Back to Work
Emma Gilbey Keller was a journalist living a well-connected life as the wife of Bill Keller (now the executive editor of the New York Times) when she decided to devote herself full-time to raising their kids. Seven years later, ready to reenter the workforce but not sure how, she began interviewing women who had executed a successful return. The result is her new book, The Comeback, which chronicles the job-hunting experiences of seven over-40 women — and the happy outcomes. Keller, now 47, answers five questions from MORE.
MORE: Is any one element crucial to a successful comeback?
Keller: Confidence is the key to this whole thing. I say it very strongly; it’s like my new religion. And really, in some ways, it’s not that hard to feel confident. Even if you just had a nice evening at your book club, you feel better about yourself than if you’d eaten four bagels alone in front of the TV.
Of the women in my book, I’d say the one with the most confidence is Elaine Stone, an attorney. She stopped working when her third child was born, and she and her husband planned from the outset that she would stay home for only five years. Then, right when she started looking, she got a call from a former colleague offering her short-term work, and that eventually led to a full-time position at a major law firm in Washington, D.C. Once back, she made partner within five years.
MORE: Did you talk to any women who weren’t particularly confident about getting back in?
Keller: Lauren Jacobson had helped establish a successful law practice, but when she moved fromJohannesburg to London with her family, she really wasn’t sure she’d ever find another job. So she didn’t specifically look for one. Instead she networked to meet people and ended up connecting with someone who was in a position to offer her a job on a legal project. At that point she’d been out of the loop for about six years. After a while, she resigned and stayed home again, this time for a year. Then, also through a friend, she got a job as director of a London charity, and that’s where she works now. So she came back twice, but never by sending her resume around. In fact, many of the women in the book found jobs through people they knew. I always tell women who are trying to come back to look closely at the relationships they already have. Chances are you know someone who can help you.
MORE: Is there any strategy women should avoid?
Keller: I would never cold-call anybody — ever, ever, ever. I would always have somebody set it up. Also, don’t go to professional events alone if it makes you nervous. I can’t say it often enough: Use your friends! It’s so important. They’ll be happy to help you out. We all feel so much more isolated than we should. And the isolation leads to a lack of confidence.
MORE: Did you find that leaving a job can increase a woman’s sense of isolation?
Keller: Yes, and then she starts feeling out of the mainstream, which really affects her confidence. But it can happen to people in many ways, not just through job loss. My husband and I lost a baby between Molly and Alice, now ages 11 and 6. I was six months pregnant when it happened, and, as you can imagine, the whole thing was extremely traumatic. I felt as if every other six-months-pregnant person was going ahead and having her baby, and I was the one who wasn’t. I felt really alone.
MORE: How did you overcome that?
Keller: I volunteered at my children’s school; I joined the board of directors of my apartment building; I took a course in floral design. All these things made me feel useful and involved and brought me into contact with other people. I believe that the way to overcome isolation is to join things; it helps you foster relationships in your community.
For instance, Ellen Warner, a woman in the book who stopped working for more than 10 years while her children were small, started volunteering at a soup kitchen and in her church. She’d been a photographer, but even though her new work had nothing to do with that, just the act of volunteering gave her the confidence she needed to get back out in the world and start taking pictures again. You know, when you go back to work after being at home, there’s a process of synthesizing all your former selves. In my case, I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a writer. I’m all those three things. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2008.