Tag: "Confidence"

 Who are your best return-to-work supporters?

Who are your best return-to-work supporters?

What do we normally do when we’re thinking about making changes in our lives? Our natural instinct is often to talk things through with friends and family – to get their opinion and test out our ideas. I remember many mornings spent discussing future plans with other mothers over coffee when I was on career break.

It can be useful to chat about your return to work ideas – setting up a business, returning to your old field, retraining, or whatever your inspiration may be. As you speak about your thoughts, this can help them to become more concrete and move you to action.

But this can also be a risky strategy as your trusted friends might not be the supporters you need to develop your fledgling ideas. If they pour cold water on your tentative plans, this can be a major knock to your confidence, raising more doubts and worries in your mind and stopping you moving forward to action.

These are some reactions potential returners have told me they received:
From other at-home mums: “What do you want to go back to work for – you’re so lucky to be able to be at home?”
“I can’t imagine having the energy to work. All the working mums I know are exhausted”
From family & ex-colleagues: “I never saw you as a [creative person / entrepreneur / mature student ..]”
From partners: “Well, if you’re absolutely sure that’s what you want to do …”
“If you think you can manage that and the kids without getting too stressed …”

There’s a big difference between these generalised negative comments, which can make you want to give up, rather than helpful specific questions that encourage you to reality check your ideas. If you’re facing comments like these, rather than simply taking them at face value, it’s worth putting them in context. Here are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Your friends who are also on career break may want to keep you ‘on their team’. They don’t want to lose you to the workplace!
  • Your plans to return to work may raise doubts in their minds about the decisions they’ve taken. When we experience ‘cognitive dissonance’, where our actions don’t directly align with our beliefs (eg I should be using my education but I’m not in paid work), we feel uncomfortable. They may subconsciously try to convince you that it’s too hard to be a working mother to prove to themselves that their decision is correct.
  • Your ex-colleagues tend to define you by the role you used to have. This is similar to the cognitive bias called ‘functional fixedness’ where we find it hard to see familiar objects in a different light. Which is a real advantage if you’re returning to the same field, but limiting if you’re considering a new direction.
  • Growing up within a family we all often have set roles (the smart one, the creative one etc). If you’re stepping into a sibling’s role, they may feel challenged or disorientated.
  • Your partner and children naturally will prefer the status quo if it’s comfortable for them. Accept they may not be your cheerleaders initially at least!

To balance the naysayers, think about creating a group of return-to-work supporters:
1. Identify & seek out friends and family members who are encouraging and positive and fill you with a sense of possibility
2. Partner with one or more women who are also looking to return to work
3. Seek out a mentor – find a woman in your field who has successfully returned after a career break and ask for advice.

As our network grows we’re thinking about setting up a return-to-work support group. Also a number of successful returners have offered to be to mentors. Would you find either of these useful? In what format (eg.LinkedIn)? Let us know in the comments below or on info@womenreturners.com.


julianne&katerinaAuthor: Julianne Miles, from the blog Women Returners: Back to Your Future aka Julianne Miles and Katerina Gould, an occupational psychologist and an executive coach who support professional women to return to work after a long career break.

Get back up to speed before returning after maternity leave

Get back up to speed before returning after maternity leave

I know, I know, your focus is on the baby when you are on maternity leave, but before you know it you will be back at work and you will find yourself out of your debt, struggling to keep up due to lack of sleep and losing your confidence quickly. 

Women report that it typically takes 9-12 months to feel as confident at work as they did before. This is not surprising: your body has undergone huge changes and is recovering, you have been focussing on an entirely different activity for a while using a different part of your brain, becoming a parent is a huge emotional and practical shift and on top of that you are sleep-deprived.

It’s completely normal you don’t feel as confident. However, it does help a lot to be as prepared as you can be. Manage your return to work early on, it really makes a big difference if you do.

This is what you can do:

1. If you haven’t been doing so already, ask to be put back on the distribution list for key meeting minutes etc. It will really help you if you are up to date with current events and priorities.

2. Take full advantage of your Keeping in Touch (KIT) days. Every woman is able to work for ten days without losing Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP)(as agreed with your organisation) to keep in touch with the business and to aid return to work.

