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.