Middle-aged and juggling hard, I've become the colleague I didn't appreciate

You may be middle-aged and juggling hard, but it doesn't hurt to big yourself up like you were still 23 and indestructible.
You may be middle-aged and juggling hard, but it doesn't hurt to big yourself up like you were still 23 and indestructible.  Photo: Tanya Lake

I can’t remember where my car keys are, but I have perfect recollections of my earliest days of work. I was 18 and feisty, with more front than a whole shopping mall – though the shelves were less stocked than the window suggested.

I vividly recall the office cliques, including our iteration of the apex species, the twenty-something in-crowd.  They roamed the office with aspirational hauteur, enjoying the side-eye support of a select group of peers. It looked like slightly superior young professional heaven, and, needless to say, was a parent-free zone.

As the poor buggers got promoted – or, worse, married – you got your turn to be the smart kids doing cool stuff, casting a slightly pitiful eye towards the over-35s with their “bloody hell, the school run” stress lines and slightly strained top buttons.

"Older" women with functional hair said nice things to you when you did something vaguely praise-worthy, but you rarely returned the compliment. That would be like telling the principal she was doing a good job when you were a Year 12 punk and she was wearing brown. Their lives were another planet.

You weren’t mean, exactly, but you weren’t brimming with compassion for these mid-career colleagues slashing through the grey jungles of adultland while you and your mates were busy wondering if you could still make it to a band night if state parliament sat till 11.

Somewhere in my self-absorbed subconscious I am sure I believed that if/when I was washed up on the distant shores of middle age I would not seem so frayed or weary; I'm sure me and my chic-cynical cohort thought we'd find a sleeker way to do it.

Now, I am smack in the middle of the group of women whose lives I would have considered vaguely unideal when I was in the workplace hipster demo. I am among the (well over) 40s, with an endless list of “get this done straight after work or -> apocalypse” scrolling on the inside of my eyelids like the Star Wars opening crawl.

We are the ones who work faster than we thought a person could so we can finish our days feeling “job well done despite the second job (at home)”. Job well done is subjective, of course, but given we are our harshest critics you learn to take your word for it.

We are not the sleek-swan, mid-career working mothers of our youthful mental movies, who knock off with gas in the tank, drop home for calm family time then pop out to some fun artsy thing with our old workplace troublemakers – not to relive old times, but to make new ones.

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I am that thin-stretched, but professionally satisfied, working mother I recall observing like she was another kind of being.

Just as I regarded those women, in whose ranks I now am, with far too little admiration and respect for what the hell they were pulling off, now I can catch myself feeling I should be able to make ticking all the mid-life/work-life boxes look easier than it often is.

Like those women I came to admire, in mid-life I am at the top of my efficiency game by necessity. Like they were then, I am more productive than at any time in a decades long career.

Why people at our stage can still feel we are somehow on the back foot when we have such vast experience, wherewithal and goodwill (having had our egos healthily flattened), I cannot say.

We have the runs on the board, self knowledge, and have endured not because we have a cute thing to say (which probably did help us crack the early jobs) but because we have fighting spirits and can translate that into shameless hard work.

When I am enlisted to mentor twenty-somethings, I always bang on about not just having work-fun (and my God, I had so much of it) but also being very strategic (which I wasn’t). At the same time, if they are factoring in future kids, I always make sure to add “do have some fun while you can”, so you have something to dine out on in the thick of the mid-life slog.

What I would love for myself and my mid-career compatriots is that, even in the face of the merciless juggle, we don't forget to inwardly big ourselves up like we did when we were 23 and indestructible, any time we can.

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