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Back on the Career Track
By Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin

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 Back on the Career Track

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Back on the Career Track
By Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin
ISBN: 0446578207
Genre: Business & Money

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Chapter Excerpt from: Back on the Career Track , by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin


Relaunch or Not? You Decide

I always assumed I would return to my job at Drexel Burnham Lambert after maternity leave. Three years into a promising investment banking career, I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend each day. There was fast-paced excitement, big stakes, challenging work, and a close-knit working team—everything I hoped for in a career when I started business school.

But before I could go back, Drexel collapsed and I was out of work, with a new baby and a serious case of mixed feelings. I loved my firstborn son and was applying my customary intensity to becoming a good mother. At the same time, I wasn’t sure I was ready to relinquish my self-image as a career woman. Back in 1990, no one in my female peer group had even been pregnant, let alone left work to stay home with a child. While the same friends and business colleagues who had marveled at my pregnancy now stared curiously at our newborn baby, a part of me longed to be back with them in their high-paying, high-status positions.

As the first year of motherhood passed, I slowly adjusted to my new role. I gradually stopped defining myself in terms of career—or the lack of one. By the time my second child was born seventeen months later, I had thrown myself into motherhood with enthusiasm, and no apologies to myself or anyone else. As any mother knows, there are highs and lows. But I loved it and derived profound satisfaction from providing a caring and enriching environment for my children, including our third and fourth, who arrived within the next four years.

No longer feeling the tug of the workforce, I began to volunteer at our children’s school. For the next five years, I poured my energy into making their school the best it could be, serving first as treasurer, then co-president of the school PTO, enlisting scores of talented new volunteers, securing a major technology grant, and leading our school’s fight in a contentious citywide redistricting campaign. But as interesting and rewarding as I found these pursuits, there also seemed to be a never-ending pile of laundry, dishes, doctor’s appointments, and the like at home. Gradually, troubling questions started to gnaw at me: Why, despite my education and experience, was I in the same place as women of a generation before me—the traditional volunteer/housewife?


The Floundering Period

Like Carol, some of you may go through a floundering period during which you feel vaguely dissatisfied with your life, but aren’t quite sure what to do about it. You’re still deeply enmeshed in your children’s routines—getting them up and out in the morning, transporting them to after-school activities later in the day—and in community volunteer projects, especially school-related ones, but you aren’t getting the same satisfaction out of them as you once did. Floundering can manifest itself in resentment, anger, desperation, or a combination of these emotions. If it’s misplaced, it can be directed at your spouse or kids, but in truth it represents discontent with how you perceive yourself after a number of years at home. Once your children become more independent, you may start to think of yourself as a dependent. This may feel especially awkward to those of you who earned substantial incomes in your former careers. Over time, you may begin to look at your husband’s income as your husband’s money. You may begin to feel guilty about buying things that are splurges just for you (even if you can afford such a purchase). Melissa, a highly accomplished former management consultant, confided: “I would never spend my husband’s hard-earned money on anything purely for my own benefit if I didn’t perceive it as absolutely crucial.”

In addition to unwelcome feelings of dependence, you may experience a sense of worthlessness. Once your children enter grade school, you’re no longer critical to their lives on an hourly basis. You still shuttle them to activities, supervise their homework, monitor their free time, and help them solve their childhood or adolescent traumas. Throw in the shopping, the cooking, the housework, and the almost mandatory school-related volunteer work, and you’re quite busy. But once the kids are out of the house, motherhood feels less like a full-time job and more like underemployment. And if you had a challenging career before, you may suffer from this syndrome all the more acutely.

Let’s start at the beginning. Remember when you first quit work to stay at home with your children? Remember that long, painful adjustment period of feeling like a nobody because your self-image was so tied up in who you were as a career woman? In the introduction to The Price of Motherhood, Pulitzer Prize nominee Ann Crittenden poignantly captured this sense of lost identity when she related: “A few years after I had resigned from The New York Times in order to have more time for my infant son, I ran into someone who asked, ‘Didn’t you used to be Ann Crittenden?’?”1

For Judy, a corporate lawyer, the transition was particularly difficult. “Making the decision to stop working was really traumatic for me. I felt like I was jumping off the edge of the world. I had worked really hard for years, had become a partner with a beautiful corner office, and I’m giving this up? We have all these opportunities, but we also have children.”

