Cheryl Casone: How my mother inspired 'The Comeback'

Editor's note: The following essay is excerpted is from "The Comeback" by Cheryl Casone (Portfolio, May 3, 2016).

Marsha,  a secretary, had  always worked full time before she became a mom. She took two years off when she had a baby girl and then, when she went back to work, chose temping so that she could spend more time with her daughter. Marsha wanted to be able to stay home when her baby was sick or when she and her husband wanted to take a vacation, and temp work gave her that flexibility while allowing her to keep her job skills and business contacts up to date.

Her daughter, an only child, went to day care and did well there. She liked having kids to play with and, luckily, was a very easy child at home. When her daughter turned  four and was gearing up for kindergarten, Marsha knew it was time to go back to work full time.

She loved being home with her daughter but, in truth, she loved working, too: “It rounded out my life.” Working was what she knew—going to an office, meeting goals, and experiencing adult social interaction.  It was something she really liked and needed as part of her life. Staying at home full time, especially with a happy and healthy child in school, just wasn’t for her.

It’s possible she could also see the writing on the wall, for not long after returning  to work, she and her husband separated, and later divorced.

Marsha is in her seventies now, but she remembers her days as a working mom with great pride. Working made her whole and satisfied.

It made her happy, and that made her a happy mother. She still thinks that mothers who work outside the home get the best of  both worlds, despite the sacrifices and challenges they face. Marsha had only a few professional options in her era-secretary, teacher, and maybe nurse. That's changed today, of course, but still she believes that she and other moms like her  set a good example for  their children by working outside the home.

She's right-her child was positively affected and influenced by her decision to work. I should know. I'm that child. Every morning, I watched my mother get up early to prepare for  her day and help me get ready for  mine before we headed out the door together. Every night I felt her enthusiasm and love when she got home and spent the evening with me. And on weekends it was just the two of  us, too. I never felt her absence. She was always there for  me and I'm a better person for having witnessed and lived her warmth and work ethic. She was my role model: a hardworking career woman who, in my eyes, had every­ thing, and I looked up to her for   her ability to juggle her life at work and home with what seemed to be great ease. I'm grateful for  the stan­ dard she set.

She was, in part, the inspiration for this book. As a business reporter and anchor, one of  the biggest stories I have covered at Fox Business Network was the collapse of  Lehman Brothers on Septem­ ber 15,  2008, and the ensuing collapse of  the U.S. economy. Unbe­ knownst to me at the time, that event would put me in a  position to talk to many women like my mom, who were doing their  best to balance their responsibilities at work and at home. Many were com­ ing back to work after long absences, forced to return  when their husbands lost their jobs to layoffs, cutbacks, and complete corporate closures. At its worst point, unemployment in the country hit  lO percent.

People were desperate  for information: Who was hiring? What sectors were coming out of the slump fastest? And I had the answers. I had my finger not only on the pulse of Wall Street, but also of Silicon Valley, the manufacturing  sector, the entertainment industry, and many others. Suddenly, jobs became my beat.

Following the recession, I continued to do segments on jobs, and of course women in the workforce  were an enormous part  of that story. One day during  a commercial break, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, at the time anchoring Fox & Friends, mentioned that she had many brilliant, creative, experienced mom-friends out there who were ready to reenter the market but were struggling  to figure out how.

She asked me what information I had on moms making a comeback. At the time I had none. But I promised to do some digging. And as I did, I thought about my mom. I thought  about all of my colleagues and friends who had left to have babies and were now working to restart their careers. And I thought  about all the other mothers, many in much more diffi- cult situations than my friends, who were facing tough odds as they fought to support  their families. I not only sympathized  with these women, but I also realized we needed them in the workforce—and the seed for a book was planted.

At first I was hesitant to tackle a project that focused on mothers. I wasn’t a mom and had never intended to become one. But I worked in a field populated by a lot of women, and I’d seen what happened when they left to have children and then came back. I’d witnessed how the rapid pace of technology put them at a disadvantage,  and how they struggled to figure out a new system that had been installed while they were gone until I,  or one of  my sympathetic colleagues, taught them what they needed to know. In other jobs before my current one at Fox, I saw moms get passed over for  promotions-punished, essentially, for having taken a leave of  absence, something I and my male colleagues never experienced.

