaced, it can be directed at your spouse or kids, but in truth it represents discontent with how you perceive yourself after a number of years at home. Once your children become more independent, you may start to think of yourself as a dependent. This may feel especially awkward to those of you who earned substantial incomes in your former careers. Over time, you may begin to look at your husband’s income as your husband’s money. You may begin to feel guilty about buying things that are splurges just for you (even if you can afford such a purchase). Melissa, a highly accomplished former management consultant, confided: “I would never spend my husband’s hard-earned money on anything purely for my own benefit if I didn’t perceive it as absolutely crucial.”
In addition to unwelcome feelings of dependence, you may experience a sense of worthlessness. Once your children enter grade school, you’re no longer critical to their lives on an hourly basis. You still shuttle them to activities, supervise their homework, monitor their free time, and help them solve their childhood or adolescent traumas. Throw in the shopping, the cooking, the housework, and the almost mandatory school-related volunteer work, and you’re quite busy. But once the kids are out of the house, motherhood feels less like a full-time job and more like underemployment. And if you had a challenging career before, you may suffer from this syndrome all the more acutely.
Let’s start at the beginning. Remember when you first quit work to stay at home with your children? Remember that long, painful adjustment period of feeling like a nobody because your self-image was so tied up in who you were as a career woman? In the introduction to The Price of Motherhood, Pulitzer Prize nominee Ann Crittenden poignantly captured this sense of lost identity when she related: “A few years after I had resigned from The New York Times in order to have more time for my infant son, I ran into someone who asked, ‘Didn’t you used to be Ann Crittenden?’?”1
For Judy, a corporate lawyer, the transition was particularly difficult. “Making the decision to stop working was really traumatic for me. I felt like I was jumping off the edge of the world. I had worked really hard for years, had become a partner with a beautiful corner office, and I’m giving this up? We have all these opportunities, but we also have children.”
As emotionally difficult as that transition from work to home might have been, you got over it. You channeled all the energy and talent that had made you successful at work into being the best mother you could be. And most importantly (most of the time), you loved it! Or maybe, like Janice, a former social worker, you didn’t: “I feel like all I do is move kids and things from one place to another. That is, when I’m not filling out forms.” Shelly, a physician, commented: “When I was working, I was really there for my patients intensely and could be calm 95 percent of the time. But home wasn’t the same. I felt more out of control at home. It was tougher to be at home.”
Regardless of your reaction to those euphoric/exhausting first few years of at-home motherhood, things shifted when your oldest child started school and you charged into the PTO volunteer arena, finding all sorts of ways to let your professional knowledge seep into the classroom.
Maybe you’you’ve only been out for a year or two, or maybe you thought you’d only be out for a year or two, but in the wonderful tangle of child rearing, year stretched into year, and suddenly you woke up one morning, like Rip Van Winkle, five or ten years later, only then realizing how much time had passed. In any case, suddenly, for the first time in recent memory, you confront a gaping hole on the fridge calendar— those hours from eight thirty to three when your youngest child spends a full day at school. Even if you still have a toddler at home, you can see it coming—the day when that time will be yours and you are ready to make yourself the priority.
But what does this mean? Should you dust off your old loom sitting in the basement and sign up for a weaving class? Should you join a women’s volleyball league to reclaim your college jock status? What about the piano lessons you always wanted to take, but never did? Or should you become a professional volunteer, contributing your time and energy to worthy causes on an unpaid basis? Some of you realize that you would only be satisfied with one thing: a return to the paid workforce. So you begin to contemplate a relaunch of your career.
Pros and Cons of a Relaunch
This is no simple decision. Unlike the choice to pursue nonwork passions, the decision to return to work has the distinction of not being completely on your own terms. It involves an obligation to others beyond your family and you. The last thing you want to do is take on a professional commitment and not deliver. Therefore, make sure you decide whether or not to return to work not by default, but after exhausting all other ways you may want to spend your time.
On the other hand, returning to work has the potential to satisfy so many of your long-suppressed desires. It allows you to contribute to the family income and be recognized for doing so, interact with adults on intellectual issues, focus on challenging problems for extended periods, and experience the unique sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing a complex project and getting paid for it.
Continue Reading: Back on the Career Track: Impact on Children