As emotionally difficult as that transition from work to home might have been, you got over it. You channeled all the energy and talent that had made you successful at work into being the best mother you could be. And most importantly (most of the time), you loved it! Or maybe, like Janice, a former social worker, you didn’t: “I feel like all I do is move kids and things from one place to another. That is, when I’m not filling out forms.” Shelly, a physician, commented: “When I was working, I was really there for my patients intensely and could be calm 95 percent of the time. But home wasn’t the same. I felt more out of control at home. It was tougher to be at home.”

Regardless of your reaction to those euphoric/exhausting first few years of at-home motherhood, things shifted when your oldest child started school and you charged into the PTO volunteer arena, finding all sorts of ways to let your professional knowledge seep into the classroom.

Maybe you’ve only been out for a year or two, or maybe you thought you’d only be out for a year or two, but in the wonderful tangle of child rearing, year stretched into year, and suddenly you woke up one morning, like Rip Van Winkle, five or ten years later, only then realizing how much time had passed. In any case, suddenly, for the first time in recent memory, you confront a gaping hole on the fridge calendar— those hours from eight thirty to three when your youngest child spends a full day at school. Even if you still have a toddler at home, you can see it coming—the day when that time will be yours and you are ready to make yourself the priority.

But what does this mean? Should you dust off your old loom sitting in the basement and sign up for a weaving class? Should you join a women’s volleyball league to reclaim your college jock status? What about the piano lessons you always wanted to take, but never did? Or should you become a professional volunteer, contributing your time and energy to worthy causes on an unpaid basis? Some of you realize that you would only be satisfied with one thing: a return to the paid workforce. So you begin to contemplate a relaunch of your career.

Pros and Cons of a Relaunch

This is no simple decision. Unlike the choice to pursue nonwork passions, the decision to return to work has the distinction of not being completely on your own terms. It involves an obligation to others beyond your family and you. The last thing you want to do is take on a professional commitment and not deliver. Therefore, make sure you decide whether or not to return to work not by default, but after exhausting all other ways you may want to spend your time.

On the other hand, returning to work has the potential to satisfy so many of your long-suppressed desires. It allows you to contribute to the family income and be recognized for doing so, interact with adults on intellectual issues, focus on challenging problems for extended periods, and experience the unique sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing a complex project and getting paid for it.

Reasons Behind Your Uncertainty About Returning

Your Husband’s Attitude and Work Situation

Before pursuing paid work, you have to consider one of the other major passions in your life, your husband (if you have one). Where is he in his career, and can he be the point person for family-related issues during some predetermined ramp-up period you may require once you start a job? What type of job does he have? If he controls his hours, then taking a job with unpredictability or heavy travel becomes more of a possibility for you. However, if he has a job with a crazy schedule or a huge amount of travel, it will be difficult for you to take a position with similar characteristics.

Another relevant factor is how he handles his own job emotionally. Is he under a lot of job stress? Is he new to his current job or has he held it for a number of years? Is he happy with his situation or will he be looking for a change soon? The more stable his career, the easier it may be for him to help at home.

What kind of money is he earning? If he’s making enough to support all of you in style for the foreseeable future, he may legitimately wonder why you see the need to earn money yourself. However, if your income will materially improve your lifestyle, either now or in retirement, he will probably be more gung-ho.

Finally, is he open to the prospect of taking on more domestic responsibilities? Is he threatened by it? Does he think he can’t handle it in addition to his workload, or has he become so accustomed to your doing everything at home that he dreads the thought of its being any other way? Even those husbands favorably disposed to the notion of picking up more child- and home-related responsibilities are shocked by the amount of time involved.

We mention husbands here because their employment status and their feelings about your going back to work will have a fundamental impact on your thinking. Nevertheless, if your husband is the only one holding you back, don’t necessarily let him stand in your way. You’ll have to take his schedule and attitude into consideration, but in most cases, if you’re thoughtful, committed, and persistent, you can relaunch in a way that strengthens, rather than threatens, your marriage.

The Impact on Your Children

For most women at home, it’s their children who are keeping them there. If you’ve been a hands-on parent, seeing your children off to school each morning and meeting them at the bus stop or welcoming them home each day, you may be understandably concerned about how your return to work will affect them and in turn, how that will make you feel as a mother. And it’s probably not just the logistics of who will get them out of the house in the morning or who will supervise them in the afternoon that worry you. If you’ve been an at-home parent, you’re accustomed to a parent kissing them good-bye in the morning and keeping track of their goings-on after school. Peggy, a former advertising executive with two elementary-school-aged daughters, has very strong feelings about the importance of parental influence, in the moment, when her kids come home from school. “I know who my kids’ friends are and can subtly and gently steer them toward certain friendships and away from others. I could never have this level of awareness if I was working full-time. I think this closeness gives me the ability to set boundaries for my children that I wouldn’t be able to set as clearly if I weren’t so close to the dynamics of their daily lives.”

