Dr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. Here, she counsels a well-educated, once-successful professional who is deeply discouraged by the bleakness of her job prospects at age 53.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am 53 years old and find myself stuck in a transition with no visible next steps. I worked until I was 35 as a bond analyst at a major bank, with the requisite MBA from an Ivy program, and was on my way to the expected promotions and increase in titles and pay when I became pregnant with my second child. I loved my work and was really good at it, but my 2-year-old child was becoming difficult and my husband became difficult, and there seemed no way out but to quit work and manage the home and family. My youngest child is now 18 and off to college in the fall. Both children and the marriage have turned out well. I don’t regret taking the “Mommy Track,” as it is called now, but I am desperate to return to work.
I called some friends who are headhunters and they were kind enough to look at my résumé and give me advice, but I got no callbacks for interviews. I found a professional résumé writer who has helped me turn my 18 years of non-salaried jobs into accurate descriptions of management. I am on several nonprofit boards, and have been the chair of two of these during this time. I network like crazy, but it is going nowhere. I am stuck. My husband is in the world that I left and he tells me that I have to be crazy to want his stress and long hours. But, I loved the self who was respected for what she did in the world outside the home and neighborhood. I must admit that I am becoming depressed about this situation. I usually can find a solution for everything but returning to work at 53 in the only world I knew, finance, seems to be impossible. What do women like me do when they try to return to work?
Re-entering the workforce after a long hiatus—in your case, 18 years—is a daunting, but not impossible, challenge. However, you are unlikely to be able enter at the level at which you left. Imagine the working world as a moving walkway—one can’t step off and step on and expect to be at the same place.
If you want to work in finance, you’ll probably have to adjust your expectations downward, at least at first. This can be hard to swallow, which is why people returning to the workforce sometimes find it easier to make the transition by working in a different field. Women often discover that they can use their skills from their previous work experience, as well as the ones that they’ve picked up on the Mommy Track (which, as we all know, can be considerable), and apply them in new areas.
You have already taken many of the first steps (prepared your résumé, met with headhunters, advisers, etc). In addition, you have had the benefit of having “work experience” while your children were growing up, and in fact, some of these were leadership positions. What may help open up the next step is figuring out your personal goals—what you want to get from working.
For example, you write of “missing” the person you were when you were in the working world.
What do you miss about her? Assuming that some of the positions you’ve held in the volunteer world have afforded you a sense of both competence and power, was the salary the missing ingredient? Did others not take you seriously without it, or was it you? Did you like your job in finance because of the people, the pace, or the power? Can you identify what aspects might be transferable to another profession or a transitional job? Among these general benefits that going back to work offers, which of these is (are) important to you:
- Financial remuneration (security, responsibility)
- Intellectual challenge (stimulation)
- Interaction and affiliation with colleagues (emotional gratification, personal support)
- Travel, exploration, and investigation (curiosity/excitement)
- Responsibility, leadership, mastery (ego strength, personal growth)
Many people will tell you that they work because they have to, never realizing the many gifts that work brings and the many ways a job can enrich our lives. In fact, psychologists have long thought that human beings thrive when they are able to exercise their innate skills and experience a sense of competence and mastery.
Finding the right profession can take a while, but what’s right can also change over the years. You may find that though you enjoyed working in finance before, a lot may have changed and (both of) you are different. Since you are feeling stuck, the main thing is to try something, even if it is out of your comfort zone. Yeats wrote that “Happiness is . . . simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” I would advise that you jump in and do something as soon as you can. It will make you feel you are on the road to somewhere—which, in fact, you will be.