Key facts on Keeping In Touch days:

  • You can use them for working in your company (possibly attending meetings, induction programme, handing back from your cover)
  • You can use them for work-related training or conferences
  • Any part of a day that you work is counted as a full KIT day (i.e. you can’t work 20 half-days instead)
  • Payment has to be agreed in advance with your company. Try to negotiate a ‘pro-rata’ payment in accordance with your usual salary (although this may include some SMP if you are still receiving it). This is generally the norm these days.
  • You can use them to return to work gradually (this can be helpful with transition), especially if you are going back full-time. For example, you could work two/three days a week for a month before you are ‘officially’ back on the pay roll

Even if your manager thinks it’s not necessary for you to return (after all, it is a disruption to the rest of the department, and you will not be contributing much to business in a few days) insist you do return, explain what it means to you and how it will help both of you when you return and find a way to make it meaningful.

This may all seem like you are having to do an awful lot of ‘unpaid’ work, and it may feel a little one-sided – but the purpose behind all this preparation is to make your return to work as smooth and as stress-free for everyone as possible.

If you feel confident before you go back to the office, you will be more confident. If you are under-prepared and disorganised you will be on the back foot for a lot longer, making a potentially stressful period even harder.



Author: Tamsin Crook, founder of Making Careers Work – a maternity coaching and career support service which helps mums and mums-to-be reach their full potential in their careers within the dynamic context of their family life. As a mum of three boys herself, she understands the desire to try to balance the needs of the family with personal career ambitions – not always straightforward! Tamsin works with women at all stages of motherhood, and is based in Thames Ditton, Surrey.

Tamsin is one of the key contributors to Mum & Career and has written most pages on Maternity Leave for us.

Lean in ....with chocolate

Lean in ….with chocolate

There has been a lot of talk about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book ‘Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’. In the book the CEO of Facebook (and mother of 2) explains what’s holding women back. One of her key lessons is one I advocate all the time too…but what has that got to do with chocolate? Find out from Jenny Garrett.

The impact of divorce on your career - will it kill your career?

The impact of divorce on your career – will it kill your career?

If you are looking to understand the impact of divorce on your career as a working mother. The first thing you need to understand is that divorce is like a death. You might have heard it before, perhaps even twice, and here I say it again.

Just like a marriage and becoming a parent, you cannot plan your divorce nor know how it feels or how you will cope (or not) until you weather that storm.

When you go through divorce that’s when you get to know exactly what you are capable of, the good and the bad and the just plain ugly. You get to see what others have been through and realise that there are indeed some things in life that are very capable of knocking you sideways and propelling you into a land that you never had any intention of visiting let alone residing in.

Yet here you are. In the land of inner pain, anger, resentment with a touch of relief and anticipation for what the future holds. A place where concentration, sleep disturbance and appetite attack are all names of avenues, street and roads.

Welcome to the land of “The Divorced Working Mum.”

So what happens when you find yourself divorced and the main carer of your children? How does that affect your career or work prospects?

For me personally, my divorce experiences steered me to working in a totally different way than I had anticipated. I had two children and no family around to help. I had to drop out of courses during divorce number one and had to quit one job during divorce number two and opt for a part-time position that was paying me not only a fraction of my previous salary but that was also mind-numbingly dull.

So did my two divorces kill my career?

That’s the story I held for a long time. That’s the belief that I carried with me for a long while until one day, I realised that, the divorces had actually shifted me to where I am today, doing what I love.

Remember that mind-numbingly dull job I ended up in? Well I couldn’t stay there and took the huge risk of resigning and working for myself.

Today, I am working with children and families affected by divorce, trauma and loss and I am pursue-ing my other love and passion, which is writing. I work for myself. I control my days and hours. That is what has worked for my children and me.

So will divorce kill your career?

Divorce will affect the way you work and perform. As already mentioned, your concentration is one of the most obvious areas. It can be affected by your emotions, which are affected by your thoughts which then play a role in determining your actions.

The one piece of advice I could give any mum going through divorce is to take time off, do ask for help and take it and accept it when it is offered. Ok, that’s more than one but they are all important. Only when you take care of yourself will you be able to see things clearly as you will be creating the space to do so.

This is no time to be superwoman just as when you lose a loved one through death, it is not the time to be superwoman either.

