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this mom goes back to work: two days before

February 26, 2011

I have been trying without luck for a couple of weeks to sit down and write a post about going from full-time stay-at-home-mom to full-time working mom. My difficulty comes from wondering what story I want to tell. I don’t mean “what story I want you to know.” I mean “what I want the story to be for me.” The only thing to do in a situation like this is to begin. The story will reveal itself.

My last 9-to-5 job (public relations) ended in 1999 when I had my first son. I was given an opportunity to work from home as a part-time consultant, and I took it. I did a lot during those first four years at home — managed large accounts, started a community newspaper with a colleague and had my second son. When I was 8-months pregnant with the third son (the oldest wasn’t four yet), I collapsed from all the pressure. I did sporadic freelance writing after that, tried my hand at an art studio and taught Zumba. Mostly, I hung out here with all of you. I worked on my poetry and made lots of enduring and energizing connections.

I never planned to stay-at-home. It happened by default. My freak-out wasn’t the fatal blow. What did me in was the very stark reality that daycare for three tiny boys is cost-prohibitive. I would be staying home. Readers will want to know that I am aware of the benefits to my children of having me care for them. Readers will want to know that I am aware I ought to be grateful for the luxury of “not having to” work. Yes, readers, I am aware of those things, and I also want to say that being out of the workforce was a great sacrifice.

Staying at home is thankless and it’s grueling and the pay sucks. While it has some perks, they come at great risk, including diminishing value to the community (yes, I know this isn’t how it should be, but it’s the way it is), loss of economic advantage (no contributions to retirement plans or social security), erosion of professional street cred, disparities in relationships, etc. etc. Readers will want to know that I am aware that what I was doing instead — taking care of children — was of utmost importance. Readers will want to know that I am aware that I am selfish in saying I have needs and they haven’t been being met by staying home. I’m sorry, readers, I would have chosen differently.

I intended to go back to work once all three of them were in school all-day (Fall 2008), but my mom was sick and I was traveling great distances to see her. We lost her in 2009. I can’t believe it’s been two years, and I can’t believe it has taken me this long to catch my breath.

So there I was in the Fall of 2010 with a resume that could be read as follows: Carolee hasn’t shown up in an office since 1999, and she hasn’t done PR work since 2003. It was daunting. I applied for a few traditional PR jobs, and I didn’t even get an interview. And then I got lucky. I spotted a job posting for a PR/marketing person with social media experience. Could all the time I’ve spent with you — building and participating in community — have real-world (translation: economic) value?

I decided this was the time to embrace my story. I took a risk in my cover letter. Here is the bulk of it:

My professional background provides the strong public relations, writing and editing experience [Marketing Company] is looking for in a [Position Name]. In addition, for the last several years, I have used social media extensively (blogs, Facebook, and others) to reach my goals in the literary community. The power of social media thrills me, and I go after connections and opportunities with a spirit of adventure.

Much of my success in public relations came in my twenties and early thirties. When I took time away from that career to raise my family, I was pleased to discover social media almost immediately as an effective way to manage and promote myself as a writer and artist. I use these interactive platforms on a daily basis.

I would be delighted, as I return to the workforce in my late thirties, if there were a career opportunity that allowed me to work with social media while being informed by the foundation I have in public relations, writing and editing. While I very much enjoyed my years as a strict public relations professional, I do not want to go back to the old way of doing that work. I am interested in new frontiers in the field.

My letter and its accompanying resume piqued The Marketing Company’s interest, and after a couple months of interviewing (via email, via phone and via four in-person meetings), I was offered the job. Starting on Monday, in two days, I will be working as a PR/marketing professional who uses social media to create opportunities (relationship, good will and, of course, sales/revenue) for clients.

Of course, it is going to be a difficult transition. I won’t be able to socialize with friends and poets during the day. I won’t have as much time to write and chat. I won’t have as much time to edit, submit and network. I won’t have as much time to read. I will struggle more with juggling schedules of the 5-member household. I will have to say no to some fun things and so will everyone else who lives here. But it’s time. The disadvantages of staying at home now outweigh the benefits.

I need a different path toward feeling like a real person in the world. I need to feel as though I am making my own way. I want to work, and I want to earn. I want to contribute something other than I have been contributing. And I want to redefine myself. Say what you like about it not mattering how people see you, but it’s also extremely damaging when what people assume is miles and miles away from how you know yourself.

I have no doubt that I will struggle along the way. I am not known for grace, and I am not known for easing into and through anything. I am excited, and I am nervous. And the bright quality of that energy is so appealing (not just with this specific job, but with the decision to work again). It’s a brightness and energy I have never been able to attach to my personal experience as a stay-at-home mother. I know that’s not a popular thing to say.

I spent a lot of time admiring those women who glow and who flourish as full-time mothers. I haven’t been able to achieve it, and I gave it a good go. I even tried it Carolee-style — infusing more me-time than any other mom I know, adding a serious pursuit of a craft (poetry), traveling alone a few times a year, etc. But I have still been having a rough time with it. Something has been missing.

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17 Comments
  1. February 26, 2011 9:42 pm

    Wonderful. I love this post and I’m so proud of you. You deserve every one of the good things that are coming to you.

    • February 26, 2011 9:53 pm

      thanks, jason. i don’t know what i deserve, but i hope i am lucky enough to find success. whatever that means.

  2. February 26, 2011 9:45 pm

    I think this is so wise. Watching Martha try to find work in her mid-fifties, — with that 20 year hole in her resume — has been sobering.

