I am a Gen X gal and spent my thirties working my way up the corporate ladder. It was a slow and painful process but I never questioned what I wanted. I'd started my career working in McDonalds as a Saturday job, then moved onto retail- working long hours on the shop floor in Habitat. When I finished university I thought about TV (for all the wrong reasons - it sounded glamorous and exciting) but in the end I applied for a job in a global market research agency based in Chiswick.
I had no clue what the job entailed, but was getting fed up of having no money and living at home with my family. I understand now that I was lucky to be living in a time when you could survive in London with no money, but I knew I needed more than 8k a year to live a good life (this was the starting salary for runners working in TV).
Anyway I got the job and clambered onto the lowest rung. I was very enthusiastic because of the novelty of being able to sit down rather than stand up and hustle for customers (very different to my Habitat life). Each year brought another promotion and by the time I was in my late thirties, I was in a managerial role. I had a good salary, like really good- sometimes I couldn't believe that a girl from South London who struggled in most general knowledge quizzes and had never read any French philosophy was earning so much. My wardrobe was awash with nice clothes. Top Shop Oxford Circus was my playground. The more tired and weary I felt, the more I shopped. I wore new clothes each day. I ate in nice restaurants. I also seemed to spend a lot of time complaining which is somewhat ironic.
The hours were long and I was constantly travelling. This was before the time when smartphones had taken off but nonetheless focus groups finished at ten thirty, then there'd be a chat with the client, then maybe a drink with the research partner, or a taxi journey home from Manchester that got you home again for two in the morning.
I was plagued with headaches and became addicted to painkillers.I chorfed Nurofen Plus to get through the day and thought this was normal until I pretty much stopped going to the toilet and realised they weren't beneficial to my health. I became resentful at the amount of time that was eaten up with internal meetings. Each meeting was focused on making other people feel happy. It seemed that the more senior you became the less focus there was on your own happiness. This was the sacrifice that came with an elevated status. I realised that none of the senior people I worked with day to day were happy at all. All were mitigating their unhappiness with stuff- be it an addiction to buying shoes, or going on expensive holidays. All of them talked of their dreams- how they wanted to run a vineyard, write a book, live in the jungle, start a meditiation retreat.
It felt weird that we were doing so well on paper.
My role was people focused and I dreaded the appraisals and catch ups. I'm naturally a people-pleaser and delivering a negative review took it out of me. I felt consumed with other peoples' emotional baggage. I went to bed worrrying that so and so wasn't happy and yet felt somewhat powerless to make them happy. It was like being a Mum to seventy children and trying to sort out the squabble and rivalries that job entailed. There was never a state of equilibrium or a sense of a job well done. My head became overwhelmed and my shoulders more stooped. I paid for acupnucture, Alexander Technique, yoga, life coaching and consumed self-help books by the dozen.
The thing was I didn't see an alternative. I had a big mortgage. I had a lifestyle. I liked the status and the fact that people listened (sometimes) when I spoke. I had been a girl who worked in McDonalds. I'd then moved up to the furniture department at Habitat. I had gone through times of being unable to afford food. I knew what it felt like to be overdrawn each month and having to cadge drinks and cigarettes when you went out at night. It's easy to say that money doesn't matter but it does.
Anyway, the typical thing happened after having a baby. My work weren't brilliant (to put it lightly) and I quickly discovered I no longer had the same role or status as before. I became part of a small crew of slightly disgruntled, whispering Mums who felt a bit bitter.
The inevitable happend and I'm now freelancing. At times it feels like I'm adrift in a leaky boat and spending my time patching up holes, trying to stay afloat, postitive, giving off the good vibes, drinking coffee, not getting lost on Instagram, feeling happy for those who are living the dream, those who are doing better than I am, telling myself that I'm best off out of the corporate world, not noticing the perks that come with that world, ignoring the friends who are still there and going on extravagant holidays and carrying shiny, new handbags, and spending more time than ever in a park with my daughter, feeling slightly discouraged that the only email I've received that day has been from Boden telling me I've got 20% off again (the brands plague me still because they think I'm still a big shot).
What does success look like? Well, I feel sucessful because I have more time with my family. And I feel it because I am doing more of what I love more of the time. I no longer have to sit in rooms and be burdened with other peoples' emotional baggage (I could never be a therapist - my addiction to painkillers would definitely re-surface).
I no longer kick my day off with a Starbucks and a handful of Nurofen. I love the fact that each week is different (but not that some weeks are quiet, I will never get used to that aspect of freelance life). I am learning to go into clothes shops, try things on and then put them back on the rack. I am learning that a new dress won't patch up a life that is seriously leaking all over the place.
My boat feels robust but in need of a few repairs. It is MY BOAT. It isn't super luxurious. There isn't a crew serving champagne. The paintwork is a bit rusty. There's a small bed with an overweight cat sleeping, a cup of Earl Grey, a laptop, and a buttered crumpet. There is a phone with an app that stops me looking at social media all day. There is an email flashing and it might not be Boden. I can see a little, green island. It is covered in lush greenery, cloudless skies and a few little boats with people making repairs.