But I came to realize that I  had something  valuable to offer. My perspective was and still is unique: I'm a  woman, a reporter, and a job-and-career expert with access to leaders of  industry and a view from the trenches. I'm the girl co-workers confide in and approach with questions. I'm the journalist who will dig deep to find information. And I'm a woman who advocates for  other women. If  my girlfriends found this combination of experience and access helpful, perhaps other women would, too.

I started my research by interviewing women I knew and then hit social media, asking moms everywhere for   their perspectives. Those who connected then helped me spread the word via parenting and mom blogs in order to reach even more women.

Eventually, I collected interviews with hundreds of  mothers from all walks of  life. I asked them about their secret sauce-how  did they make things work at work? How did they land the job they wanted? How difficult was it and what mistakes did they make along the way? How did they reig­ nite a  career that  had gone cold? Nobody I  spoke to was short on stories-everyone had faced hurdles, taken  missteps, and learned a lot. Everyone had usable and valuable tips for others. Many wished they could have a do-over.

What was most surprising and gratifying as  I  reported this book was how many women were excited to take the time to speak with me.

They moved me with their generosity. I’d chat with one mom and she’d eagerly suggest a friend who had experienced a different hurdle. They all wanted to help so other women could learn from their challenges, mistakes, and successes. Their enthusiasm was universal, regardless of where they lived in the country or what they did for a living.

It was a nonstop  train of women helping women—so absolutely refreshing  it warmed my heart. I interviewed doctors and lawyers and fitness instructors and a waitress. I interviewed people on Wall Street and Main Street and everywhere in between. Teachers and journalists and military veterans and entrepreneurs  and social workers—I pursued them all, soak- ing up their boots-on-the-ground  wisdom. The common thread among them: a burning desire to succeed at work.

A large number of the mothers I spoke to had always planned to return to work, but it wasn’t until they were faced with difficult circum- stances or forces beyond their control, like the recession or a divorce, that they had to. But regardless of why they reentered the workforce, their experiences were all eerily similar.

Corporate America is still not mom-friendly, even though mothers make up almost 50 percent of the workforce. And I discovered that there were few places for this particular group of women to turn to for support and career advice.

Once I learned about the hurdles they’d encountered,  I reached out to find solutions. I interviewed employment lawyers, psychologists, financial planners, career coaches, human resources managers, and CEOs. They all offered guidance  and step-by-step  instruction for overcoming obstacles and getting back on the fast track at work, whatever that work may be.

I wrote this book because every woman should have the chance to succeed simultaneously  at work and motherhood  the way my own mother did.

I wrote it  because there has been a  profound shift in the way we work and the speed with which things change, and whether they've been out for  a while or just a few months, women need a one­ stop resource to help guide them as they make their way back into the workforce.

I wrote it because women need to know that they have a tremendous amount to offer to  the workplace. And finally, I wrote it because women need to stick together, and those of  us with access to information have a responsibility to share it with those who don't.

Each chapter is filled with anecdotes, tips, encouragement, and even some tough-love advice. You'll learn from the moms in the trenches as well as those at the top of major corporations-some of  whom are moms themselves.

The book covers all bases, laying the groundwork for moms thinking of  taking  maternity leave, for  those who have just quit their jobs and need to learn how to  stay connected, for those starting their search to get back into the workforce after an absence, and for those who've landed a job, advice that will enable them to go on killing it.  I want you all to succeed.

There are many books offering suggestions for how to make cor­ porate America more welcoming to mothers. There are many books offering suggestions for how to achieve work/life balance. "The Come­back" is neither. It is simply a guide to help mothers stay in control over the trajectory of  their lives, and give them the tools to make a smooth reentry into the workplace should they decide they want to-or have to-go back to work.

I wrote it for  all the working women who might one day become moms, and all the working moms who might become stay-at-home moms or moms who start a business and  work from home.

No  matter who you are, no  matter why change comes into your life, I  hope this book will help you to do what my mom did: to stare that change in the face and say with confidence, "Bring it."