Going Back to Work: A Reality Check

Three provocative authors — Leslie Bennetts, Pamela Stone, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett — talk about the challenges former stay-at-home moms face when going back to work.

By the editors of MORE magazine

BENNETTS: As I interviewed women for my book, I found that, actually, an awful lot of them weren’t committed professionals. So when they hit roadblocks in their careers, at a certain point, it all just became too frustrating and stressful, and they dropped out. And then when they try to get back in, they realized they didn’t have a real career to return to. We are not socializing women to get serious about their careers and to understand that they’re going to have to be prepared to be financially self-sufficient. We do not tell them that there are huge penalties for being economically dependent on somebody.

QUIGLEY: Is the workplace itself getting more extreme? Does that make it harder for women to get back in?

HEWLETT: Just 10 years ago, the average workweek for an accomplished professional was about 55 hours. It’s now 73 hours. It’s much harder to bring up two kids with a 73-hour workweek than it was with 55. So something has happened to women’s ambition. When you hit enough brick walls, when you’re faced with the 73-hour workweek and the global teams and the 24-7 client demands — all features of the modern-day workplace — it’s awfully easy to redefine who you are and to downsize your expectations. We’ve dealt women an impossible scenario. And for the fortysomething going back to work, it’s truly intimidating.

QUIGLEY: Is it possible to stay plugged in to the work world while you’re home?

STONE: Many women told me they tried to keep up for a while and had difficulty. There are real pressures for moms. We all know how intensive parenting is nowadays. There’s no question that once they’re home, women do get sucked away from their careers. But although I don’t think you can count on keeping up close contacts, you can keep up some contacts. You have to also be willing to swallow your pride: You’re going to have to knock on those doors, and you’re going to have to make those calls.

BENNETTS: Many of the employment experts I talked to were disdainful of stay-at-home mothers. The mothers don’t bother to find out what’s going on in their field, don’t bother to stay abreast of changing technology, don’t maintain their networks. I had an employment expert say, "Well, you can’t just go off to Greenwich or Westport for 15 years and think you’re going to waltz back in." Nobody wants to hire a person whose knowledge base and contact base are 15 years old.

QUIGLEY: How do you avoid just giving up?

STONE: It’s very difficult. Every woman thinks, if I’m smart enough and strategic enough, I’ll figure it out. Women are made to believe it’s their own problem, their own fault, when it’s really all about structure; they’re being blindsided by these larger trends. Objectively, what we know is that they are entering a tough job market. We can’t sugarcoat it: They’ve been out, and they’ve lost traction.

BENNETTS: I do think that women need to become more realistic. When I interviewed people, I would say, "Well, what would happen if your husband suddenly asked for a divorce or died or lost his job, and your family’s single breadwinner were gone? What would you do?" They say, "Oh well, that wouldn’t happen to me." But it could! Half of all marriages end in divorce. There’s a reluctance to confront the facts. I interviewed so many women who said, "I never had any idea that ageism was going to be a factor when I tried to go back, that sexism was going to be a factor, that there was the mommy factor." All of these things just blindside women, and they’re not prepared.

What Can Women Do?

QUIGLEY: So is it hopeless?

BENNETTS: No. Obviously there are ways to practice a profession and go around the obstacles. It is possible to have meaningful work and a happy family, raise well-adjusted children, have a good marriage and a successful career.

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