Given that this is primarily a style blog, I was amazed by the interest and debate that my work life balance posts provoked. There are obviously so many of us in one of two positions – struggling to maintain a career and the needs of a family or struggling to find our sense of purpose as an educated stay at home mum. I’ve been really touched by the many stories that you’ve shared with me either privately or publicly over the last few months. You have given me strength and also insight into the status quo of women like us in the Western world. We know we’re incredibly fortunate but still we’re all searching for that thing called fulfilment. Project Happier was a big factor for me and now that I have acted on my big decision to leave my midlife career behind, I thought it was time to conclude the thought process in the hope that it will be helpful for both you and me. This is going to be one of those long posts where you need to make a cup – or even a pot – of tea before we begin.
Midlife career background for new readers
A quick recap for the many new readers that I’ve welcomed to Midlifechic over the last few weeks. Like many of us here, I did the usual journey after graduating from university with a languages degree in the late 80s. I migrated to a big city (London) and jumped on the fast track starting in publishing at Haymarket Magazines, moving to the BBC and then to Selfridges where over 9 years I worked my way up to being a head of marketing. It was every bit as glittering and glamorous as you would expect, I even found my husband there. But then there came the point where we started a family; childcare cost more than our mortgage but we managed…until baby number 2 came along. At this point we re-evaluated the cost, the stress, the ‘busyness’ and the fact that we were both displaced Northerners living in the South. We knew that no other job would ever match Selfridges so we set up our own creative and marketing consultancy and then moved our family (which now included baby number 3) North. Essentially we decided to choose freedom over security. It sounds idyllic and it often is…but then again it often isn’t. Consultancy work is a life of highs and lows, you travel from the feasts of big contracts to the famines of none.
Like all rollercoaster rides, sometimes you need to get off to catch your breath which is what I decided to do. Last year our youngest son had started secondary school and our eldest was moving on to university. The nagging voice that was always whispering away in my head started to get louder “you should be doing more” “you have a duty to fulfil the promise of your education” “you ought to do one last big thing”
At the same time an opportunity arose at a thriving fragrance company – they needed someone with experience to help them build a brand. I wasn’t blind to the downsides – a long rural commute of at least an hour each way, long hours, minimal holidays, getting back onto the hamster wheel of being an employed mum. Set against this was the opportunity to use my skills, to make a difference to my local area, to get back onto the horse and gallop hard. I decided I had to give it my best shot and started to work for them as Head of Creative and Marketing for 4 days a week.
What was it like jumping back into a midlife career?
(I seem to be using a lot of Wild West metaphors for some reason but bear with me)
It was exhilarating to start with, I’ve always loved fragrance and when I was tested I discovered I have a good nose which gave me an opportunity to explore a whole new field. It was exciting to work in manufacturing, there’s something special about building a brand around products that you are actually creating. I achieved a lot very quickly which reminded me of how good I am at what I do and my presentations helped to win some massive and prestigious new contracts to manufacture on behalf of some of the world’s leading luxury brands. I had the satisfaction of knowing that the company couldn’t have achieved what it did without me and that was really empowering.
Daily details like the commute gradually took their toll. One hour each way often became two in the summer tourist season and the bad winter weather. I was worn down by the wasted time. I felt that I was constantly failing as a mum. The big things like missed parents’ evenings and sports matches were compounded by the fact that my sons became resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be there. I hated having to walk out of the door when they were sick and feeling vulnerable, businesses have no idea what a high price that is for a mother. Then there were the small things like being too busy to replace ripped trousers and seeing them having to wear them again on a Monday morning or forgetting to return school forms and payments and missing assignment deadlines. Not cooking – they would ask me to make a favourite and I didn’t have time or ingredients – I find boys especially link food with love and nourishment. So it went on.
By August it was clear that things weren’t working so I resigned but the company persuaded me to reduce my commitment to 3 days a week. The rookie error here (and I know lots of you warned me) was not ensuring that my role reduced accordingly. The Senior Team was unusually 90% female but they were women in their 50s who didn’t have children and lived locally – it was hard for them to have an affinity with the load that I was carrying. Being Head of Creative and Marketing is a big role, I had a team of young creatives to manage in addition to driving the business strategically. As you can imagine, my new hours meant that as I started to get on top things at home, the balance shifted and work started to spin out of control.
Throughout the Autumn I had ongoing conversations with the business telling them that I felt my role needed to be adjusted. Nothing changed – in fact because the new marketing was working so well, endless opportunities were coming in for my already overstretched team to create and develop. I found myself working flat out doing countless extra hours just so that we could keep up but instead of being thanked, I was starting to be criticised for the things that were starting to go wrong.
It was at this point that the grown up woman in me took a stand. I think the critical advantage you gain from raising a family is that you learn at the sharp end how to truly get the best out of people. Being in a management position is the same as being a parent, you have the choice of two approaches. The modern approach is to “lead” which involves taking the thoughtful path, considering the merits of each person and encouraging them whilst supporting them where needed. If you work with someone like this my experience tells me that everyone wins.
The old fashioned way is to “manage” by constantly demanding more, better, faster results regardless of circumstance and reacting by shouting and sulking when you don’t get it. The fact is that women who are also mothers have usually learned by experience that traditional autocratic hierarchies don’t work. You get the best out of people by working together with them, inspiring them to leave egos aside and collaborate – which is what midlife women do so well.
