Divorce and the Hardest Work of Getting Back to Work

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—One of the low points during those first post-split weeks occurred one Friday afternoon when my twelve-year-old informed me that he and his pals would be staying out as late as they wanted. When I said no, he puffed himself up to make sure his five pals were listening, put a derisive sneer on his face and shot back "I don't have to listen to you! You don't even have a job!" In the few awkward seconds while my son's friends glanced nervously at each other, wondering what would happen next, I came up with a quick response.

"Do too! And it's whupping you upside the head, you rude, ungrateful cretin!"

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In the end, I swallowed that response, took a deep breath and waited till another came out that most child experts would probably prefer: "Have a seat, Mister, we're going to have a talk."

Like many women who had the choice, I quit working full time when my kids were young to stay home, read Harry Potter books and take them to museums. My teen may or may not have known that the words "job" and "career" gave me occasional bouts of anxiety. But he knew that his father had met the new love of his life at the office. Perhaps he thought that if only his mom was in the office also, working at a JOB, his parents would still be together.

Statistics actually don't show that women who work are less likely to get divorced. But they do show that women who are divorced are much more likely to need to work. And if we have been home for much of the time our kids were young, the prospect of getting a job tomorrow is a little like entering a bikini contest when you just had a baby. Unless you've been sneaking to the gym all those months or you have the confidence of a supermodel, the prospect can be terrifying.

When my son and I sat down for the talk, I told him that as a matter of fact, I would soon be looking for a job, but until then my primary job was being his mom and he needed to show respect. Somehow, having to defend my choice to my son reminded me of the reasons I had taken time off from paid work to begin with. They were still compelling reasons. I had zero regrets.

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And this helped. It helped dull the sting of my teenager's "diss," and it helped when I sat down to face my post-divorce employability. Chalk it up to some sort of biological Prozac, but I believed that in some real way, parenting was too rich and too hard a job not to serve as meaningful training for future work. I was willing to believe that the perspective gained from years of cooking, planning, organizing and listening, would enhance, instead of diminish, my ability to earn an income. Sometimes, all it took was a conversation with a myopic 24-year-old, clawing her way up the ladder in some industry (ahh, I remember those days), to remind me that one could be smart about work and still be a complete idiot about the rest of it.

"Anyone can be ambitious for work," says Sophie Wade, founder of Flexcel, an employment firm specializing in career change and re-entry on the flex-time model. "Far better to be 'ambitious for life."

The phrase "ambition for life" is a good one. It sets the goal higher than just getting a good job or good paying job. And it puts things into perspective. As a mom, you already have some of this life stuff covered, so now it's just a matter of finding work. O.K., maybe it won't all be that easy, but according to Wade and other employment experts, much of the trick to getting back into the world of work is to tackle it from a positive place rather than a panicked one. Confidence, say back–to-work experts, is the single greatest determinant in your ability to push yourself successfully over the threshold to a new and independent life So, think of yourself as having been say, an army squadron leader, and know that you've got what it takes.

Breathe deep, rise above those dissing cretins and take a first stab at your résumé.

Elise Pettus is the founder of UNtied, a website for women navigating Separation and Divorce. Check out the site's free monthly info events.

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