Read with some interest Paulette Light’s piece last week in the Atlantic. “Why 43% of Women with Children Leave Jobs, and How to Get them Back.” Light is a good writer, and a budding entrepreneur. She also has, as she says, “a similar background to Sandberg. With a BA from Columbia, a Masters from Harvard and an MBA from Wharton.” She also has the benefit of a supportive, working spouse: “I know how lucky I am to have a partner who supports me in all ways, taking on more than his fair share of housework and parenting, sharing my philosophy, backing my ventures and listening to my struggles.” Like Sandberg, Light is lucky. For the rest of us, without those 1% head starts, it’s not so easy. That said, I do agree with her. And like my criticism of the Sandberg book, I hope she succeeds in getting her point into mass circulation. This kind of thinking needs to start permeating the public consciousness in order to give women a modern-day break. It actually will benefit me too, ultimately, but you’ll have to read to the end of this post to see that connection.
I left the workforce in 2001. First, I was laid off from a dot-com startup that went under. The company was swept up in a tech sector that also imploded. Shortly thereafter, 9/11 happened. At the time, we lived in north Jersey and we were affected personally by the death of a friend. It was at that time, I made the decision to retreat. Quit. Leave the workforce. There is an image that is irrevocably etched in my brain of the footage from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. It is an image of hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of paper floating to the ground. Because most of my work life was pre-digital, all the work I had done in the sum total of my career had been done on paper. That image signified to me, work is meaningless. Nothing I had done professionally up to that point mattered at all in the grand scheme of things, and I felt compelled to politely bow out, and realign my priorities.
So I disengaged. We moved into a small house that we owned at the Jersey shore, and I became a SAHM (stay-at-home-Mom). We cut our family income by two-thirds (I was the sole supporter of the family until that point), and relied on my husband’s meager earnings in the construction industry. I wanted to focus on my kids and my family – the only work that really mattered.
Now, unlike Ms. Light, I never struggled with “guilt, or “boredom,” or ever struggled with “feeling overwhelmed.” And I certainly never found myself, “many a mommygroup crying in the bathroom…” No. I LOVED being a SAHM. During my 5-year tenure, along with all the home-cooked meals, gardening, doctor appointments, birthday parties, PTA meetings, etc., I was always busy. This is just a sample of the projects I involved myself in:
- Volunteered to be the press liaison for the local chamber of commerce.
- Became a freelance writer for a leading NJ daily, the Asbury Park Press, covering local events
- Helped brand and run a local township committee campaign
- Managed my daughter’s singing career by orchestrating events and recording two demo CDs
- Did PR and planning for a large volunteer Community-build Playground project
- Organized a middle school Student Body President campaign for my daughter (she won)
- Was part of a core team of volunteers to launch an annual event that celebrated our town’s heritage
- Launched a small business for my ex-husband that generated over half a million dollars in its first year.
Had my marriage and the business worked out (very long story goes here), I would still be a SAHM. In 2006, I had to return to the workforce as a single Mom– financially and emotionally bankrupt, and desperate to support my children. With a lot of hard work, I fought my way back into the professional world and was able to provide a decent quality of life for my kids with a combination of self-employment and employment. But, I vowed upon returning to the professional world that I would not work in an office again. There is something very stabilizing, very secure about “being here” every time my son (daughter now in college) walks in the door after school.
Every day my son comes home from school, he walks into my office, either plunks himself down on the rug or stands in the doorway, and tells me about his day. We talk about his classes, how his work is progressing. Anything that happened that day of interest. He’s a good student. He spends most his time with his online gaming friends, but I can rest in the knowledge he is not engaged in most things that can derail a young, teenage boy (drugs, alcohol, etc.). I attribute my parenting diligence to that outcome. My middle daughter, who is a grown young woman now, will be graduating college next month at the top of her class. I could not be more proud of all my children, including my oldest daughter who is juggling a busy schedule as a SAHM herself. Both of my daughters are academic scholars.
Paulette Light’s main point in her piece revolves around finding a place for women who wish to return to work. That place does not exist for most women, so we are forced to create our own businesses. It’s not a bad option, but I assure you, especially as a single Mom, it’s a more difficult one. Her advice is to create a mechanism for project-based work. Interestingly enough, the business I just launched a few months ago, which is also somewhat in stealth mode, is focused on doing exactly that. It’s not just SAHMs that want a more flexible work schedule, Dads do too. The trending data suggests that 90 percent of firms have used contracted talent, and a recent Economist Intelligence Unit study found that 61 percent of senior executives anticipate a growing proportion of functions to be outsourced to contingent workers.
Net, net– If you want to bring talent back into to the marketplace without requiring them to “sit” there, you should invest in smart, high-performing professionals who can see this future and who care about what matters. You can start here.