Miércoles 1 de Octubre de 2008, Ip nº 249

The existential crisis of the wait-at-home mom
Por Vicki Glembocki

Their kids are in school. Their husbands are at work. It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday morning, and these women have nothing they need to do.

Sure, they could be playing tennis. Or organizing the silent auction for the Lower Merion High fund-raiser. Or calling their friends to meet them in a few hours for lunch at Du Jour in Haverford. They aren’t, though.

They’re doing yoga.

But this isn’t their mamas’ yoga. This is serious, sweating, handstanding yoga. This is guy-playing-the-drums-and-­chanting yoga. And the nine women — most in their late 40s — practicing at Jai Yoga on Montgomery Avenue in Narberth aren’t resting in child’s pose. No, they’re bending and twisting and inhaling deep into their abdomens, trying to quiet their troubled minds as they face the front of the dimly lit, caramel-colored studio where two red, glowing Buddhas hang on the wall, staring back at them.

It’s no surprise that they’re thin and coiffed and pedicured, or that they’re sporting ginormous diamond rings, and outfits by the high-end line Beyond Yoga (with its odd but appropriate slogan “I Am Beyond”) that they probably purchased in the boutique downstairs, along with their VitaminWater. Many of them are, after all, stay-at-home-moms on the Main Line, and have been for the past 10 years. Or 15 years. Or 20 years.

They haven’t always been stay-at-home moms, though. They used to be career women, with big degrees and big-paying jobs, 120 percent committed and on their way up. But when kids came along, they decided to give it all up to stay home and raise their families, 120 percent committed to that. Now the kids are pretty much raised, and these women are the only members of their families who are really at home anymore. They’ve become, instead, wait-at-home moms — waiting for the kids to come back from school or soccer practice or their friends’ houses, waiting to cook dinner, waiting to help with college applications, waiting to remind them it’s time to go to bed. Waiting, in essence, to be useful.

They knew this moment was coming — they just didn’t expect it to be such a blow. In fact, a lot of them were looking forward to it, to all the time they’d have to themselves. And they did everything they could think of — planned vacations, joined boards, took watercolor classes, baked for every bake sale they could find. But it wasn’t enough. They weren’t feeling fulfilled. They weren’t feeling like they were contributing. They were starting to feel bored, yes. But they were also starting to feel something they never anticipated back when they decided to stay home with their kids — they were feeling meaningless.

Which is why they’re here, doing yoga on a Friday morning in a room that’s far too warm and has a sign outside it reading, “Quiet voices please, spiritual awakenings in process.” This is why, after class, one student asks if she can jot down the passage the instructor read today from the best-selling book The Secret (and, incidentally, this is probably why The Secret is a best-seller): “Decide what you want to be, do, and have, think the thoughts of it, emit the frequency, and your vision will become your life.”

As one Jai Yoga regular, a 48-year-old Rosemont mother of one college freshman, one high-schooler and one middle-­schooler, explains, “I go there hoping to find an answer.”

None of this was supposed to happen.

These ladies — and many others like them around Philadelphia — were hailed as the ones who’d finally figured out how to have it all: career women for a while, moms for a while, then back to the career. They’re part of what’s been dubbed the “post-­supermom generation” — the first who went to college and maybe even got advanced degrees and developed real careers and made real money and waited until they were older to start their families. And then, able to choose to be home with their kids, they got to do that too, quitting their jobs and tossing poor Betty Friedan into the bottom of the laundry basket they were about to spend their days filling. Speaking at the Free Library in May, feminist author Amy Richards described them as “the four women in America who could afford to do this.”

Privileged or not, it was way more than four. Baby boomers all around the area — and all around the country — started making the move in the mid-’80s, and more and more women kept on doing it. Lots of women — mostly wealthy, yes, but also smart, highly educated, high-powered, successful middle-class women — quit. Perhaps because “quit” sounded a tad too judgmental, the media began describing this trend as “opting out,” “stepping out,” “off-ramping” or, as if they were part of some mathematical theorem, “sequencing.”

