Motherhood does funny things to a woman’s professional life.
It sucked me right out of a steadfast vertical career track. Through some inexplicable, instinctive, split-second decision made when that faint pink cross showed up on my pregnancy test, I knew I would be dropping out of the full-time, on-site workforce in favor of motherhood. At least temporarily. So started the juggling act of part-time work and child care. Now a freelance writer, I am marginally employed with zero benefits and no guarantee of getting paid, at least not regularly, a circumstance I assumed I would eventually replace with a more seamless and fuller professional life in my 50s and 60s. Now I’m not so sure.
Here’s why: Recently I witnessed three female acquaintances, each approaching the empty nest phase of life, lose their jobs. These professional women had played—excelled at, even—the part of supermom for so many years, fulfilling work responsibilities, meeting the needs of children, spearheading school volunteer activities with equal aplomb. They fully expected to remain employed for several more years before gracefully retiring—on their own terms.
Then, abruptly, they were let go. Laid off. Shown the door. Their kids didn’t need them the way they once did either; most were in college or out on their own. Now what? And why?
Fifty-year-old Baltimore resident Meredith Bower isn’t sure she’ll ever know. In 2009, just as her second of four children was heading off to college, she was unexpectedly let go of her job as the communications director at a local private girls’ high school.
“There was no explanation, no logic. I’m still baffled,” Bower says.
Since she was never given a reason for being let go, Bower can’t claim age discrimination outright, but her replacement is almost 30 years her junior.
“It felt like a slap in the face that they perceived I could be replaced with someone fresh out of college,” Bower says.
Towson resident Dianne McCann, who turned 50 this year, experienced a similar scenario. After spending almost 12 years as the editor of a local parenting magazine, she was let go earlier this year. Her replacement? The publisher’s 20-something son.
There’s also 50-something Vivienne Stearns-Elliott, who a few months ago was let go of her job as spokesperson for St. Joseph Medical Center and is back on the job market. She says she hasn’t experienced blatant age discrimination but is acutely aware that she’s in direct competition with much younger job candidates who use digital communication skills practically in their sleep and are perceived differently by employers.
“I think the appeal of a younger work force is the sense that they are more energetic, fresh,” Stearns-Elliott says. “Plus, they’ll be satisfied with a more mid-range salary level.”
Statistics support her hunch. One recent large-scale study conducted by a Texas A&M economics professor found that job candidates ages 35 to 45 were 40 percent more likely to land a job interview than candidates with more experience who were 50-plus. A British-based study by isme.com resulted in similar findings. Of 1,246 women over age 50 who were surveyed, 77 percent believed they’d been denied a promotion based on age; over half felt their careers had peaked.
For the aging out-of-work supermoms I know, it’s too soon to tell how the remainder of their professional lives will play out. But the irony of their current situation isn’t lost on them.
“I was the woman who worked full-time all the time, looked enviously at the moms sipping their coffee at the bus stop. I was always rushing, going at an adrenaline-filled pace,” Stearns-Elliott says. Now, with her son in college, her daughter in graduate school and planning to move out soon, and her husband still working full-time, Stearns-Elliott is contemplating how she’ll fill the next chapter of her life.
So are the other 50-something moms. McCann would like to get into travel writing after covering parenting issues for so many years. Taking care of sorely needed house repairs and gardening more also are on her list.
Stearns-Elliott has a book in her head. Plus, she finally has more time to exercise—something she wished she’d done more of when she was stuck behind a desk all day.
Bower is happy to be able to help out her aging mother, and she has hatched a business plan with a friend, making photo books for folks who are too busy or don’t know how to do it themselves. However their professional lives shake out, it’s fairly certain that these women won’t be couch-bound. It’s just not in their DNA.
“Life is full of opportunities for people to reinvent their lives,” Stearns-Elliott says wistfully.