From Homemaker to Breadwinner: Tips for Women Who Suddenly Have to Support Their Families

by | Jul. 27, 2009

Economic downturn, divorce, or a spouse’s illness or death can force a homemaker into the job market without warning. So how do you cope with this new role as breadwinner when it wasn’t in your plans?

When Charlynne Oborn's third child was just a year and a half old, her husband was diagnosed with a pituitary brain tumor. He lost his job and started receiving disability a month later, but it wasn't enough to keep the family afloat. After five years as a stay-at-home mom, Oborn suddenly found herself searching for a job as a legal secretary.

"I was happy being Mom. The next thing I knew, I was competing for jobs with countless others who didn't have a huge gap in their resumes," she recalls.

Unfortunately, circumstances for any family can change abruptly. During the recent recession, men's jobs accounted for nearly 80 percent of all job losses and forced homemakers everywhere to update their resumes and hold their breath as they prepared to hack their way through the corporate jungle.

If, for whatever reason, you are getting ready to trade in your t-shirt for a tailored suit, read on for tried-and-true strategies for dealing with your newfound responsibility as a financial provider.

Finding Employment

When life has thrown you a curveball and you decide that finding employment is necessary, there are many things you can do to increase your chances of finding the best job opportunities and standing out among your fellow applicants.

1. Network

You could spend countless hours scouring online job boards, but according to Gustavo Estrada of LDS Employment Resource Services, networking with people you know is the best way to go.

"Studies show that the success rate for anyone looking for a job is accelerated through networking - and women naturally network," he says. "Women are generally more aware of what's going on in other people's lives. And working women are more likely to know what's going on in other departments of their company." So be sure to spread the word with friends and neighbors, and don't forget to make the most of social websites like facebook.com. The more people who know you're looking for work, the greater your chances are of finding it.

2. Polish Your Presentation

Estrada says two of the most common mistakes women make when searching for a job are undervaluing their experiences and not presenting their skills correctly on a resume. "If you've been a Relief Society president or a PTA volunteer, those are great experiences to share with potential employers. You can address your time as a stay-at-home mom by saying, 'I was president of a nonprofit women's volunteer group. I directed a board of ten people, and I managed a budget.' These are valuable, transferable skills."

In fact, it was by highlighting her talents as a homemaker that Oborn was able to find employment again. "Interviewers gave me a hard time about the gap in my resume," she says. "But I pointed out the organizational skills I had used to run a household, and I got the job."

3. Take Advantage of Church Resources

By utilizing LDS Employment Resource Services through your ward or stake employment specialist, you can attend career workshops, receive assistance preparing resumes, find job leads, practice interviewing, explore self-employment options, and much more.

"In our career workshops we engage the head and the heart. We stimulate the brain, help you find your passion, and provide a safe environment where you can practice and improve your skill set," says Estrada. Visit providentliving.org to learn all that LDS Employment Resource Services has to offer.

4. Continue Your Education

"Take advantage of every opportunity to learn," counsels Estrada. "That way, when a crisis hits, you'll be prepared for it. Attend community classes or finish your degree. That doesn't mean you need to put undue stress on you and your family--take your time, but do make the effort."

5. Start Your Own Business

Another option for earning money is to start your own business, which is what Tamalin Christen did when her husband died of cancer three years ago. Widowed in her 30s with four young children to raise, she turned a hobby that she loves--catering--into a successful business.

"It was easy for me to make that switch from a hobby to a business," Christen says. "Luckily I'm able to work from home most of the time, but it takes a lot of planning, and it's difficult not to be able to depend on a set income. But I'm blessed to have family and friends who are willing to help me with child care when I need it."

Coping with the Emotional Toll

If you are successful in finding work, be prepared for the roller coaster ride that may follow. Homemakers who enter the workforce often experience intense emotional turmoil, including guilt for being away from their children and resentment toward their spouses.

"I felt a lot of guilt for taking my children to be cared for someplace else. It's heart wrenching to have to do that," recalls Oborn. "Going back to work brought a flood of emotions. There were a lot of tears as I wondered, 'How am I going to do it all?'"

For Christen, her role as single mother and sole provider continually takes its toll. "There's no break. I get tired," she says. "That's one of my biggest frustrations. There's just not enough time to do everything."

If a woman becomes the breadwinner because her husband is unemployed, the role reversal in the marriage can be difficult for both.

"Marriage is being put under a tremendous strain by the economy," says Dr. Elia Gourgouris, a psychologist and life coach. "When things are going well financially, other issues are pushed below the surface. But when a husband loses his job, that kind of stress can exacerbate other problems."

Gourgouris says that if such a role reversal occurs, it is critical to clarify roles and expectations from the beginning. "Defining expectations gives the couple a much better chance of staying close and connected while working through the crisis," he says. "If you don't define expectations, there's a lot of room for miscommunication and disappointment." This includes expectations regarding child care, housework, and job-hunting activities.

But Gourgouris also cautions women to recognize how closely a man's employment is related to his self-esteem. "Men, for the most part, connect their self-worth with their paycheck and their ability to be providers. When they lose their jobs, they often become depressed, and the longer it takes to find work, the deeper the depression can get."

If your husband is currently unemployed, keep a positive attitude (he's well aware of what's at stake), help him establish a daily routine that includes plenty of time for job-hunting and networking, and encourage him to learn new skills to make himself more marketable.

Moving Forward

Whether you wanted to be the breadwinner or not, Gourgouris says attitude can make all the difference.

"The mindset has to switch from 'Why did this happen to me?' to 'What will I do about it?' Get something positive out of it," he says. "There are benefits, like self-worth."

Oborn agrees. "I strongly believe that if we're creative, we can find ways to earn money," she says. "Plus, if you know you are doing everything you can, if you know you're helping to provide for your family, it will help with your self-esteem."

"Don't approach the work as a job only," adds Estrada. "When you do that, you tend to do just the minimum. Approach your work as a career. A career is where you hope to grow into something more. You'll learn more, you'll produce more, and you'll invest more."

Few know the importance of attitude and hard work more than Christen. "Staying positive is a conscious choice," she says. "Somehow things work out if you keep doing your part and have faith. I think if we get really stressed and spend time and energy worrying, then there is a tendency for things to go wrong. Maybe this isn't exactly what you planned on, but somehow it will work out."

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of LDS Living magazine.

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