By corporate survivor Rachael Lubarsky.
Once upon a time in corporate America, as I was steadily rising through the ranks of the proverbial ladder, I made the unfortunate and foolhardy decision to prioritize being a full-time caretaker for my two young sons for nearly a decade, thus dooming my eventual return to the office environment as an aged, entry-level outsider, forever pondering what my career could have been, as I struggled to adapt to Slack, open office floor plans, and peers that weren’t even born when I first starting working.
Okay, that is not exactly true. Actually, it’s not even mostly true, but it’s certainly something that I turned over in my brain every time I encountered an anxiety-provoking aspect of returning to a full-time career as a copywriter after spending eight years working part-time so I could be there for school drop-offs, pick-ups, and critical class events such as “dress up like your favorite Dr. Seuss character day.”
The real truth is that my career (and life) trajectory had been anything but steady. After dropping out of college, I had the accidental good fortune to join a tech company just in time to blow up along with the dot.com bubble, where I got my first taste of the white collar corporate office. I’d call these my salad days. I had the privacy of my own cubicle, a direct landline phone extension, and a group of peers that became my closest friends every 5 p.m. when we all convened together at a local bar, baptized the “extra conference room.”
Just like the internet, I was young, wild, and lacked much security. When I clocked out, I actually stopped working for the day; there were no after-hours Slacks or last-minute early-morning meeting invites waiting in my inbox. In fact, dear reader, I didn’t own a cellphone until I was 26 years old, and even then, it was more a novel way to stay in touch with a select group of family and friends than the ever-present, essential extension of one’s arm that the smartphone has become today.
But as we all know, the dot.com bubble eventually burst, and I lost my job in a series of waves of layoffs that created an ocean of change in the tech industry. By this point, I was married and beginning to think about my future and what lay beyond the conference room meetings and corporate jargon. It took me a few more years to actually make it happen, but I made the deliberate choice to step away from whatever career path I was on and focus on being a mom.
And let me make this clear: I do not regret doing it. Being a mother to my two boys and one stepson has been (and remains) the most important facet of my multifaceted identity and having the option to choose part-time work for eight years is a privilege that I don’t take for granted.
But being a mom is not my ONLY facet. That’s why I returned to get my bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a toddler under my arm and a second baby on the way. And as my boys got to the age when they were less on my hip and more on their laptops, I decided to dust off my old resume and portfolio (which I kept hard-copy style in a loose leaf binder) and looked forward to rediscovering a dimension of my previous life writing copy and content for B2B and B2C companies that I suddenly once again longed for through the rosy-eyed glasses of hazy memories. Bring on the cubes and casual Fridays! Spreadsheets, office gossip, and happy hours, here I come!
Of course it was not that simple. For me or any of the other thousands of moms who reenter the workforce after a significant amount of time off. Even though 71% of mothers with children at home are working, hiring managers are less likely to hire mothers than women without children. A woman who identifies as a “returner” may face difficulties like explaining huge holes in her resume, trying to translate “mom” skills into “real” skills, and just feeling the stigma of losing her place in her career journey.
All of those challenges contributed to the doubt I felt as I rolled up my sleeves and slowly, through freelance writing opportunities, contract projects dabbling in social media and blogging, and eventually full-time positions as a bona fide COPYWRITER (with a business card that proved it), reentered the workforce.
But that wasn’t all. I also felt horribly, sadly, incredibly OLD. As a proud, card-carrying member of Generation X, I was suddenly surrounded by millennial and even Gen Z colleagues who didn’t listen to my music, understand my television show references, and could not understand the freedom of growing up without the scrutiny and influence of social media.
Did I say colleagues? I meant colleagues and MANAGERS. Currently 35% of the workforce is made up of millennials and after putting my career on pause for 10 years, I re-entered the scene amid a new generation of upwardly mobile younger (than me) people. Since returning to work full-time in 2017, nearly every manager I’ve reported to has been at least 10 years younger than me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love millennials a lot of the time. They were raised to demand respect and typically do (whether they deserve it or not). As opposed to many GenXers I know, still shrugging and shuffling their way through life, expecting the worst and thus rarely being fazed when it happens. I wish I had a fraction of the self-confidence I see in many of my millennial colleagues. And apparently they do too.
[What follows is from an actual conversation with my manager during review time…]
MM (Millennial Manager): Hey look, you do a great job and everyone enjoys working with you, but an area you need to work on is confidence.
Me: You don’t I think I believe I’m doing a good job?