If you are employed then speak with your boss, let someone in the office know what is going on in your personal life. If you are now the main carer of your children, find out what work options there are for you.

Divorce encourages you to reassess your current situation to find and discover very creative ways to get time with your children, earn some money and look after yourself.

It’s not easy. We love spending time with our little ones, but bills need to be paid.

But here you are. The change has come. You are being steered. Which way will you go? What will you do? What can you do? Know your options and take it from there.

Author:  Soila. Soila is known for taking away the pain of trauma and loss in children, adolescents and their families. She has a Masters in Psychology and is a member of the British Psychological Association. Soila has worked with children and families for over 10 years.  soila@soila.co.uk, 07850 85 60 66


Returning to work after a second child – how different can it be?

Returning to work after a second child – how different can it be?

I rather excitedly returned to work earlier this month having had almost a year off following the birth of my second son. Returning to work the second time around offered an entirely new experience, why had no one warned me about this? Why did they just warn me about how different my second child would be, and how they would have hugely distinctive personalities, habits and traits from the first one? Unfortunately for me the new experience wasn’t positive either.

I was returning to work again as a freelancer for an organisation I used to be an employee at, and which I had been working for years. The major shift in the way I worked had been after my first child when I decided to resign my permanent job and go freelance so I could more easily juggle the demands of motherhood and career. That was a hugely nerve wracking time but turned out to be the best decision I could have made. At least, returning to the same arrangement the second time around wouldn’t be such a shock or upheaval, I thought to myself.

The night before did bring some of the usual anxieties: how do I help get not one but two children dressed, breakfasted and off to nursery, and myself ready and out the house in time for my train? (really, hats off to you working women with more than two sprogs); will I still fit in my work attire having lost none of the pregnancy fat I promised I would; mmm, oh yes, and can I still do my job?

Yet it was none of these that in the end put a dampener on my spirits. When I walked in the door and strode over to the work area I usually shared with five lively and (unwittingly) amusing salespeople, I found a lone computer sitting on a deserted desk with a mountainous stack of unwanted paper on one side and a huge empty space where people should have been on the other. It was MY computer sitting there in isolation shoved next to what, frankly, looked like preparations for a bonfire. My old colleagues had been ‘rehomed’ leaving my desk to rack and ruin and become a mere dumping ground.

Worse though, where were the friendly, familiar, smiley faces I assumed would be there to greet me? I looked around me to ask someone what was going on and bar a smattering of old timers I realised, with a pang of fear, I hardly knew anyone. So many people were new. My old boss had gone, old colleagues moved to a different floor, departments restructured and moved around, and an entire magazine which I used to work on and dedicated most of my career to had been TUPED off to a different company altogether. Hardly a soul welcomed me back, not because they were being rude but because they just didn’t know me, even though I am now one of the longest serving workers. Gosh so much had changed – spurred on, no doubt, by the spectral economic downturn – and I was in unfamiliar territory.

I had been already made aware, of course, of the major changes such as my boss leaving (something the organisation, to be fair, wasn’t obliged to do given I am a freelancer). However reading about it on email is not like feeling it in real life. Also just think, colleagues aren’t necessarily aware that the gradual changes they experience over the course of just under a year can add up to something representing quite a dramatic transformation to someone who has been absent all that time. They are just busy getting on with it all.

And realistically some change must be expected. Which successful businesses do you know of simply stand still? After all, the organisation had gone through some key changes while I was off with my first child. I coped with that just fine.

Yet this time was different, the pace of change felt far more accelerated. As I said, I guess it’s just a sign of the times. The organisation has been brilliant at supporting me but really not much can prepare you for feeling like everything is suddenly unfamiliar.

As a result, I actually felt lonely but rather weirdly, also a bit stupid, out of place, like a spare part. And feeling like that on top of the insecurity you can experience after such a long spell out of work can be a recipe for disaster if you are trying to get your career back on track. It can be tricky to explain how pressurised it can feel returning to work after maternity leave to those that haven’t done it. Many women suffer a crisis of confidence just because they have been absent so long and worry about their job performance. Then there’s the added stress of worrying how your little one is coping without you and hoping to god they are not sitting in the corner just crying. Your emotional state is about as stable as a straw mountain but the façade you have to give is cool, calm, collected, adding to the pressure.

