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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Not Safe For Work

Last November, I was hired on as "holiday help" at a major retailer, and they kept me on after things slowed down post-Christmas. You would think that a single mother of three (I was unmarried at the time) would be beating down everyone's doors to get a full-time job, in a career field, with benefits.

Well, I was. And I'm acquainted with locally influential people on a friendly enough level that I would even ask on Twitter and Facebook, "do you know who's hiring someone like me?" Of course, the jobs I was interested in (nonprofit stuff, mostly) required experience, which I didn't have. (Number of people who have told me I'd be great at grant-writing: 2,369. Number of same who have given me an opportunity to do it: 0.)

What I had was a liberal arts degree and a job history that spanned...well, too many fields. The story of how I got there (and here) is long, but you might recognize some parts of it as your own -- or your friend's, or daughter's, or sister's.

I was identified in grammar school as gifted, but gifted education was not available to me once I changed schools (okay, not just schools, but geographic areas...I moved from Kentucky bluegrass to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico). So instead, I was just the Really Smart Kid. Eventually, as school bored me, I became the Really Smart Kid With Lackluster Grades. Also, I was bad at math (not just a little bad, but a lot bad). Teachers loved me despite my performance and classmates were intimidated by my vocabulary. A great little liberal arts college (that couldn't give me nearly enough scholarship money to even consider it) briefly courted me but I went another route.

I ended up at Auburn University Montgomery, which is a decent state school with its share of excellent faculty (especially in their business school and in their English department) and a lot of interesting staff. But then I couldn't settle on a major. I was living with my parents still, and gaga over my now-ex-husband, who was a few years older than me and had already graduated and was working. School was not my focus; a career was definitely not my focus (I was actually very interested in politics and public relations but my other half didn't have the stomach or the patience for those things so I avoided them to keep things sane). I didn't have any ambitions of being a stay-at-home-mom at the time, but I really had no idea what career I could have that would fit in with my fiancee's plans to...well, never leave Alabama.

I got married in April 1998, and that August I received my Bachelor of Liberal Arts. It meant that I had taken a lot of liberal arts classes (and I had, and I'd loved most of them). I had a job as a technical writer and editor for 14 months, then got a job as a caseworker for the county child support program. I was there six months before we ended up leaving Montgomery for Birmingham. There were no jobs in that field in my new county, and I ended up working for 17 months in online banking (which was a new field) before leaving to work as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit downtown. 

That last job lasted five months. I was pregnant with my second child, and constantly in the emergency room for unexpected bleeding. I was stressed about leaving my very young toddler son in daycare (I worked at a child care resource and referral agency and if that doesn't make you want to keep your kids out of day care, I don't know what will). We had to sacrifice a lot of extras but I was able to stay home with my children from February 2001 to March 2010, only working as a substitute teacher during the school day when they were all in class. 

By March 2010 the economy was drastically different and our family needed money. I got my insurance license and went to work in a friend's agency. within a few months, my marriage fell apart, my friend fired me, and I was unemployed for a few months before getting hired full-time at a department store. My employer was so inflexible with my schedule that I ended up leaving there and living off my divorce settlement for the summer after my divorce because summer care for three kids is costly (as in it was going to cost my whole paycheck plus some every week to pay for day care for my school-aged people).

Finding a job once school started seemed impossible. I went on so many interviews, driving all the gas out of my broken-down minivan in my sad attempts to find employment. My love interest (to whom I am now quite blissfully wed) encouraged me to try a particular store, and their flexible scheduling and long operating hours made it a perfect fit (the pay is terrible, it really is, but they work with the custody schedule I have with my kids' dad and few other places would). 

Did you notice that I haven't mentioned any new skills I gained outside the field of mothering during the nine years I was home? I did nothing but be a mother. My three children were born in just under three years. I was busy. And then when I wasn't busy being busy I wanted to sleep. It didn't occur to me that someday I would have to work. Reason even published a letter I wrote about "Mommy Wars." 

As a result, I am 36 and have a defaulted student loan and make just above minimum wage working between 15 and 25 hours a week. This is the only job I can find. I have interviewed for countless other jobs and have not been hired. Those who know me know I am intelligent, bright, personable, and capable. I'm not the only one like me out there. The one benefit of the job being part-time is that I am not spending two hundred dollars a month on after school care for my two youngest kids, and it's only seven miles away so it doesn't tax my car and gas tank like driving downtown would.

Before criticizing the unemployed and the underemployed, investigate their stories. And those of you who are undertaking the beautifully terrifying challenge of being a stay-at-home parent, be sure you invest in yourself a little during those years. As hard as it is to find work that's rewarding both spiritually and financially right now, I still don't regret the time I spent not working. I just wish I'd thought of student loans and my future a little more often.


  1. Amen! You are definitely not alone. My own education and career paths look similar. While I do have regrets and plenty of dumb mistakes I made on the way, on the whole I'm proud of prioritizing my family and I stand by that. But convincing a prospective employer that your devotion to your family doesn't make you a liability is difficult, though. My solution was to form my own freelancing identity and work for myself, which sometimes pays very well and then for months at a time, nothing. I laugh at the thought of retirement and other such luxuries.

  2. I follow a few bloggers that have made the big time just by accident :) You write wonderfully, maybe you can find your niche and run with it.