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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“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.

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?

I had a dream… I was tattooed to the hilt

This article was first published on 6 April 2011 on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/04/06/my-new-tattoos/

More specifically, I was sporting the ‘sleeve’ tattoo equivalent on both my legs (technically could they be referred to as ‘trouser leg’ tattoos?).

There is no doubt that this dream is entirely induced by the continual and compulsive viewing of ‘Prison Break’ that I have recently undertaken. For those unfamiliar, it is a drama series featuring the dreamy Wentworth Miller (Mensa-level intelligence coupled with Adonis looks – what’s not to like?) and charts his attempts at, as the title suggests, breaking out of prison. His secret weapon is the prison building blueprint he has tattooed across his entire upper body, like a long sleeved T-shirt.

I have no idea what guise the tattoos covering my legs came in as the shock of indelibly branding myself in such an un-middle class way woke me up instantly in a cold sweat.

I have nothing against tattoos per se; nor against the people sporting them. In the manner of sartorial freedom of choice it is no skin off my nose whether my neighbour has a daily dress code of leopard print or twinset and pearls. My aversion to tattoos is on a more personal level – I have never and would never consider one for myself. The permanence is too unsettling. How can one guarantee that the Chinese/ Sanskrit/ Arabic characters interspersed with some tribal art, that was deemed so universally cool in our university backpacking days, might not date in the manner of ’80s shoulder pads?

Some women are addicted to body art the way most of their peers can’t resist the latest ‘it’ bag. For most though, one tattoo usually suffices to sate the rebellious streak. It will serve as a reminder of that point in their life like a scar, whether a moment of drunken impulse or a sentimental dedication to some long lost love, whose name is now probably anathema.

At the height of the tattooing popularity sweeping through my contemporaries, most victims fell into one of two camps: the emblem (rose, dolphin, lizard, dragon, flower etc etc) on the lower back, versus the Chinese characters, most memorably ‘girl power’ (the Spice Girls have a lot to answer for) on the upper arm. Even Samantha Cameron it appears wasn’t immune and bears her dolphin as a relic of her youth, albeit tactfully discrete below her ankle.

As for me, a henna version was more than adequate to quench my tats thirst. Even then I couldn’t quite decide whether it looked boho chic or simply chav-tastic and was more than happy for it to fade to oblivion. Perhaps I am more prone to ambivalence than most and indeed there could be a whole host of grannies out there still enamoured by their body art, no matter how distorted by gravity’s pull on sagging skin. I wholeheartedly salute them.

As for everyone else, unless you have a supremely strong reason for it (for instance, as a means for breaking out of prison), the temporary tattoo might prove a filling taster.

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.