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A mom career by default

Millions of women never really "choose" between working and staying home.

Nancy Katz Colman

lives and writes in Philadelphia

A couple of years back, I joined a small group of women for an evening out, organized by a mutual friend. She introduced me to the others by saying, "Nancy doesn't work."

But there was something in the arch of her eyebrow, the conspiratorial tone, the knowing look, that I took to mean,

Nancy lives a life of leisure


Perhaps there was no intent to insult me, but it struck a nerve. As usual, I felt the need to justify my lack of paid employment to yet another set of perfect strangers. It was as if my insecurities were painted on my chest, like a target screaming,

Open switchblade, insert here


With her three words, I was reduced to a stammering mass of self-recrimination. My inner and outer monologues went something like this:

Vocalized: "Well, I've been working on a book, but that got derailed when my three daughters were all diagnosed with Crohn's disease within the space of 18 months, with all their medical tests and so on. And my eldest has ADD, and that is sort of a full-time job, dealing with her school and learning needs, and college applications and all. And after losing my mother to cancer, I've got to look after my father, since my siblings both live out West, and. . . ."

Inner monologue:

Why am I telling these people my whole sob story, and why do they care? I "don't work"? I work plenty - just not for pay! Am I really afraid these women will dismiss me as some sort of airhead layabout eating bonbons and getting manicures? My friend has time for manicures - weekly - and yet I am letting her comment prey on my sense of self-worth.

My resentment deepened as I considered that my friend was an empty-nester divorcee with one child (safely ensconced in college) and newly retired at the youthful age of fiftysomething on a cushy teacher's pension. Here she was, free to travel, shop, date, get (yes) weekly manicures, and go to dinner and shows with friends. Yet the irony was lost on her.

Much is written about the "choice" women supposedly make between work and staying home to raise children, but what about women like me, who find themselves where they are almost by default? I certainly didn't plan for my career to follow the path it took, but as I have often said, when explaining its tortured trajectory to others, "Life got in the way."

From the age of 8 or 9, I knew I wanted to be a "book writer" (as I wrote on a questionnaire in the third grade). After majoring in film studies in college, followed by graduate school for a master's in film, I thought I'd found the perfect blending of my two loves - film reviewing - and even had the privilege of realizing that dream for a time in the form of free-lancing, writing/editing a weekly suburban paper, and working as managing editor for a video magazine.

But I also wanted to start a family, and when our first child was due, my dilemma of staying home with her or returning to work was decided for me: The magazine went belly-up right before I delivered. Unlike many new mothers, I was not faced with the wrenching decision to return to work before I was ready; I enjoyed 18 months at home with my beautiful new baby. And by then, I was more than ready to head back to the workplace.

Given the dearth of film-criticism opportunities in Philadelphia, I was thrilled to find work in the broader cultural-arts community as chief of publications (and eventually all communications) for a major museum. I truly believed I had found a career "home" and stayed there through the births of my next two children.

But once again, the career-vs.-home dilemma was decided for me, not by me. While on maternity leave with my third child, I learned my job had been eliminated. My assistant had been given a newly created title and nominal salary increase to take over my duties. I was a budget cut.

Almost immediately, I landed a wonderful job offer as marketing director at a prestigious architecture firm. But I made the "mistake" of revealing my status as a parent by asking for a couple of weeks before starting to arrange child-care, and suddenly, mystifyingly, the offer was withdrawn.

This was 14 years ago, not the Dark Ages. Or maybe it was.

My point is not that somehow I am special. My point is that there are millions of women whose lives have followed similar trajectories.

I am sure there will be people who will read this and say, "Quit whining; you're lucky you didn't have to do some demeaning job just to put food on the table."

They'd be right. I've been blessed with the good fortune to be a full-time mother to my children and to be available to my father. I have a supportive husband, pursue my writing whenever and however I can, contribute my time to supporting the arts, and work to be a good friend.

What we do each day may not change the world, but it is what they call a life. A contribution. Some of it chosen, some not.

And whether we collect a paycheck or not, it all takes work.