Some 'opt-out' moms are now looking for their next act
AFTER MOMMY'S LONG 'NAP'
Some 'opt-out' moms are now looking for their next act
When Meg Wolitzer came up with The Ten-Year Nap as the title for her new novel about affluent stay-athome mothers, she knew it was bang on. So convinced was she that she fought the objections of her publisher, who was concerned the term would be interpreted as yet another salvo in the much-ballyhooed “Mommy Wars”—one that implied women who quit their jobs to raise children were, in fact, slumbering like infants themselves. “I know it’s a prickly title,” Wolitzer says from her home on New York’s Upper East Side, where the novel is set. “But I don’t intend to suggest that these women have been asleep or idle. It’s like 10 years can pass in a flash and you sort of look in the mirror and say ‘What now?’” Most women get it immediately, she says. “I have heard people say ‘My own nap was six years long.’”
Critically acclaimed since its recent publication, The Ten-Year Nap has struck a nerve. It has also labelled a social phenomenon ignored in the relentless coverage of the Cirque du Soleil-like contortions of modern motherhood: women who exchanged briefcases for Bugaboo strollers only to find themselves adrift, out of the workforce longer than they thought they’d be and looking for their next act. The subject is also the focus of an upcoming
non-fiction book, The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went From Career to Family and then Back Again, by journalist Emma Gilbey Keller, due out in September.
IT’S LIKE 10 YEARS PASS AND YOU LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND SAY “WHAT NOW?”’
Once again, it seems, the lens has turned on that elite stratum not seen since the flood of media coverage about highly educated women exiting high-octane careers en masse to raise children. “Goodbye Boss Lady, Hello Soccer Mom,” pronounced BusinessWeek in 2002. The New York Times magazine declared women quitting jobs nothing less than a social insurrection—“The Opt-Out Revolution” they called it—in a hotly debated 2003 cover story.
Then these women disappeared, like lemmings off the side of a cliff. When they did pop up, it was as satiric fodder—as in The Nanny Diaries, a novel that exposed pampered Upper East Side housewives who sloughed off child-care duties on nannies while they went to yoga and had affairs. The lack of interest in monitoring the quotidian reality of such privileged lives isn’t surprising. For all of the lip service paid, child rearing, even among the upper classes, isn’t a valued form of labour, or, truth be told, even viewed as real work. And, while filled with joyous moments, it also can be numbingly dull. As Wolitzer writes of domesticity: “That world could be absorbing but it was also pulled along by a current of tedium, and everybody knew it.” One of her characters takes his son’s Ritalin so he can pay attention while his wife tells him about her day. In Comeback, Gilbey Keller quotes a friend who’d been at home with her child for a few years: “How was it possible that so much love and so much boredom could exist in the same breast?”
When novelists take on motherhood in the burgeoning sub-genre of “Mom-lit,” they gravitate to the more obvious comic and dramatic potential of women juggling career with children, most notably in the 2002 publishing sensation I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother, Allison Pearson’s novel about a perpetually frantic, guiltridden hedge fund manager who eventually quits her job (before starting up her own business).
The Ten-Year Nap maps new territory in rendering a generation of women who have redirected ambitions onto motherhood. (The “Super Mom” standardbearer, as we’ve just learned via the lurid details from her divorce, is Christie Brinkley, the former cover girl and mother of three who converted her Long Island mansion into a playland complete with music room, bought defibrillators and gas masks, had her kids’ baby teeth checked for nuclear power-related isotopes, swam, surfed, skied and sailed with them, took up tap dancing when her daughter did, and staged epic Christmas and birthday parties.)
“I went from self-admitted workaholic to ‘Mom-aholic,’” says Zora Crowder, a 34-yearold mother of two who lives in Oakville, Ont., of her transformation after the birth of her first son, Aidan. Crowder intended to return to her job in brand management at Kraft Canada after a one-year maternity leave, but her priorities changed. “I am a type A person, all-or-nothing,” she says. “And I didn’t think I could find the balance.” She had a second child, and revelled in home life. “I didn’t want to hear from the nanny that they took their first steps,” she says. But after 4⅛ years, she began craving the stimulation of the workplace. “I wouldn’t change it for the world, the path I took, but I missed the adult conversation and the business
challenges,” she says. ‘T felt my vocabulary slipping. I wasn’t up on current consumer trends. My husband, who’s in marketing, would come home with a business problem and I’d be ‘Oh, let’s talk about it.’ ” Her preference would have been to return part-time but that isn’t an option in the packaged goods industry. A few weeks after contacting a headhunter, she had two offers and is now a senior brand manager at Energizer. Her mother quit her job to be her five-daya-week nanny.
Most women who leave work to raise children expect to come back. None of the successful women profiled in Comeback, a group that includes a doctor, several lawyers and a designer, even expected to stop working when their children were born; life intervened. Judith Felder, a dynamo lawyer-entrepreneur, for instance, ended up leaving her job for 10 years to tend to her three children, two of them twins born prematurely with health problems.