Although many mothers feel strongly about being home for milk-and-cookie time almost until their children leave for college, some find themselves willing to consider being out of the house a few afternoons a week because they’ve built up such a cushion of full-time motherhood underneath them. These moms do not think they need that lengthy daily contact in order to feel part of their children’s lives. In fact, a few women described having the opposite feeling: Because they had been home full-time for so long, they actually didn’t want to be there full-time anymore.

If you’re worried about the emotional and psychological impact of your working on your kids, be aware of the significant research published and dissected since you probably last visited the issue. In A Mother’s Place, Susan Chira examined several child care studies and concluded that “most studies that have followed children over time . . . have found virtually no differences between children of working or at-home mothers.”2 In fact, “several studies have indicated that children of working mothers, particularly poor children and girls, are more socially adjusted; perform better in school; and have greater self-reliance, higher career aspirations, and more egalitarian views of sex roles.”3 Unless your job hours coincide with those of your children (and we interviewed women who crafted such opportunities), then you’re going to have to find some child care and get yourself and your kids comfortable with it. You may have to engage a part-time babysitter or enroll your child in an after-school program, for example, at least a couple of days a week. Our experiences and those of the relaunchers we interviewed suggest that as with any major change, if you still have elementary-school-aged children at home, the transition will be easier for both you and your kids if you return to work gradually, rather than going back full-time out of the house from day one.

If a sudden change in financial status requires that you return to full-time work outside the home immediately, so be it. Or if you’re offered an incredible full-time opportunity that you don’t want to pass up, go for it. But if making the transition smooth is an option, then starting off with a reduced schedule, for example, a full day three days a week, or consulting from home with occasional days out, will help you and your children get used to the idea of your not being home when they get out of school. After an adjustment period, you can then ramp up to five full days without its being such a jolt to your children’s routines and expectations. Presenting yourself consistently as a working parent is the key to making the transition easier. A steady and gradual relaunch will help you appear more consistent to your kids.

The Difficulty of Relinquishing Control

Although studies suggest that children will survive their mothers’ working as long as high-quality care is found for them, you may still be reluctant to relinquish control on the home front. Gloria, a former pharmaceutical sales representative and mother of four, commented: “I’m a control freak. I just can’t see myself letting someone else run my household during the day. It would make me crazy.”

Although you may think you’re indispensable, most school-aged children can fend for themselves when pressed. But as stay-at-home moms, some of you may rarely give your children that opportunity. Monica, a physical therapist, worked while her kids were younger and then took five years off. She was contemplating a return, but was nervous about how the family would cope in her absence. She explained: “I was sick of hearing complaints from my husband and children about breakfasts, lunches, and how things were or were not getting done around the house, but I was nervous about how they would manage without me. Fed up one morning, I decided to take . . . inaction. I stayed in bed and let the children run through the morning routine themselves.” Well, the kids (a thirteen-year-old and ten-year-old twins) made their breakfasts and lunches themselves and left on their own. “It was a lesson to me. It was as if someone turned the light on. I realized that a ten-year-old making her own breakfast and going to the bus by herself can be a good thing. She’s developing competencies she wouldn’t have developed if I were always around. I think about it in terms of competencies developed in the absence or presence of parents.” Independence isn’t a bad thing to test and encourage. And it may convince you, as it did Monica, that life will go on at home after you go back to work.

The Reluctance to Give Up Your Freedom

In addition to the difficulty of letting go at home, many mothers don’t relish giving up their own freedom. Although part of you may long for the paycheck and camaraderie that come with employment, another part of you may be reluctant to give up the flexibility you now have to structure your days and accomplish your obligations as you see fit. Although you may be very busy “doing” for your husband, your kids, your home, and even volunteer assignments, those efforts differ significantly from being obligated to an employer or a client. And while we believe there is greater potential work flexibility now than has existed since the industrial revolution began, flexibility has its limits.

Debbie, a San Francisco mother of three, was a commercial banker who relaunched as a regional sales manager for a women’s clothing company that holds trunk shows in women’s homes. She gave us her take on the flexibility-versus-commitment issue: “It isn’t that these women don’t want to work. It’s just that they want work to be on their own terms. They want manageable time. They want work to factor into family life rather than the other way around.” Debbie took the regional sales job because it allowed her to have this kind of relationship with her work. And she recruits women to be reps who feel the same way. “I recruit women who have entrepreneurial leanings, but who don’t want to compromise family for their work.” The reps make twenty-five to fifty thousand dollars a year in gross commissions before expenses. For some, this is less than they made in their previous careers, but they willingly pay this price for the flexibility of the job and the ability to have their own business. Some of them do this as a way of keeping their hand in the working world, but in a manageable way.

