What age is deemed too old for a woman to return to work after a career break?

Apparently it is forty. So I have been reliably and rather bluntly informed this week by a head hunter.

Actually, the way he phrased it (“can I ask you a delicate question”) made him (note, ‘him’) come across as conspiratorially in my camp. He backed this up with declarations of his honesty and desire to minimise my disappointment in rejection.

My response followed a vague timeline of emotions.

The initial response was a typically British manner of apologetic embarrassment. I am terribly sorry to be wasting your precious time when you could be speaking to a more worthy (younger) candidate; do please forgive my imposition.

This was probably concurrent with the second (or joint first) sense of shock. It had never crossed my mind that I might be deemed technically over the hill when I am hell-bent on still viewing myself as in my thirties.

Which leads to my third reaction of defensiveness. Not wanting to labour the technicality but I am technically speaking still clinging on to the vestiges of my thirties, albeit by a few fingernails.

Calming the rising flush (not menopausal before you ask), I responded in a deliberately controlled tone, that surely a woman in her forties is no less employable than one in the 25-35 age bracket (his specified optimum hire-ability age range); posing the question, is it really better to hire someone likely to embark on a career break or someone returning from a career break? Neither of whom deserve to be discriminated against for heeding the call of nature to reproduce.

Mr Headhunter, not enjoying the direction of conversation, proceeded to chivy along the call to a close. I offered him my contact details (again) in the hope of being considered for any future roles that arise, which he was polite enough not to decline. Whether or not he even jotted them down I don’t know. Hastily wishing me luck in my future ventures (a true indicator that I shall not hear from him any time soon with any job offerings) he hung up.

With the passing of adequate hours to stew over the accusation and implication that a five or so year career hiatus, combined with being on the precipice of my Big Four-Oh, renders me ultimately redundant and unemployable, now gives rise to a sense of injustice. A twelve year career reduced to scrap fodder.

Would a man having taken a similar break be deemed equally unfit? I can’t answer that.

Despite the ongoing talk of encouraging women back into the workplace, the evidence is glaring that there is a long way to go. Mindsets need to evolve and embrace not just the notion of mothers reintegrating into careers they spent hard years building, but also the reality.

It is no new news that women are breaking glass ceilings left, right and centre, as the business pages tirelessly and tantalisingly remind us. And certainly there is nothing new about women engendering the next generation. But if depicted in my six year old’s Venn Diagram, I wonder how big the overlap set would be? And if we added a third hypothetical circle, ‘women who take a career break to raise a family’ to the diagram as a subset of ‘women who have children’, how would that affect the overlap? (Note Diagram is for purely hypothetical illustrative purposes and is not based on scale nor statistics).

Answers on a postcard.

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From Banking to Body Combat

This article was first posted on Here Is the City on 9 July 2013: http://hereisthecity.com/2013/07/10/from-banking-to-bodycombat/

I used to work in Banking – at times that was mentally tough. Now I’m exploring something physically tough. At the end of the day it’s all about throwing your weight around and winning the order/deal/fight (delete as applicable)!  Welcome to the jungle!

