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Christine Hassler Headshot

You've Sacrificed Everything For Your Mother...Now What?

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Dear Christine,
I put my career on hold two years ago in order to help my mom write a book, start a career, obtain a divorce, and find a new partner. I have given 100% of my time and energy to these tasks, and I succeeded: my mom now has all the things that she wanted. I didn't think about the consequences of the choices I made at the time -- my mom was totally dysfunctional and was threatening suicide. Plus, I had hated every job I'd had since college graduation, so I figured I should throw myself into something (or someone) that I loved. Now, she's finally happy with her life, and she turns to me and says, "Why don't you have a career and decent living at 26?" I am totally unqualified for any job at this point and how could I tell any employer the truth about the last two years of my life? I feel as if now I'm worse off than my mom ever was.
Sacrificed Me for My Mom, 26, Chicago

Dear Sacrificed Me for My Mom,

It seems like this issue is much bigger than what to tell an employer. The fact that you basically stopped your entire life to take care of your mom and now she is not turning around to support you is concerning to say the least. You mentioned that she was dysfunctional and suicidal - has she ever gotten any medical or psychiatric help? That is far more important than writing a book, finding a career, or dating. It sounds like your mother has not been much of a mother to you at all and if you have not gotten any counseling to deal with this very unhealthy relationship, I highly recommend it.

Although I can understand your motivation for helping your mom because you had not found a job you liked and because you probably felt some sort of obligation, it was never your responsibility. Once you began to live her life for her, it probably became too difficult to get out of that pattern. Helping her gave you a sense of purpose at the cost of losing yourself. Now that she has the life she wants and is questioning yours, hopefully you can see clearly that the person you should be taking care of and investing in should be you! It's time to step more fully into your own life, and you can start by transitioning out of hers.

For the past two years your entire identity has been wrapped up in your mother's life. It's time to get back to basics and ask yourself some questions: What characteristics describe you? What do you enjoy? What are your talents and skills you've acquired? What type of things do you look forward to? What kind of people do you enjoy working with? Get reacquainted with yourself.

I encourage you to reframe the belief that you are not qualified for any job. Turning a person's life around on every level definitely gives you some experience that is transferable. Think about what you learned about money, writing a book, building a business, the law, negotiations, interpersonal interaction, and so on. You mentioned you were 100% committed to your mother which demonstrates your work ethic and accountability. You've had to be her coach, counselor, business partner, support system, etc. Don't look back at these years as something to hide. True it is often easier to help others than ourselves, but still most people would not have made the same sacrifice. Look at it as an incredible accomplishment and a testament to how capable you truly are.

I recommend you meet with a friend or mentor (or career coach if financially feasible) and describe to him/her the job duties you've performed for the past two years - and yes, taking care of your mom was a full-time job. Ask them to listen with an ear for transferable skills and request that they ask you detailed questions. Often speaking candidly with an objective third party can offer you perspective and be very revealing. My sense is that you'll begin to see that you HAVE done a lot over the past two years. Realizing this is going to be crucial to your confidence about getting a job.

Diane K. Danielson, CEO of The Downtown Womens Club, the career resource and business network for women on the go, had some great feedback: "Start your job hunt by looking at what you didn't like about the jobs you had. Once you discover what you "don't" want to do, then it will be easier to focus on what you really want to do. Next, if you already have an idea of a career you would like to pursue, start seeking out people who may be able to help you find that job to get you started. If you don't, you should still be out there networking to find a job or career that might be of interest. And don't worry so much about taking two years off. When anyone asks about the gap in your employment, you can respond "I took two years off to care for my mother." No need to elaborate or be defensive. As for your resume, if you had any type of work during the time period - part-time, temping, volunteer - put it in there. If you don't, you'll have to leave it blank; but, you will need to explain that gap up front and in any cover letters. Finding the perfect job may take some time, so build your skills through contract work, temping or taking classes."

I understand that the past two years have been incredibly difficult for you and I commend you for being there in such a huge way for your mother. Understandably, you are scared and feel worse off than she ever was, but you are not. If you can rebuild her life, you can surely create your own! You are only 26; rest assured your life is just beginning. But remember to focus on YOUR life now.

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