MM: I don’t know, but you’re always putting yourself down in meetings and brainstorms.
Me: I am?
MM: Yeah, like using qualifiers before you share an idea or not pushing for your ideas hard enough. You just need to develop more confidence I think.
Me:…….[in my head] Or, maybe I just want to make sure I’m not shoving my ideas down everyone’s throat and allowing others in the room to be part of the collaboration. Maybe self-deprecation is part of my schtick to make sure other people don’t think I’m an asshole. Or maybe I do lack confidence because I took almost a decade off from a full-time career and have a hard enough time figuring out the online time management tool, never mind coming up with ideas for 360 brand campaigns on platforms and channels that literally did not exist the last time I was part of the workforce.
Me: [out loud] Okay, I’ll work on that.
I went from always being the youngest one in the room who never got the respect or acknowledgement she deserved to being the oldest one in the room complaining about not getting enough respect or acknowledgement. And nothing makes you feel older than having to bow out of happy hour after your two drink minimum because you’re trying to avoid the inevitable hangover you now get just from looking at a bottle of tequila.
Technology had changed, workplace dynamics had changed, office layouts had changed, I had changed – and I began to worry if I had tried to climb back into a previous chapter of my life through a window that was closing on me even as I struggled to squeeze through. I wish I could tell you that eventually I figured out the secret of success and finally landed the perfect position, but then I’d be a character in one of those career movies from the ‘80’s like Working Girl or 9 to 5 or some other Michael J. Fox vehicle that no one I work with has ever heard of.
By now, I’ve been back to full-time work for more years than the entirety of some Gen Z colleagues’ resumes. Yes, I’m still getting older. But so is everyone else. If you’re a woman thinking about jumping back into the rat race after a considerable time off, here are a few friendly tips from an old rat:
- Mom Skills DO Translate
After years of primarily being known as “Mommy” it can be hard to remember the days when your title was “Director” or “Senior Manager.” But nothing requires more organization, negotiation, and confrontation than being a mom. Instead of taking a break from work, think about your time momming it as working your ass off honing skills that are remarkably similar to managing a team at work.
2. Imposter Syndrome is Real…for Everyone
You will definitely have doubts about picking the reins back up after taking a multi-year break. “Do I have the right skill set?” “Am I competent to do this job?” “What if someone on my team thinks I suck?” These are all completely likely anxieties that go through the head….of anyone, regardless of age, work history, or experience level. We are all faking it until we make it. Even if we never actually make it.
3. You are Not Old, You’re Mature
I have a self-deprecating personality and referring to myself as old or irrelevant in the office was something I thought was pretty funny, until someone pointed out how it really hindered rather than helped. Unless you’re constantly making it an issue, no one is really going to care. And with age comes a sense of responsibility and maturity that will be appreciated by your manager…even if she’s like 26 or something. (Similarly, not every young person is a “whippersnapper.”)
4. The Work Environment is Actually Better Than It Was
Between the pandemic prompting a much needed discussion on work-life balance, and sweeping changes to foster more diversity and inclusion in the workplace, toxic work cultures and traditional boys’ club boardrooms are slowly starting to fade away. My boss just took the first two months of his four month paternity leave. Wow. I think I was offered 12 hours of unpaid leave with my first son. (I’m exaggerating. A little.)
5. Remember Why You Left in the First Place
At this point, I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never be the CEO. But, honestly that was never what I wanted anyway. It’s sometimes a struggle to not be in charge in the office the way I am at home with my kids, but being with my kids is the priority. It always has been. That doesn’t make me any less competent or important than the CEO. And this sounds cliche, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be on my deathbed regretting not being the CEO. (VP of Marketing, MAYBE…)
Dear reader, it’s still hard. But successfully re-entering corporate America has shown me that I really can do anything I set my mind to. At some point, I can choose to close this chapter and start a new one. Or maybe take another break from full-time work and focus on freelance, or start something on my own. By the time I return to the workforce again, maybe there’ll be a new generation of kids in charge.
I just hope cubes come back because I really miss them.
Rachael Lubarsky is a marketing and editorial writer who spends her days crafting B2B and B2C copy and her nights pondering the value of crafting B2B and B2C copy. She’s also written personal essays on parenting, relationships, and living life at the midpoint, published across award-winning sites including Scary Mommy, The New York Times Parenting, and others. She’s a mom to 2 teen sons and 1 young adult stepson which involves way more conversations about Marvel and anime than she ever thought parenting would require.