Going back to a workplace that you then feel has changed beyond recognition can make it tempting to bid a hasty retreat to your desk, speak and interact with no-one and just bury your head in your work. That’s certainly what I wanted to do.

However, on the journey home that evening I had the chance to analyse the day, re-assess the situation and thought I should draw on all the great coaching I had been lucky enough to receive as an employee. I realised fading into the background is not a strategy that was going to get me back on the career ladder. So I devised a personal strategy with a few goals and aims. I thought I should share them, so here goes:

1. Accept change

It happens every day in business. Don’t bemoan the fact the place has changed, all the fun people have gone or old ways of working have been replaced. It will just make you feel worse about your working life. Get to know your organisation as it is now and accept that’s how it is. All the positive elements will soon make themselves apparent again. I resolved to do this after that first day, having realised that all I was doing was comparing the here and now with the ‘old days’. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling dealing with change but I decided I must switch my thinking, be adaptable and ride it out. The next day I started work with a new much more positive outlook.

2. Don’t isolate yourself and keep yourself to yourself

Not even if it is just because you feel you don’t know anyone anymore. Seek out old colleagues to let them know you are back and have a catch up, but then ask them to introduce you to new people. I went and said hello to as many of the people I had formerly worked with as I could, including making a special visit to some of the senior staff! It reminded me I had a place and history at the organisation and that I was valued.

3. Embrace new challenges and new projects

Take on projects outside your comfort zone. It will remind bosses why you are such a talent and give you the opportunity to work with new people and teams.

4. Enjoy your work

Remind yourself of the parts of the job that you find rewarding, stimulating and enjoyable and get stuck in again. It can be a real buzz re-discovering the joys of what you do as well as having some of your former identity back. For me I have loved getting to meet and write about new people again, the chance to make more contacts, to learn what was happening in the industries I write about. In other words, using my brain again!

5. Enjoy working life

It’s can be hard to arrange a night out but if you can join colleagues for an after work drink or work social event occasionally it can be a real tonic.

6. Weed out the negative

You should be too busy to have time to indulge in negative thoughts or feelings anyway!

Ok I can’t claim I have achieved all of this yet. After all, I have only been back at work a couple of weeks. Some of it such as the night out is work in progress and I admit, so too is being able to entirely eliminate negative thoughts. But the simple task of even devising a strategy and setting myself goals and aims has enormously helped my outlook and make sense of my rather overwhelming experience of returning to work. I am also reminded that if I want to ensure my work life is enriching and enjoyable only I can take charge and be sure that that is what happens!

Author: Rima Evans, free lance business journalist and editor, rimaevans@blueyonder.co.uk

Courtesy of Mel Wilde Photography

Yes you really can save time and money with a capsule wardrobe

The term capsule wardrobe is often talked about in magazines but is rarely explained in depth. In this article, Joanna Gaudoin from Inside Out aims to unlock the mystery and show how it can work for you as a working mother.

I often get asked if a capsule wardrobe is really possible. The answer is definitely yes and it is really worth knowing how to create one. It is a great way to save time in terms of selecting what to wear and shopping, a necessity being a Mum with a career. However, it does require a little prior knowledge and some discipline…

What is a capsule wardrobe?

So first to explain. A capsule wardrobe is one that is built around a specific set of colours so that there are many different combinations of clothing that go together. It means an escape from the 4 different colour tops that each only go with black trousers scenario…

How to get started building your capsule wardrobe?

The starting point is knowing which colour tones best flatter your natural features – hair, skin and eyes. This is important as these are the colour tones that make you look healthy, decrease any signs of ageing and mean you look your best. From the range of colour tones that suit you, you should begin by selecting a neutral colour that you like. Neutrals being black, navy, beige, camel, brown, grey.

You can then select an ‘accent’ colour (I call these ‘exciting’ colours – reds, pinks, yellows, greens)  from the range of tones that suit you. Remember select the ‘exciting’ colour with what is in the shops in mind.

Now a capsule wardrobe doesn’t grow overnight, unless you have a sizeable budget. To make the most of what you already have, consider your current wardrobe and if you already have items in a neutral and an ‘exciting’ colour that suit you that you like, then start by building on those.

Beginning with one neutral and one ‘exciting’ colour does mean that for a while you may be in the same colours often, but because you’ll have different combinations of items you can achieve many different looks.