In the end I had 2 options – to break or to walk away. I was lucky to have the choice, there are so many working mothers who don’t. They are midlife women brimming with wisdom, experience and an innate understanding of how to get the best out of people. They work fast and hard in the time that they have but in order to live a fulfilled life that time needs to be respected and the workplace needs to change.
Enlightened companies recognise this and harness the power and creativity of midlife women whilst enabling them to set their own boundaries. Interestingly I recently went to a talk by one of the directors of Lakeland. They embrace working mothers and manage by trust. So, if the employee needs time for a sports day or a sick child they don’t have to book annual leave or fill in forms. They simply arrange with their colleagues to work round it by sharing tasks or swapping hours. The company trusts them to work as a team and pull their own individual weight whilst respecting their priorities at the same time. That’s how you build a powerful, invested workforce.
So – how do I feel now?
Well the dust is still settling. I feel annoyed because they withheld the bonus that I’d earned for 2015 – they were contractually within their rights to do so and I knew they might but I’d reached a point of such unhappiness that it was worth it. I also feel disappointed. Even though logic tells me it isn’t true, a niggling feminist voice keeps telling me I’ve failed by not managing to ‘do it all’. I’m also disappointed that the company sees it this way too – they haven’t learned anything which means I haven’t helped my colleagues although interestingly, a number of them have now also resigned. My final disappointment lies with the stunted progress of the 21st century for midlife women in the workplace. There is such a shameful waste of valuable, educated, skilled resource because business refuses to work flexibly despite the advances in technology that mean we can work from anywhere at any time.
To get away from the feeling that I’m a disappointment to all of the women who fought so hard for our right to work, I’m going to keep on doing my bit by raising the voices of all women ‘who are getting their groove back’ on this blog. I’m determined to heighten the profile of midlife women. The starting point will always be style because that is where we gain our surface confidence whatever we decide to do with our lives. However I’m going to keep on raising other issues that affect us. Now that I have all of you along with my new gang of over 40 blogger friends, I think we’re a voice to be reckoned with. We won’t turn into invisible middle aged women: we need to change things for ourselves, for our daughters and our granddaughters.
Although I feel a bit lost at the moment and I’m worried about how I will rebuild my consultancy projects, I know I’ve done the right thing. It’s there in the detail: the youngest going to bed with a contented sigh on Sunday night saying “it’s so good knowing you’re back now Mum” …the middle one bounding in from school with a smile and chatting about the daily dramas that have unfolded with his friends…the eldest writing a note in his Mother’s Day card that added that even though he is now at uni, he still needs me like stabilisers on a bike – how they make your heart melt!
The thing about teenagers
Is that they need you more than you know. I remember coming home when I was consulting at M&S and travelling a lot. The eldest was complaining that he hated me being away, I asked him why, adding that when I was home he still spent most of his time in his room. “Yes but that’s not the point” he replied “I wish you were like a spider on the wall, just here when I need you.” And that’s the thing, one day when you’re not even looking the balance changes and they transition from being children who want you to be ‘with them’ all the time to teenagers who want you to be ‘on hand’ all the time. Unlike children you can’t schedule teenagers into slots of quality time, teens are free range. It isn’t true that they stop talking, they run on their own agenda and discuss deep and meaningful things but if you’re not there to listen, the moment will pass and you’ve missed it. I’ve missed too many of those moments over the last year.
The relief of knowing what matters most
I will always work, it’s a personal thing, I need the intellectual stimulation. However I know that the thing that matters most to me is not a midlife career, it’s my family. Mother’s Day was perfectly timed for me this year – all I ever ask my boys is that they give me their time on the day which they did generously. The sun was shining which inspired me to dress for Spring.
They made a lovely breakfast ( a definite advantage to having older children).
We went out for a long lunch in a country pub and they made me laugh lots as they always do – you can tell by our faces that Mr MC has just said something he shouldn’t!
It’s so rare for us all to be together now that I find myself insisting on a selfie every time (not that I ever get a sensible one)
They brought me cups of tea on demand all day…
…and were unusually willing to keep on taking photos for my blog so even though I wasn’t wearing anything particularly new to talk to you about, I’ve included them. It was my fifth Mother’s Day without my own mum so I switched my wedding and engagement rings over so I could wear the ones that belonged to her and my grandmother.
So that’s it, the end of my work life balance saga or maybe the beginning of a different one. Every woman has her own version of a similar story and I know we all do our very best for our children according to our circumstances. It’s very personal and whatever you choose no-one should judge you, not even you yourself. I’ve taken the leap and I’m freefalling into a new life. It’s sad to know I will probably never again have an impressive job title that makes people take notice but I’m taking Coco Chanel’s advice:
“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something…but to be someone”
If you’d like to see the journey unfold over the last year, here are the posts discussing work life balance from the beginning
I must finish by saying thank you again to you all for your support as I’ve been discussing work life balance. You’ve taken the time to share your thoughts and wisdom with me and you’ve kept cheering me on, it’s given me so much strength. Do stay with me to share in this next stage and keep in touch, I love hearing about your experiences and you have no idea how much I appreciate every single comment.