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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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 Intrepid Explorer

Golden Boy has started cruising. If this conjures up images of him cruising with his homies in an approximation of a scene from ‘Pimp My Ride’, I assure you it is nothing remotely like that. Rather, he is making his first tentative steps at navigating his way across any room using the furniture to forge a route and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

I am thrilled at his newfound foray into the realm of independence; not least because of the sigh of relief my back is breathing at not having to heave his almost twelve month’s of body weight around in his every waking hour. This is offset slightly by the extra hours spent hunched over retrieving toys and other paraphernalia from nooks and crannies in the house I was previously unaware existed.

Secretly and shamefully, however, I am somewhat wistful for my baby boy. As he takes each more confident step away from me, I feel increasingly redundant. Soon (well, probably not that soon given he is yet to turn one) I will be a discarded crutch with about as much remaining use as firewood.

There are days where, though I never resent my children, I resent the drudgery that now consumes my life as a result of choosing to have children. That is, until my ingratitude slaps me in the face and thoughts of the friend with two failed rounds of IVF under her belt drown me with guilt.

It strikes me that being a mother is a bit Dr Jekyll/ Mr Hyde – we can’t stand the relentless requests and being on call 24/7, tethered by the ball and chain of our children. Yet equally unbearable is the thought of becoming surplus to their requirements. It’s like the proverbial rock and hard place and I am officially stuck.

The Career Carousel

This article was first published on 13 March 2011 on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/03/13/the-career-carousel/.

I am considering a change in career. Given I am currently in extended limbo since the abrupt end of my most recent career over three years ago,  this would seem long overdue.

The 10 month old is now old enough to consider the possibility of farming out some of his pastoral care without inviting negative comments regarding my maternal negligence. I am free to find my life’s calling again; though the beckoning bray of The City’s charms are somewhat less musical now than they once sounded to my singleton status twenty odd year old ears.

Therein lies the difference. The three year fallow period aside, I remain the same individual who managed to wrestle her way through half a dozen interviews and claim my place as a bona fide broker. Minor mental deterioration owing to sleep deprivation and nursery rhyme overdose is a moot point. But I am no longer single – my ball and chain baggage is a family. And I am no longer in my twenties – raucous socialising at the expense of expense accounts no longer floats my boat.

So where does that leave an ex-banking mother of two? The principle requirement is for flexibility around nursery/school drop-offs, pickups,  holidays, sick days, dentist/ doctor visits… I am beginning to understand why Lord Sugar claims he would ‘think twice before employing a woman’. So far, the only options on this particular career carousel are teaching (I shudder at the thought of dealing simultaneously with so many children) or setting up some form of self employment where my employer (me) won’t be tempted to fire me for moonlighting as a mother.

The  last time I reached this junction in the road of considering my career options, I gave up and postponed the difficult decision by plumping for the easy option of having another baby. Unless I harbour a hidden desire to form our own family five a side team, I suggest I shift up a gear and get my backside on this carousel pronto.

Totally taboo – my CVS and me

This post was written over a year ago but i haven’t been brave enough to air it for fear of judgement or recrimination. For all those other mothers to be who are having or have had a CVS and all the associated mental baggage, you’re not alone…

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There are some phone calls one hopes never to be on the receiving end of. The one from the hospital labour ward, calling a mere two days after blood tests were taken, with the opening gambit, ‘Is this a good time to talk’ would be one of these. The results were meant to come after a minimum of two weeks and the parting words at the time were, ‘No news is good news’.

So I ask, ‘Then surely this must be very bad news?’

Time stands still, stranded on the pavement equidistant from home and the music makers playgroup we were en route to. And instead of a morning of making music, I find myself dragging an uncertain Babybel back to the hospital where she first graced the earth. Mr A is there to hold my hand and support my crumbling world – but there are some things even he cannot save.

I would not be able to cope with a down’s syndrome child. There – I have voiced the unspeakable. I am selfish and mentally weak. The precipice of sanity has been teetered too close to already. Babybel senses the seriousness of the situation – her solemn and beautiful face looking at me intently. How lucky I am to have such a perfect child. How could I burden her with a lifetime of a dependent sibling? Because after Mr A and I are gone, it is inevitably she who will be the sole provider.

The consultant is so kindly that I sense this is the beginning of the torrent of sympathy reserved for those bereft. And that feeling of grief is creeping up surreptitiously around us like garden weeds. Tomorrow we will have a CVS. Followed by the longest two weeks of our lives waiting for the results.

If we lose this baby, I know with a heavy certainty that I will not have another. Because I will not want another. Nor shall I deserve another.

The Egypt Trade: long protesters, short tourists

This article was written on 14/02/11 but put on hold for publication on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/02/27/the-egypt-trade-long-protesters-short-tourists/ on 27/02/11.

Like a reverse commute while the rest of civilised (sane) society was conducting a mass exodus last week, we were making a beeline for the country currently most touted on the news for its chaos.

On checking in at The Four Seasons in Sharm el Sheikh, we were greeted by a prominently placed portrait of Mubarak in the hotel lobby. Barely a week later at checkout, it had been discretely removed and the wall seamlessly painted over without a trace. Notwithstanding the fact of his having allegedly retreated, since his newly unemployed status, from Cairo to his holiday retreat down the road in this very Red Sea resort.