In “The Opt-Out Revolution,” the landmark New York Times Magazine cover story on the subject in 2003, writer Lisa Belkin explained that any professional woman who made this choice was “not her mother or her grandmother. She has made a temporary decision for just a few years, not a permanent decision for the rest of her life. She has not lost her skills, just put them on hold.”

Well, guess what? The first generation of women who “opted out” are now on the other side of it all — the first generation trying to opt back in. And as it turns out, no one really knows what to do with them. Not human resources departments. Not hiring managers. Not recruiters. Not only have the women missed out on major shifts in their fields; many of them stayed out so long that they carbon-date back to an era that’s not just pre-BlackBerry and pre-Internet, but pre-computer. They’re perceived exactly as the tags on their yoga pants suggest: “beyond.”

The funny thing is, they’re not surprised by any of this. They may have been naive about how tough the transition back into the working world would be, but they haven’t been living in a box of Legos for 15 years. They knew there’d be catching up to do.

What’s caught them off guard, left them feeling so confused, so lost, is that they don’t know what to do with themselves. The world has changed, yes. And their fields have changed, yes. But the part of this “revolution” that hasn’t yet been accounted for is that these women, too, have changed. They’re not the same people they were when they left. So as they emerge from the home front, they’re not just asking, “What am I going to do now?” They’re asking, “Who am I now?” Which, despite the bra-burning and equal rights marches and Ms. magazine and Sarah Palin, is the very same question their mothers were asking when they emerged from their kitchens … 50 years ago.

JUST BECAUSE THEY'VE become ladies who yoga doesn’t mean they aren’t still ladies who lunch. There are six of them here, sitting around the table in the very designed dining room of a very designed stone home up a very landscaped drive in Bryn Mawr. They’re between the ages of 40 and 55, all stay-at-home moms, all with impressive past lives — there’s a management consultant, an event planner, a tech executive, an advertiser and a fashion merchandiser. But all of them, as they nibble on three different chicken salads made by their hostess, are in various stages of freaking out over the exact same question: Now what?

“In the hours when I’m just doing domestic things and there’s no other input, I start to feel brain-dead,” says the 45-year-old former tech exec who opted out a decade ago to raise her kids, now 10, eight and four.

“When my last child went to college two years ago, I got busy with projects that needed to be done in the house,” says the former lawyer who’s been out of the game for 22 years. “But as soon as I had time to do all the things I wanted to, I no longer wanted to do them. I wanted to do something more goal-oriented.”

“I feel like you just told my story, but my kids are nine and six,” says a former money management consultant.

It’s not that they didn’t enjoy being home all these years. On the contrary. The word they keep using to describe that time is “blessed” — blessed to be there for the first day of school, blessed to watch the soccer games and violin concerts, blessed to keep the kids home that extra day or two when they were sick, blessed to be able to pick them up from school and hear all the stories and gripes and gossip that never would come up at the dinner table.

“I felt complete when they were young,” says Bryn Mawr’s Debbie Clower, a spunky fast-talker who arrived for lunch with a stack of articles and a list of talking points. Her kids are now 12, 16 and 18. “I loved it. I wouldn’t have done it any differently. I feel like I contributed.”

Yet as they listen to each other’s concerns about the next step, they all seem somewhat shocked that they’re now going through the same identity crisis, as if they’d each assumed, until this very bite of curried chicken salad, that they were wrestling with this issue alone. Even though this whole struggle has been on the coffee table since 1949, when Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that women had to stop being dependent on men and start seeing themselves as women who, ahem, roar. “I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bed-maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?” says one woman who very well could be sitting at this dining room table in Bryn Mawr in April 2008, except that she’s not. She was sitting at a table in the early 1960s, talking to Betty Friedan, who was researching The Feminine Mystique. And talk about freaking people out: comparing vacuuming to animal labor? Claiming that being relegated to the home is “burying millions of American women alive?” It’s no wonder Friedan’s book exploded into, as writer Anna Quindlen puts it, “the greatest social revolution of 20th-century America.”

