What to Do When Returning to the Workforce Wreaks Havoc at Home

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: May 14, 2012

Q: Dear Heather,

I recently started a full-time job after several years at home with my children. It wasn’t my first choice, but my husband ended up having to take a lower paying job after his company downsized. I’m mostly OK with it and getting used to the schedule. My 15-year old daughter has really stepped up to help, but my 10-year old daughter isn’t adjusting well. She was very much accustomed to our afterschool rituals and complains daily that she wishes I were a "real mom" again. My husband works late most nights, and so this is pretty much all on me. I don’t have the uninterrupted hours I used to spend with her, and I don’t see how I can make this feel "right" to her. Any great ideas?

A: It doesn’t take much to nudge a little guilt loose, does it? But, before we address that, please wallow around in the notion that your daughter wants you in her vicinity 24/7. This is likely to change when her teenage discernment kicks in to reveal that you dress funny, talk weird and would  ("really Mom!") be more comfortable in another room when her friends are over. Not to spoil the ending, but eventually a happy middle ground featuring mutual understanding and acceptance will emerge, giving you both the option to live happily ever after. 

As for the present, it might help to identify what your daughter considers to be a "real mom." She values some "rituals" she has shared with you. Special one-on-one time, I would guess? Is it possible to replicate the experience within a different context? Maybe you spent half an hour downloading her day over milk and cookies. Now, perhaps you make a special trip home to pick her up when you run errands or designate her your special assistant for dinner preparation. Note the repeat of "special." Writers don't like to repeat words unnecessarily. Making your daughter feel "special" (again with that word!) is a key point.

It might also help to talk about some of the family goals: College educations, sports camps, vacations, etc. Don’t camouflage the concept of "cost." She will learn this lesson in personal terms before long when she compares babysitting earnings against the price of a movie ticket. Now is the time to educate her that many of our life choices are balanced against our ability to pay for them. Be positive. Explain how you and your husband want to provide music lessons and a summer swimming pool membership, and that it takes both of you to make that happen. 

While particular daily events hold value for your daughter, it is the feeling of connectedness that she craves. You can sustain this in many different ways. Notes, text messages, and voicemails can all be used to combat guilt with proactive affirmations. Let her know you value shared time with her and don’t want to miss anything, big or small.

When faced with a similar situation after my divorce, I bought a small notebook and wrote a heartfelt love note on the first page. I ended it with the hope that we could exchange daily messages with one another and left it on her bed. She wrote back many times, and this created a tangible connection to bridge the times we were apart. What kind of connection will be most meaningful to your youngest daughter?

Consider also your capable fifteen-year old. Be sure to let her know -- on a daily basis -- how much you appreciate her contributions. Non-squeaky wheels may need the occasional realignment as well. Above all, keep in mind that this is a transitional stage. It will change (and then change again). Celebrate what is good, and chances are good that you and your daughter will find more and more to celebrate together.

If you have a question for Heather, email her at Heather@heatherdugan.com and maybe she'll answer it in her next column!