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Getting Your First Job Being a Homemaker

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For years you've probably felt confident and competent on the home front, the PTA front, the soccer front, and the social front. But now, as you set out into the workplace, your identity is in question and you may no longer feel in control.

Your motive for entering the job market could be college for your children or grandchildren, a divorce, a death, the empty-nest syndrome, etc. The first place many homemakers attempt to secure employment is at the local bank, post office, department store or school because they're familiar with these environments.

If you enjoyed a professional career before marriage and children, you may feel this job-search is an adventure, just a lark at first. You may believe the positions you're applying for are beneath your educational experience (but that's okay, you say; you're not looking for a real job anyway). Then you're passed over for a simple retail-clerk position, and suddenly a tiny alarm goes off in your head. Next you're rejected for a library-aide's job, and then a UPS delivery position. Bewildered now, fears rise within you. You start thinking about failure, about competition, about rejection.

Because you were productive at home you may assume you will be viewed as a whiz in the work setting-especially for "just a little job." In time, you will be taken seriously - but not yet. So be careful not to move too quickly into job search without adequate planning or preparation. Actually, you should be thankful if you don't get any of those first jobs. In essence, you'll have saved yourself from the fate of a dead end, low-paying abyss.

Let's rewind the tape for a moment. Let's say you do land a job-your first one in 20 years. Ninety percent of the time it will be an entry-level position, perhaps paying 50 cents an hour above minimum wage. After your initial pleasure at having "gotten a job," you may feel resentful at your low wages and the apparent lack of opportunity to advance. And with good reason: Your teenage son probably will be making more per hour than you! Instead of gaining confidence in the world of work, you've had just the opposite happen.

I have counseled dozens of women in this situation - all suburban housewives, all with advanced degrees, all working in low-paying jobs. Do they eventually transfer out of these entry-level nightmares? Some do. Far too many don't. Why don't their employers promote them? Don't they recognize something good when they see it? Absolutely, but not in the way you'd hoped. Most employers are so grateful to have a capable person for once in a front-line position, who interacts well with clients or customers, they don't want to promote her at all!

There must be a smarter way to enter the workforce for the first time - or after a two-decade gap. There is. It's my contention that women who are unaccustomed to working outside the home need an "incubation" period before they go out job-hunting. Let's take a closer look at this idea.

As a homemaker you probably experienced a great deal of freedom and power. You probably made the buying decisions, raised the children, and planned the events and parties. The trade-off is you defined yourself wholly in terms of your husband and children.

An incubation period, therefore, is desirable for several reasons. The most important is that you simply need time and encouragement to redefine yourself and your roles. This isn't an instantaneous process. You will need to learn how to plan rather than react, to compete rather than dictate, to communicate rather than boss. Not an easy assignment. In other words, you need time to develop a new self-image. All of these extremely important issues should be worked out prior to launching any job-search campaign.

During the incubation period you should work to clarify your goals and values, establish your priorities, and explore career and educational opportunities. You can also use this buffer period to work on your personal appearance: to lose weight, try out new hairstyles, invest in a business wardrobe, etc.

In my opinion, the best incubation device for women is returning to school - whether it's a short-term training program, a two-year certificated course, or a degree. This transition period affords you the most promising opportunity to move successfully from homemaker to employee or businesswoman that I know of. Attending classes and doing assignments will accustom you to schedules and a disciplined regimen.

By contrast, if you go full-steam ahead without setting goals, exploring real career options and training opportunities, you will probably short-change yourself. Not only that, but you may lock yourself into a low-paying track for a good part of your career. Much better to spend a few months or a couple of years organizing yourself first. Then go after what you want-which, by then, you'll know.

Another reason for an incubation period is to prepare and condition your family to get along without you. Your family will have to make some real adjustments. Your husband may even have to learn how to cook. Expect some resentment and some flak. Be compassionate; their worlds are changing as well. You may also experience some guilt, but eventually you'll understand that no alternative is 100 percent perfect or positive. There are trade-offs to staying home and trade-offs to working. But there are also some surprising rewards. Soon you will start to see yourself in a different light - and so will your husband and children.
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