The four primary characters in The TenYear Nap offer a kaleidoscope of the “opt-out” experience, each with her own challenges and anxieties. The central character, Amy Lamb, is a 40-year-old former lawyer at a mid-level firm who never found in work the kind of passion her mother, a successful feminist author, did. Still, she planned to return after 12 weeks’ maternity leave following the birth of her son, Mason. Motherhood proved far more compelling: “How, she thought, could you possibly choose a corporate law firm or a company’s soullessness, or even choose its bland products or components—its clients or textiles or pharmaceuticals or automatic airbags—over your baby’s hopeful, open soul?” Ten years in, without the “human shield” of a young child to justify her at-home status, Lamb is in limbo. Mason needs her less and less. She feels increasingly detached from her kind, overworked lawyer husband, Leo. The enriching marvels of motherhood that sustained her in the early days are slowly disrupted by a sense of unmooring, a restlessness and growing anxiety—about the family’s finances and also her future—that propel her back into the workforce. Her “nap” ends with the growing consciousness she is living in a fantasy world, dislocated from her husband. She finally realizes that her job at home was done: “You stayed around for your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you’d given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless. You wouldn’t know that outcome for a long time.”
IF HER HUSBAND HAD A BUSINESS PROBLEM, SHE’D SAY ‘0H, LET’S TALK ABOUT IT’
Other characters take different paths, all of them compromises. Some stay-at-home mothers start their own businesses. One group dreams up “Wuv cards” for children to give parents, which becomes a thriving enterprise. Then there’s the anorexic mother who proposes Slimjim, a gym for women with “eating differences.” “It was important that the book end with no neat answers,” says Wolitzer. “For a lot of women who leave work and go back years later, a lot of options have closed for them.”
Indeed, for women who “opt out,” even for a few years, the corporate workplace has been portrayed as a menacing game of Snakes and Ladders, filled with slippery offand on-ramps, glass ceilings and the scary “mommy track.” A 2005 study published in the Harvard Business Review, “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success,” found 43 per cent of women took time off; of those women, 93 per cent said they left expecting to return to work, but only 74 per cent did so, with only 40 per cent returning full-time. The study also identified a “child penalty”: women who took more than two years off lost 18 per cent of their earning power, and 37 per cent after more than three years away. The conclusion? Not, as the report advocated, that corporations should be more accommodating to working parents or that women with children earned less because they actively sought out lower-paying, less-demanding work, but rather that once women left the “career track,” they had trouble getting back on.
Gilbey Keller wrote Comeback as her own way of returning to work after seven years caring for her two girls. “There’s all of the background noise about how difficult it is,” she says, referring to morning shows, magazines and academic studies. “I wanted to throw down the gauntlet and say, ‘Come on, that’s just not true.’ ” She’s bemused by the fact society hasn’t yet adjusted to women returning to work after child-raising. She writes that Barnard College began a jobhunting program in 1961 to stem the “waste of talent and abilities among educated women” for married, middle-aged and middle-class women. The Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study was established in i960 to help married housewives resume and progress in their professional development, at a time when it was not uncommon for women in their 40s to return to work. “So if they knew about this way back then, why is it now that we see it as being so difficult to come back?” she asks.
HAVING ANOTHER BABY MEANT SHE WOULDN’T BE EXPECTED TO GO BACK
Addressing the challenges of “re-entry,” a term that suggests a return from outer space, is destined to become a growth industry. In May, the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario launched “Reconnect: Career renewal for returning professional women,” an annual seven-day program to take place in October aimed at assisting professional women who have been out of the workforce for between two and eight years. The $3,500 course, which is underwritten by sponsor CIBC, includes refreshing job skills in information technology, economics, accounting and corporate governance. It will also hone rusty networking and interviewing skills, and offer sessions on wardrobe updating and work-life balance. Similar programs exist at Harvard Business School, Tuck Business School at Dartmouth and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In B.C., the non-profit Minerva Foundation runs Helping Women Work, mentoring programs aimed at assisting professional women who have been out of the workforce for more than two years. Since it began in 2003, close to 200 women who have been out of work between two and 27 years have participated, says Angela Crocker, the foundation’s resource development director. Close to 85 per cent have returned to the workforce. One of the biggest impediments to returning is women’s eroded confidence, notes Mary Heisz, the faculty director of ReConnect. In Comeback, a title that implies a triumphant return from oblivion, Gilbey Keller writes of her own erosion of confidence after being out of the workplace. She felt relief when she became pregnant again: “Having another baby meant I wouldn’t be expected to work,” she writes.
Women out of the workforce for years echo the sentiment. “There’s a real perception that women who stay home with children are not working and you lose your edge,” says Jacqueline Wilson, 49, who quit her position as a management team-builder in Calgary eight years ago after the birth of her third child. “And I hate to say it but there’s a part of me that started to believe that, because you’re not being reinforced in your professional capacity.” Wilson says her decision to quit was influenced by the increasing demands of her husband’s career and the fact they could afford it. She also wanted to stay home with her baby. She assumed she’d be out of the workforce a year, maybe two. Then her husband’s job moved the family to Vancouver. She sat on the boards of some non-profits, needing the mental stimulation. When her husband found himself out of work, she decided to look for work, after enrolling in the Minerva program.
Like all of the women profiled in Comeback, Wilson is re-entering the workforce with changed priorities. She says she’d have no difficulty getting a position in her former line of work, but doesn’t want the pressure or long hours. “I want to find meaningful work that fits with the other things that are important to me,” she says. Her own thinking has shifted. “I’m just realizing now that when I enter the workforce I’m going to be a lot stronger than I’ve ever been. I feel like I have so much more empathy and understanding about people.”
Wilson is less concerned about being in her late 40s looking for work than about being judged for taking time off. “I think that being at home with kids out of the workforce for eight years is a much bigger stigma,” she says. “Look at who’s running corporate Canada. Until we change the makeup of boardrooms and senior leadership of this country then that stigma is going to be always more than the age thing.” And now that Wolitzer and Gilbey Keller have paved the way, it looks like that’s going to be the next nap to talk about.
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