I wasn’t always a stay-at-home dad. There once was a time when I was a jet-setting, globe-trotting, expense-account-using sales and marketing executive for a huge, multinational consumer products’ company. I like to call this “Phase 1” of my life. I was overseas 40-50% of the time, jetlagged 10% of the time, leaving me with 40% of my time to have some semblance of a domestic life. While not exactly easy, it was often enjoyable and exciting and it was certainly doable for the first eight of the 10 years that I did it. What changed in years nine and 10? Why did I give that all up? One word…kids!!!! Leaving infant twins at home for two to three weeks at a time as I traveled overseas just wasn’t sustainable, nor was it the life I wanted.
In my tenth year of this, we decided to try something “unusual” - for 1999, that is. Attitudes were pretty different then. We decided that I would stay home to raise the kids, finish my MBA (which was started while traveling and having twins!) And so began “Phase 2”. I took the plunge and became a full time stay-at-home dad, complete with laundry, shopping, and cooking. I still kept a few hours of babysitting each week to cover my classes, but for the most part, I was the “lead parent” at home. I have a very clear recollection in one of my early days in this role – I had come down with a cold in the early morning. By noon I felt horrible, and was lying on the floor with the TV on to entertain the kids. Their toys were scattered all over.and they were crawling and walking on everything, including me! I remember counting down the minutes until their nap time when I could crash in my bed, only to wake up to face the long evening until bedtime. And then one year later, our third child, Clare, made her surprise appearance. As my friend Mike says, “Want to make God laugh? Show him your life plan!” Well God must have really been roaring.
With the addition of child #3, my role as stay-at-home dad was pretty much cemented and I settled into the role. There weren’t many of us at-home dads. By my count, just two or three in my town of 60,000. It was great. I really did love my new “job”. While physically exhausting, it was emotionally very fulfilling and I never once doubted that I was doing the most important job in the world at the time. Play groups, coaching, volunteering, some part-time gigs in this or that, things I could do around my role as dad. The days were certainly busy, but I was never bored.
As great as this all was, there was a price to be paid which I don’t think I was fully aware of when I took on this important role. Here are some of my observations about transitioning from businessman to stay-at-home dad:
- My sense of self was altered: No more corporate identity. No business card, No ID, No corporate credit card. Etc.
- I felt like I lost my footing among my former peers: I watched my peers’ careers advance and flourish while mine stayed in place. Reading my college alumnae newsletter unsettled me. I knew I was doing a very important job, but in our society we can be judged and measured by a different set of standards that often don’t value sty at home parenting.
- I found new and different “peers”: When couples got together, I had much more in common with the moms than the dads. I don’t think many of the dads knew what to make of me.
- I needed to be very mindful of physical interaction with my new “mom friends”: It was important not to have anything I did be misinterpreted by a mom or her husband. So hugs, kisses, etc. were kind of off limits. At one social gathering, as the men and women exchanged kisses and hugs goodbye, the moms and I looked at each other as if to say “I see you every day. If we do this now, will we have to do this at the park each time we see each other? Nahhh.”
“Phase 2” lasted 13 years. By the 13th year, we had two kids in high school, one in middle school, and it was time to start thinking about what “Phase 3” might look like for us. If “Phase 2” was that 13-year career “break” (but let’s face it, it not a break, its hard work!), then “Phase 3” would be my next career – the thing that would carry me through to retirement.
That’s when a bit of panic began to set in.
Preparing to Re-Launch – “I’m not even Google-able!”
I made the decision – it was time to go back to work. But where do I begin? I haven’t worked in 13 years. I have no network. I have no brand. I’m not even “google-able”. What skills do I have? For years I described myself as the COO of my family – it’s easy not to realize how much goes into running a household. Not to mention all the emotional strength and grit needed to deal with the crises that can affect one-month olds to teenagers. This is not a job for the faint of heart.
But I wasn’t looking for my next gig as a housekeeper or “manny”. I was looking to get back to a professional career. While I used to do international sales and marketing, I knew I didn’t want to do that again with all the travel. Still feeling a bit lost,and full of self-doubt, I held my breath and reached out to some of my old business school professors for those ”informational meetings” I had heard so much about. While I hadn’t really kept in touch with many of them, there was one professor I occasionally bumped into - I called him and we met at the business school.
We brainstormed a bit and I left that meeting with a few contacts to call. It wasn’t much, but it felt great just getting out, putting on a suit, taking a train somewhere and talking to someone about going back to work. I had some leads to follow up on and a business development project in South America that he asked me to do a little research on. To be honest, the real value of that meeting was that it got me out of the house and shifted my brain and body into “work search mode”.
While at the school that day, it occurred to me that I might have some alumni privileges at the career-planning center – and I was right! It was there that I learned about this event put on by a company called iRelaunch. I was told that it was primarily for moms who were looking to go back to work but that I might get something out it. Giant understatement! Within a minute of being at the event (as one of the only men), I knew I had stumbled onto something that would be a great benefit to me. Their mission was to help smart, well-educated people who had stepped out of the work force for a period of time, and needed some guidance in getting back in to it. The day was part instructional, part therapeutic, part inspirational. This group had a plan to get people like me back to work. It was tested and proven and had worked for thousands before me. This was the push, and support I needed.
I left that event with names and numbers of at least five companies and people to follow up with, as well as lots of great info about how to begin the job search -- how to market myself, how to market my “career break”. This was going to be a methodical, well-organized effort. Things were starting to take shape.
Attitude Adjustment – “Network? WHAT network?!”