Low Self-Esteem or Depression

As we mentioned, some women experience dwindling self-esteem the longer they remain home full-time. In extreme cases, this feeling of worthlessness can border on depression.

Kathy, a mother of four who left a public relations career, commented, “There’s this whole part of me that doesn’t know how I got here. I’m much more tentative in social situations. There are certain topics of conversation I shy away from because I’m afraid I won’t have an opinion on them. I don’t know what happened to the confident, competent person that I was. All I know is that person is definitely not here anymore. That person has been replaced by a depressed, easily intimidated person who feels socially awkward in groups that include others besides ‘mommies’ and their kids.

“Complicating this, I also feel as if my life has no meaning. I have no sense of accomplishment in my life, no sense that I’m making a difference for others outside of my immediate family. I use so much energy making everything work for all my kids all day that I am too exhausted at the end of the day to do anything to make myself interesting. I feel completely worthless because I don’t have anything to contribute.”

We don’t mean to imply that depression is an occupational hazard of at-home motherhood, nor that relaunching your career will eliminate your psychological ills. But neither are we the first to notice a correlation between housewives and depression.

Ambivalence and Guilt

Even if you don’t become depressed, you may be plagued by doubt: Do I really want to go back to work? Would my family and I be better off if I simply devoted more time to outside interests, like a hobby or volunteer work? If I don’t go back to work, will I harbor anger and resentment toward my family? Is this the right time, in terms of my children’s development and my feelings about my life, to return to work? Will my children be okay if I have to hire a babysitter or put them into an afternoon program a couple of days (or more) a week?

These questions may be prompted by a deep ambivalence about returning to work. Many of you had a hard time deciding whether to leave work in the first place; likewise, you may have just as hard a time deciding when and even whether to return. You shouldn’t beat yourself up over this ambivalence. It’s only natural. You may have spent a number of years building a life for yourself as a full-time mother and homemaker, investing in your children, in your home, in friendships, in community organizations and routines. The thought of changing all that is frightening.

Some of you experience ambivalence related to your perception of other people’s expectations of you as a working person. Rebecca, a teacher who was relaunching after five years at home, reflected: “Work takes on an inflated importance when you live in a community like mine. When women here go to work, most of them are doing important things like groundbreaking scientific research or AIDS medicine. There is some subtle pressure to have an intense, important job, or not work at all. I had to fight this perception when I chose to take my job as a teacher’s aide.”

Even if your children are in school all day, if you add up the hours before and after school, during the summer, and on vacation and sick days, you realize that there is a lot of time when your children are at home. And if you’re used to being a hands-on parent, you probably can’t imagine giving that up. You worry about what impact losing that together time will have on your child, as well as what impact it will have on you and your assessment of yourself as a mother.

A debilitating sense of guilt can permeate your state of mind during this period. Many women feel guilty because they enjoy the luxury of staying home, while others feel guilty at the thought of going back to work: “I actually felt it was the greatest act of selfishness to return to work full-time,” Carol once remarked. “This decision was all about me, and only me. Objectively, I thought, it was detrimental to the lives of my husband and children, who relied on me at home. Yet, on the other hand, I wondered whether an unhappy, impatient, and frustrated wife and mother was really better than one who’s around less but in better spirits.” The media haven’t helped, by portraying materialistic housewives feeding off their husbands on the one hand and career-obsessed working mothers on the other.

What Others Think and Say

Finally, as you flounder over whether or not to try to relaunch your career, you will be plagued by unsolicited advice, opinions, and just plain interference from well-meaning friends and family. Kim, a former city planner on the verge of becoming an empty-nester, was urged by her mother to “pamper herself.” When she decided to relaunch instead, her friends reacted in two different ways. “I was afraid my friends would laugh at me. But most said, ‘You can do anything.’ One very tough, highly successful friend thought I was overreaching when I applied for certain jobs. It cut me to the quick. And I really wanted to prove her wrong, which I did.”

Terry was not prepared for the reaction of some women in her at-home peer group after she relaunched as a full-time software programmer: “When I first started telling other women that I was returning to work, many were shocked, and asked if my husband had lost his job. They couldn’t believe that I was doing this by choice. That surprised me.”

