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The Return: A stay-at-home mom attempts to go back to work after nearly two decades. Can she revive her career?

After nearly two decades, Amy Beckett is ready to go back to the work force. Can she revive her career?
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By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Amy Beckett put away her reading glasses and file folder and stood up.

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It was time. It was almost past time.

She tossed the empty paper cup into the trash and swung open the door to leave the deli on Rhode Island Avenue NW. As Beckett walked into an upscale office lobby, her scarf slipped from around her neck and drifted to the ground. She scooped it up and shoved it into her shoulder bag. She didn't want to arrive late for the job interview.

She handed the security guard a photo ID. Once in the elevator, she looked up at the ceiling and exhaled noisily. "I'm never doing this again," she said, closing her jade-colored eyes for a moment. At the seventh floor, she opened the heavy wooden door to Suite 713, identified in gold lettering as the Law Offices of Stephen H. Marcus. The suite's unique double doors, parquet floor and crown molding signaled its former life as the ticket office for EL AL Airlines. The receptionist looked up from her desk with a smile. She took Beckett's business card and said it would be a few moments until Marcus finished with a client.

With her back straight in a modern brown chair by the door, Beckett folded her hands over the bag on her knees and waited. It was March of last year, three days after she had turned 52 and 17 years since she'd last held a job.

***

Beckett never intended to become a stay-at-home mother. The oldest of eight children, she said she left her home in Springfield, Mo., to attend Mount Holyoke College because she wanted to be somewhere that valued smart women -- she was tired of feeling apologetic for her ambition. After getting her law degree from New York University in 1982, she began to forge her career: judicial clerkship, associate at a big Chicago firm, city government work and then her dream job at a small, progressive law firm representing unions in employment disputes. She met and married businessman Monte Tarbox, and the couple bought a two-bedroom bungalow on the North Side of Chicago.

"I loved the whole thing," Beckett recalled. "I loved commuting, working downtown, using my mind, having my own money, all of those things."

Daughter Nellie was born in 1992. During her maternity leave, Beckett interviewed a highly recommended nanny in preparation for returning to work. "What will be my duties?" the prospective nanny asked in a soft, Caribbean-accented voice.

"To love my baby," Beckett replied. Then she burst into tears. That was it. Tarbox earned enough to support the family, so Beckett quit her job.

"It was against everything I ever thought I was going to be," Beckett said. "Everybody I knew went right back to work, couldn't wait to get back to work. It was hard to reach out and find people who would support me." A few months after Nellie was born, Tarbox and Beckett had a couple over, and when Beckett said she wasn't returning to the firm, there was silence. Then the woman said, "You're going to make it harder for the rest of us."

Two years later, the couple had another baby girl, Rory. In 1996, with both girls old enough for preschool, Beckett felt it was time to return to work, but then Tarbox landed a job in Australia. Beckett's U.S. law degree wasn't much use down under, so she put her plans on hold until Tarbox found a job back in the States three years later.


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