When Is a Mother Too Old to Go Back to Work?

Mrs A's Venn Diagram

Apparently it is forty, or so I have been reliably and rather bluntly informed this week by a head hunter.

Actually, the way he phrased it ("Can I ask you a delicate question") made him (note, 'him') come across as conspiratorially in my camp. He backed this up with declarations of his honesty and desire to minimise my disappointment in rejection.

My response followed a vague timeline of emotions.

The initial response was a typically British manner of apologetic embarrassment. I am terribly sorry to be wasting your precious time when you could be speaking to a more worthy (younger) candidate; do please forgive my imposition.

This was probably concurrent with the second (or joint first) sense of shock. It had never crossed my mind that I might be deemed technically over the hill when I am hell-bent on still viewing myself as in my thirties.

Which leads to my third reaction of defensiveness. Not wanting to labour the technicality, but I am technically speaking still clinging on to the vestiges of my thirties, albeit by a few fingernails.

Calming the rising flush (not menopausal, before you ask), I responded in a deliberately controlled tone, that surely a woman in her forties is no less employable than one in the 25-35 age bracket (his specified optimum hire-ability age range); posing the question, is it really better to hire someone likely to embark on a career break or someone returning from a career break? Neither of whom deserve to be discriminated against for heeding the call of nature to reproduce.

Mr Headhunter, not enjoying the direction of conversation, proceeded to chivy along the call to a close. I offered him my contact details (again) in the hope of being considered for any future roles that arise, which he was polite enough not to decline. Whether or not he even jotted them down I don't know. Hastily wishing me luck in my future ventures (a true indicator that I shall not hear from him any time soon with any job offerings), he hung up.

With the passing of adequate hours to stew over the accusation and implication that a five or so year career hiatus, combined with being on the precipice of my Big Four-Oh, renders me ultimately redundant and unemployable, now gives rise to a sense of injustice. A twelve-year career reduced to scrap fodder.

Would a man having taken a similar break be deemed equally unfit? I can't answer that.

Despite the ongoing talk of encouraging women back into the workplace, the evidence is glaring that there is a long way to go. Mindsets need to evolve and embrace not just the notion of mothers reintegrating into careers they spent hard years building, but also the reality.

It is no new news that women are breaking glass ceilings left, right and centre, as the business pages tirelessly and tantalisingly remind us. And certainly there is nothing new about women engendering the next generation. But if depicted in my six-year-old's Venn Diagram, I wonder how big the overlap set would be? And if we added a third hypothetical circle, 'women who take a career break to raise a family' to the diagram as a subset of 'women who have children', how would that affect the overlap? (Note: Diagram is for purely hypothetical illustrative purposes and is not based on scale or statistics).

Answers on a postcard.