Bucking the Perfect-Mother Myth and the New Momism

All these concerns about your proper maternal role have crystallized around a peculiar recent malady called the new momism, the übermom syndrome, or any number of other colorful descriptors. Indeed, according to Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness, the current generation of mothers has “driven themselves crazy in the quest for perfect mommy-dom. . . . I heard of whole towns turning out for a spot in the right ballet class; of communities where the competition for the best camps, the best coaches and the best piano teachers rivaled that for admission to the best private schools and colleges.”4

Although Warner claimed that this affliction strikes both stay-at-home and working mothers, as a stay-at-home mom you may be particularly vulnerable because you’ve poured all your energies into child rearing. And having invested so much time and trouble into full-time motherhood, you may find it difficult to cut back. The question is: How much of this mania is due to your deeply held beliefs about what constitutes good parenting, and how much is due to keeping up with the Joneses in the motherhood department? In contemplating a relaunch of your career, you need to make sure you meet your own maternal expectations, not someone else’s idea of the perfect mother.

Seven Motivators for Relaunching

What are the motivators for making the relaunch decision? If your family has managed to survive this long without your income, why should you return to the rat race, this year, next year, or ever? After all, the choice to return to work is not foreordained. Although most of the women we read about in articles on women leaving the workforce claim that they’ll return to work someday, we all know women who are thrilled to be home full-time and may never wish to return.

Although each woman may phrase her reasons for wanting to return to work slightly differently, we’ve identified seven major motivators, with many women experiencing a combination of these.

1. Money

Not surprisingly, number one on the list for most women is money. According to the Center for Work–Life Policy’s March 2005 “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps” study, 38 percent of on-ramping women cite “household income no longer sufficient for family needs” and 24 per-cent cite “partner’s income no longer sufficient for family needs” as the major factors propelling them to seek jobs.5 Although your husband may have earned enough to permit you to take time off while your children were young, you may not be able to afford this setup any longer. Or you may be concerned about your financial future. These concerns may not force you to get a job tomorrow, but they may play, more or less subtly, into the calculus of your thinking about returning to work.

Indeed, the very growth of your family may precipitate the need for additional income. For example, you may be busting out of the starter house you bought when you were first pregnant. Feeding, clothing, and entertaining a teenager costs more than doing the same for babies and toddlers. Part of the reason why Judy, the corporate lawyer who gave up her corner office, relaunched her career was that she and her husband wanted to switch their children into private schools. When Bonnie, a former sales manager, ran the numbers on retirement and paying for college, she realized the family would come up short unless she added another income stream into the projections.

Over the last few years in particular, after the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2000, many husbands have encountered career hiccups, for perhaps the first time in their work lives. Even if you managed to stay home during these episodes of reduced or nonexistent spousal income, you may have vowed not to put your family at the mercy of one employer again.

And for better or worse, there are also many of you who are currently single again, whether through widowhood or divorce, who may have enough of a cushion for the next few years but who know, or believe, that the money won’t last forever.

We’re not arguing that you should take a job on the off chance that you might get divorced, but we do stand by the Girl Scout motto of “Be prepared.” Divorce, widowhood, spousal disability, and protracted spousal unemployment can and do happen. Relaunching thus offers a contingency plan in case of a major financial dislocation.

Even though making money may be one of your goals, there may be situations in which it’s advantageous to start off by taking a job in which you barely break even financially after accounting for child care, transportation, and other work-related expenses. As we discuss in detail in chapter 3, you should consider such an opportunity if something special about the job content, flexibility, or people will lead to a more lucrative future position. Think of it as an investment, a résumé builder, a way to indicate to future employers you are serious about working and keeping current.

Leah, a primary care physician and mother of two young boys, relaunched by joining the satellite office of a small private practice two mornings a week. After three years, the physicians who owned the practice decided to close the office, and Leah had to reevaluate her options. By then, her older boy was in elementary school and her younger child was in nursery school three mornings a week. She really liked working two mornings a week, but she couldn’t find another practice that would allow her to work the same schedule. Finally, she came across an opportunity to work part-time as a clinical instructor at a university medical school residency program located close to her home. Unfortunately, the position was unpaid; typically, paid senior physicians on staff supervised the residents on a rotating volunteer basis.

Leah weighed the pros and cons. She loved the babysitter who had been with her for the last three years, and didn’t want to lose her. The university would pick up malpractice insurance coverage that she would otherwise have to maintain herself, and would also give her an associate professorship title. She really liked the people she would be working with. Taking this position was a net loss because of the baby-sitting and transportation costs, but it was less expensive than covering her own insurance while she continued looking for another job. Her husband questioned the decision. What convinced her (and eventually him) that it was worth doing was that it gave her continuous work experience on her résumé, kept her medical knowledge current, gave her access to a medical community with lots of contacts, and bought her some time to look for the right paid position the following year when her younger child entered kindergarten and she would be available for more hours.