What to buy?

Shop for a range of items in both the neutral and exciting tone that you can put together – plain and patterned. So think of basics such as simple tops, jumpers, skirts, trousers as well as signature pieces such as jackets and coats. Often these items can be appropriate for different occasions depending on what they are worn with and how.

Take a dress for example:

  • For daytime, team with coloured tights with a more relaxed costume necklace
  • For evening or formal, match with more expensive jewellery and nude tights

Cardigans and jumpers are good items for being worn casually at the weekend with jeans or jeggings, or with a dress or skirt for a smarter occasion.

Accessories, accessories

Importantly, don’t forget accessories! Belts, scarves and jewellery are all great ways to change an outfit without spending a lot of money. If you want to go for fashionable items then these can be bought pretty cheaply. They are unlikely to be the best quality, but for a few weeks wear to differentiate an outfit, they are worth considering.

Think of buying elasticised belts that could adapt to being worn in different places on your body and learn a few basic ways to tie scarves to change the look you can achieve with them.

Key steps recap

So a reminder of the steps to creating a capsule wardrobe:

  • Know which colour tones suit you best
  • Select a neutral and an ‘exciting’ colour to start to build your wardrobe around – remember to check whether these colours are currently in the shops
  • Plan your shopping trip – think about the formality of the items you need and list out key items to buy, having looked at your existing wardrobe
  • Go shopping, you’ll find having done the thinking the trip should be more efficient

The great thing is, once you have started your capsule wardrobe, the benefits start:

  • Selecting outfits each day will save you time and be a simpler task. Your wardrobe might be smaller, but there will be many item combinations for different outfits
  • You’ll save time when you do go shopping as you’ll be more focused
  • You’ll save money focusing on appropriate items

Author: Joanna Gaudoin is an image expert with experience of working with women in the corporate and professional services sector. She lives in South West London and works in London and Surrey. Find out more about her company Inside Out and how she can help you know which colour tones, shapes and cuts suit you to build your capsule wardrobe.



Image courtesy of Mel Wilde Photography



Time is not the issue – says mum and senior manager Paula

Time is not the issue – says mum and senior manager Paula

Talking about being a working mum at the BBC ‘Women at the top’ programme triggered senior manager Paula Leach to think about female leadership and motherhood. This is what she learned about being a working mum in her own words.

Being a working mum for me the key challenges have come down to Time. I’m nearly 7 years into my parenting journey, with 2 beautiful daughters and a worklife balance many would envy, combining my part time senior management role with being an involved and present parent to my girls. So what’s the problem? Haven’t I ‘got it all’? Haven’t I ‘got the best of both worlds’? Well, it’s an interesting question, and one I have a bit of a constant wrestle with myself.

In a quest to try to work out why I feel like this, I recently tentatively took part in the filming of a BBC documentary which was examining the reasons why so few women are represented at the senior levels of management in business. Scary as it was to put myself ‘out there’ and actively join the debate, I wanted to share my perspectives, experience and optimism and learn as much as I could on the way.

The process of being filmed and trying to work out in my head what was my overriding perspective on the subject of combining motherhood and career, was all a bit of a new step in a new journey for me. Of course I was only going to be featured on the programme for 3 minutes or so, and I was happy with the footage (although I just find watching myself very uncomfortable …. Surely I don’t really look or sound like that??!!). However, the finished programme was one thing, the journey that asking these questions has started to send me on, is something else.

So …. Back to Time. I have always known, ever since I returned to work after my first daughter was about 1 year old, that it was about time. There are only so many hours in a day, and I was already madly busy with all my work commitments before I then had to fit in my new job as Mum. I’m super organised though, so went about the process of creating a jigsaw of childcare, greater efficiency, working different times of the day to make up for dashing out of the office early to get to a nursery pick up etc. We all do it- it’s how it works. And over that period where I have continued to make this jigsaw of activity squeeze into my 24 hours, I, like many other women I know (and probably countless more I don’t know), have felt various new emotions about my working and home life such as guilt, low-confidence and questioning what other people were thinking of me, feeling not quite as reliable as I always had been (or the risk that I wasn’t that reliable) amongst other things. A wise friend once told me, it takes 5 years to come to terms with the situation of this balance and feel at peace with it rather than trying to be everything you were at work before.