After two solid days of hardcore Les Mills BodyCombat instructor training, I can assure you that BodyCombat 56 definitely has the capacity to make you cry just a little!
DAY 1 was like a Body Combat marathon interspersed with technique drilling sessions – release 56 becoming the soundtrack to our lives. In emotion terms it went something like this (in no particular order):
(1) Paranoia – That I am the least competent person in the room owing to a total lack of training in either Les Mills courses or martial arts – What am I doing here when I could be at the beach with my family building sandcastles and eating ice cream?
(2) Excitement – Am I really going to be a certified Combat instructor? Whoop whoop!
(3) Self doubt – Not dissimilar to the paranoia and recurring sporadically throughout the day. Am I fit enough? Is my technique ever going to cut it? Why didn’t I opt for Body Attack or Body Pump which are at least in my comfort zone?
(4) Exhilaration – I haven’t had this much fun and felt this alive in so long. Who knew that all it takes is a bit of pain.
(5) Fear – Peaking just before stepping up to teach in front of (read ‘be scrutinised by’) everyone else.
(6) Dead tired – I’m not unaccustomed to a bit of exercise but this is in a whole league of its own. 9am to 6pm with teeny tiny breaks where I didn’t dare eat much knowing that the next cardio session was imminent and any food might make an unwelcome reappearance. At the same time knowing that if I didn’t eat enough I wouldn’t have the fuel to carry on! Oh the dilemma.
By end of the day, everything hurt; highlights being butt (from front/side/roundhouse kicking) and shoulders (from obviously punching). I’d sweated enough to fill a small reservoir and Combat training was seeping from every pore and brain cell. I LOVED IT!
DAY 2 I woke up feeling truly pummeled, creaking like an old lady!
I was nervous about being assessed but frankly the limited mobility in all my joints was more cause for concern. I taped up my dodgy knee more tightly than the day before to stop it from collapsing completely and, joy of joys, I was up first to be assessed! (Positive: no time to ponder and dread or make pointless mental comparisons with other participants. Negative: there’s a reason they send the lowest ranking officer in first
to do a recce.)
Twenty or so Combat tracks later came the cringeworthy task of watching a recording of myself teaching and having all my flaws rammed home. Then we broke for a brief fuel stop plus an opportunity to peel off some sweaty kit and rather pointlessly replace it with another set that would be no doubt saturated within the hour.
To ensure there was no one left who wasn’t crying yet, Steve (our lovely trainer) threw in a Grit Cardio session for good measure (it’s been a while since I’ve been on the receiving end of such compassion). My personal high point was the jump pushups.
And to round it all off when my muscles weren’t just crying but howling I had to teach my second assessment track and participate in another round of about two hours of Body Combat. In actual fact I had so much fun I didn’t want it to end. Steve was inspiring, encouraging and a truly awesome teacher – I’m not just saying that because I passed!
Now I just need to persuade our club to get the licence so I can teach it. As endorsement my 3 year old says I look just like Tree Fu Tom and that is praise indeed!

“Please sir, may I have some… work?”

Oliver Twist I’m not – not yet anyway do I need to grovel for a second serving of gruel. However, grovelling it appears is what I must do.

After nudging five years out of the workplace I am officially a luddite and beyond employable. Emails to ex-employers remain unanswered; enquiries to potential employers disappear into the mire. The world of work suddenly seems severely hostile – as if repaying me for spurning his offers to hold onto me those many moons ago when the needy cries of newborn babies drowned out anything in its vicinity.

Because now he’s moved on, probably more than once, to pastures new. Fresh talent, youth and the hunger that drives career ambition that only comes without the burden of young children – all things I no longer possess. What about my decade plus of experience I counter? Pah, he spits back, all negated by the half decade of brain and soul-destroying nappy changing. And off he sends me to the scrap heap, sentenced to a lifetime of worthlessness.

How to be a Pole Dancer

Article first published on 17/09/12 on http://hereisthecity.com/2012/09/16/how-to-be-a-pole-dancer/

Times are moving swiftly. What was once deemed a socially taboo form of entertainment, indulged by the rich/ famous/ bankers, usually under the cover of darkness, is now mainstream family fun.

The family friendly local leisure centre in the leafy suburban town in which I reside has introduced pole dancing lessons to its weekly timetable. So, in the glare of day light, with sun streaming into the studio through the windows (only partially obscured by the number of curious faces sneaking a peek), the local housewives can get a fix to rival any sexual fantasy in Fifty Shades.

Mr A deems it a sad pastime for either the vain or deluded, harbouring delusions of an inner pole dancer. Just cast a thought to the majority of those exercising their vocal chords on X Factor and you’ll see his point. Having said that, the instructor is a friend of mine and focuses solely on the strengthening aspect of it as a form of exercise – hauling one’s entire body weight round a pole while contorting into various positions, legs akimbo. Forget about the simultaneously trying to look sexy part, I imagine an elephant hanging onto a lamp post might have better luck.