“I’ve always felt that we were undervalued as mothers at home, and I still do,” says one woman who could have been talking with Friedan just after The Feminine Mystique hit bookstores, but is, instead, sitting at the dining table in Bryn Mawr. “I’ve probably worked harder as a stay-at-home mom and managed more things and did more multi-tasking than when I was working in advertising in New York. This is definitely more demanding, but nobody really gets it.”

In fact, a More magazine article from 2007 advised women who are trying to get back into the workforce not even to mention the bake sales during interviews: “If you argue that you can manage employees because you can manage children, you’ll lose credibility.” Of course, the same article goes on to say that the value of women’s previous work experience diminishes with time: “A three-to-five-year absence is now fairly easy to explain. Ten years-plus is a lot harder.” Which sends a very clear message to these six first-generation “opt-outers” having lunch in Bryn Mawr: You, ladies, are screwed.

Okay, they’re not all screwed. Debbie Clower hunted and hunted before landing a sweet part-time gig with an executive search firm. She works 20 hours a week and decides when to work them, because she still wants to be available to her three kids. Another luncher recently started helping an acquaintance with her flower business on a per-project basis, and another works the counter a few days a week at her sister’s gourmet food shop for a $90 paycheck. (“When I get that check, I’m so proud of it,” she says. “It’s so silly.”) But 47-year-old Clower is the only one who is officially back in an office, which she credits to the owners of the search firm being willing to recognize that she was “an untapped resource.”

“I’m convinced these guys are not unique,” Clower says of the firm, which is why she’s thinking about starting her own business, Mom’s Next Step, that will match Philadelphia women trying to opt back in with local companies that don’t view a résumé gap as an instant reject button and don’t assume returning mothers are uncommitted or unreliable or unprepared. And that allow women to be flexible.

It’s certainly possible that by the time Clower gets this business up and running, the other five women at this luncheon will be ready to use it. But none are ready yet. All they know at this point is that they want the flexible part, so that they can still do as much mom-ing as they’re needed for. As for what they want to flexibly do, they have no clue, and are looking for guidance in books (they’re all pumped about Meg Wolitzer’s latest, The Ten-Year Nap, in which the main character laments, “I am lost in the woods in the middle of my life”) and in Myers-Briggs tests and the Landmark Forum and Friday-morning yoga classes. But the presumption is, basically, that the only things standing in their way are 1) figuring out their “passions”; and 2) convincing business people they have value.

That is, until the former lawyer pulls out a job application she’d started filling out that morning for a position at a nonprofit that needs lawyers for consultation. She practiced law for quite a while before quitting to become a mom, and in the 22 years she’s been at home, she’s taken all the classes she needed to keep up her law license. On the application, she explains to the group, she needs to check a box to identify which level of experience she has. There are three boxes: lawyer, layperson and intern.

“I feel like I should check off the spot to be an intern,” she says. No one says anything. She goes on: “I don’t feel I would be worthy of a salary to start. In the beginning, they’d be giving more to me than I’d be giving to them. And I really wouldn’t want the pressure of having to justify that I’m being paid.”

“You’re placing a lot less value on your life experience,” someone points out.

“No,” she says. “It’s a package.”

“But you’re bringing other factors and other skill sets.”

“Yes … but … ”

“Can’t you see that?”

“Yes … but … I’m intimidated,” she admits, reluctantly. “I’m totally intimidated.”

Everyone at the table silently nods.