If you can live without a positive income stream in the short term, the intangible future benefits from a job in which you temporarily lose money or only break even may make it worth taking. Make sure you weigh all the benefits, as Leah did, not just the cash compensation, when making a relaunch decision.

2. Validation

When you left work in the first place, you probably couched it as “a good family decision.” Unlike the traditional housewives Betty Friedan described in The Feminine Mystique, you chose to be home after proving yourself quite capable of handling a demanding career. Friedan’s women never had the opportunity to test their professional potential and experience career success. The big surprise is that despite previous professional accomplishments, today’s women who decide to relaunch after taking extended leave from promising careers often experience a kind of delayed and watered-down version of what Friedan’s women felt. It is not unusual to experience self-doubt about whether you can still make it professionally, or whether, while at home, you’ve lost something critical to success. How do you overcome these feelings of self-doubt? You need the validation that will come from resuming your career.

Your contribution to the organization and enrichment of family life only gets you so far. Marla, a lawyer and human resource executive, put it this way: “The idea of being independent and self-determined is paramount to me, and while I love being a mother, it will not solely define my life.” According to Peggy, after she quit her job as an advertising executive, “It would kill me not to have an occupation to fill in on forms.” For those of you without pressing financial need who are returning to the workforce after raising children, the job itself is the validation. The bottom line is that you need to make money again and contribute to the family income, not for the purchasing power of the income, but simply for the legitimacy and validation that earning it provides.

3. Leveling the Marriage Playing Field

Pulling in your own income and contributing in a material way to family finances can do wonders for making you feel self-sufficient, confident, and independent within your marriage. Resuming your work status means spending decisions replace spending negotiations. You put less pressure on yourself to be thrifty when you carry some of the financial burden. You more easily give yourself permission to splurge occasionally.

Yolanda distinctly remembered feeling much freer to go into a store and buy something she liked (maybe even something for herself!) shortly after returning to work. Prior to her relaunch, she rarely shopped except for essentials: “Before I went back to work, I somehow didn’t feel justified in making purchases for myself or for the house because I was not contributing directly to our family’s income. This feeling was completely self-generated, as my husband never pressured me to limit my purchases when I was home full-time.”

Melanie, a relauncher who started her own Web site design business, related, “I was the fourth kid in my family growing up, and my family had to scrape for me to go to college. So I always had discomfort with not being in control financially.” Molly, a textile artist and weaver who relaunched as an art teacher for the disabled, explained her delight at receiving her first paycheck: “I told my husband and kids I was taking everyone out to dinner when my first paycheck came in. And I did! It was a terrific feeling to be earning my own money again.”

4. Intellectual Stimulation

Most women do enjoy their maternal roles, but being at home full-time makes them stir-crazy. For some of you, a lack of intellectual excitement in your lives drives you to think about reentering.

Vivian craved the company of other bright, high-energy adults. “I missed the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a difficult project, and I needed to wrap my mind around something other than domestic challenges. Having had an exciting job, with great colleagues and tough assignments, before I decided to stay home with my children whetted my appetite for more. It gave me a kind of high I couldn’t get any other way, and once I’d experienced that work-driven adrenaline rush, the desire for it never completely faded.”

Charlene, a brand-manager-turned-consultant, cited, among other reasons, the “pride and sense of accomplishment I get from work.” Susan, who had been at a large management consulting firm and relaunched by working for the board of education of a major city, mentioned a common theme: “I like working, feeling connected to people, using skills, having an impact, being challenged. I don’t like drifting.”

5. Avoiding Empty-Nest Syndrome

Although some of you might wonder if it would be better to wait until the kids are in high school or college before going back to work, believing that it’s too difficult to juggle a job, along with the car pools, the shopping, and the medical appointments (let alone the housework) that raising teenagers requires, many of you may be haunted by the specter of the unfulfilled lives of your mothers’ generation. According to Maxine, a former real estate executive, “I see a lot of at-home mothers whose kids have gone to college, and they are lost. They are leading lives of quiet desperation.”

Patty, a psychologist, appreciated the problem from both a personal and professional perspective: “I feel if I don’t develop something of my own I’ll develop emptiness syndrome”—a condition she had studied in her master’s program.

“My mother had gotten kind of depressed in her sixties when she felt like she didn’t have much to do, and I didn’t want that to happen to me,” Kim, the former city planner, confided. For many baby boomers, fear of “becoming our mothers” fueled earlier career ambitions. And that fear returns with a vengeance when you hit forty and see yourself in almost the same position they were in at that age.

