Chapter OneRelaunch 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?'?"
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'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.
Reasons Behind Your Uncertainty About Returning
Your Husband's Attitude and Work Situation
Before pursuing paid work, you have to consider one of the other major passions in your life, your husband (if you have one). Where is he in his career, and can he be the point person for family-related issues during some predetermined ramp-up period you may require once you start a job? What type of job does he have? If he controls his hours, then taking a job with unpredictability or heavy travel becomes more of a possibility for you. However, if he has a job with a crazy schedule or a huge amount of travel, it will be difficult for you to take a position with similar characteristics.
Another relevant factor is how he handles his own job emotionally. Is he under a lot of job stress? Is he new to his current job or has he held it for a number of years? Is he happy with his situation or will he be looking for a change soon? The more stable his career, the easier it may be for him to help at home.
What kind of money is he earning? If he's making enough to support all of you in style for the foreseeable future, he may legitimately wonder why you see the need to earn money yourself. However, if your income will materially improve your lifestyle, either now or in retirement, he will probably be more gung-ho.
Finally, is he open to the prospect of taking on more domestic responsibilities? Is he threatened by it? Does he think he can't handle it in addition to his workload, or has he become so accustomed to your doing everything at home that he dreads the thought of its being any other way? Even those husbands favorably disposed to the notion of picking up more child- and home-related responsibilities are shocked by the amount of time involved.
We mention husbands here because their employment status and their feelings about your going back to work will have a fundamental impact on your thinking. Nevertheless, if your husband is the only one holding you back, don't necessarily let him stand in your way. You'll have to take his schedule and attitude into consideration, but in most cases, if you're thoughtful, committed, and persistent, you can relaunch in a way that strengthens, rather than threatens, your marriage.
The Impact on Your Children
For most women at home, it's their children who are keeping them there. If you've been a hands-on parent, seeing your children off to school each morning and meeting them at the bus stop or welcoming them home each day, you may be understandably concerned about how your return to work will affect them and in turn, how that will make you feel as a mother. And it's probably not just the logistics of who will get them out of the house in the morning or who will supervise them in the afternoon that worry you. If you've been an at-home parent, you're accustomed to a parent kissing them good-bye in the morning and keeping track of their goings-on after school. Peggy, a former advertising executive with two elementary-school-aged daughters, has very strong feelings about the importance of parental influence, in the moment, when her kids come home from school. "I know who my kids' friends are and can subtly and gently steer them toward certain friendships and away from others. I could never have this level of awareness if I was working full-time. I think this closeness gives me the ability to set boundaries for my children that I wouldn't be able to set as clearly if I weren't so close to the dynamics of their daily lives."
Although many mothers feel strongly about being home for milk-and-cookie time almost until their children leave for college, some find themselves willing to consider being out of the house a few afternoons a week because they've built up such a cushion of full-time motherhood underneath them. These moms do not think they need that lengthy daily contact in order to feel part of their children's lives. In fact, a few women described having the opposite feeling: Because they had been home full-time for so long, they actually didn't want to be there full-time anymore.
If you're worried about the emotional and psychological impact of your working on your kids, be aware of the significant research published and dissected since you probably last visited the issue. In A Mother's Place, Susan Chira examined several child care studies and concluded that "most studies that have followed children over time ... have found virtually no differences between children of working or at-home mothers." In fact, "several studies have indicated that children of working mothers, particularly poor children and girls, are more socially adjusted; perform better in school; and have greater self-reliance, higher career aspirations, and more egalitarian views of sex roles." Unless your job hours coincide with those of your children (and we interviewed women who crafted such opportunities), then you're going to have to find some child care and get yourself and your kids comfortable with it. You may have to engage a part-time babysitter or enroll your child in an after-school program, for example, at least a couple of days a week. Our experiences and those of the relaunchers we interviewed suggest that as with any major change, if you still have elementary-school-aged children at home, the transition will be easier for both you and your kids if you return to work gradually, rather than going back full-time out of the house from day one.
If a sudden change in financial status requires that you return to full-time work outside the home immediately, so be it. Or if you're offered an incredible full-time opportunity that you don't want to pass up, go for it. But if making the transition smooth is an option, then starting off with a reduced schedule, for example, a full day three days a week, or consulting from home with occasional days out, will help you and your children get used to the idea of your not being home when they get out of school. After an adjustment period, you can then ramp up to five full days without its being such a jolt to your children's routines and expectations. Presenting yourself consistently as a working parent is the key to making the transition easier. A steady and gradual relaunch will help you appear more consistent to your kids.
The Difficulty of Relinquishing Control
Although studies suggest that children will survive their mothers' working as long as high-quality care is found for them, you may still be reluctant to relinquish control on the home front. Gloria, a former pharmaceutical sales representative and mother of four, commented: "I'm a control freak. I just can't see myself letting someone else run my household during the day. It would make me crazy."
Although you may think you're indispensable, most school-aged children can fend for themselves when pressed. But as stay-at-home moms, some of you may rarely give your children that opportunity. Monica, a physical therapist, worked while her kids were younger and then took five years off. She was contemplating a return, but was nervous about how the family would cope in her absence. She explained: "I was sick of hearing complaints from my husband and children about breakfasts, lunches, and how things were or were not getting done around the house, but I was nervous about how they would manage without me. Fed up one morning, I decided to take ... inaction. I stayed in bed and let the children run through the morning routine themselves." Well, the kids (a thirteen-year-old and ten-year-old twins) made their breakfasts and lunches themselves and left on their own. "It was a lesson to me. It was as if someone turned the light on. I realized that a ten-year-old making her own breakfast and going to the bus by herself can be a good thing. She's developing competencies she wouldn't have developed if I were always around. I think about it in terms of competencies developed in the absence or presence of parents." Independence isn't a bad thing to test and encourage. And it may convince you, as it did Monica, that life will go on at home after you go back to work.