Stay-at-Home Parents and COVID-19: What to Explore Before Starting a Job Search
By Christine Walker
During the COVID-19 crisis, unemployment rates have sky-rocketed and feelings of vulnerability are widespread. Many parents who have comfortably taken a break from the workforce may now be living with feelings of insecurity, wondering how they can contribute to family finances without neglecting their children. As career coaches, we are uniquely positioned to help.
When I was eight months pregnant with our first baby, my husband lost his job at a major accounting firm. I was still working at the time, so I knew I could continue teaching, if necessary. I ended up not needing to do so and was able to stay home for nearly a decade with our growing family. Then, without any warning, my husband lost his job again. My resume was out of date. My LinkedIn profile was laughable, and my teaching certificate had expired. With little ones depending on us, I felt vulnerable and conflicted.
As my own experience shows, before stay-at-home parents embark on a job search, it is important to address their conflicting or changing priorities. Effective helping includes clarifying four main factors: timing, strengths, work-life balance, and meaning and purpose.
Timing the Transition
Talking about timing is an essential first step. Parents with financial pressures will have different priorities from parents exploring options with no urgency. Questions to ask the job seeker may include:
- What is appealing to you about going back to work right now?
- What about your current lifestyle and routine will change if you go back to work right now?
- Which skills or experience would you like to gain before looking for a job?
- Can you think of a better time to make this change? What time and why?
- In what ways will the current COVID-19 crisis affect your timing?
At this point, some parents may realize they are not yet ready to enter the workforce, so coaches can help these parents develop a career plan they can begin working toward for future implementation.
The Power of Identifying Strengths
Character strengths are aspects of our personality that feel essential to who we are, and, by incorporating them into our careers, can improve work engagement (Baker, 2018). The VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA Institute on Character, 2020) is a valuable assessment for stay-at-home parents. VIA assessments and strengths-based interventions have been shown to increase self-efficacy and positive emotions in parents (Waters & Sun, 2017).
I recently worked with a client who expressed a sense of hopelessness around the life she envisioned after her children left home for college or work. She was experiencing suicidal ideation around the anticipated loss of her full-time parenting role. After ensuring that the client was addressing her clinical issues with a licensed mental health professional, I worked with her on creating a healthier vision. In our discussion of her VIA assessment results, she started to believe, for the first time, that she had something valuable to contribute to the world outside her home. Her hopelessness subsided, and she began actively working toward new career goals. This is the power of waking up clients to their strengths.
Questions you might ask after clients use any of your tools for identifying strengths include:
- Would you change anything about the order of your top strengths?
- Do any seem like they do not fit?
- Tell me how you use these strengths in your everyday life.
- How have you used your strengths during the COVID-19 crisis?
- How can you see yourself using your strengths in a career?
Most of my stay-at-home clients have one top strength on their survey that does not seem to belong. I find it is usually the key to something important that has been lacking in their life. For example, I had a client whose top strengths included gratitude, appreciation of beauty, spirituality, and fairness, so I was not surprised that she was considering becoming a yoga teacher. However, she did not seem very excited about that choice. When I asked her if any strengths did not seem to fit, she told me that she could not figure out how fairness was a strength of hers, so we started talking about what fairness looks like in her life. As we explored this idea, I could hear an energy in her voice that had not been there before. She started to recall old childhood dreams, and after some more exploratory research, my client decided she wanted to focus her efforts on becoming a social worker. Sometimes just talking about incorporating an underused strength more fully into their lives is all clients need to find a clear path forward.
Assessing Work-Life Balance Needs
Discussion about work-life balance needs is another important step. There is a big difference between working full time away from home, working part time, and setting one’s own hours while working at home. Questions the job seeker may need help exploring include:
- Which hours and days are you interested in working?
- What kind of commute would you consider?
- How much flexibility do you need? Do you want to be able to take off when your children are sick?
- What kind of compensation would make this change worthwhile?
- Have your needs changed as a result of the pandemic? Do you want a job that meets your current needs, or do you want a job that meets needs you anticipate having when we are no longer in a crisis?
To avoid confronting balance conflicts, clients occasionally give unrealistic responses, such as, “I’ll drive anywhere.” When this happens, it is important to gently probe into inconsistencies or overly optimistic responses so that your client does not waste time chasing impossible dreams.
Exploring Meaning and Purpose
A developmental shift often happens while parents are home with their children, so it is not uncommon for stay-at-home parents to make big career changes when re-entering the workforce (Wong, 2015). Some questions you might consider asking to explore this idea with your clients are:
- What role do meaning and personal fulfillment play in work for you?
- What is driving you to go back to work?
- What would you do if you knew you would not fail?
- When have you felt yourself immersed in the zone, or effortlessly working in moments of flow?
- Have you witnessed stress and suffering during the pandemic that has altered your view of the meaning and purpose of work?
Job Search During Global Instability
Under stable conditions, a focused job search is more likely to yield positive results than an unfocused one. This is even more critical during global instability. When clients explore timing, strengths, work-life balance, and meaning and purpose, they address many of the conflicting goals or emotions that could hold them back. Career coaches can help them confidently move forward and find a job that meets their needs.
Bakker, A. B., Hetland, J., Olsen, O. K., & Espevik, R. (2018). Daily strengths use and employee well-being: The moderating role of personality. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 92(1), 144–168. DOI: 10.1111/joop.12243
VIA Institute on Character. (2020). VIA Inventory of Strengths. Retrieved from https://www.viacharacter.org/
Waters, L., & Sun, J. (2017). Can a brief strength-based parenting intervention boost self-efficacy and positive emotions in parents? International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1007/s41042-017-0007-x
Wong, D. W., Hall, K. R., Wong Hernandez, L. (2015). Counseling individuals through the lifespan. Sage Publications.
Christine Walker, CLC, CCSP, is a life and career coach, licensed educator, and mother of four. She is committed to helping mothers find work that gives them both the financial security and work-life balance they need. She is a member of the American Counseling Association, the Connecticut Counseling Association, and the National Career Development Association. You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.christinewalkercoaching.com.