Within months, 10-10-10 had served me so well that I couldn't resist sharing it with my sisters, Elin and Della, as well as a cadre of close friends and colleagues. And so it was that the process first started to spread. One of my coworkers told his wife, who used it to untangle herself from a state of job-search paralysis. A friend "gave" 10-10-10 to her just-married daughter, who was struggling with whether to continue working or return to graduate school. Another acquaintance of mine described 10-10-10 to her husband, a doctor, and he brought it to work, where a group of nurses adopted it to confront— and resolve—a contentious dispute over patient visiting hours that had been simmering for months.
Eventually, 10-10-10 stories from outside my immediate circle began to trickle back to me. One day, for instance, I answered my phone to hear, "Are you the 10-10-10 lady?" When I figured out that I was and said as much, my caller burst into friendly laughter and identified herself as Gwen, the sister of one of the nurses. "Sorry to surprise you," she said, "but I'm calling because I'm sitting here wishing you could see me. I'm smiling for the first time in months." Gwen, it turned out, was a stay-at-home mother in Chicago. Like her sister, she had started with a career in nursing, but she had changed course after a few years to become a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. The job was a perfect fit for Gwen's outgoing personality and professional drive. "You couldn't peel me away from my sales rounds," she told me. "It wasn't work to me. It was fun. Oh—and the money! It couldn't have been better."
Gwen enjoyed her career so thoroughly that she barely missed a beat through the pregnancies and births of her three children. Sure, there were challenging times when her job and motherhood collided, but she always felt supported by her husband, who was also a sales rep, in her choice to keep working. The couple hired a live-in nanny and communicated with her constantly by cell phone. They spent weekends reconnecting with each other and their kids.
One evening when Gwen returned from yet another long stretch on the road, however, her nanny put her fifteen-month-old son in her arms and he didn't recognize her, shoving her away with an angry squeal. Gwen was shaken to her core. Her husband, looking on, was too. Overwhelmed by a growing sense of guilt, Gwen soon resigned. "I'll be back in a few months," she promised her boss, "just as soon as things get back to normal at home." But weeks passed, then months, and bit by bit, Gwen found herself ever more entrenched in the "back to normal" she was trying to build, her days busy with driving the kids to lessons, friends' houses, and various and sundry appointments, her nights taken over by dinner, homework, baths, and story time. Her office off the family's garage, piled with the industry trade magazines she vowed to keep reading, began to fill up with skate sharpeners and costumes for the school play.
After a year at home, Gwen's heart started to fill too— not with sadness, but with a vague, persistent longing for the big career that could have been. Occasionally, she would reread an email from her old boss she couldn't bring herself to delete from her inbox. "We'll take you back whenever you want," it said. "Your old team needs you and misses you."