Cynthia Drayton remembers the exact moment she decided to opt out. It was over a decade ago, and she was on business in the Philippines, starting to feel like she was always on business in the Philippines, instead of back home on the Main Line with her twin baby girls. She wanted to do both — be a businesswoman and be a mom. And she was trying to do both, running the multimillion-dollar clothing company she’d started on her own 15 years before, micromanaging her two nannies (one live-in, one live-out), spending time with her husband and girls when she wasn’t flying all over the world. But she’d recently started to suspect that living both lives to their fullest was impossible when you were just one 38-year-old woman. And then, in the Philippines, she got the call. It was her live-in nanny on the phone. One of the twins had rolled off the changing table. The baby was fine. But Drayton wasn’t.

“I was used to being good at everything, and suddenly I felt good at nothing,” she says now. “Something had to change.”

Figuring out what had to change and how it had to change wasn’t easy. She was the breadwinner for her family, and every accomplishment in her life thus far (the bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke, the master’s in communications from NYU, the stints at National Geographic and the United Nations) had led to success. What’s more, Drayton thought of her company as a huge part of her identity, her “first baby.” Except now, she had real babies. And the real ones were her priority. She talked to everyone she knew, asking for advice: Should she scale back? Should she hire someone else to run things? Should she give the company up completely?

That stepping away completely was even an option said a lot about how much the women’s movement had evolved by the ’90s. All the roaring of the ’70s had died down long before, starting with the 1980s backlash that blamed feminism for pretty much everything from infertility to teen suicide to bag ladies. Backlashing against the backlash, die-hard feminists started to back down, rumbling that there might be, in fact, a difference between the sexes — that men are, by nature, more “autonomous” and women are, by nature, more “relational” (translation: better suited to taking care of the kiddies).

By the mid-’90s, when Cynthia Drayton was weighing her options, the feminist movement, under the leadership of Gloria Steinem, had evolved (or, some might say, devolved) into what’s been dubbed “choice feminism” — in which any choice a woman makes is fine. (Or as Charlotte so eloquently put it in Sex and the City: “I choose my choice!”) Work? Go, girl! Stay home? Rock on, sister! Work a little and stay home a little? Girlfriend got it goin’ on!

Not that Drayton was lying awake at night asking herself, “What would de Beauvoir do?” She was simply trying to figure out what would be best for her and her family. What was best, in the end, was selling the business, and buying a 200-year-old farmhouse with lots of land in Valley Forge. Still, in the back of her mind, she always knew she’d someday go back to work.

That day came almost three years ago, with the twins in fifth grade. But reentry has been nothing like she expected it to be. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she says. She didn’t expect to spend three years looking for something that suited her, or to need to call a recruiter friend in New York to help her “package” herself. She didn’t expect to be viewed by potential employers as a risk, as not serious about a career, as a person who doesn’t stick with things and will always take time off for family. In fact, Drayton was so beside herself that last year, when she heard about the Career Comeback Program at Wharton, she hesitated to apply. She knew she was a perfect candidate for the free three-day seminar for a select group of 60 professional women from all over the country who wanted to start working again. But, “Everyone in that program’s going to be an MBA,” she thought. “I’m not an MBA.”

She applied anyway. And she got in. The first assignment, before the seminar, was for participants to post their profiles online — short blurbs about their backgrounds. “I kept procrastinating,” Drayton says. “I kept trying to figure out what I was going to put up there, thinking, ‘What if I’m not accomplished enough?’ I mean, I knew that I had been highly accomplished, but it didn’t matter anymore. That was yesterday.” The day before the weekend seminar, Drayton checked online. Of the 60 women, only one had posted a profile.

This doesn’t surprise Monica McGrath, the Wharton professor of management who runs the Career Comeback Program. In fact, the whole program grew out of a study she spearheaded three years ago, called “Back in the Game,” that examined women who were trying to “step back in.”

“They’ve all lost some level of confidence,” says McGrath. “And every time they hit a wall, it just spirals down.” Like when they send out résumés and get no responses. Or they do get a response and end up in an interview being grilled: “What did you do all those years?”

