There comes a time as the mother of daughters when you begin to see the value of yourself as their role model. Here's the conundrum: you want to be around to take care of them, and you want to be there when they need you, yet you want them to see you as an independent woman so that they grow up to be independent women, too. You don't want them to think their independence will only last until they have their own children, at which point they will retire into the care of their loving and patriarchal husbands. You are exposing them to a world where women are in positions of power, yet you are still cocooned at home. If being independent means becoming less available, what's the best thing to do? This dilemma began percolating in my head just after Alice turned two. She had recently started in a playgroup across the street, and now even she was gone for three mornings a week. One morning we got into the elevator with the girls to go about our days when Alice looked up and said, "I go to school. Molly goes to school. Daddy goes to work. And Mommy goes to . . . gym." And that was that. Instant devastation! I was now a gym-goer. With that remark I knew it was time to move on. I could no longer be "just" a mother or "just" a wife, or just a gym-goer. I wanted to use my brain for my own interests. I had to get back out there again. It became clear that the way to make all of these identities cohesive was to haul the old professional identity out of storage, dust it off, and take it back on the road. But how?
During my last couple of years at home a number of feature stories had appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on television about the difficulties facing women who had left careers to return to work. Many of these stories were based on work done by the author Sylvia Ann Hewlett and her associates at the Center for Work-Life Policy. The CWLP focuses on improving working conditions for parents, and at about the time I was thinking about going back to work it was shining a spotlight on the needs of women like me. In my case their good intentions had a debilitating effect. The stories they generated were about off-ramps and on-ramps. As they tried to convince companies to make it easier for women to clamber back up onto an onramp (and they have had some valuable success in achieving this), they talked about how it was practically impossible to do so.
You know when you're pregnant and you get told about all the diseases and disabilities your baby could be born with? At some point you begin to wonder if it's possible to have a healthy child. This is how I felt as I heard about all the obstacles that stood between my next job and me. I learned that I could never make the same money as I had before, that I would have to take a demotion, that 66 percent of the "highly qualified women at home with their children" who had been interviewed by Hewlett "wanted to be back at work full-time and were finding reentry extremely difficult." How depressing is that? What should I do? I was already feeling inadequate and insecure after seven years at home. This news didn't exactly make me feel like racing out of the house clutching my résumé.