We've heard plenty about the cultural phenomenon of career-oriented people leaving the workplace to become at-home parents (either stay-at-home or work-from-home). What we don't hear enough about is the other end of this odyssey, when you realize the time has come to RETURN TO WORK. This is often the point when you realize you no longer possess the single most important thing you'll need in order to re-enter the workforce. Nope, it's not a suit that fits (though that's probably an issue as well.) It's self-confidence.
For at-home parents, there's no single POP! of the confidence bubble; it's more of a long, slow pfffffffffffffttttt. After one, two, maybe even 10 or more years without external validation – that is, no accolades from respected colleagues, no glowing performance appraisals, no promotions, no raises – one's professional confidence dissipates.
And now they expect you to go on interviews and speak coherently about things having nothing to do with other people's ingestions or excretions? Who remembers that kind of stuff? It's a serious problem.
The solution to getting over this overwhelming emotional hurdle will be different for everyone, of course. But the best thing I did to boost my confidence enough to re-enter the workplace after 10 years of working from home was to take a temp job that I was overqualified for.
"Temping" – or contract work or whatever you want to call it – provided just the safety net I needed to bridge the gap. I had been a corporate technical editor in my "previous life," and even though I had kept my skills fairly sharp over the years, I was overwhelmed at the thought of jumping back into a permanent, full-time gig. So I signed up with a staffing agency. I told them up front that I would be looking for a "real" job and might need time off for interviews. I told them that if my kid got sick, I'd need to take a day off. To my surprise, that was OK with them.
I soon accepted a three-month job as a proofreader of retail sale flyers. Proofreading was something I could do in my sleep (which was a good thing, as my body took awhile to readjust to a desk job.)
Here's how it went:
Arrived before boss. Waited awkwardly in lobby for 15 minutes. Watched people streaming in to work. Became painfully aware of being overdressed. Boss arrived, showed me where the bathrooms, elevators, fire exits, and my cubicle were. Yikes! My computer was a Mac (I'd been on a PC for several years) and the company was using newer versions of Word and Outlook than I was used to. Filled out papers. Didn't really do any work. No one talked to me. (Nobody ever talks to the temp. I think it's a rule.)
At exactly 5:00 p.m., I high-tailed it to my car. The longing to see my kids was a physical ache. I pictured them lying on their beds in fetal positions, wondering why their Mommy had abandoned them (I should probably mention that I'd "abandoned" them to Dad, who'd rearranged his work schedule to be home in time for the school bus). I quickly broke down and sobbed the rest of the way home. At 5:30 I ran into the house, grabbed my sons (then ages 9 and 7) in a bear hug, and cried, "Oh my babies, my babies!" I'm not making this up. They gave me strange looks and inquired what the heck was wrong with me. We had all survived. Even my husband was fine.
Day 2 and Beyond:
I knew what to wear. (Yay!) My new ID badge let me enter the building all by myself. (Yay!) And they finally gave me some WORK to do. They put a proof sheet in my left hand, and a red pen in my right … and Stella got her groove back! I wowed them with my speed and accuracy. More importantly, I wowed myself. All my fears that I'd lost it were brushed away as the weeks went on. My confidence seeped back in.
About six weeks into the three-month temp job, they offered me a permanent position. I knew it wasn't the right fit for me, long-term, and by then I was so confident I turned it down.
Temping won't be the right move for everyone, but it worked wonders for me. It allowed me to brush up my rusty skills, readapt to the working world, and get my family over the logistical and psychological hump of Mom not being always-available. And it prepared me for the job that later led to this one!
Do What You Need to Do
If you're approaching the back-to-work transition, consider what will make it less intimidating for YOU. Some people return to their old employers (perhaps in different capacities). Others take continuing education courses to brush up on the latest skills or technologies. And everybody should start tapping into their networks – former colleagues, friends, or family members can help you get up to speed on what it's like in that jungle out there. If they don't know of any job openings, they might at least be able to help you get an "informational interview," which is just what it sounds like: an interview where you gather information (about the company, the industry, or a certain type of job) with no expectation of hiring.
Go on as many interviews as you can land (informational or real), and pay attention to everything. Even unsuccessful interviews are valuable for seeing the kinds of questions hiring managers ask, what people wear to work in various settings, and a number of other details. The first one is always the worst, so try to get it out of the way as soon as you can.
Once you break the barrier of your own self-confidence, you'll be ready to tackle the rest of your career.
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