It wasn’t a decision lightly taken to embark on this long-planned trip to a country now mobbed with civil unrest. Indeed it was with much trepidation and foolhardy trust in the foreign office advice (as well as BA’s resolute refusal to offer even a partial refund) that we set off rather reluctantly at the height of the protests.

In a sense of foreboding, Gatwick was eerily empty (we were the penultimate flight of the day) with a post armageddon atmosphere. We made it from taxi door, through departure gates, security and check-in in under 15 minutes and, no, we weren’t ushered through priority check-in. Note also we were walking at funereal pace to cater to the speed of the lowest common denominator of our party: a toddler towing a Trunki.

On boarding, it transpired that bar a portly man and his equally portly other half, we were the only travellers in our cabin. Like an empty restaurant, this has to ring alarm bells. On the positive side, we had limited audience for extending apologies after hours of crying from the overtired 9 month old.

Five bleary-eyed hours of pacing the aisles with the fretful 9 month old; the 2 year old sleeping like a seasoned pro-traveller replete with eye mask, we touched down in the country that felt as familiar as our own given the compulsive viewing of everything Egypt related on the BBC news over the past week. With the exception that all was quiet and calm. Bar the local cab drivers squabbling over the fresh batch of tourists, there wasn’t a riot in sight.

Echoing the capacity of the flight, the resort was equally as sparsely occupied. For the large part the pool was a private affair and it was with much indignant harumphing if on the odd occasion we had to share it with anyone else. The breakfast buffet was a bursting banquet enough to feed the biblical five thousand but in reality only needed to feed about fifty.

The Egyptian people were warm, welcoming and gracious. Service was affable, efficient and the epitome of the term ‘family friendly’. Our room was equipped with nappies, wipes, cot, baby bath, toddler step stool, bottle steriliser, bottles, bottle warmer, an array of baby toiletries, jars of baby food as well as a microwave to warm them up in. The suite even came complete with washing machine, tumble dryer and dishwasher but there is a line to be drawn at full-on domestic drudgery while on holiday.

There was also a kids club where the 2 year old made pasta necklaces and a huge cardboard rocket that she insisted we bring home on a seat of its own on the plane.

At one point I gazed longingly at a Russian family who had brought along their own maid to deal with their toddler. Now, if the hotel could provide one of those then I would most definitely make a return visit regardless of any revolution. At dinner one evening I did attempt to palm off the 9 month old onto the willing Maitre D but, unlike the 2 year old who worryingly accepts M&Ms from strangers, the 9 month old just clung to me limpet-like glowering. It seems he too has learnt the power of protestation.

Sleeping with the Elephant

This article was first published on 1 Feb 2011 on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/02/01/sleeping-with-the-elephant/

Some use alcohol as an emotional crutch; others use food; and more still use religion. As for my son, his crutch comes in the form of a decapitated elephant head attached to a scrap of, admittedly very tactile, blue fabric.

More specifically, the ears of said elephant – he cannot enter the land of nod without having one clamped firmly in the gummy grip of his mouth.

An unsuspecting newborn gift from the far-flung reaches of across the pond has unwittingly become the dreaded ‘lovie’ (Baby Whisperer lingo) a.k.a. comforter/ blankie/ security blanket. It appears my 8 month old is Linus reincarnate.

The problem is that half a dozen months of sucking on said elephant’s ears has left it looking rather lacklustre and fearing the day he awakes to Dumbo with downright disintegrated ears, the quest began for some sneaky substitution. Mr A recommended a bout of cold turkey but I’m yet to find a life occasion worthy of veering from the path of least resistance.

Many hours of (much interrupted) cyber surfing later, it transpires that my son has been inconsiderate enough to develop an addiction to something nigh on impossible to get his grubby hands on outside the US . Amazon (.com not .co.uk) will sell and send for the price of the GDP of a small nation with delivery anywhere up to a month. Cold turkey wouldn’t even take that long. Then, eureka, Google uncovers some obscure luxury baby goods retailer here in Blighty who actually stock them. The euphoria can only be likened to Mr Newton’s apple on head moment. No matter that the cost leaves barely enough change for a skinny latte from a fifty (GBP not JPY).

The elephants (yes, plural – shame it wasn’t 3 for 2 or BOGOF)  arrived yesterday to much whooping and smugness. Evening rolled on and a box-fresh elephant was placed in the cot while his bordering on unhygienic relation, was flung on the precariously close to a landslide of a laundry mountain. But all elephants are NOT created equal. The 8 month old cast it aside like poo from his shoe and as punishment for my efforts to deceive him, promptly engaged in a 90 minute screaming session.

So here’s hoping the course of cold turkey doesn’t last as long as that left over from the Christmas dinner. As for the exorbitantly priced elephants (ears intact), they are waiting patiently for friends (or foe) to have new babies. At which point, the cycle of desperate parents hunting down substitutes will restart (it beggars belief what parents will pay for the promise of a good night’s sleep). And as for me, I will be first in line if that company ever floats.