Excerpt: 'The Comeback'

In 1967 Smith College chose the theme "The Spread of My Life" for its twenty-five-year reunion, and it is an apt theme for this book. That year each member of the class of 1942 from all the Seven Sisters colleges was sent a questionnaire. Most of the women who answered it were married with children. Yet they expected to charge off in different directions during the next twenty-five years, many of them seeking further education and new careers. "We don't feel left out. We feel we have a whole new life ahead of us," said Mrs. Allen Howland of Warwick, Rhode Island, who had majored in music at college, taught it for several years before marriage and children, and at that time was looking to get a master's degree before resuming her career.

A whole slew of articles describing mature (over twenty-six years old) women returning to college to finish degrees or study for further degrees appeared in local papers across the country from the 1960s on. I was eight years old when the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern ran a photograph of a group of well-groomed middle-aged wives, who were studying for new degrees, on the same page as its wedding and engagement announcements.

In 1977 I turned sixteen, and Janet Copley wrote a nationally published column under the headline "Why Do Women Return to Work?" She specifically mentioned women whose children had grown. "If they didn't work," she pointed out, "they wouldn't have much to do."

In 1984, the year I began my career, a branch of the YWCA in Pittsburgh held a series of workshops for mothers with children who were planning on returning to the workforce. The advice on offer ranged from balancing family and work, examining skills to see whether new training would be appropriate, and a discussion of wardrobe needs.

You get the point. The idea that women return to work having spent several years being full-time mothers is not new and has never been impossible.

Here is a historical context for the lives you will read about in The Comeback so that you keep a sense of perspective for what the women in this book have accomplished. In addition to a variety of careers, I also wanted to look at a range in age and geographical locations so that you didn't feel (as one of my friends put it) that you were just reading about the women in my building. The ages of the women in The Comeback range from the mid-forties to the midsixties. They are middle-aged and middle-class. They all went to college. They all had careers?not jobs?that they gave up for their children. Under that umbrella, though, you will find a lawyer, a venture capitalist, a photographer, a teacher, a furniture designer, a human rights activist, and a doctor. Each story examines a different career but also looks at the different issues facing wives, mothers, and working women. Mothers with careers have a certain amount of choice. The women in this book were no exception. Some of the decisions they faced are universal, not unique to their particular career. For example, you might not be a furniture designer, but you might be married to a man who is now retired and wants you to quit your second career to travel with him. You might not work in finance, but you might have a child with chronic health issues. You might not be a doctor, but you might be getting divorced.

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