Tara D. Sonenshine is a distinguished fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.
I once saw a license plate that read “INARUSH.” I knew the driver was a woman. We have the hurry gene. We are master jugglers bouncing multiple balls in life’s circus.
Now, at age 55, I fantasize about a slower speed — a life with a shorter workday, fewer pressures and a less frenetic pace.
As it turns out, I am not alone.
Many ambitious women in their mid-50s and early 60s are thinking about “yellow-lighting” their professional lives. Close friends and colleagues describe it as “idling down,” turning down big jobs for smaller, lower-paid assignments. Is this some kind of reverse “mommy track” — that track many of us jogged around decades ago, when we were starting families and trying to navigate overly full professional lives? What propels hard-charging women at the zenith of their careers, with another big position or two left in them, to consider downshifting?
First, some personal background. I entered the working world in the early 1980s as part of a generation of women who suddenly found the glass ceiling cracking. I left Tufts in 1981 and headed to New York, where many hard-charging, ambitious female graduates went to seek advanced degrees or promising new jobs. I landed at ABC News in the heady days of television reporting, when money was flush and anchor desks were shifting to make room for the girls. It was still a “man’s world,” but the rules were loosening and female producers were elbowing their way into the inner circle. “Nightline” was the hot television show, and I worked my way onto it and up the ladder — grabbing every opportunity to work harder than the next man or woman. All it took was ambition and the willingness to pack fast and ask questions later.
By the 1990s I was navigating the world of career and children. Yes, there were obstacles and balancing acts, discrimination and harassment. But if you wanted badly enough to advance and your paycheck allowed it, you persevered. (I confess to having had a full-time career, a full-time nanny and a supportive husband.) I worked damned hard in media and then in government. Meanwhile, I raised two great kids and felt exhausted but satisfied. I rose to become executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and then undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
Now I have hit the midpoint of life. (I just read about a District woman reaching the age of 111 .) Many of us with strong résumés seem to be developing a resistance to continuing the climb. Big job offers come along, and we are suddenly unsure. We fight a strange pull to get up late, do some writing, meet a friend, exercise, check e-mail and maybe take on a small project. But get up each day and run an office? Yikes!
Leaving aside the question of finances — and I recognize that many women cannot put that issue aside — the emotional piece of the puzzle is perplexing: Why would women with extensive job experience and children of a self-sufficient age choose to slow down? Why would they put barriers in their own way?
One: Many professional women today have worked hard to get where they are without realizing the toll of that work. We rushed to so many meetings, took so many trips, took so many chances over the years that, perhaps, we are a bit shopworn. (A good night’s rest is not enough if you are catching up on decades of lost sleep.) Compounding that is the new pace of life in the e-everything world. We are online at all hours of the day and night. We never stop until we stop to consider that we never stop.
Two: There is a broader fatigue brought about by the state of the world that leaves women despairing about trying to change it all. We are watching, with exhaustion, the barrage of bad news. We read about mothers who lose children to terrorism or gun violence and we weep not only for them but also with them. Even though our own children are grown and safe, we worry harder. Worrying is tiring. We women of a certain age react to other people’s pain and loss as if it were ours, alone, to bear, and it seems daunting to fix a broken world at the leadership level we once tried.
Three: Community. Many women want to come “home” at some point. We tried throughout the working years to keep a hand in local school boards or nonprofits. But it is hard to simultaneously build your professional circles, your extended family and your community. By your mid-50s, your neighborhood has allure. Suddenly even those siblings you never liked are likable.
What’s the right response? My message to women is that if you are in a position to take a professional pause, do it. Take your foot off the pedal — even for a brief period. You will still know how to drive. Many of us have gotten off the track at some point and then been able to rejoin a race in progress.
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