All that I have to go on though is a brief review gleaned from a fellow gym goer who actually partakes in the pole antics. Apparently after the initial self-consciousness wears off (I dare you to deny you weren’t at all embarrassed in your first zumba class!), it’s a superb workout and immensely fun. And then, I also discovered that she is my niece’s class teacher at a local primary school. Oh how the mums must wonder why all the dads are desperate to do their share of that school run!

Twiddling Thumbs

It’s been exactly one week since I remembered what silence sounds like. A week to the day the 2 year old officially started pre-school and the 4 year old was upgraded from pre-school to the fully fledged version. Albeit the silence is just for a precious 3 hours 3 times a week, I now appreciate that it is more than golden – it is priceless! The tapping of the keyboard actually resonates round the room – I never knew that. Thoughts can run without interruption and toilet trips can finally be taken alone.
But at the same time, their voices echo continually in my subconscious and in the stillness of their rooms resound the patter of their little feet. I think of the 4 year old, brave and bubbly (and often defiant). The 2 year old, full of love and laughter (and more often than not, selfish and possessive). And how incomprehensibly and comprehensively I miss them…
Then too soon, my brief respite is over and they are home, shrieking, arguing, wrestling, playing. Silence has taken cover away from the line of fire in a war zone. But I don’t mind too much because I know it will be back soon and there will come a day when it comes back and never leaves, when the children are grown up and gone. And I don’t want that day to ever come.
But for now it begs the question: aside from the groundhog day style drudgery of washing up, laundry, tidying, cooking and gym sessions to ward off mid-life spare tyre-dom, how best to fill that time?

The Fearless Four Year Old

Today my 4 year old will undergo her first experience of public speaking. Well, more accurately she will be presenting a ‘show and tell’ to her fellow classmates, following the prescribed guidelines, kicking off with ‘Good afternoon Reception. Today I have brought in xyz….’ And concluding with ‘Any questions or comments? Thank you for listening’.

The 4 year old has the fearlessness and confidence reserved purely for those in the cbeebies viewing age category and the corresponding uncompromised innocence that goes hand in hand. I, on the other hand, have been tarnished by the years of humiliation, rejection and interviews gone awry to be so gung ho about winging it in front of an eagerly awaiting crowd.

When I try to get her to rehearse a third trial run, she barely interrupts her portrait of me (scarily accurate bar the Mr Happy sized smile, distinctly more like a grimace in reality), to assure me that won’t be necessary and that she is fine. Internally, I am screaming ‘But you haven’t even got any prompt cards! Except they’d be as useful as a chocolate teapot given you can’t even yet read!’.

Yes, I am clearly doing more than enough fretting for the both of us.

Reported missing: the will to live

I have officially lost the will to live. Well, perhaps not quite so dramatic but certainly the will to feign a jovial maternal façade.

Mr A sauntered off to a weekend of blokes-only, family-free bliss in Ibiza in the wee small hours of Friday morning. I say bliss but only out of a firm desire not to think of the probable debauchery involved in a stag weekend. This being the last stag of the group to walk up the aisle as well as their collective hurtling towards the tail end of their thirties, I suspect this was treated like a mission on a par with the final frontier.

In the sixty or so hours since his departure (not that I’ve been counting) the endless tantrums, wee on the floor (from the toilet-trained three year old; not the nappy-wearing one year old), screaming and bickering have felt like a tortuous, relentless battle of World War proportions that I was never equipped to even entertain the notion of possibly winning.

The worst aspect of the weekend so far is the realisation that, when pushed, it appears I’m actually capable of snapping. And when snapped it appears I become possessed by none other than my own mother. Short of her trademark smacking that effectively deterred any repeat offense (this being the ’80s social services wouldn’t have batted an eyelid), I am ashamed to admit I raised my voice (and I mean more than just a few decibels) and, when that failed to elicit the desired response, I sent the red-faced, tantruming three year old, who was giving Damien from The Omen a run for his money, to her room and shut the door.

When she eventually stopped kicking the door and calmed down (luckily before the neighbours dialled 999) I realised, rather miserably, that she wasn’t the only one who had let the side down. The difference being I should know better. I’m sorry for getting angry, for shouting and being a terrible mother…