This is not a story about risk and reward. High stakes gambles that pay off big. This is not a story about living the dream.
At 51, I got the hard news that my year-to-year contract with the company I’d worked with for almost 10 years would not be renewed. Budget cuts, they explained. We’re sorry. All the recommendations you need, they offered.
I was devastated. My colleagues had become my friends. My office had become, to quote Woolf, a room of my own, with pictures of my co-workers and souvenirs of events shared. I’d recently joined a team of like-minded people working on a project that spoke to my heart and mind. I felt I had finally landed where I belonged. A bright future lay ahead for me. But on a date sure, all that would be in the past.
I did what anyone would do. I cried and felt sorry for myself. I cursed the injustice of it all and doubted my employability. And then I cried just a little more.
My work history did not follow a straight line by any measure. I began my career as a reporter working at a small newspaper group in a big market where I covered everything from sex scandals within the police department to the annual blessing of the animals at local parish church. I eventually worked my way up to City Editor, overseeing content for five diverse communities.
Then I became pregnant with my first child. I worked through my pregnancy and continued after she was born. A cherished picture shows me interviewing the mayor with notebook and pen in hand, cradling my baby daughter on my hip. However charming, this was not a long-term solution. Calls to daycares soon revealed that the cost of quality childcare would absorb most of my salary as a reporter. (That the pay scale for these two professions are equally low is a question for another day.) We made the decision that I would stay home with our daughter and continue as a freelancer.
In the years that followed I picked up work wherever I could find it. Interviewing rock stars for music magazines. Copyediting the newsletter for the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning trades. I did PR for a non-profit group seeking jobs for at-risk youth. Hardly career building, but enough to keep us afloat.
My son was born a few years later and my paid work dwindled while my unpaid work increased. I worked at my children’s cooperative nursery school, picking up shifts from parents who couldn’t fulfill their weekly commitments. I helped found a progressive primary school with a group of parents. I wrote a novel. I went to graduate school and, following passion rather than practicality, earned an MA in Cultural Studies. Again, more of a meander through diverse interests and opportunities rather than a roadmap to success.
But, of course, all roads must lead somewhere and eventually I found myself in academia. A friend from grad school who knew about my editorial background needed her book indexed. Another friend who appreciated my organizational skills asked me to manage her grant project. And on and on until I had indexed several scholarly books and managed several grants. Two roads had diverged in a wood, and somehow, I had managed to take both. Now I needed to embark on a job search, and I felt lost.
What did all my experience add up to? What keywords could I optimize that would draw the attention of the recruiting algorithm? “Factotum” didn’t appear on any of the job boards I searched. The question, “What have you done?” took on an existential tone that was troubling. Looking at my resume all I saw were gaps and cul-de-sacs, leading nowhere.
Finally, in desperation, I hired a resume writer from a gig site. I sent her my old resume, a few notes about myself, and $160. With the kind of hope usually reserved for a therapist, I waited to see if she could make the pieces of my life fit together. I realize that’s a lot of pressure to put on a person only known to me as “BizWhiz” but that’s where I was.
As promised, within two days she delivered my updated resume, optimized for searchability on hiring sites. I glanced through it and noticed a lot of jargon and lingo — words like “adept,” “strategic,” and “analysis” peppered the document. These were words I wouldn’t have chosen, and I felt alienated. I filed it away and went back to scouring the job boards with vague search terms like “editorial” and “administrative” but nothing seemed like a fit. What I really wanted to do was enter my own name and have my perfect job delivered to my desktop, no interview necessary.
When that didn’t happen, I reluctantly called up BizWhiz’s resume for a second look. It described, in admittedly aggrandizing terms, the long career of a woman who could write, who could think, and who could help. A woman who was happy to work alone or in collaboration with others. A woman who was resourceful and who did not give up. A woman with my own history and my own name. This was a curriculum vitae that describes a real life lived.
So this is not a story about radical career switches or mid-life reinvention. This is a story about coming to terms with where I have been and what may lay ahead. I still don’t know where all this will lead, but now I see that it’s been a worthwhile journey. I’m confident that it will take me where I need to go.