Re-entering the work force a revelation for some women

March 20, 2001|By Susan Reimer

THEY USED to refer to them as "displaced homemakers." Now they say these women are "re-entering the work force." But if you ask them, they might refer to themselves as "disoriented homemakers who are conditionally re-entering the work force."

Nancy and Robin have returned to work after a decade or more at home with their kids.

Robin pitched in to help her husband's new business - in an office version of wifedom, I think.

Nancy reluctantly put on dress clothes and reported to an office after years free-lancing from her dining room table while wearing sweats and bedroom slippers.

Both were scratching the itchy ego that often afflicts stay-at-home mothers. Can I still do it? Aren't I meant for more than this?

But they were also facing economic imperatives. Everything costs more, says Nancy. And college is getting closer and closer.

"And even if my husband doesn't leave me for a 24-year-old, what will retirement be like for us if I don't work and don't have a pension or anything else?" she asks.

Whether a woman returns to work when her child is 6 months old or 16, this transition never goes well. Ask any working mother.

But for those who have been working outside the home for what seems like forever, these two friends offer a fresh perspective.

"The first thing you realize, right after you realize you don't have anything nice to wear, is that you were everyone else's support system, and you don't have one of your own," says Nancy.

Suddenly snow days, sick kids, summer vacations and the hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are a problem for you the way they have been a problem for your working-mother friends for years.

But who do you call on when it was you everyone called on?

The first item to get tossed over the side, aside from your standards of cleanliness and your definition of a home-cooked meal, are your friends, Nancy says.

"You don't have time to keep in touch with all those women who sustained you for years at home, and besides, employers frown on personal phone calls."

Robin returned to work after she burned out on volunteering and decided she could get paid for things she was doing for free.

She just didn't realize how little she'd be paid.

"The first job criteria you look at is commuting time," she says. "Then you look at shorter hours and flexibility."

Then you realize how much salary you are sacrificing so you can be 10 minutes away from home and available for doctors appointments and soccer games.

"And you never ask for a raise because they might expect you to do more, and you know you won't be able to," Robin says.

Robin was refused a job because she was "overqualified." Her potential employer thought she would get bored and leave after she realized there was no opportunity for advancement.

"He didn't realize I wasn't thinking `career-track.' I was thinking, `Will I be able to get home every day before the kids burn the house down?' "

After it occurs to you that you have no safety net and you are paid like a peasant, you realize that your husband "isn't trained," as Nancy puts it.

"They got the message 10 years ago that they were free to pursue their careers and if there were problems at home, you would handle it. But now you have a job and they are still thinking that way," she says.

The return to work has been a revelation for both women. Nancy now understands why everyone she knows depends on pizza delivery. Robin feels "powerful" now that she knows how much she can juggle, how many things she can get done in a day.

Packing lunches and laying out clothes the night before was a new experience. So were the nuances of office politics. Laundry became a huge family fight. Weekends were lost to all that was not done during the week. Children revealed themselves to be absolutely helpless.

And no one is replacing the roll of paper towels in the dispenser.

"All sorts of little quality-of-life things go by the wayside," says Nancy. "There isn't extra toilet paper under the sink, the plants don't get watered, the cat box isn't cleaned, I don't have what I need to make dinner.

"But it is more than that. It is a kind of smoothness, a kind of peace that is missing now."

But both women want to work.

"There were times at home when I thought I would lose my mind," says Robin. "My name on a paycheck? That is more fun than chocolate."

Nancy? Well, after three weeks in an office, her boss let her return to working at home, where she can more easily take a break and water the plants, clean the litter box, pick up something for dinner. And she can be there on snow days, sick days and school vacations.

"And I'm back in the dining room in my sweats," she says.

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