Making a Comeback

comebackBOOK1.jpgby Liz O’Donnell (Boston)

The women in The Comeback have one thing in common: none of them had planned to leave work but at some point they all made the decision to go back. I spoke recently with Keller about what she learned from writing the book and what advice she had for women looking to make their own comeback.

First of all, Keller debunked the idea of needing to “fit” children into your life and your career. Many women feel pressure because their children need them during their peak earning years. They are concerned that by the time they are able to go back to work, their careers will be ending.

“People are living longer than they used to,” says Keller. “It’s highly likely that after your children have grown, you’re going to do something. You’re still going to have decades of life left. Women think they are going to be the mother of babies permanently. But that stage goes away quickly. Once children are in school, they are gone for a certain period of hours per day. You won’t always be up to your elbows in PLAY-DOH.”

Photographer Ellen Warner is a good example of this. In 1971 Warner won a prize for her work from the US Department of the Interior Photography. She held her first exhibit in 1972 followed by another in 1975. Then Ellen put her career on hold for ten years to raise her two daughters. During that time she volunteered at a local shelter and a soup kitchen. When her daughters were teenagers she staged a successful comeback. Warner has exhibited her work more than ten times since 2001. She is currently working on a project called “The Second Half “where she is using photography to demonstrate the vitality of older women.

Like Warner, many women volunteer during their stay at home years. Traditionally, the corporate world hasn’t looked at the skills honed working with non-profits and grassroots organizations as transferable, but that attitude is shifting. Keller suggests women use the term pro-bono instead of volunteer when discussing their time away from work. Pro bono is a term that is both understood and respected in the corporate world. It implies the work that is done is skill-specific and professional and that the person doing the work is uniquely qualified to deliver the service. Whereas the word volunteer conjures a different image. Many people view volunteer work as low level assignments taken on by eager helpers. Women looking to make a comeback need to value their own experience and contributions outside of the office before any hiring manger will. In fact, says Keller, attitude is one of the most important factors in staging a comeback. “The biggest thing the women in the book shared was attitude,” she says.

Having a positive, winning attitude is easier said than done. The stay-at-home years can be incredibly challenging for a mother. Women may derive enormous emotional gratification from raising their children but that is often offset by lack of intellectual stimulus. Many corporate jobs are collaborative and team focused, whereas parenting can be an isolated job. Plus the corporate world is usually fast paced and results-focused. The results of parenting, on the other hand, are more intangible and may not show up for years. Switching gears from power and immediate gratification to long term planning and nurturing can be uncomfortable for anyone used to the corporate world. As a result, women often lack confidence about their prospects for returning to work.

“Women with tremendous abilities lose professional confidence the minute they stop getting paid,” says Keller. “They derive validation from a paycheck.”

Just as important as attitude, says Keller, is having the support of your partner or spouse. She says most of the successful comebacks in the book included the husband.

“Women need to realize that marriages get redefined as women redefine their careers,” she says.

To stage a successful comeback, women should ask for their partner’s support and ask him or her to accept the reinvention they are creating.

“People are always looking at life choices as ‘What do the companies think’ instead of “What about the home life’?” she says. Marriage is a partnership. A lot of women impose decisions on their spouses in a way we wouldn’t want for ourselves.”

Remember that your relationship is interdependent and will grow and change organically as your life evolves, she adds.

Finally, Keller says to give up the idea that you can go back to what you were doing before you left work. “No one wants to go back,” she says. “They want to go forward.”

Just ask Elaine Stone. For years Stone juggled her role as a rabbi’s wife and a mother with a career as an attorney. When her third child was born, she stopped working altogether. Five years later, she was able to re-enter the work force. Today she is a Managing Partner at a Washington, D.C.-based law firm where she focuses on internal corporate issues and other investigations and matters before government agencies. Stone didn’t go back. She went on.