So, I am a reflector, and this has all got me reflecting a lot about Time. I actually know for a fact, that I am equally if not more capable at delivering in my chosen profession than I was 7 years ago. And I feel optimistic about those contributions. I simply am not in a position to work the same days and hours, or work between “9 – 5” in the accepted business tradition. Interestingly, where I have felt a dip in confidence or worried about my reliability or felt guilty …. Pretty much all of this is rooted in Time – or lack of it!

Coupled with that realisation, I was interested to explore whether this perceived issue of time was external or internal to myself. Generally, there is some expectation from others, but on the whole, my reflection leads me to conclude that most of the pressure I feel regarding time is actually pressure I am putting on myself.

Light bulb moment! (I had this a couple of years ago). Just forget about worrying about the time -what I can’t fit in that I used to, how to be like everyone else (or as I perceive everyone else) – and get on with the excellent outputs and contributions that I make, focusing on my energy and quality and creativity. Let go of that guilt and that lower confidence and see what happens – I would soon work out whether this was mostly me putting that pressure on, or whether it truly was real. Result: Yep – mostly me!

So, my feeling is really this: As a professional woman, I have certain expectations of myself which I literally could not replicate once time got squeezed. I wasn’t prepared to make the sacrifices so many women did a generation ago with regard to seeing their family grow up … surely they had no choice, but because they did that, it has paved the way for women and mums like me to have a choice and take on the mantle of the next challenge with confidence and energy! That challenge being the challenge of demonstrating that Time is Not the issue … having personal confidence, and the confidence of others, in output, creativity, leadership, quality – these are the things business should be really interested in and I for one plan to demonstrate that it doesn’t always need to matter that you are seen to be doing the 9 – 5.

Having confidence to do it my way will hopefully open the eyes of business that mums and business can work and can thrive, with a little open-mindedness on both sides to being flexible and focusing on the output. By having the confidence to be doing, delivering and succeeding, we can perhaps grow and open up the opportunities to work flexibly, be involved with our families at the times that we need to be during the 24 hours we have, and still achieve what we need to at work (and beyond!). I don’t see working flexibly as simply a temporary accommodation to ‘help’ me – I see it as a win-win for me and the business. I achieve everything that is required of my role and beyond. I cost less than a full-time resource. I am committed to making that work and being the most efficient that I can be. The biggest barrier I believe I truly have faced is actually my own personal perceptions and expectations limiting myself, so I am taking deep breaths and not apologising for working a different schedule – I am embracing it and demonstrating it’s value! And at the same time I am very present in my children’s lives and fully engaged in their school life and activities which is important for me.

Obviously I appreciate that I am fortunate to work with an enlightened employer where the foundational elements of flexible working and empowerment mean I can take responsibility for my own schedule and working my way to achieve success. Technology is such an enabler here to allow us to move forwards – so we don’t waste the talent that is out there with so many people who have chosen Motherhood. My mantra moving forwards … it is ‘Mum AND career’ not ‘Mum OR Career’!

And what about me ‘having it all’ already? …. Yep that’s all fine and maybe a perception could be that I do, but I have ambition to progress in my career, learn more, take on interesting challenges and add greater value – and I plan to do that still with only 24 hours in the day!

I have learnt so much about myself, and others, over the last few years having become a parent. Perhaps I may continue to progress my career because I have children, and not in spite of it.

Author: Paula Leach, She has 2 beautiful daughters aged 6 and 3 and works 3 1/2 days per week in a senior leadership role as Learning & Development Manager at a large Multi-National automotive organisation. Since having her daughters, she juggles her career with her family and is constantly striving towards achieving a balance which means she can be present and involved in her children’s lives, schooling etc, in addition to not only ‘holding down’ her role, but continuing to develop, grow and contribute professionally. As part of this journey, she recently took part in the filming of the BBC2 documentary ‘Hilary Devey’s Women at the Top’.


  • Looking for more tips, guidance and insights on Navigating your Career and Children? Why not join us for a high-impact fun workshop on 9 October in Central London. Speakers from Ernst&Young, Sapphire Partners and more

Women Who Waited to be Great

Women Who Waited to be Great

By ‘thinking long’ you can achieve your career and life goals.

