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.