Reinvention revolution: When are those magical on- and off-ramps actually going to materialize?

To judge by any given magazine rack, I am not the only woman in America who is a sucker for the personal reinvention story. You know the genre: Women who confront some life transition by completely changing tacks and emerge the better for it.

Sometimes they’re about people who pull a career 180 and find spiritual fulfillment. Like the downsized corporate manager whose stock options bought her a winery, or whose Earth Day epiphany propelled her to start a recycling business.

Sometimes they’re about Real Women, which I take to mean women who will never be offered a stock option. When the story is about one of us, it’s usually an internal crisis that tilts our worldview just enough to spark a moment of self-discovery. Mom loses her cool with her brood and — shazam! — discovers that if they are hungry enough, 6-year-olds are in fact capable of making cheese sandwiches.

They’re seductive, these tales. The flip side of the penny is always shiny. No one in them ever says, “To heck with my principles, I’m going to make gobs of money and hire the kind of help Madonna has.” The new life is always simpler, yet more rewarding.

I suspect they have particular appeal for women because when it comes to balancing work and family, mothers’ choices are often rotten. We give creating some semblance of balance a good-faith effort but end up muddling along waiting for the kids to get a little older, never really feeling like we get it right. While we muddle, we dream of capitalizing on circumstances forced on us. We’re perpetually making lemonade, so what better fantasy than placing our line of citrus sparklers in Whole Foods just as Jacob and Emma reach school age?

I wanted very much to like Emma Gilbey Keller’s The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went from Career to Family and Back Again. I tore through it in one sitting, but not because it’s compulsively readable. I was waiting for a story I could identify with, but it never materialized.

Instead, I got a profile of an attorney who represented dissidents in Apartheid South Africa. Her career was interrupted not by an unfeeling boss or long hours, but by an armed assault that exiled her family to London. There was a photographer of literary luminaries for whom “success is less about salary, benefits, or promotion than freedom and status.” And an international lawyer whose politically connected friends convinced her Senate impeachment proceedings could in fact be a nice, slow re-entry into law.

At the last page, I turned the book over and reread the promotional copy inside the flap: “These were not superwomen,” it promised, “they were everywomen.” A paragraph further on there was a bio of the author, herself a journalist who stopped working to parent full-time. Turns out Gilbey Keller is married to Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times. Nickels dropped.

You, no doubt, are thinking, No wonder she could afford to stay home, and to facilitate her re-entry with a nice little book contract. You are so right.

And I am so very much more cynical than you. I revere the New York Times. But on work-life issues, it has an annoying tendency to “discover” trends among the privileged. Five years ago, its Sunday magazine published a hand-grenade of a story entitled “The Opt-Out Revolution” explaining why powerhouse women with Ivy League credentials and promising careers were chucking it all to stay home. The conclusion: For women, family is ultimately more fulfilling than work.

I could use a forest of newsprint recapping the ensuing debate, but let’s cut straight to the latest chapter. A few weeks ago the U.S. Department of Labor released reams of statistics that show women are leaving the workforce — but because the economy has made work unworkable. Shoved out, we make the best of things. The best PTA treasurer. The best Gymboree cheerleader. The best lemonade.

My absolute favorite rejoinder to the news came from work-life scholar E.J. Graff, who opined that the Times’ posterwomen were engaging in the psychologically healthy strategy of wanting what they had. “Take any psych class and you will learn about this phenomenon,” Graff explained on “What, they’re going to say: I hate spending my life stuck with snot-nosed screaming kids all day, I miss having adult conversations, but I was too angry at my condescending colleagues to accept the cut-rate hours and mommy-penalized pay and insane stress of making everyone happy — just for a few early years?”

I will add that none of the Times’ women had yet tried to go back to work. Supposedly, there’s an enormous workforce shift on the horizon. Up in the boardroom, they’ve realized they can’t afford to lose us, trend-watchers insist. Talent is so scarce corporate America is trying to figure out how to stop hemorrhaging women.

So any day now there will be flex-time and part-time with benefits and “on-ramps” and “off-ramps” so women can take a few years off without fear of the penalties that accompany the career hiatus: The inability to get a new job, or a one-way ticket to The Mommy Track, with its lesser earning power and lowered ceiling. (Is there an economist out there who can explain how, faced with this talent glut, employers get away with eliminating benefits and pensions and anyone over 40? Let’s talk.)

Back to those on-ramps and off-ramps: Don’t you love buzzwords? They spare us the need to define those ramps in concrete terms. Certainly not with the specificity of, say, Europe, where the ramps are laws promising parents who take time off jobs to come back to. No, this sounds like code for: We’re going to ask the nabobs in HR to pretty please stop looking at women with families as lesser humans.

What, you say? We’ve been telling them that for decades? Well, this time it will take, because we have a clever visual metaphor to wave about.

I realize I sound cynical and depressed, but I defy you to find someone who reams a lemon more thoroughly than I do. In all seriousness, I parse reinvention narratives the way others scour photos of Brangelina’s brood, hungry for touchstone details. Countless turning-point essays later, here’s what I’ve learned: You can’t win a rigged game.

That realization hasn’t gotten me a corner office, a retirement fund, or 14 extra hours in the day to shine with both my colleagues and my kids. But it has restored my sense of self-worth, which, in turns out, allows me to see options that were once invisible. Most turn out to be not off-ramps and on-ramps so much as winding, circuitous, sometimes bumpy trails. But magically, any number go spectacular places.

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.


The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went from Career to Family and Back Again
By Emma Gilbey Keller
Bloomsbury USA, September 2008, $25

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