    Yes, it will be difficult, even harrowing at times. But it will be brilliant, too. You’ve been trying to work against the grain too long 🙂

    • February 26, 2011 9:57 pm

      yes, it is so difficult to demonstrate worth and skill after being out of the workforce. it feels unbelievable that i stumbled upon something that values what i have been doing since i stopped working.

  3. February 26, 2011 9:47 pm

    I am glad you are picking up this new part of the jigsaw that is your life. We only get to see the picture as we put more pieces in, don’t we? I was a stay at home mom and worked part time; didn’t have my first full-time job until I was 38 and felt I had been given wings. The family understood. They knew I didn’t love them any the less. And we shouldn’t be defined by any of our choices but rather by what makes us a happy, contributing [in whatever way we wish to define that word] individual. Twenty years later and I am 58 and newly retired to write full time and that has given me new wings. To everything there is a season, right? So go get ’em and enjoy the hell out of it. I shall miss having you around and hope you don’t disappear completely from the poetry community.

    • February 26, 2011 9:59 pm

      oh, margo — this blog is one of my lifelines. i am not disappearing! and it’s so wonderful to hear about your experience going to work full-time at 38 (that’s how old i am, by the way), giving it a couple decades and then retiring to write. yes — seasons.

  4. February 26, 2011 9:48 pm

    A very honest and revealing post. All the best to you in your new/old field.

    • February 26, 2011 10:00 pm

      i’m glad it feels honest and revealing. it is — but i also held back in a couple places! 🙂

  5. February 26, 2011 10:28 pm

    Thanks for this post, Carolee! I remember at first feeling bad about wanting to return to work only three months after I adopted my son, but I know that being a happy , fulfilled mom made me a better mom. Best of luck to you as begin this new kind of juggling act!

  6. February 26, 2011 10:33 pm

    I love the way that you wrote your resume. My own experience was that I fully expected to stay home and care for my children, and believed the advice to get an education and a career first – but I didn’t fully appreciate how undervalued I would be when I did return to the workforce. At that stage I added a business diploma to my academic credentials, graduated top of the class, and still took a year to get a job. But eventually I did get a great part-time job, and a few years ago added another great part-time job, which is shortly to become my full-time job, while I leave the other.
    Good luck with your new job. It will be hard juggling family, work, and “me time”, but I hope you still find time to write.

  7. February 26, 2011 11:48 pm

    You have courage and poise, Carolee. Although as I write this well-deserved praise of you, I remember your post about running to your friend’s house and coming home smelling like wood smoke. Ever since then I’ve associated you with the smell of a pot-bellied stove in winter 🙂

    What an engaging narrative of your life as a mother and a writer. I do wish mothers were paid more and given more status in the wage-earning world. But you are gifted and your new employer sensed it. You’re a great writer, period.

    Sometimes I wish I wrote under a pseudonym so that I could say all the thoughts that decorum does not allow a mother or a wife to say. Yes, I do censor myself. How can we not when we have our kid’s to think of?

  8. February 26, 2011 11:48 pm

    Beautifully said. Now go get ’em.

  9. February 27, 2011 12:02 am

    I read your posting and cover letter, and reading it without even your name attached I’d know it was you. All the same I don’t know you at all more than a few threads worth, some poems, some kindness in common along the way.

    But as I trust you as a writer, so too any choices you make in life knowing that the craft and care you already express will likewise continue because they are who you are. Good fortune all around Carolee and I will also continue listening to the words you share with us.

  10. February 27, 2011 7:42 am

    Good for you, Carolee! (Very timely, reading this, as I’m returning to the office after my maternity leave tomorrow.) No judgment from this reader — I completely get it. And for what it’s worth, every study I’ve ever read on this topic connects women working outside the home with not only all the benefits you describe in your post, but also lower rates of depression, higher rates of marital satisfaction, and numerous benefits (academic, social) for kids as well. (Another fun fact: studies have shown that mothers who work outside the home spend on average only two hours less a week directly interacting with their children, compared with stay-at-homes.) I am cheering and toasting to the start of a wonderful new adventure for you, and wishing you tremendous happiness and success!

  11. Margaret Bryant permalink
    February 27, 2011 9:21 am

    Carolee, What would you say to your child who was embarking on a new adventure as brave yours? Be as excited nd confidant for you as you would be for him.
    You would, most likely, be convinced that no challenge would be too great for him (even though you might have some blurred silenced brief doubts).
    Be a proud parent of yourself!

    Margaret Bryant

  12. February 27, 2011 12:33 pm

    All your pals’ comments are true & to be taken as a tonic, to bolster your smart decisions about what kind of life you need to create for yourself.

    You are a brave, honest, creative woman. I look forward to your new life!

    Rah! Rah! Rah!

  13. February 27, 2011 1:07 pm

    Go you…..I work (albeit from home) and find I am a much better mother/person for it….I felt like my brain had turned to mulch before and I was verging on depression. How can you feel like a valued member of society when you’ve gone from a professional organisation where what you said had weight to folding sheets and zapping veggies without feeling a sense of bewilderment and, at some level, loss? I loved interracting with the boys when they were little; what I didn’t love was the loneliness, the feeling of worthlessness, the fact that when you’re a SAHM NO-ONE ever promotes you or gives you a raise or even a simple pat on the back. I look at women with five kids who are sahms and really relish their roles and I am agog….so I get you and I wish you all the luck in the world. xxxxxxx

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