Review: The Comeback

By Rebecca Abrams, November 27, 2008
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By Emma Gilbey Keller
Bloomsbury, £18.99

You've got to admire Emma Gilbey Keller's chutzpah. Here we are on the cliff-edge of a major recession with job security eroding faster than the Norfolk coastline and out she comes, enjoining the sisterhood not to abandon their professional ambitions.

Professional ambitions? Remember them? The things you had in abundance before you had children and ran out of time, energy and, well, let's face it, ambition.

It's the one chestnut feminism has never really cracked - how to combine motherhood and career, and do both well enough to make it feel worthwhile. Back in the boom days of the 1980s, there seemed to be solutions. Women delayed having children while they launched their careers, then hired nannies or booked their little darlings into full-time nurseries. Others went part-time or negotiated job-shares. There was much talk of women finally being able to "have it all".

In reality, however, "having it all" simply meant "doing it all" and the stress was taking its toll. Disillusioned or just plain exhausted by juggling work deadlines and playdates, many women voted with their feet and walked away from their careers.

According to author and journalist Keller, the seven women in The Comeback are all living proof that it is possible to combine motherhood and a fulfilling career. Crucially, these women (several of whom are Jewish) are not jugglers, but returners. They gave up their professional lives for several years in order to raise their families and have since successfully returned to work. You can have it all, Gilbey Keller insists, just not necessarily all at the same time. For Gilbey Keller herself, the turning point came when her youngest child announced one morning: "I go to school. Molly goes to school. Daddy goes to work and Mommy goes to gym."

Not that returning is any easier than juggling, as these women's stories reveal. The world does not stand still while you're at home loading and unloading the chrome-fronted dishwasher. Your CV is now woefully out of date, your husband is earning five times as much as you are, your professional contacts have moved on, and worst of all, your confidence is shot to pieces.

Some of The Comeback women faced additional setbacks. Judith Feder, a venture capitalist, had to cope with dangerously sick twins. Human rights lawyer Lauren Jacobson's career was derailed by a horrifying car-jacking in Johannesburg which led to the family moving suddenly to England. As photographer Ellen Warner's career took off, she encountered overt resistance from her newly retired husband.

These returners are an affluent bunch in the main, buffered by wealth, connections and domestic help. They also possess formidable stores of resilience and resourcefulness.

ow relevant their stories are to the majority of middle-class women in Britain is debatable, but Gilbey Keller's main point is an important one. We should no longer be thinking of cramming everything in before we're 60. We are all living longer and in better health. Our careers can extend well into our 70s, if we want them to. "The greatest hurdle in returning to work," Gilbey Keller says, "is the one inside your own head." Oh, and it helps to have a husband with a large, secure income.

 

Rebecca Abrams's latest book, "Touching Distance", is published by Macmillan

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011