Where Were You At 29?

An interview with mom.

I’m 29, tell me about what your life was like when you were my age.

When I was 29, I was beginning my 3rd year living in Copenhagen. I had gotten married just 2 years before. This was the early 80’s in the Midwest and in those days I was considered a pretty desperate case for not being engaged or married even back at the age of 23.

Now I think 27 is too young to get married! When I was that age I was enjoying a fun and happy career as a retail dress buyer. I’d just been hired by May Company Corporate buying office. They arranged my move from Cincinnati to New York. I started my new job in July and in September; Alan had a job opportunity in Copenhagen. We knew an overseas move was in our future so said yes. I had to tell my new boss the news that I was moving to Europe and had to resign. I remember not being that stressed. I just walked in calmly and gave her the news. I was just happy about the adventure. I remember my boss was really upset and said, “You haven’t been transferred, what does that have to do with you? Why do you have to go?” Obviously, I wanted to.

The first couple of years in Copenhagen were a little dark. Working in fashion was the only life I had known. I found myself roaming around the department stores by day often looking for the newest Vogue or Glamor American editions to hit the news kiosk. I tried to learn Danish but was dismayed when I failed the first level. I didn’t take that well. I was homesick and felt a little disconnected.

By the time I was 28, the dark days of roaming aimlessly around department stores, trying to figure out what to do with my time were over. A couple things had happened. First we got a puppy and second I was lucky to meet a lovely Swedish woman who was the wife of a colleague of Alan’s. She obviously realized I was a little lost and invited me to come to The American Women’s Club of Denmark with her and mentioned that the club needed a Vice President and wondered if I might be interested. I needed a job, so I said sure. There were 350 members of the club. The next year, the year I turned 29, I was elected Vice President of an American Women’s Club. I had never seen myself being part of a Women’s Club. I had heard of Women’s Clubs only from an elderly aunt in Long Island but there I was, suddenly Vice President. I was elected in May. Things wound down for the summer so I had time to get up to speed and think about my new job. When September came around, I attended my first board meeting where unexpectedly, the President resigned. All of a sudden I became President of the American Women’s Club of Denmark. I had been to one meeting before that!

Ellie in Denmark

Speaking to friends in Copenhagen at one of the several baby showers they threw for me. I was so much younger than everyone that they were all very excited when I was pregnant!

Wow, how did you feel about that? Were you scared?

I felt like I didn’t know anything about it at all. It was pretty crazy. The members were probably thinking who is this 29 year old? Since I didn’t have kids in the International School, I wasn’t really connected to that community.

But jump in I did! I started running meetings. My first big event was a November luncheon where I had to introduce the U.S. Ambassador. I was only slightly nervous. I guess he was used to very long introductions because I noticed as I started to introduce him he popped a couple of mints in his mouth. I had given speeches quite a few times before but only about the dress business. This was a first so I remember that I made it pretty short. Sadly, The Ambassador had to start his speech with a mouth full of mints!

So you went from being a fashion buyer, to leading a bunch of women much older than you. How did this experience shape your identity at the time?

Being president of the American Women’s' Club made me feel stronger and more confident than I’d ever felt. I had a pretty narrow vision of myself before this experience. I hadn’t felt passionate about much beyond the department store world. I didn’t grow up in a very female empowered environment. Having a career when I graduated helped me grow. I knew I was good at it, I got headhunted for jobs and that gave me confidence.

So there I was in Denmark at the age of 29 surrounded by women older than me who thought I was pretty great. I had a big job where I had to give speeches and lead meeting. I felt like this is it, I’m President. I hadn’t been president of anything ever. It was really life changing for me. I felt presidential. I started really caring about issues that I’d never cared about. We worked on human rights issues, girls education, maternal health, empowerment of women. I became more aware of what was going on in the world and felt that we could make a difference.

As I settled into life abroad I had been really homesick for America. I missed my Mom and Dad, my brother and sister and their spouses. But when I went back to Indiana to visit, I knew I had changed. While conversations often focused on religion and politics, I found myself talking about how Americans abroad needed to be counted in the Census and represented in Congress, and how girls need to go to school in Kenya. I had so much passion. They probably thought ‘Who are you?’ I had changed. I was 29, but I felt older because my friends were older. I wasn’t the shy girl that I had been 5 years before.

Looking back at that time now, did you have a sense for where your life would go? What do you think 29 year old you would think of your last 30 years?

I don’t know if I could have foreseen how that experience, that year, was going to be a big part of me forever. I just fell into being president of this group but I discovered that I really enjoyed the role. I also discovered that I loved being part of a Women’s organization like this one. I loved my new friendships and learned a lot from women older than me, which still continues today. I think my 29 year old self would be amazed and happy that I’m still involved with American Women Overseas 30 years later.

I was also pregnant with you that year which was so exciting. I remember being slightly nervous about what was ahead but could not have predicted that the adventure that began right after my 30th birthday would be my best of all, being your Mom.

I remember being excited also that year because I knew we would be heading back to America soon. When we eventually moved back and settled in New Jersey, it wasn’t long before I missed my role with American Women Overseas and was anxious to move abroad again for another adventure.
I went on to be president of The American Women of Surrey and president of The FAWCO Foundation, all thanks to my start at the age of 29. Even today, I prefer to join things where I can be on the board. I went on to start my own business. I never would have guessed that about myself back then!

Thinking about that time in your life? Do you have any advice for me now as a 29 year old?

I think my 29th year was the most incredible year of my life. I had embraced my life abroad and was excited about becoming a mother. Some might think it was brave to quit my job and move to Denmark but I was madly in love and was ready to say yes to anything. I never spent much time overthinking things.

Ellie at Christening

At your christening with some of one of my older friends from the American embassy. They were always wearing fur! And the two of us celebrating your 29th birthday this year.

So my advice would be to take an opportunity that comes your way for new experiences. Don’t be afraid to take a different path. It’s really about leaving your comfort zone and grabbing life as it comes along.

If you have a chance to make friends with someone a little older or a lot older, don’t shy away from that because it turned out to be a fantastic experience for me. You can embrace someone from the next generation and learn so much from her.

And also keep fighting for the things you believe in. We finally did get Americans abroad counted in the census.

-- Jilly Badanes speaking with her mom, Ellie Badanes. Jilly works for a tech startup and lives in Brooklyn and tries to be more like her mom everyday. Ellie is the founder of The Pajama Company and taught her kids how to use Twitter, follow her at @elliebadanes.

View Comments