Although your sixties may still be decades away, be aware that if you wait until your decks are completely cleared of all child-rearing responsibilities (which your mother will tell you will never happen anyway), you’ll find it even harder to pursue professional dreams. So while it may feel a little early in terms of your obligations at home, some of you plunge back into careers, not wanting to put your professional life on hold any longer.

Lindsay, a former chemical engineer, described the life events that propelled her back into the job market: “When my youngest was still in high school (the other two were in college and grad school already), my older brother died suddenly. I also went into menopause. I was faced with my own mortality. I realized you only get one shot. I thought, Is this it? I realized I have to take care of doing everything I want to do. Even though I still had one child at home and I was busy with the parents’ association, I could see that soon I was going to have a lot more spare time. My husband works seven to seven, five days a week. I decided the day my youngest gets her driver’s license, I’m going to look for something to do.”

6. Serving as a Role Model

How do your children view you if you’ve been home since they were born or since they were young? Do they see you as an intellectual being, a warm, loving soul, or even just a servant? How do you want them to view you? One of Vivian’s motivations for returning was a desire for her children, especially her daughters, to see that there was a dimension to her life that went beyond running the household. “As I watched my oldest grow into adolescence, I began to think about what kind of an example I was setting for her, and for my other children as well. I wanted them to see that mommies could do more than just be mommies. I wanted them to have a better sense of the possibilities that life holds.”

In the March 2005 issue of Parenting, Jill Johnson, a mother of three boys returning to work after five years at home, said she wanted them to see that “mommies can go out and earn a living just like daddies can.”6 Lindsay, the chemical engineer, wanted to demonstrate to her three daughters that “you can remake yourself at any point in your life. I wanted to show them that if their lives aren’t going the way they want it, they can pick themselves up and reinvent themselves, at any age. I wanted to be a role model for them.” The unspoken implication is that if you wait until your children are all grown up before you try to go back to work, your kids will never observe that it’s possible to both work and mother.

7. Ambition

You may have been hugely ambitious early in your career, but when you made the decision to stay home, your family commitments combined with, in some cases, diminished confidence may have whittled down your ambition. The Center for Work–Life Policy’s “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps” study of more than 2,443 women with high-honors undergraduate degrees, or graduate degrees, found that 39 percent of women aged twenty-eight through forty are “extremely/very ambitious,” compared with only 31 percent of women aged forty-one through fifty-five. Among women in business, the “ambition gap” is even wider; 53 percent of younger women in business consider themselves “extremely/very ambitious” versus only 37 percent of older women.7

For the relauncher, the difficult part is often balancing reemerging ambition with the reality of daily life at home. Dinner’s not the only thing cooking on the back burner; your ambition probably is, too! Recognizing that you have unfulfilled career ambitions is one of the first steps of a successful relaunch. When we tell you that relaunch time is time for you, part of that message is it’s time to unleash your stifled ambition. You don’t have to announce it to the whole world. The only one who has to know is you.

The “Aha” Moment

The floundering period can go on for some time, as you toss the idea of returning to work back and forth in your head and with your husband, family, and friends. However, in the midst of this, you may experience an “aha” moment, as some of our interviewees did, and that motivates you to explore work alternatives.

Celeste, a social worker before and after her relaunch, summed it up this way: “I never felt cut out for full-time motherhood. When I was running a big fair at the kids’ school, another mother called to say that if I couldn’t use the school’s puppet theater, I could borrow the one she had made for her children. Right then and there I realized I was no match for some of these perfect at-home moms, who set up educational craft projects and other special activities for their kids. When I was working, I had an excuse for not doing these things. Now I had no excuse. I’m also very performance-oriented, and I hated to have a day go by with nothing to show for it, which is so common in the lives of stay-at-home mothers.”

“I decided to take a scrapbooking class,” Marcia, a former nurse-MBA, told us. “I had boxes of photos around, and that was bothering me. The class was held at someone’s house, and there were five or six women of a variety of ages attending. I only wanted to get my photos in the albums! But the other women were into making masterpieces. One woman was spending the whole session on one page creating a beach scene with real sand for her family’s beach vacation pictures. It was beautiful. But sitting there, watching the other women create, I suddenly had this overwhelming reaction. I said it right there. ‘I have to go back to work. (a) I can’t make this album page, and (b) I don’t want to make this album page. I need to go back to work.’ It was a turning point for me, and I began a job search in earnest shortly after that.”

