Rebecca was a 39-year-old woman and a mother of two (8 and 10). She had a college degree and a 10-year of mid-level corporate experience. Rebecca was happily married to her husband Bob who made a handsome six-figure income, they were comfortably living an upper-middle-class life in a suburban town in the Seattle area. The only downside, Rebecca took an 8-year break after she had her second child and she was feeling lost about how to go back to work.

It was clear that making money was not the main concern for Rebecca. Though some income of her own would have helped her self-esteem, “I want to have something to use my skills and experience” was her motivation.

Over the last several years I have worked with more than a dozen of women like Rebecca. Very few of them knew where to begin or whom to ask for help even, they felt lost. Here are some of the common patterns and possible ways to break those.

Very Rigid, Limited Idea of What “Work” Means

Knowing that she was stuck and was not making any progress in the job search or resume preparation, I asked Rebecca to share her feeling about the concept of “work”. “Stress”, she answered candidly, “running around, not able to take care of the kids, family, leaving the house untidy. I will be forced to leave the house as I have a work I need to go to”.

“Hmm, how exciting” …Rebecca and I shared a good laugh.

As humans, when our basic need of food, shelter, and family are met, we move to a higher level of needs. Having a purpose, doing something beyond self and immediate family becomes a new need. That is when we start feeling something is missing. I sensed Rebecca was entering that stage. The desire to go back to work (the only way she knows) was one way to fulfill that need. The reason she was having the dilemma because that “solution” of going back to work didn’t seem very attractive either.

“Well, what are some of your interests these days?” I asked. Rebecca took a big pause and couldn’t seem to find anything other than how to make quick meals, household tips etc. None of those were remotely related to the kind of work she wanted to “go back” to.

It was no surprise that Rebecca was fully focused on the areas of the kids and the family. But those were no longer fulfilling for her. What could she do about it?

It was time to go back to the drawing board, using this dissatisfaction as a cue for crafting something for the next episode of her life. It is not “going back”, its all about moving forward.

No Time for Self

The simple rule of the physical world says if you want to bring something new you need to let something go. Rebecca’s day was full of chores. She hardly had time to finish all the chores she wanted to get done, where was the time to think about anything else? As a former engineer, I knew she needed to go back to the basics.

I challenged Rebecca to find an hour in a day when she could do anything she liked. The ask was small and specific. It worked. She was able to find out that hour during the midday. An hour is not a significant time to find out her next career obviously. But it gave her a small win. For the first week, Rebecca’s homework was to use that one hour to do something simple and something she liked. She chose reading one of her favorite books, scrapbooking etc. I suggested to keep those handy so she didn’t get a chance to be distracted by the chores.

Why was this small win important? It gave her brain a break when she was not thinking about the household chores. Once she experienced that break she felt little more confident and aimed for something bigger. Our brain needs those “free” time to be more effective.

Finally, No Clue About What Kind of Engagement Would be Fulfilling

We think we know ourselves well, what we like, what we don’t like. In reality, we often don’t know what attracts us, especially when it is not part of our regular experience. Rebecca spent eight years focusing on her kid’s wellbeing and taking care of the family, she didn’t even know what other things she was interested in.

Once Rebecca had a pretty good grip on allocating and exercising her “me time”, the next homework for her was to explore her interests. This is a very creative and slow process.

The guidance I gave her:

  • Think about some of the activities that you are interested in (smaller is better).
  • Make a plan to do those. Going outside the house helps.
  • It could be a very simple project to start with. Some examples – writing about efficient ways of making a healthy meal, organizing a meetup group based on common interests, volunteering in local non-profit or school in different roles. Meeting friends, people from your network for a coffee could be another great way to generate ideas.

I also suggested Rebecca take a simple strengths assessment, go through the exercises in this book, and find volunteering opportunities based on her interests and skills.

Very often we think volunteering has to be about doing giving back to the poor or something with the school helping to educate the children. While those are great reasons, in this context I suggest volunteering because it has a relatively lower bar of entry. Volunteering can range from a bake sale to designing a computer network or running an organization even. When I volunteered at our local school, I revamped their communication. It included understanding the current system, the need, researching the available tools and technologies in the market and finally designing a system, a process, recruiting and leading a team. Some of the volunteers in my team later served on the board and one of them served as the president eventually. My work definitely helped the school but more importantly, I discovered what kind of work was meaningful for me.

Putting It All Together

Reinventing our own path in the 40s is not for the faint of the heart. However, it helps if we can shift our perspective. It is NOT about “going back” to the kind of work we did 10 years ago, it is more like a design project to help us move forward. Those who have done a home or kitchen remodeling would be able to relate.

The design problem at hand- “I have this education, different work experience, life experience as a mom and these are some of my interests. What can I create that is meaningful for me at this stage of my life. What would be a small experiment to start with”.

It’s not a one time thought or a task to check off, it is a process. Start the process today, have someone as your accountability buddy. In no time you will start seeing the results in so many different shapes and forms. It’s all worth it!

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