Three days ago I "opted back in" to the full-time work force, after an absence of 15 years. According to The New York Times, I am representative of a current "zeitgeist." A Sunday Times Magazine article entitled “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In” chronicles the experiences of professional women like me who opted out of the workforce to become full-time stay-at-home mothers, and now, in our 40s and 50s, are ready to go back to work.
In the article, Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, revisited with women who, in the 1990s and 2000s, chose to walk away from promising careers to raise children. Some, Warner found, had suffered unintended consequences: Diminished professional value, economic impacts, marital struggles.
I am almost 52 years old, with daughters in high school and middle school who have spent their whole lives with me at their beck and call.
During my time off the career track, the “mommy wars” have raged with Sheryl Sandberg, author of the book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, the latest “It Girl” in the debate. The Internet has exploded, providing an outlet for mom bloggers to share their stories and vent their frustrations, and also enabling myriad opportunities for mothers to craft creative work arrangements. The eternal quest for work-family balance continues, with men taking a slightly more active role in the discussions.
My “identity crisis” to define myself — first as a professional, then as a mother, then as some sort of hybrid — has been central to my existence, so much so that I wrote a book about it.
In my marriage, my transformation from DINK (dual income, no kids) to SAHM (stay-at-home mom) undeniably changed the dynamic between my husband and me. The fact that I had no independent income, but was still reduced to a stereotype with an acronym, did not make me feel any better.
Like the women in the New York Times story, my frustrations were intellectual (child-rearing and housework can be boring), philosophical (hadn’t I been raised to be a feminist? What sort of example was I setting for my daughters?) and power-related. Though we had begun our marriage as egalitarian, career-minded professionals, once I stopped working, I felt like Lucy to his Ricky, with some ‘splainin’ to do about how I spent our money and my time.
Let me be clear that I felt lucky to have the choice not to work, an option available to women in more enlightened countries with strong social support networks for new parents, but one that still seems (unfathomably) far off the horizon for the U.S.
After a few bewildering years with babies and toddlers, during which I consoled myself with cooking, my innate intellectual curiosity took over and I began casting about for things to do. I took on contract work with my previous employer, I joined the board of an international organization, I took a year-long writing course at the university, and I volunteered at my kids’ elementary school, eventually taking on leadership roles organizing events and long-term projects.
There was no method, other than desperation, to my madness. But unbeknownst to me, I was setting myself up for an eventual return to the workforce by learning new skills, networking with new contacts and behaving like a professional.
A playground acquaintance, who was familiar with my work editing the PTA newsletter, recommended me to one of her corporate clients who was looking for a writer. My interest in education issues led me to publish articles on topical issues, and before long I became a freelance education journalist. With time on my hands and a penchant for waking up early, I turned 10 years of stories I’d written into a book, learning about the emerging new frontier of self-publishing along the way. I started a blog, and learned the ins and outs of publishing digital content.
Despite these pursuits, I lamented that no one would ever hire me because I’d been out of the game for so long. Resumes I sent out often didn’t get me in the door for an interview. Once, while being interviewed by an all-female panel, I was asked the taboo question of how I planned to manage the transition from stay-at-home freelancer to full-time office worker. “I guess I’ll have to iron my clothes,” I said.
“I never got to grow up professionally,” I complained to my husband, who has worked steadily without a break and has shouldered the burden of being family breadwinner.
“You have grown in so many ways and learned many skills,” he reminded me. “You’ve been free to experiment.”
Then, as was the case for a number of the women profiled by The New York Times, the perfect job found me.
I won’t pretend the transition is not without its challenges and, who knows, I might get another book out of it. But I’m pleased to be part of a successful, family-friendly company working with a team of smart people. Several of them are younger than me and I will benefit from reverse mentoring, with them teaching me some of the skills I missed while I was on hiatus.
The weekend before I started my new job, I had back-to-back book-promotion events at area bookstores. At both events, I found myself deep in conversation with women younger than me who are currently struggling with the same work/family trade-offs that plagued me for so long.
“My friends are being alarmist,” one of them told me. “They say I need to go back to work so I’m not vulnerable if my husband leaves me. But I want to stay home with my kids. The problem is, I have no skills. How will I rejoin the workforce if I don’t spend any time developing some?”
“What if I quit and never find another job in my field?” worried another woman, who admitted that she defined herself by her job, just as I once did. “I see friends of mine who have left their careers, and it’s eating away at them.”
I wish I had the answers. But the answers are different for everyone.
If my experience can be of any help, here are my most important pieces of advice:
1) Trust your gut
2) Recognize that there are no perfect lives, just perfect moments
3) Keep reading and remain intellectually curious
4) Be open to new people and new areas of interest that can lead to future career paths
5) Add volunteer work to your resume and conduct yourself professionally
6) Don’t sell yourself short
Alison Krupnick is ParentMap's Education Editor and a former world-traveling diplomat turned minivan-driving mom and writer. She chronicled her transformation in her book Ruminations from the Minivan, Musings from a World Grown Large, then Small. Her writing has been published in Harvard Review; Brain, Child; Seattle magazine and a variety of news and trade publications and literary journals and anthologies. You can find more of her education reporting on Crosscut.com and enjoy sweet and savory moments and recipes on her blog Slice of Mid-Life. Have an education question or suggestion? Let her know!