Rejoining the professional work force after years of full-time parenting can present a challenge under even ideal circumstances. Because the recession has demolished careers of so many primary breadwinners, stay-at-home moms like Melissa Hinebauch are not making that transition by choice, but compelled by the dismal reality wrought by their spouse's ongoing unemployment, most particularly the high cost of private health insurance.
"WANTED: Full-time position with benefits, 401K and decent pay. Ivy League-educated stay-at-home mom hopes to trade in diapers for professional development and deadlines." Thus reads the lede to Melissa Hinebauch's recent essay in The Concord Monitor, a highly personal exposition describing the uncertainty and anxiety she confronts while attempting a return to full-time employment nine years after her first child's birth launched her career as a full-time mom.
The youngest of Melissa's three children is only two-and-a-half, but staying home has become an unaffordable luxury seven months after her husband, Matt, was laid off from his job in Internet security product management. Matt continues to relentlessly apply for tech positions across the country--complicating Melissa's nascent job hunt with uncertain geographic coordinates for his next professional opportunity--but the couple feels they must double up efforts to secure any employment that comes with health insurance, since the family's period of subsidized COBRA benefits ends in January.
In her column, Melissa writes how she worries that her interview skills have grown rusty over the years, so I decide to track her down and offer a little coaching session. She does not hesitate to schedule a time when I reach her by phone and suggest that I'd like to play the role of a potential employer and run her through some typical interview questions.
The next morning, she's patiently waiting when I arrive in the hotel lobby. (Note to fake employer self: Melissa scores points for being on time, or even early.)
We chat for awhile before I begin the "interview," for which I will assume the position of manager in some vaguely-defined marketing/advertising firm. Melissa has done freelance writing since leaving full-time employment in 1997, but the bulk of her earlier professional experience has been in marketing and advertising.
Question: I see from your resume that it has been a number of years since you have been employed in a full-time professional position. What brings you to apply for the open position at this firm?
"I'm ready to get back into the work force. I feel like my children are wonderfully prepared for what's next for them. I'm interested in rejoining the land of adults and want to move forward with my professional career. I've done a great job at being a stay-at-home mother. I always thought I'd be a working mom, and I plan to take on that mantle soon.
"I miss working. I miss the social interaction, the sense of accomplishment. I used to have seven-page-long to-do list and felt such accomplishment to check each one off as the task was completed. I liked that feeling of being organized and getting things done. That momentum, being energized by the people around you, playing off the people around you, working with other people's enthusiasm, making strides to accomplish something together."
Question: Our firm deals with a wide arrays of products with various target markets. How does your experience qualify you to create campaigns that would appeal to different markets?
"I think whatever your product is, if you do your research and your homework you can come up with a successful campaign. Regardless what the product is or who your audience is, if you do your research and know the background, you can successfully target any market." (My coach identity suggests that it shows greater confidence to make a simple declarative statement, rather than begin a sentence with "I think." Also, coach suggests this would be a good opportunity to mention her degree in psychology.)
"That's why I went in to advertising in the first place. My degree is in psychology, but I was writing beer ads at the age of eight. Psychology is the perfect academic background. You can figure out how to sell people something they may not otherwise want."
Question: Would you describe yourself as a leader?
"I've been a very motivated, self-directed type A person my entire life. From a very early age I projected leadership qualities. I think I've carried that through my young adult life, through my married life. I'm a very cooperative, compassionate, dedicated person."
Question: How well do you work as a team-player?
"I work very hard and take great pride in the work that I do, and I would love to be a part of a team now. I feel like my family is my team. I deal with the logositics. I'm the captain of the shop. I make sure everything happens when and how it needs to happen.
"I think that being part of a corporate team would be a godsend right now. I would love to collaborate with other minds to come up with a collective effort. I'm responsible, reliable, and a really hard worker." (Coach comments: Good to highlight positive qualities. However, avoid defining self as "captain" during answer about being a team player. Also, employers don't want to hear about how their job would be a good thing for you, but rather how your work would be a good thing for their company.)
Question: Do you consider yourself goal-oriented?
"Absolutely. I love deadlines. I love doing something within a certain schedules. It helps me create a framework within which to structure my progress. I never miss a deadline.
"Most recently, I've been very proud of the writing I've done. I've improved my writing, developed and refined my voice. I've learned how to make a connection with the reader. It's required a lot of practice. I'm pretty pleased with my current abilities to write in multiple forums for multiple different audiences." (Coach comment: Excellent way to spin recent freelance years in a way to make it relevant to available position.)
Follow-up question: What have you learned about engaging different audiences?
"I think you have to use diferent vocab, word choice, different pacing and timing in your piece. Communicate by using references that are relevant for your target audience. It's important to understand the power of words and the power of creating conections with people that resonate with them. Baby boomers versus young single people in the city, you really have to change the way you're comunicating with them.
"I think if you're a good writer, you're a good writer. If you're of that generation, it doesn't qualify you for effectively speaking to that generation. If you have a voice, you can create a message that resonates. You have to be an astute viewer of the human condition. You have to understand human emotion. You have to understand what people want to hear. You have to use their words and their reference points."
Question: How do your own long-term goals fit into the vision of this firm? At the conclusion of this question, Melissa pauses for a moment. I can see her mind shifting through the reality of what role playing would require her to respond, but instead she begins to unload from her heart.
"They don't. I don't want to work in an office. I do large scale mixed media collages. I want to be an artist. I want to write a book. My long-term goals are to to achieve self-fulfillment by making use of my creative talents.
"In a real interview, I'd just tell them what they want to hear. Sales. Market share. Brand awareness. Increased sales. World dominance in their product category. That I would be an excellent employee. That my view of work is that I want to invest myself in an organization. I want to be a part of it. I want to have a sense of ownership of what I do and what the company does. I want to work hard and be part of an organization that I can really give a lot of my talents and creative energy towards making sure it is successful and moving forward.
"It's going to be a real challenge to just put the game face on and give all the right answers. I would do what I'd have to do and I will do what I have to do for my family. But I hope that one day I can do what I have to do for myself, to become the person I'm meant to be with the talents I have and the passion and creativity I've been suppressing for a long time.
"I have dreams and aspirations of my own. I feel like I've put them on hold for many years because of my husband's career and because I want to provide a supportive and consistent environment for my kids. So I've been putting off my own self-actualization. And the reality is I will still have to do that for awhile because of the circumstances, which is disheartening, but it's reality."
When Melissa emails later in the day to thank me for the interview, she includes a sample of the homemaker haikus she regularly writes to keep herself creatively engaged. What began as a one-year personal projects to try composing a poem a day has grown to a collection of more than 600 haikus. Of those, here are three.
Homemade mac and cheese
Can solve almost anything
If not, eat Kit Kats
Baby screaming, kids pouting
I will pay for sleep
Don't send the new kid to school
With pesto for lunch