May of us have heard about The Comeback Kid. But what about The Comeback Mom?
Emma Gilbey Keller, a journalist, staged her own comeback after staying home to take care of two girls, now six and 11. She’s now written a book, The Comeback: Seven Stories Of Women Who Went From Career to Family and Back Again (Bloomsbury). It chronicles the professional lives of women in fields including medicine, law, and design who spent time on the on- and off-ramps.
Keller’s book will hit newsstands in early September, and it is getting a lot of media buzz because, frankly, Keller is part of media royalty—she is married to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times. But before you roll your eyes, you should know that Keller is a serious journalist, too. She wrote Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela, before she had a family. I recently had a chance to interview Keller, and she was frank, honest, and even self-deprecating about her own efforts to put her career back on track.
Here are edited excerpts from my interview with Keller:
Why did you write this book?
It’s my own story. When I decided to stay at home, it never occurred to me that I was so short sighted. When my younger child entered preschool, suddenly I wondered, “What am I going to do?” I had no confidence. I had been away from journalism for so long.
Believe it or not, I watched a lot of Oprah when I was home—it was all about “You go girl.” I thought, if I was a producer on the Oprah show, I’d go out and find women who returned to work. So I started asking people I knew if they knew women who had taken time off work to stay with kids. I did it the same way you’d look for a good camp or a good babysitter. Then I got the idea to write a story to about it.
Why do you think you lost your confidence in the first place?
This will sound so trivial and superficial, but I always think professional identities and romantic identities have some things in common. When you are a teenager and you break up with somebody, you think you will be single for rest of life. Inevitably, your mother says, “There are plenty more fish in sea.” It’s hard to believe her, though. The same thing happens when you are not working. You start to think, “That’s it. I’m never working again.” You have a fatalistic view of your own life.
What’s interesting is that all along the way I’ve been an incredibly confident mother. I really knew what I was doing as far as the kids were concerned. I’m English, so they were on a schedule. I was there for them. Their life was that perfect blend of crappy TV and wooden toys.
Why is returning to work so challenging?
It’s all inside your own head. If you were told that your kid’s school was closing down, and you needed to find new place for them in September. You say: “Right, I’m on it.” You wouldn’t take no for answer. You’d have tremendous faith that you’d get it taken care of. But if you were told, “Okay, your time at home is up. Find a job,” you might be lost. My message is just believe you can do it.
Of the women you profile, which one do you identify with the most?
It’s a tricky question. I share something in common with all of them. I really identify with Lauren Jacobson, a human rights advocate who was born in South Africa and now lives in London, because I’m a transplant. (Keller grew up in England and lives in New York.) I also identify with Maxine Snider, a furniture designer, for having faith in her ideas.
What’s the best way to regain your professional confidence?
Lean on your friends like they are your own cheerleading group. Tell your friends what you want to do, and use their networks. More often than not, people will say: “Great, I know so-and-so.” That’s how you get started.
Volunteering gets a bad label, but a lot of people I know got back into professional work through volunteering, including working on a political campaign.
Think about work in terms of picking up a project, rather than looking for a full-time job. A lot of women want to work on project basis anyway because you can give it your all, and then, when the project is finished, it’s over.
For more tips on staging a comeback, check out this link from Time Out Kids. There is also an excerpt from the book in More magazine. (I wasn’t kidding when I the book is getting a lot of attention.)