One evening in 2004, having spent yet another evening scraping a living serving drinks at a swish party, Erika Sunnegardh was in tears and about to give up on her singing career. For 16 years she had worked as a waitress and singer at churches and funerals and was beginning to lose hope. But at 38, Erika decided she should give her dream one last try. Though she was living in New York, a family friend suggested she audition for Sweden’s Malmo Opera. The audition went well and she was given her first professional role, in a production of Turandot.

This experience in turn gave her the confidence to audition for the Met. She was taken on as an understudy, and one night in 2006 the singer for the role of Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio was taken ill. The 40-year-old Sunnegardh filled in at the last-minute, and it was a triumph: the performance was critically praised and the audience loved her. Finally, her career was established.

As the French philosopher Montesquieu, who did not produce his masterwork, The Spirit of the Laws, until his late fifties, said: ‘Success in most things depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.’

When Sunnegardh went for her audition at the Met, its artistic administrator Jonathan Friend was amazed at her voice. But he was also drawn to her beauty and maturity. ‘She was, as a human being, grown up,’ he said. ‘She had had another life, and knew what she didn’t know.’

Though the story is remarkable, the principles are universal.

It usually takes at least a decade to become an expert in anything – what researchers have called ‘the ten-year rule’. With the increased life spans most of us enjoy today, you are rarely too old to begin learning a trade, art, or discipline, and to be able to apply that learning in a new career – or, to get to the top of what you already do. Within the context of our longer productive life spans, say age 20 to 80, ten years is not that long in the scheme of things. At 40, for instance, you still have 67% of your productive years ahead of you.

Remember the saying, “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade”. Taking the ‘long view’ of your life is all the more relevant for women who have to spend years balancing family needs with career aspirations. In the midst of changing nappies or doing endless weekend chauffeuring to sports events, it is easy to think: Is this the end of my career? Is it the end of any chances to achieve my dreams, or just anything substantial beyond the family?

Joan Birman studied mathematics and physics at college and could have entered academia, but was also keen to have a family. Over a period of fifteen years she had three children, and only returned to university when they were in their teens. By the time she got her PhD in mathematics she was 41. She wrote in a memoir:

‘I was rusty, but that did not seem insurmountable because, as a compensation, maturity had given me an ability to focus and to concentrate in a way which had seemed impossible fifteen years earlier.’

As an older woman in a young man’s field she might have given up, but she got noticed after giving some public lectures, and duly found an academic posting. It was the start of a very successful career; Birman became an expert in her branch of mathematics – topology and braid and knot theory – and made a number of important solutions and discoveries.

Parents – particularly women – often have to bide their time like Birman did, hoping the point will come when they can devote themselves fully to their chosen area. But the time does come, and we shouldn’t get too frustrated in the meantime. And as Birman says, the extra maturity and insights into human nature she gained through having children and managing a family became a real plus in the work environment.

In her early thirties, Betty Friedan was dismissed from her job as a journalist for a union newspaper when she became pregnant with her second child. She managed to do some freelance writing, but it was difficult with three children, and through her twenties and thirties juggled as best she could. When she was 35, Friedan was given an interesting project to survey her college classmates 15 years after graduation. Her interviews revealed many unhappy, unfulfilled housewives, and this sparked the research that would lead to The Feminine Mystique, the multi-million bestseller, launching the feminist ‘second wave’. With her children at school and growing up, Friedan found more time for writing and research, and after the publication of the book in her early forties she became a public figure.

Closer to home, consider the career trajectory of English philosopher Mary Midgley, who didn’t publish her first book, Beast and Man, until she was 59. ‘I wrote no books until I was a good 50,’ she noted, ‘and I’m jolly glad because I didn’t know what I thought before then.’ With her three sons moving on to university, she was finally able to devote her time to writing and speaking.

With the longer life spans of today, most of us do have time to achieve our goals. But the trick is to think long. Whatever you have done so far may have just set the scene for your real contribution, whether that is something quite modest or a project on a bigger scale. Don’t ever think that you are ‘too late’ or ‘too old’. Whatever your current age, chances are, you have just been warming up.

Author: Tom Butler-Bowdon is the author of Never Too Late To Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long, recently published by Virgin/Random House (£11.99).