A path well worn
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of my old self when talking with my niece, a PhD in pharmacy and mother of a 1-year-old daughter. “I never considered staying home with my child; I thought of those mothers as entitled,” she told me. And she went on to say how important for her it is to stand on her own, to have her job, earn her living, etc. That was, until she held her baby in her arms. Now she suffers everyday she drops her baby off in daycare, wishing she had planned financially to be able to stay home.
Eighteen years ago, when my first child was born, a couple of women at my workplace were happily surprised to see that I did not resign. I was the first woman to have a baby and stubbornly stay at my fast-paced, consulting job, causing nervous giggling every time I used the noisy breast pump – Human Resources graduated me to an office.
Then I had my second child. My husband and I decided that one of us would have to stay home with the children. So, he quit his job and stayed home with the boys for almost three years. When I got pregnant with my third child, we decided that it would be my turn to raise the kids for three years. Thirteen years later, here I am, kids reaching independency, my hair turning white, and me, finally ready for my second act. All dressed up! And nowhere to go.
I have been rehearsing getting back to the job market for a couple of years, going through some motions, but not totally convinced I was ready. Because, think about it, a mother’s job never ends. It is easy to be unsure whether you will be able to manage it, and difficult to put aside time for the countless networking interviews and the ever changing cover, networking, thank you, etc., letters you are required to write as you go through this process.
The worst of it is, at this stage, you feel like a failure, you don’t really want to see your former co-workers, your former professors, etc. You feel like you let down everyone who lent you a hand when you were developing professionally. You hide from your alma mata – you don’t want to go to your 15th or 20th year reunion! You hide in the midst of other loving, caring, stay-at-home mom friends, many of whom bear with them the same shame you have lodged in your heart.
And when you finally decide 100% to go forward, barriers continue to hit you every step of the way. For example, I often see job ads that “specifically want a recent grad who can grow with the company” or that state “ideal for a recent grad.” You can’t help but think: Who in the workforce is so focused on recruiting only young people? Are they male, female, young, mature? I came face to face with low expectations for my demographic during networking. Many of my peers who didn’t take a break don’t feel shy to say “Maybe you could start here by taking the phones, so you get to know the organization” or “I can refer you to our temp agency.” If women in your network verbalize this, imagine what goes through their minds when they don’t even know you. No wonder I write all these letters that seem to evaporate in the cloud.
At some point you have to find the strength and the inspiration to insist on relaunching your career. Little events give you hope. In my case, a few things happened all at once. First, I run into a dear Fletcher professor, who by the way, remembered how well I did in his class and said: “I remember that paper, I gave you an A+.” It was wonderful Professor Kowalczyk. I don’t think he realized the impact of his comment to me. He not only remembered me; he remembered me as a talented student. This is the part we forget: when we reach out to people from our past, they will remember us as the people we were then, not the person who spent x number of years cooking and cleaning up after the kids.
I also found inspiration in the example of other professionals that decided that “taking a break should not be a career breaker.” (Addie Swartz, CEO, reacHIRE)
I was particularly inspired by fellow FWNers that have had or are having the same struggles. One in particular stands tall and proud of her path, which included a long professional break and a return to the workforce that was facilitated by attending the Fletcher School. A number of others were quick to extend their hands with ideas and by sharing their own experiences.
I don’t feel alone anymore, and I don’t feel that this is an experience only women of my generation will have to overcome. My niece will most likely have to face the same challenges 15 years from now. The younger women reading this might walk this very same well worn path. Unless we do something about it. Unless we figure out strategies and solutions to achieve balance between our professional and personal lives. We shouldn’t need to forgo motherhood to be successful in our paths.
Maybe part of the solution is to increase the use of technological tools that will allow women and men to work from home and share this fantastic job that is parenting. Or maybe the solution will come from women, and from women alone, by telling our stories and supporting each other, and taking on a campaign to educate individuals and institutions about the positive effects parenting has on women’s professional development – and I could write an entire article on this alone. We need to establish that parenting enriches us professionally by improving our critical thinking and emotional intelligence, among other skills.
At this time, I can’t tell you yet that my story has a happy ending. I am still in the thick of it. But what I can affirm is that I am energized to break through this strongest glass ceiling of all – re-launching a career in your 50s after a long break. I believe this is the feminist fight of our generation, and I am ready to embrace it.
I invite you, Fletcher Women of all generations, to share in this blog your hopes, your fears, and your strategies to cope, survive and win. Only by sharing our stories, will we find the strength to continue knocking on as many doors as we possibly can, and when one of them opens, enter with all our ideas, skills, determination and energy. We can do it!!!