Angela — The Returner
I started working less than a week after I graduated. All bright eyed, bushy tailed and raring to go. It was around the time of ‘the new dawn’ after Labour had been elected in the summer of ’97. I felt like I was going to conquer the marketing world — an endearingly beautiful but very naïve outlook on my part!
I went to Strathclyde University Business School and my first job was a graduate marketing position at ScottishPower in their Technology Marketing department. Hardly glamorous, but I realised I was at least, on the very bottom rung of the right ladder.
In all I worked 9 years full time and after the birth of my second child, I returned to work for a few months but my husband’s career was really starting to take off, involving lots of international travel, whilst my career was definitely starting to plateau.
Although I was then only working three days a week, it was very full on with two children under the age of three. I also just felt incredibly guilty about leaving my children in daycare. By the time I’d paid the London nursery fees, I was barely breaking even, if at all. It seemed to make sense for me to stop working even though it was never my intention to become a full-time mum — it just crept up on me, practically and emotionally and then sure enough, baby number 3 came along, just to really cement my SAHM status!
Then nearly 4 years off work followed. I enjoyed some aspects of it, make no bones about it, motherhood is the most rewarding and humbling experience that I could possibly have and I was extremely lucky that I could choose not to work but the early years are extremely demanding.
I’d moved to a new area, my four closest friends were (and still are) in Scotland and I couldn’t find anyone of my age to really connect with. With young children and a travelling husband, it was lonely for sure. However, when my son started reception I met some really nice mums and then things gradually got easier and perkier.
I returned to work because our family had a tough year in 2011. We had a couple of serious illnesses, followed by a death, a job loss, a house move and another potential move abroad. During this time my husband was working overseas intermittently. I was trying to manage it all in the middle, keeping going. I’d always thought that I was invincible really, but it got to the point that I’d nothing left in the tank for me. It made me take stock and realise I was not looking after my own well-being enough. I knew that once I was stronger, I needed to get back to work to redress the balance in our family life.
I’d already had nine years experience and I was re-entering the same field in the same role (strategist) so I didn’t have to retrain to get a job back in my chosen field.
The hardest thing going back was that I had to return full time from day one with no flexibility in my hours and be willing to work long days and weekends on pitches. I remember a recruiter saying to me that because they were going to have to ‘really sell me in’ I had to show that I was serious about this with no other compromises. The thought of going from being with my kids all the time to hardly being there at all was nerve wracking. This was five years ago however and in this time I’ve seen the job market in advertising become more flexible, more cottage-like, much more short-term, so I reckon this may be less of an issue now.
At the beginning my confidence was rock bottom and there were some days that were not pretty at all! The first project / contract was tough and I felt very exposed, as if I was walking around with ‘returning mum’ on my forehead. At that time (2012) there was a movement in the States about ‘returning mothers’ but it was still relatively small involving only the big banks and there was only one book about the subject on Amazon!
After six months I was back on a clear track, but as a freelancer, I had to push myself on and make things happen so it required a great deal of self-determination. In the five years since I’ve returned, I’ve gone from Senior Strategist to Head of Strategy running my own department at a top London advertising agency.
Recently, I’ve been working as a Strategy Consultant so as to have a better work/life balance. It’s working well and I’m happy so that’s my most important barometer of success.
So what’s my advice to any women returners?
The truth is everyone really lacks confidence in some way, be it emotionally or practically, male and female, every race and ethnicity.
As a mother you develop a multitude of valuable ‘soft skills’; empathy, fear, patience, humility, tenacity, stress. It’s all there. There are so many facets to working life now that the soft skills are just as important as the hard skills, especially the more senior you become. Believe in yourself and if you want it badly enough, it will happen for you.
What my advice to Would Be Employers of Career Returners?
My career has definitely been more of a patchwork quilt rather than a vertical progression path. Vertical career progression is something only the few and far between women has had, so stop expecting it on CV’s — it’s pretty unrealistic and unfair.