FAMILY BUSINESS

She's a Kennedy, But She's a Lot Like Us

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By Anne Glusker
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Amid all the recent buzz about Caroline Kennedy's bid for a U.S. Senate seat, there has been a great deal of talk about her connections, her power, her wealth. But the way I see it, if you strip away the glamour, the name and the money, then Caroline is . . . me. And many of my friends. Maybe even you. If, that is, you happen to be a midlife woman raising kids and returning -- or thinking of returning, or hoping one day to return -- to the full-time workforce.

A great deal of the criticism around Kennedy's interest in Hillary Rodham Clinton's soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat sounds an alarm for women like me. We've been at home with the kids, sure, but we've also been busy with lots of other things. We've been working part-time, consulting, freelancing. Like Kennedy's, our resumes don't conform to the conventional, one-job-after-the-other sequence that recruiters expect. When I read a sniping post on Gawker.com that "Caroline has been a happy housewife since getting her law degree, published a few ghost-written books and sat on a few boards that used her celebrity to draw donations," I thought, hmm, wait a minute. Couldn't there be a more inventive way to look at her CV?

Yes, her portfolio is diverse, and when I first read the press accounts, I too had my doubts. Okay, I thought, she went to Harvard, then Columbia Law School. Very nice. A book on the Bill of Rights. Check. Another on the right to privacy. Check, check. The three-day-a-week fundraising job for New York schools. Triple check. But two poetry anthologies? The whole thing just didn't quite add up.

But that's when I caught myself, and my more out-of-the-box side spoke up: Kennedy had young children, and no matter how much child care her money could buy, she clearly wanted to be a very-much-there primary caregiver. Perhaps, like many women in her situation, she found stimulation and satisfaction in whatever tasks most easily fit her schedule and her life, and her kids' lives. You could say her work history was spasmodic; you could say it was scattershot. But you could also say that as her children have grown up, her focus on public life has intensified, culminating in her fundraising for the public schools and her participation in Barack Obama's presidential campaign. You could say that, consciously or unconsciously, she was preparing for this moment.

Rather than a privileged aberration, I prefer to view Kennedy as a bellwether, a case study in how things could be if only the workplace were more accepting of an unconventional CV, one that may brim with great experience and skills and talent but is also peppered with gaps and one-off projects and volunteering. After all, if workers can no longer expect the security of a 50-year career with IBM or Procter & Gamble, then maybe employers should stop expecting each and every job applicant to present them with an old-fashioned sequential résumé. Maybe now's the time to change our thinking about what constitutes the ideal CV.

When we talk about women going back into the workforce, it's illuminating to consider the circumstances under which they left it in the first place. For many women, it was never truly a choice, never truly voluntary. As Pamela Stone, author of "Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home," points out, many are pushed out by jobs with long hours, rigid workweeks and inflexible demands. "These women haven't opted out," says Stone. "They've been shut out, by workplaces that don't pair well with family life."

That's how I came to understand my own "choice" as well. And several years ago, when I moved to France -- which offers longer parental leave and better-quality child care than is the norm in the United States and which welcomes women back into the workplace after the birth of a child on a much more flexible basis -- I had a chance to see another way of doing things. This only underlined my belief that rather than freely "opting" to leave full-time work, I had simply been "stopping," faced with workplace demands that seemed incompatible with parenthood.

Still, like many of my peers, I assumed from the get-go that I'd move back to full-time work at some point. For some women, the time stretches into an interval that the novelist Meg Wolitzer calls "The Ten-Year Nap." It starts out as a short siesta, but then poof! -- a decade or more goes by, skills get rusty, the 401(k) plan hasn't seen any infusions, and the contacts and connections are disappearing. (For me, I knew it was time to start thinking seriously about full-time work again when some of my best contacts began retiring or, gulp, dying.)

One woman I know was an early Silicon Valley success story. Hers was a very long nap: For two decades, she was happy raising her two sons and managing the household. Then her husband lost his job, and she was forced to search for work with health-care benefits that would cover her serious medical condition. She took a good hard look around and decided that the task of convincing high-tech recruiters that she could move back into her old career was just too daunting. And even if she eventually succeeded, it would take too long, given her insurance needs. So she decided to become a medical records clerk, a position that made absolutely no use of her early career experience. Of her job search, she says: "It was as if the last 25 years had been erased."

Clearly, the classic "mother's CV" poses problems, for Kennedy and for those of us in a similar boat. (I know, I know: Her vessel's a yacht, mine's a canoe.) As Kennedy attempts to transform her résumé into a narrative that will win her the Senate seat, I see echoes of several friends who have sought my help in refurbishing their own résumés in recent months. They may have done some income-producing work in the last years; they've certainly done a lot of volunteer work. They seem a bit tentative, lacking in confidence. As I've tried to help each one fashion a convincing document -- neither hiding the gaps nor trying to cute them up with terms like "household engineer" -- I've realized that although I had a good sense of what each woman's strengths and weaknesses were, they simply weren't represented on the piece of paper I was staring at.

No wonder these women seem tentative: They know that most employers won't think they merit the jobs they have their eyes on. In fact, one friend who'd gone in to an organization to talk about a mid-level communications job ended up being offered a part-time assistant's position. "The lowest rung on the ladder, and not even full-time!" she said.

This woman, like Kennedy, is running smack into what social psychologists call the potential vs. performance split. It works this way, according to Kathie Lingle of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress: "The guys in charge say, 'Oh, John can do it, we know he can.' They're assessing his potential." Whereas, when looking at a female job candidate, they're likely to say: " 'Oh, Sue can't do it; she's never done it before.' " They're basing their evaluation on her past performance.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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