How Women Work – Don’t Doubt Your Return

blue kirsty

I’m part of a panel on Wednesday afternoon at the annual How Women Work conference. Our topic is sustaining success and sanity, asking the question if an entrepreneur can lead a balanced life.

At a networking event last night I listened as the founder of HWW spoke of her arrival in Qatar and how she had initially struggled to find an organization with like-minded women. She talked of being out of the baby and toddler phase of motherhood, having left her stained t-shirts behind her, she was looking for enrichment of a different kind. I looked around the room and wondered how many women identified with the concept of stained shirt to business suit. How many after six weeks, six months, or six years, had left their homes to return to the workplace. I wondered how many felt the way I did when I returned, that I hadn’t quite pulled it off, I was the women in the workplace wearing the stained shirt.

My break from the corporate world was far longer than I had ever intended, but between G’s constant travel, my perpetual state of pregnancy, and our habit of moving every 18 months, it wasn’t until we got to Canada that heading back to the office seemed feasible. As I sat in front of the computer and applied for the position online, I reworked and reworded my explanation for my six year gap in the workforce. I stood defeated in front of my wardrobe after they’d called to ask me in for an interview. What would I wear?  My old work suits were long gone, I found a dress that I thought could work, and congratulated myself on spacing the interview perfectly between drop off and pick ups of the little travellers. G was of course, out of the country. When they rang me back for a second interview to meet with the VP I wondered if anyone would notice that I was wearing exactly the same clothes. We were strapped for cash and buying a suit seemed like a risky investment. What if I didn’t get the job?

I did.

Returning to the office taught me two things. Both need to be remembered.

The first was that time away from the workforce had completely killed my professional and a substantial amount of my personal confidence. I spent most of the Sunday before my return to work practicing driving to the office. I was sure that I’d be late, I was sure that I’d miss the entry to the car park. I was sure that something would go wrong and everyone would realize I was a fraud and didn’t belong there. Who did I think I was? Times had changed and I hadn’t changed with them. I couldn’t see that any of the skills I’d developed over the past six years could help.  Maneuvering a pram and a shopping trolley while simultaneously breastfeeding, securing three quotes for an international move, and mastering the act of getting four children to sleep on a long haul flight, didn’t show up in any of the job specifications. For six years I had been my own personal cheer squad, there were no performance reviews to let me know I was doing a great job. I had supported someone else’s career while mine sat patiently waiting. And now it was my moment of truth. And the truth was I didn’t really know if I could do it.

The second thing to learn, thankfully arrived quickly. It was that all of the information I thought I’d lost and left behind was always there. I’d just moved it to another room in the back of my mind, it was behind a door marked Professional Kirsty. Within a couple of hours of being back at my desk I found my way back to the door, it opened easily, and I reacquainted myself with my old vocabulary, my reference points, my ten years of experience in recruitment. It all came back, it was all relevant, and it was what would get me promoted within the next six months. I remembered what I loved about what I did. I rediscovered the bounce in my step that arrived after a successful sales call, the emotion of seeing the right person in the right job, the thank you cards and the giggles that came with the unexpected answer at an interview. “Sorry did you just say it was your job to impregnate the horses?”

My time at home with small children had taught me how to move quickly. In the same way that a parent can turn the gift of an hour’s sleep from a baby into dinner being cooked, the floor swept, and the inside of the car vacuumed, while still leaving ten minutes for a scroll through Facebook – I knew how to make the most of my time at the office. And when I found myself sprinting down the street to get to my car to drive in a hectic hot mess to pick up the little travellers from school, I knew I was where I was meant to be. It felt good to be doing both, it was a stretch, but it felt good.

My life is different again now. A new country has meant the necessity for a new career. And while there’s no longer a cubicle with my name on it, or a corner office for colleagues to visit, I’m enjoying the balance working from home provides. The downside for me is working on my own, I often return to the land of self doubt which comes with being your own personal cheer squad. I’m learning how to work with it, the importance of finding partners in clients and fellow writers. To work on projects that inspire, to study and continue to learn.

Which is why I’m telling you as much as I’m telling myself. Don’t doubt your return. Don’t think for a minute that your six weeks, six months or six years is going to hold you back. You may not return to what you once did, you may find something better or something that fits for what you have happening now – but don’t doubt your return. It’s all there, waiting for you to open the door.

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