Take the Relaunch Readiness Quiz

Still floundering? No “aha” moment happened yet? We developed the Relaunch Readiness Quiz as a way of helping you quantify the relaunch decision-making process. Go ahead and take it now to assess your appetite and logistical ability to relaunch. Then read the scoring and interpretation for each section. Or, if you prefer, take it online and let the computer score it for you. Visit and hit the “Relaunch Readiness Quiz” tab.

Part 1. Appetite for Work

1. I miss working . . .

Not at all   Somewhat   A lot

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

2. For the time being, I am very happy being a stay-at-home mother. Agree strongly Agree somewhat Disagree strongly

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

3. I have a hobby or volunteer work that substantively engages me. Agree strongly Agree somewhat Disagree strongly

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

4. I could see myself going back to work in _______ years.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

(Circle the number in the second row below the answer you choose in the first row.)

5. The average number of hours per week that I would be willing and able to spend working is . . .

0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 40+
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

(Circle the number in the second row below the answer you choose in the first row.)

6. Our family could materially benefit from my earning money. Disagree strongly Agree somewhat Agree strongly

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Add up all the numbers you circled. This is your score for part 1:______

Interpretation of Scoring for Part 1

If you score 45 or above, you have a strong desire to relaunch. Even if your scores for parts 2 and 3 are low, you may wish to explore child care options to enable you to get back to work in some fashion.

If your score falls between 30 and 45, you currently have a moderate appetite for work. Combined with a high score in parts 2 and 3, you may decide to give it a go.

If you score less than 30, you’re not very motivated to return to work at this time. Consider investing more time in your hobbies and volunteer work, particularly those that might open up career options for you later.

Part 2. Child and Elder Care Responsibilities

For each question, circle the number in the second row below the number you choose in the first row.

7. Number of children not yet in school:

3+ 3 2 1 0
1 2 3 4 10

8. Number of children in preschool:

3+ 3 2 1 0
2 3 4 5 10

9. Number of children in elementary school:

3+ 3 2 1 0
3 4 5 6 10

10. Number of children in high school:

3+ 3 2 1 0
4 5 6 7 10

11. Average number of hours per week I spend between 8 am and 6 pm on weekdays in the care of or related to the care of my children and/or an elderly or ill relative:

50 45 40 35 30 25 20 15 10 5 or less
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Add up all the numbers you circled. This is your score for part 2:________

Interpretation of Scoring for Part 2

If you score 40 or above, you definitely have time to explore relaunching your career. Couple this with a high score in part 1, and you’re raring to go.

If you score between 30 and 40, you have reasonably demanding family obligations. If you score high in parts 1 and 3, however, you have the motivation and support for a successful relaunch. A high score in part 1 and a low score in part 3 will make it more difficult, but nothing’s impossible.

If you score below 30, you have a lot going on in your household. If you score high on parts 1 and 3, however, don’t be discouraged. If you’re willing to explore child care options for part of the week, you can still relaunch. This will most likely be necessary if you score low on part 3.

Part 3. Spousal and/or Other Family Support

12. My husband has some flexibility in his schedule, or I have access to additional unpaid help from a family member.

Very little Some A lot
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

13. My husband or other family members who help me would be supportive of my going back to work.

Disagree strongly Agree somewhat Agree strongly
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

14. My husband or other adult family member would be available to help me an average of ____ hours per week between 8 am and 6 pm during the week with child-care- or elder-care-related tasks.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Add up all the numbers you circled. This is your score for part 3:________

Interpretation of Scoring for Part 3

If you scored 20 or above, you have strong spousal or other family support for a relaunch. Couple this with a high score in part 1, and you’re off to a strong start, regardless of your score in part 2.

If you score between 15 and 20, you have a reasonable amount of support for a relaunch. Coupled with a high score in parts 1 and 2, your challenge is manageable. If you have a low score in part 2, you may need to engage outside child care resources in order to relaunch.

If you score less than 15, you’re not getting much spousal or other familial support for a transition back to work. However, if you scored high in parts 1 and 2, you may not need that much support to pull it off. If you scored low in part 2, you’ll almost certainly need to engage outside resources to help you with your child care responsibilities. And you should continue to revisit the relaunch issue with your husband or other close family members to see if you can garner more support. (See Chapter 6: Channel Family Support.)

Your Relaunch Readiness Quiz score should guide you in determining whether you are ready to relaunch right now. If your scores are high but you’re still reticent, lack of confidence may be holding you back. Step 2, Learn Confidence, will show you how to overcome this hurdle.

Excerpted from Back on the Career Track , by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin . Copyright (c) 2007 by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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