Susan Smith Ellis, former CEO of Product RED, writes for Grown and Flown readers about the challenges of going back to work after stepping off the career track to be at home with her children.
Eighteen years ago, after a successful career in advertising, I decided not to go back to work when I found out I was pregnant with our second child. It seemed to me that being home with our daughter and son, born sixteen months apart, would be my new job. I had lived and worked all over the world and while I thrived on that, I was ready to embrace full time motherhood. When the children started school I became restless and found that it was hard to fill my days in a rewarding way. I started to look into picking up where I left off. It was really discouraging! Over and over again I was told that my six-plus year hiatus had rendered me unemployable at anything resembling the level of seniority and compensation I had worked so hard to achieve. It was suggested that I find work at a non-profit. Perhaps I might volunteer.
I could forget resuming my career. I was, as they say, “toast.”
The more rejection I faced, the more determined I became to prove that motherhood is not a career liability. I pressed on, lucky to have several women friends in New York who took up my cause. With their help opening doors, I was quickly offered a senior position at a premier New York ad agency, being paid every bit as much as if I had never left the working world. But accepting the job meant selling a beautiful old house we had restored and leaving our friends and family in Boston. It was hard to do and sad to say good bye but off we went.
Back at work, I found it hard to not feel guilty nearly all the time. When I was at the office, I missed my children and always felt like I was a step behind all of the stay-at-home mothers who seemed to know everything about school and teams and activities. They also managed to look so pulled together at school events while I always dashed in late and harried. But my career continued to track well and I loved the energy of New York City and the competition of work.
Once I achieved a certain level of success I was again restless even though I had a pretty good “work-life balance”. So I jumped again to a very tiny start up that was in need of a CEO to turn it into a brand and a going concern. It was the antithesis of the large, resource-laden firm I was leaving. The name of that start-up was Product (RED), founded by U2’s Bono with a mission to raise money (through the sale of (RED)-branded products) to buy anti retroviral medicine for people with HIVAids in Africa.
It was my children who persuaded me to take this job. They said I would be using my skills to do good in the world rather than the “boring” work (as they called it) I had been doing.
As it turned out, we had great success, raising $180 million in three and half years. It was crazy and frenetic, as all start-ups are, but it was also great fun. And I could never replicate the opportunities I was given to be engaged in creative and meaningful work and to travel to Africa to see first hand the impact of our work.
Last year I faced another turning point. Our daughter was finishing high school and I wanted to be around more to look at colleges with her and to spend time as a family without checking my Blackberry every two minutes. So once again, I stepped away from my career.
While I continue to serve on several boards, I really have spent most of my time being more than doing. It has been heavenly. But as night follows day, I’m starting to get restless again. I am taking on more projects (I am executive producer of a documentary, Get the Picture, and am helping a small start up company.)
And now our son is beginning to look at colleges. In a little more than a year, we will be facing the prospect of our youngest heading off to college and we will be empty nesters. Will I wish then that I had a career again to fill the void?
So I have begun to have conversations about maybe getting back in the game. And already I have had some people say that now that I have taken the last year off, it will be hard for me to get hired. Or I am told that I probably best-suited for the non-profit world. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”