In my last job, I managed a small bunch of women who were wonderful, creative, funny, and warm. We bonded over coffee love, our temperamental boss, shared politics, and our industry’s shifting landscape. I had a big, cushy couch in my office, and it was an unusual day when one of them didn’t plant themselves there, sometimes to laugh, sometimes to cry—I was known as the school shrink, an ocean of calm in a workplace that often had a rumbling dark undercurrent. My coworkers told me about office arguments and family traumas. I felt liked and appreciated, and when I announced I was leaving, there were moans and groans and “What the HELL are we going to do now?!” pronouncements.
I was more than a little bit hurt. I’d never been invited along.
I ran into many of them from time to time since we’re all in the same field, and I stayed in touch with most over social media. Some of them also peeled off into other jobs. Over the next couple of years, I had semi-regular coffee dates with a few people, and during one of those dates with Jan, who’d been a mid-level staffer, I asked if she ever saw Sophie, a coworker I hadn’t run into lately. “Oh sure,” she said. “I see her at least every month. A bunch of us—” she named four or five of my former coworkers, “—get together regularly for drinks.”
I was a little bit stunned, and—I admit it—more than a little bit hurt. I’d never been invited along.
Why Wasn’t I Invited?
It nagged at me over the next few weeks. Why wouldn’t they have included me, even once?
I remembered someone I’d worked with in my first job—an incredibly unlikeable woman, difficult, borderline abusive to her underlings and prickly to her peers. I was always amazed that she had no clue as to how others viewed her; she thought she was well-liked and popular, when in fact people went out of their way to avoid her. Oh my God, I thought—was that true of me? Was I deluded that I was so well liked? I knew they didn’t think I was awful, like that former coworker … but maybe they didn’t like me as much as I’d thought they had.
Maybe they didn’t like me as much as I’d thought they had.
In truth, that didn’t sit right. I’m a pretty likeable person (not bragging, it’s just a character trait I inherited from my mom). In my decades of working, I had a decent reputation as a cool coworker or boss. So then … why?
I didn’t fixate on it, but from time to time the thought came up. And then one day, it hit me—pow! They didn’t invite me because I wasn’t One of Them. Despite what I’d thought, I wasn’t a peer. I was 20 to 25 years older (ok, 30 years older than the youngest of them). I wasn’t the school shrink—I was the Mom. And who wants to go out drinking with Mom? Even the Cool Mom.
The Reality Gulf
But here’s the thing: Though they may have been hyper-aware of the age difference, I wasn’t. We were reading the same books, seeing the same movies, listening to a lot of the same music—I take pride in not being stuck on the music of my youth. We liked the same politicians and were equally pissed off about the latest infringement on our reproductive rights. And though I’m wiser and chiller than I was in, say, my 30s, I just don’t feel that different inside. (That’s why I often do a double take when I catch myself in a mirror or store window reflection. Who is that person, I wonder.) I felt like one of them.
I’m wiser and chiller than I was in, say, my 30s, I just don’t feel that different inside.
And that’s especially interesting, because some of them were not that much older than my oldest daughter—and I definitely feel like a different generation than her and her friends. I’ve decided that’s a trick of the workplace: Though we laugh a lot and have fun, we’re pulling together to get stuff done. It’s work. When I see my daughter with her friends, they’re lazing around and cracking each other up, cursing and talking about their sex lives. Maybe if I had gone out with my coworkers on one of their bar nights, I would have witnessed the age-difference gulf more clearly.
That trick of the workplace has continued in my current job; I still don’t feel so different from my staff, despite the fact that the age gap has only gotten gappier. Though I have to say, now I sometimes hear “Oh, my mom feels the same way you do” from one or another of them. But I’ve also heard them say, “Your kids are so lucky—you’re way cooler than my mom.” So maybe it’s not so bad. My delusion that we’re peers keeps me feeling younger than I really am. And at least I have kids in my life who listen to me.