At the end of the first day of the Comeback program, after many straight hours of lectures, the women broke out into small groups. Drayton listened as one woman in her circle described all her pre-kid accomplishments — she’d written a book, worked in finance, earned an MBA. She then teared up as she admitted, out loud to six strangers, that she was most worried she wouldn’t get her confidence back.

“Everyone got so emotional,” Drayton says. “It was like a therapy session — all of us discovering that we weren’t the only ones feeling so scared.”

Feeling scared? Lacking confidence? Sitting there discussing how “not good enough” she felt? That’s not the profile of a woman who started her own business when she was 23 and made millions. But Drayton isn’t that woman anymore. And here’s the kicker — she doesn’t want to be that woman. She doesn’t want the job that woman had. When she envisions her next step, she’s not thinking “money” and “prestige,” as she was 15 years ago. She’s thinking “passion” and “meaning” and “making a difference in the world” and “doing what I love.” She has different values now — “a whole new set of criteria,” she says. She’s not simply starting over professionally; she’s starting over as a new woman.

Today, Drayton works for a global nonprofit called Ashoka, based in Virginia. Her latest project involves working with organizations that use sports to create social change for women — like an African group that makes sanitary products for girls, and a Pakistani company that manufactures breathable burkas for Muslim women, all so they can compete in sports, which previously wasn’t an option for them due to those very limitations.

After she got the job, she sent an e-mail to the 60 women who were in her Comeback program, explaining how she negotiated her employment arrangement — full-time, but working remotely, and with a comp-time policy so she can still take off whenever she wants to watch her kids play tennis, which they do competitively.

“That’s important to the family,” Drayton says. She waits a second, then adds: “That’s important to me.”

Of course, Drayton is one of the lucky ones, and not just because she found her dream job and got it. She’s lucky because she recognized that some self-analysis was needed. And she did the work. She figured out who she was. Because the truth is, motherhood messed with these women. It turned their values all around, and flipped their senses of self on end. It changed them without their even knowing they were changing — until their kids didn’t want them hanging out at their soccer games anymore. And suddenly, when they weren’t needed, they had to look at themselves for the first time in years. They had to ask questions they hadn’t even considered since they were job-hunting as recent college grads — what do I want? What will make me happy?

Most of these moms are flailing in this figuring-out stage because they’re just not used to being center-stage. “Finding Yourself” isn’t included on the Wharton Comeback program syllabus, nor is “Overcoming Your Existential Crisis.”

But there does seem to be some promise of that on a flier posted on the bulletin board at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, the one announcing an “integrative coaching workshop for women who want to create new possibilities for themselves.”

That’s because workshop leader Katrina Ogilby has been there. The only thing she knew for sure when she decided to opt back in was that she didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. “I’ll teach!” she thought, and ran back to get a master’s in education — only to discover, almost as soon as she finished, that there was another thing she now knew for sure: She didn’t want to teach.

“I didn’t do enough soul-searching,” she says. And now, through her Wayne-based coaching business, Beyond Empty Nest, and its “What’s Next?” workshops, soul-searching is what she’s all about.

Ogilby learned firsthand that many women wanting to opt back in are desperate for an answer to the question: “What am I going to do now?” Trouble is, the answer to that question isn’t really what they’re looking for. To figure out what they want to do, they first need to figure out who they are now. And that’s what is so terrifying for so many of them. It’s not “What am I going to be?” or “How am I going to be it?” or “Do I have enough skill to ever put together a PowerPoint presentation?” It’s: “Am I still the kind of woman who can do this? Have I changed too much?”

At the Bryn Mawr luncheon, the Rosemont mom of three told the story of her first meeting with a business owner who was looking for some part-time sales help. They started talking. Everything seemed to be going well. But after about 20 minutes, the mom felt a fog roll in between her ears. She couldn’t listen anymore. It was as if her brain had suddenly shut down. She thought to herself, “Is that who I am now? Have I become a person who only has a 20-minute attention span? I can’t do anything with a 20-minute attention span!”

