Friday, March 31, 2006

Secret agent woman

There has been so much written about highly educated women “opting out” of the workforce to stay home to care for their children that you may wonder if you really need to read yet another article on this topic.

But give me a chance here, because I am not going to argue in favor of or against opting out. Instead, I’d like to ask the question, “Who says I’m opting out?” To outside observers, I may have looked like “just another stay-at-home mom” dressed for a day in the park, pushing a toddler in a stroller, but I came to think of myself as a secret agent on a mission of reinvention. This opportunity was a precious gift, one that offered me the freedom to make radical changes in my sense of who I was, professionally and personally. Many people, men in particular, never feel that they have the opportunity to reinvent themselves in this way, but the transition to motherhood virtually guarantees that you will reevaluate your core self. Time off from your former job may allow you to reshape a career that was not satisfying you, start a new venture, or rekindle long-dormant interests.

In my case, I used my time off from the workforce to bring together my interests in women’s issues, teaching and writing into a new career as an author. No one knew what I was up to, so there was no pressure to show my work to the world until I was ready. Having lived in Silicon Valley during the tech boom of the 1990’s, I was used to everyone and his brother having a startup company, so became my new launching pad.

I love the idea of being a secret agent because it takes away the pressure of worrying how others are judging you for taking time off. Being a secret agent gives you the freedom to observe your new life as a mom and take stock of your interests. I recommend that you take a lifelong view of your career path and take steps that will help you remain competitive if and when you decide to go back to work. Even if this day doesn’t arrive for many years, you can keep your skills sharp in the meantime. Here are three ideas to help you develop your future plans on your own terms:

• Get creative. Playing with your kids can open you up to new creative pathways. Look for ways to express yourself. Art is not just for kids. Motherhood can be a catalyst for rediscovering our creative selves. When I was writing Mojo Mom, the book that inspired me most was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

• Get professional—even one day a month. Even when you are not employed, find a way to stay in touch with your professional persona. This will maintain your professional image in the eyes of the community, and even more importantly, keep this important aspect of your self alive in your own mind. I volunteer on the board of a conservation group and chair a fundraising committee for my local public radio station. Those groups meet about once a month and I love the opportunity to jump in to a decision-making environment. I make a point of dressing up for these meetings. No one in these groups needs to know that I usually wear jeans and sweatshirts the other 29 days a month.

• Develop an entrepreneurial spirit. Many women find that after they have children, the idea of creating their own business so that they can work on their own terms becomes very appealing. Women-owned businesses are growing at double the rate of male-owned businesses. A new study from the United Kingdom showed that women over age 40 are more likely than all other age brackets to start their own businesses. Even more interestingly, just 3% of those women over age 45 who currently run their own businesses admitted they had considered starting their own company when they were younger. I will be interested to learn whether these trends are representative of the United States as well. When I speak to college-age women I emphasize that entrepreneurial skills can help bridge the conflicts between family life and traditional career paths. Whatever your field of interest, if you can create a plan that allows you to strike out on your own, your career future will remain in your hands.

The greatest gift I have learned from being a secret agent is that no life experience is ever wasted. I am open to using everything I see, hear, or learn as an inspiration for my work. I no longer let others limit my career path or define the worthiness of my work as a mother or a writer. When you are a secret agent, you’ll have the confidence that comes from knowing that even if the rest of the world doesn’t always realize how amazing you are, you can move through life armed with the confidence that your plans will succeed on your own terms.


Anonymous Andrea K. said...

When it comes to reinventing the self, there's another case to consider: those of us who did that just *before* having children. I left a lucrative middle-management career and took a large pay cut to enter the music industry, the fulfillment of a lifelong goal. I've only been at this for a couple of years, but I've just had my first child and now I'm finding that I'm losing ground in my *new* career )a male-dominated field that thrives on youth -- not many moms to be found here). I love most aspects of my job and it saddens me to have come this far only to have to go back and RE-re-invent myself. What do you do when you've just found your dream job and THEN you have the baby?

12:24 PM  

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