Illustration by Ellen Byrne

We could be any couple dining out on a Friday evening in late summer. He’s having the New York strip with grilled asparagus. I order filet mignon with spinach. I raise my glass; the wine gleams deep red as I give it a swirl. There is a basket of bread between us, and the temptation is to ruminate a little on the Rubaiyat and happier times: a loaf of bread, a jug of wine…

“I’m not under any illusion,” he is saying, “that we’re going to get back together.”

On the other hand, he adds, separation is unaffordable under our current financial circumstances.

“And it’s my fault,” I sigh. Like a lot of marital arguments, this one can be recalled in advance.

“Yes,” he says, “as a matter of fact it is.”

“Do you want me to spell it out for you?” he says. “If you’d been earning, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now. If you’d been earning $50,000 a year even, then our total worth would be twice what it is now. Three times, actually.”

The look on his face is hard, the line of questioning rapid-fire, every word pounded in like a nail. “Why did you not work? Why did you not help provide financial support for the family? Why do you never finish what you start?”

Divorce might not bring out the best in people, but it does concentrate the mind. Setting aside for the moment the innumerable mitigating factors, the raw and indisputable truth is that I had been out of the conventional workforce for nine years, and arguably underemployed for some years before that.

“Get a job,” he says, his parting shot as I push back my chair and stand, leaving him to take care of the bill. “Pay for yourself at last.”

That’s how I found myself in the job market earlier this year, looking for work at a time when more women are employed than ever before—even as there are fewer jobs to be had. It wasn’t a simple case of picking up where I’d left off. My field was newspaper reporting, and it was littered with the casualties of buyouts, early retirements and layoffs.

In January of this year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 64.2 million women working for pay in the United States, surpassing working men, at 63.4 million, for the first time in history. Surely there would be a place for me in this female majority workforce.

I wasn’t unique. I wasn’t even unusual. In any given year about a third of married mothers leave paid employment to care for their children, though the number has fallen slightly in the economic downturn. In 2009, 5.6 million women described themselves as stay-at-home mothers, according to the U.S. Census—that’s a quarter of all married women with children younger than 15.

A study released earlier this year by the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York found that 89 percent of stay-at-home mothers intend to go back to work.

According to the same study, those who try don’t find it easy. Three-quarters of women seeking to return to the workforce report difficulty finding a job. Only 40 percent succeed in landing a full-time position.

It’s hardly a mystery why women who take time off for children and family want to go back to work. Economic necessity arising from divorce, as in my case, is a motivator. Job loss by the working spouse is another—three-quarters of the jobs lost in the current recession have been lost by men. For many in middle age, it’s the looming empty nest as kids leave for college, coupled with the need to pay for it.

Melissa Fireman, a career counselor and trainer with the Montgomery County Commission for Women in Rockville, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of women seeking help in finding employment. The recession may have hit working men the hardest, but close behind are women between 45 and 64, for whom long-term unemployment more than doubled in 2009. A quarter of the clients in Fireman’s private practice are women looking for a way back into the workforce. Demand for “Finding the Road Back to Work,” one of the commission’s workshops, has become so great that it is now offered every other month instead of quarterly.

While returning to work in the current economic climate isn’t easy, it’s not impossible.

Ask Ann Truss.

Fifteen years ago she was the mother of three young children and the information services director for a Blue Cross-Blue Shield subsidiary, a demanding position that included overseeing a staff of 30. In 1995, her husband’s job took him to New York, and after a year of commuting they realized “something had to give,” she says.

Truss quit her job. The family relocated to New Jersey. The children were 5, 7 and 9. “It was a major shock,” she says. “Eighty percent of my identity was gone, plus we had moved on top of it. It was a lot to absorb at one time.”

She did what women in her position often do: She involved herself in the children’s school and in the community. Time passed and the children were entering their teens, the point at which many stay-at-home mothers start thinking about re-entering the workforce. Instead, in 2003, Truss and her family moved again, this time to France.

“I had to try and remake myself all over again,” Truss says. “I had to figure out: What am I going to do?” Precluded from working by visa restrictions, she spent her time “carting kids around.” She walked in the mountains and took up singing. “It wasn’t a bad thing, but it was weird. You’re sort of on vacation. And yet you still have all the responsibilities—and not the support,” she says. “There were times when it was depressing.”

Two years ago, after having lived in France for five years, they returned to Chevy Chase. Two of her children were in college; one was still in high school. “I looked around and thought, OK, get serious now,” Truss says.  

She may not have recognized it at the time, but simply telling herself she was serious was the first and possibly most important step of her journey back to a job, according to Fireman and others who study re-employment among mothers.