Toddler-like focus won’t help in most jobs, but there are other skills women have learned on hiatus that can be an asset. “In my 20s, all I said was ‘Yes, yes, yes,’” explained another woman at the luncheon. “I have such a better sense of what I’m truly capable of doing and doing well, what I can fit into my day, what to trade off on.”

“I want to do something creative,” said another.

“I want to find another place where I’m needed.”

And so history repeats itself. Twenty years ago, they applied all their career skills to being moms — all the multi-tasking and problem-solving and time management. And now they’re taking the rewards of stay-at-home motherhood — a choice they all say they wouldn’t trade for all the job offers in the world — and applying them to their next step. The sense of fulfillment they felt as mothers has now become a job requirement.

There’s another question these women need to answer, maybe the most complicated of all: What do they tell their daughters? Because, as usual, the zeitgeist’s already changing its tune. In response to these opt-out pioneerettes struggling to opt in, a new backlash against the backlash against the backlash has emerged. This one advises women on the verge of off-ramping: “Don’t drop out completely.” Work part-time! Consult! Sell Silpada jewelry! But that’s not the only backlash. Another states that if women are even considering abandoning their careers, then the women’s movement clearly wasn’t radical enough, and we “should sound the alarm before the next generation winds up in the same situation,” as Linda Hirshman writes in her book Get to Work.

Not that backlashes always matter.

“I don’t even feel like I have a choice,” says a newly married 30-year-old woman in Bucks County. This is precisely what she would have said back in 1950, except her only option today isn’t to be a housewife and mom, even if that was what she wanted to do. Her only option is to work: “I don’t know how we could make it on only one income. I’m trapped.” And with that, women are back where they began. So how, then, does Cynthia Drayton advise her 13-year-old twin girls? She’s worried that they only view her as a mother, not as a successful businesswoman. “They never saw me during those 15 minutes of fame,” she says. “I want my girls to see the strength of that.”

Ellen Friedmann, who spends her Fridays at Jai Yoga in Narberth, sees it differently for her 14- and 16-year-old girls. Of all the opt-back-in-ers, Friedmann made the biggest life change. For the past 16 years, she’s been a stay-at-home mom. Or at least, she was until four years ago, when she started taking yoga. Until she realized that she needed to teach yoga, and that teaching yoga was something she could picture herself doing for the rest of her life.

Friedmann is the woman that all the other women in her position hope to be. She’s on the other side. She did the soul-searching. She lay in corpse pose at the end of yoga class and reflected as the teacher chanted, “Who am I? Who am I? They’re the three most important words. Who am I?” She found her answer. And she’s following through, having just finished a 200-hour yoga teacher training program with several other women, including a new college grad, a high-school grad, and a new mom in her early 30s.

“I just went to my 30th high-school reunion, and everyone was like, ‘Huh? Weren’t you into cooking?’” she says. Well, she was. She was into cooking and into catering and into paralegaling. And then she was into mom-ing. And now she’s into yoga. But she’s still into mom-ing, because that’s kind of the point, and that’s why she’s digging frantically in her bag for her cell phone after the Friday-morning class at Jai Yoga, where she works.

“Hey,” Friedmann says, flipping open the phone. It’s her oldest daughter. The girls have the day off from school. “I’m at Jai. You can come here and pick it up,” she says, then hangs up, pulls out her wallet, and slides out her Costco card. She’s very well aware that in 16 or so years, her daughters are going to be at the same crossroads she was at 16 years ago, the same one her mother was at 30 years ago. They’ll be confused and conflicted, weighing the mystiques and the mistakes, deciding what to do.

“I tell them I hope they’ll be able to do whatever they want to do,” Friedmann says. “But I really hope that if it’s possible, they’ll stay home with their kids.”

One of her girls is planning to do just that. The other isn’t sure.


  27/09/2008. Philadelphia Magazine.


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