Can you be too old to be ambitious?

Do our career ambitions have a ‘use-by’ date? After a lengthy break from full-time work, Deborah Hill Cone ponders her worth.

In your 40s you have to come to terms with things. Like: I’m never going to be a rhythmic gymnast. Or Courtney Love. That’s okay.
Life: one long process of telling yourself you’re happy with a Paddle Pop when you asked for a Trumpet.
“You get what you get,” my daughter reminded me.What I didn’t think I would have to accept was this: I have mislaid my career. I once wore heels and pearls to work. Sheesh, not just that, with a suit! I was a media executive, not a pole dancer. Yes, a suit! It was the 90s. A power suit, even.
I used to walk into the office and get handed a stack of pastel-coloured message slips by the receptionist. I sat in boring meetings. I got a good salary. I had a mortgage on a house in an upmarket Auckland suburb.
I took a year’s maternity leave when I had my first child. She is now 12. I never went back. Oh, I wish I could say I was one of those stay-at-home mothers who makes an entire new career of curating a life like a Pinterest board, but no. The couch had drifts of dog hair and I never belonged to a coffee group.
I still worked freelance; trying to meet deadlines while breast-feeding, doing phone interviews while the kids yelled in the background. But this was not the kind of work where you get a carpark and business cards and people want to talk to ask your opinion about politics at dinner parties. And after a while, like the frog in the lukewarm water, or the elephant attached to the twig – I forgot what having a ‘proper’ career felt like.
My mother was a feminist. I am a feminist. She was more interested in me reading Gloria Steinem than cleaning the grouting with a toothbrush or alphabeticising my larder. So what happened to being a careerwoman? I sometimes wonder how I ended up this way.
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It wasn’t just one thing or one moment. It was lots of things.
After having a baby, other women seemed to be able to put their corporate armour back on and plunge back into it, but I couldn’t. I suffered from the kind of postnatal depression where I lost myself, for a long time. And when I was better it just seemed to make sense for me to work from home. My husband was away overseas for work. Then we were divorced. My ex-husband was generous, so I carried on as I was.
Some children are robust and rosy-cheeked with any kind of arrangement, but ours needed special attention. I chose to take our son out of kindy because he didn’t talk and pushed a Thomas the Tank Engine train an inch backwards and forwards for the whole day. Well, there was always something.
Maybe I’m just making excuses. I’m not unaware I could be deluding myself. Whatever, I didn’t lean in. And before I knew it the world of money and status and full-time work felt like another country. I’d once lived there, but now it was as exotic as Cuba, thought of wistfully.
At cocktail parties people did that swivel-eyed thing where they scan for someone more important to talk to. I might have lost a career. But sometimes, I felt like I had lost myself too.
Lately, with my stroppiness levels rising, I sometimes think ‘stuff it, I might like that part of myself back’.
Hollow laugh. Nice idea, hey? How does a menopausal mother who’s been a kitchen table freelancer for 12 years get back into the workforce, when the whole world has changed? My industry seems to have practically disappeared and I feel about as up-to-date as a dial-up modem. I would be the woman who on her first day back telephoned her husband during her lunch break and said, “Why didn’t you tell me there aren’t any secretaries anymore?”
I suppose I’m not the only one. About 90 per cent of women who left their jobs – ‘off-ramped’ in the jargon – want to reboot their careers – ‘on-ramp’ – at some point later, according to a major study. Many felt “a renewed desire for professional engagement.” Good luck with that. I hate these sayings. ‘Mommy track’. Ugh.
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When I suggested writing this column, I thought I could research and find some helpful ideas for getting back into your career. Like I could be helpful. Guffaw.
Here’s a typical comment. A former stay-at-home mother, who has an MBA, said: “In this economy, a recruiter and a hiring manager don’t really need to look at a résumé with a gap in it,” she said.
Another one said: “In my profession, you don’t ‘go back to work after a long gap’. You stay in work and suck it up for a couple of years that you may be working to cover childcare fees and travel. But you retain your job and your status (and earning potential in case your husband f---s off with his secretary).”
Carol Fishman Cohen, in an essay for the Harvard Business Review called ‘The 40-Year Intern’, said Wall Street banks were introducing ‘returnships’, like an internship for returning mothers. And that sounded fine if you were, you know, a Rhodes Scholar or something.
A site called Après, ‘The LinkedIn for Women Who Have Taken a Career Break’, offered up advice about using personal branding to get back in the game and how you were supposed to have an authentic ‘topline theme’ about who you were and share it consistently every day across Twitter. I’m terrified of Twitter.
It made me want to go scuttling back to my kitchen. But I think I learned something useful in my research. I was going about it all wrong. I wasn’t going to find the validation out there, the hurly-burly of the marketplace where people talk seriously about ‘networking’ and ‘teaming’ without making a gagging gesture. There was something holding me back but it isn’t the lack of actual opportunities out there in the real world.
Maybe what’s holding me back is my own limiting beliefs and the unhelpful stories I tell myself. If I convince myself I’m not of much worth, then why should anyone else think I am?
My mother went to law school and got a law degree and a masters of law aged 67. I’m still her daughter and still a feminist. Who says I couldn’t be the world’s oldest rhythmic gymnast? And Courtney Love still seems to be going strong.
Maybe you don’t have to settle for getting what you get, but if you want a Trumpet it’s up to you.
Journalist and NEXT columnist, Deborah Hill Cone.