Heads up, readers. This is a Mommy Track’d scoop. Emma Gilbey Keller’s new book, The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went from Career to Family and Back Again , isn’t due out til September, but you heard about it here first. It’s worth looking out for. A working author and journalist who stayed home with her two kids for seven years, Keller re-enters with a book designed to inspire and reassure women at various stages of their lives that a "comeback" is indeed possible.. To prove her point, Keller offers up a business woman, a photographer, a human rights worker, a teacher, a lawyer, a furniture designer, and a physician, each of whom has reinvented herself at least once.
We need to be clear about Keller’s target audience. She has intentionally chosen to focus on seven well- educated, middle-to-upper middle class women who had careers (as contrasted with jobs) before they became stay-at-home mothers. That’s certainly understandable and certainly her prerogative, but it means that with few exceptions, these women have access to a lot of help in the form of baby-sitters, professional contacts, even the ability to travel and consult with experts, advantages not available to women in less comfortable financial circumstances. In several of these cases, a husband’s financial stability means that his wife can take the sorts of risks that enable her to write a book, start a business, or even to stay at home in the first place. Don’t misunderstand. Even women with advantages face very real, often agonizing challenges juggling work and family life. It’s just that one would hope for a book like this for and about working class women with fewer material advantages. That said, each of Keller’s subjects faces formidable obstacles of her own.
A business powerhouse who ran her own show financing real estate developers, Judith Feder was stopped in her tracks when her second pregnancy revealed not just twins, but twins who would be born premature with multiple medical and developmental problems. For the next ten years, Feder became CEO of her children’s care, seeking out and arranging for doctors, developmental specialists, psychologists, therapists physical and occupational, and special programs to assure the twins’ progress. At times there were two baby-sitters on hand to assist. The twins were assured this extraordinary care because their mother knew how (and could afford) to get it for them. After ten years, Keller finds Feder re-entered, but at a slower pace and, intriguingly in the eyes of her children, doing work that doesn’t make full use of her extraordinary abilities. (There’s even a whiff here, unintended by Keller or Feder, I’m sure, that her kids feel slightly guilty that she gave up her career for them.) Feder has made the choice to change her focus, joining a small venture capital firm, where she’s far from being the queen bee. She enjoys the work and the relative ease with which it allows her to balance work and home, but at 48 she’s still regaining the confidence she had in abundance when she ran her own show. Keller leaves her where she found her: in an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, daughter at an elite college, teenage twins at prestigious private schools, the family looking forward to a week-end at their Long Island beach house and Spring Break in Hawaii.
Unfortunately, this opening chapter is followed by one detailing the life of a wildly successful furniture designer, who has "re-made" her identity by going off to Paris. Again, the message risks being obscured by privilege. Married to a lawyer, Maxine Snider has had a layered career, adjusting her professional life to the demands of family. We find her in a huge new apartment on Chicago’s Gold Coast filled with her husband’s collection of fine art photographs by the likes of Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus. She is understandably proud that her furniture designs are in fierce demand by high- end architects and interior designers. The "problem" of her husband’s retiring and wanting her to travel with him while she wants to continue to grow her expanding custom furniture design business is solved when his own photographs are sold by a gallery and he becomes a successful photographer in his own right, traveling alone, as he always has, for his art. Snider’s life offers an intriguing and important dilemma for women: what happens when she’s in the prime of her working life and he’s ready to retire? Unfortunately, the Sniders’ relatively easy solution is just too magical to be helpful.
But stick with the book, because in later chapters things get really interesting. We meet Sherry Goff, a teacher who, with her traveling salesman husband, has raised three daughters and retrains as an occupational therapist. Her story raises the all too familiar question of what happens when a woman’s salary barely covers the cost of child care. Does she end up staying home even if she’d rather be working? Is that a choice? And what about Lauren Jacobson, a South African human rights attorney forced to flee when post-apartheid violence comes close to home? A gutsy professional woman shaken by very real fear when her family barely escapes a violent attack on their home, Jacobson lands in London knowing no one. How she re-creates a professional life provides one of the book’s most gripping accounts. As does the story of Peg French, an inspiration to any woman who arrives late at either a career or to motherhood. Dr. French comes late to both and is divorced, to boot. The only mother in the book who was actually let go by her employer (the hospital where she was doing her residency) when she asked to cut back to part time, Peg French becomes a full time mother by circumstance, not choice, but ten years later returns to her pathology residency at 48. This is an especially strong section in which Keller incorporates the history of women in medicine, recent efforts to make the difficult combination of motherhood and medicine more tenable, and the gap between "the theory and practice of maternal policies."
Keller’s almost seamless interweaving of history and her lively use of statistics to illuminate and substantiate the issues each of her subjects raises – the sexism that still lurks in the workplace; the irony of research that advocates part time opportunities for professional women without having much of an impact on practice; the economic stresses that again, ironically, come from women working outside the home as well as within it; the struggle for financial independence, and, perhaps most important, the failure of confidence that creeps into the psyches of the most successful and assertive women when they leave the worlds in which they’ve forged their professional identities, making their comebacks that much more difficult. She also has interesting and important things to say about marriage throughout the book. Though mothers and children are her focus, husbands are very much present here, for reinventing a life often means reinventing a partnership. Finally, in an epilogue, Keller offers suggestions to women contemplating comebacks of their own, reminding them in constructive ways that they can have it all, even if it’s not all at once.