There is a bench at the school playground where my mom friends gather after the bell rings. It's not so much a bench, as a cement ledge, rough enough to wear holes in your best jeans and low enough to make your knees sore. But it's a place to sit and watch the kids scramble around the jungle gym or chase each other on the field. We've been gathering there in the afternoons since our children started kindergarten; soon our first-borns will be graduating from fifth grade.
At one point, there was a whole row of us—stay-at-home moms complaining about our piles of laundry or our lack of piles of cash, while letting our kids experience something sort of like the benign neglect we grew up with in the 1970s.
But lately, the crowd has dwindled down to just three or four. All my friends are going back to work. From the brouhaha surrounding the recent debates about Marissa Mayer banning Yahoo Employees from working from home, and Sheryl Sandberg urging women be like the boys and gun for the corner offices, you'd think that women need to choose either to opt-out or lean in, and once the decision is made, it is permanent and irrevocable.
In my circle of friends, the balance between career and family is messy and confusing. Some go back to work because they need to pay the bills. Others miss the satisfaction and challenges of a vocation. And once in a while, someone gets a phone call with an offer they just can't resist.
A few weeks ago, I went shopping with a friend to buy career clothes for her new position. After all, a girl can't show up to her new office wearing a skirt circa season one of Ally McBeal. My friend was giddy with excitement, buying armloads of shoes and wondering whether open toes were professional enough for her new office.
I can understand the excitement of employment. Technically, I was one of the first of my friends to go back to work. But being a freelance writer, I work from home—checking emails on my phone before I take the kids to school and finally closing the lid on my laptop long after the rest of my family has gone to bed. I don't get to buy new outfits or go out to eat with my cubicle-mates. What I do get is the satisfaction of doing what I love and helping to pay for our family expenses. And when the school bell rings, I'm there in my yoga pants, sitting on the bench with the other moms.
Nobody could have explained to us just how difficult it would be to get back into the game.
The biggest complaint from my newly employed friends has been the juggle between work and family. Paying your dues as the new hire, while also helping the kids (and husbands) adjust to the way things now are. When you quit your job to stay home, all bleary-eyed and blissed out on that newborn smell, nobody could have explained just how difficult it would be to get back into the game.
I met my shopping buddy for lunch recently, and she lamented how her new supervisor was tip-toe'ing around her stay-at-home past. "How should I explain to the others . . . you know . . . where you've been?" the supervisor asked, as if her years at home raising kids were something to be ashamed of.
Another friend recently found herself in the last hired, first fired position after her company went through a round of layoffs. She's now puttering around the house with her college-aged son. Twenty-somethings aren't the only ones trying to figure out how to leave the nest.
I'm not Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg, and neither are my friends. We're just regular professional women trying to find our way back into the workforce. As with raising kids, the further I go down this road, the more I realize there is no magic book of instructions, no one-size-fits-all manual to success. We make the best decisions we can at the time, and we support each other when things don’t go as we hoped. And when all else fails, there's always room on the bench.