First, I was supposed to reach out for help. One of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was my reluctance to ask people for help. Perhaps it was the 13 years I spent at home with kids every day, or perhaps it was a lack of confidence, but I just didn’t feel comfortable calling up people and asking them for help. I felt I’d be a bother, or they can’t help me, or they don’t want to hear from me. Finally someone told me to imagine that one of my friends or acquaintances was in need of help like this, but didn’t ask me. Wouldn’t my feelings have been hurt? People want to be asked. They want to help. If they can’t help they will tell you, or just won’t call you back in which case you just move on to the next contact.
Next, I was supposed to evaluate my network. What network?! I didn’t have a network! I had a bunch of playgroup moms in my network! I needed to really think about the network that I had – but didn’t realize I had. For example, I was fortunate to have volunteered with many organizations in my hometown: Cub Scouts, Little League, Church, Basketball, Soccer, School Trustee, and then some. I had served in many different capacities using a variety of skills. I was told to count every adult I knew through my volunteer work as part of my network. Suddenly, I HAD a network! Then I was told about this thing call “LinkedIn” and I quickly realized how my network could multiply rapidly.
Before I knew it, my newfound network was yielding more contacts and generating more meetings and phone calls, surfacing more job boards to look at and more organizations to call. While I didn’t have a new job yet, this was a very necessary and helpful process. My confidence was building and that once-dreaded phone call to ask for help had become a fun game of “how many calls can I make today? how many meetings or leads can I get?”.
Over the weeks and months that followed, I followed a deliberate routine of emailing resumes and cover letters and making phone calls, knowing full well that most would not generate anything at all. It got me into a daily habit and at the end of the end of the day I could honestly tell myself that I was working my butt off to find a job! The hard work would eventually pay off, and in the meantime I was honing these skills.
My relaunch process became a part of my story. While staying home with my kids for 13 years after 11 years as a globetrotting executive was one story, trying to return to the workforce after this break was a story in itself that many people enjoyed hearing about.. Being able to a talk intelligently about how I was approaching my job search, the methods I used and the amount of time I put in made for a valuable conversation-starter and demonstrated my work ethic to potential employers.
Focus, Focus, Focus – Right Under My Nose
When you are re-launching AND trying to break into a new field, it requires a bit more thought and process than going back to the industry you used to work in. In my case, I knew that “Phase 3” needed to meet certain criteria. I needed to get back in to the paid work force. I needed benefits. I needed a sense of self and purpose. I needed to establish myself in a career, vs. just a job. I needed daily adult interaction and intellectual stimulation. But most importantly, I needed to love what I was doing.
It was time for some deep thinking and honest self-reflection. What can I see myself doing eight to 10 hours a day, five to six days a week for the next 15 to 20 years? I suppose I could just go at it, get a job, and see what happens, but I knew I wanted more than that. I quickly ruled out rock star, basketball player, etc. for obvious reasons. On the advice of “my network”, I began to evaluate my volunteer work that I had enjoyed while I was at home with kids. A lot of my volunteer work centered around kids, like coaching and teaching, and in and around school. A clear theme started to emerge: could I work at school? I spent all that time at the school. I was a trustee. I was a treasurer. I had been overseeing the school’s annual budgeting process for the past 12 years. I helped oversee several school construction projects. Is it possible that those experiences might be valuable to me in this process?
Who could help me answer that question? I tapped into my newfound network (which included two independent school heads, a school business officer, a development officer and an admissions officer as well as several other leaders in the non-profit and for profit world). A series of coffees, lunches, and quick meetings helped me get a feel for what type of jobs might exist in the educational world that match my skills.
Practice, Practice, Practice – Putting it All Together
Throughout my self-assessment and career exploration, I decided to get practice in the mundane and pretty boring part of the job search process. Resume writing, resume sending, cold-calling strangers, calling friends and asking for help. The first call was brutally hard. I held my breath and dialed. But each call I made got a little easier. And that was the point. At this stage of the process it was a numbers game, like hitting balls at a driving range. Get the initial calls done, all the while building confidence, skills, phone manner, and refining my pitch. “Hi I’m Dave Carty and…”.
I learned a lot through these calls about the topic at hand. On really good days, I’d get off the phone with new names and numbers to call! A very important part of this process was keeping a log of these calls and conversations -- not only to stay on top of all that I was learning and who needed to be followed up with, but as visual reminder of how hard I was working at re-launching!
Similarly, I needed practice sending out resumes and cover letters. I honed my resume-writing skills by going after any opportunity that looked remotely interesting or related to the field of education. While I knew the yield from this effort would be low, it was great practice and sometimes I event got a call or an email back!
As soon as I realized that I did have a solid network, I began to look for ways to link my network to my outreach. I would reach out to my network and ask: “Do you know anyone in XYZ company or maybe someone who knows someone there?” If I got a hit, I made the ask, “Can you make a call on my behalf just to make an introduction or ask them to look at my resume?” Oh, how far I had come from being deathly afraid of making one of these calls!
This went on for months. I had moments when I thought, “Am I ever going to find a job?” “Why is this taking so long?” “I guess I’m just too old” “Maybe I shouldn’t have stayed at home with the kids as long as I did.” “Maybe I’m over the hill”. Just as that self-doubt would start to creep in, I’d look at my ever-growing log of calls, emails, letters and meetings and tell myself, “Ok, keep it up, eventually you’ll catch a break”. Finally, that’s exactly what started to happen.
My First Break – If at First….
One day, I was scanning a job board for non-profits and schools and saw an opening at a non-profit called Futures and Options, whose mission was to take inner city students from some of the poorest high schools in New York City and partner them up with young professionals to serve as academic mentors and life coaches. I loved the mission, it was related to education, it was in Manhattan -- it met many of my criteria. It was the first position that really caught my attention. And there was something about the name of that company that sounded very familiar. I realized that Steve, my fellow trustee from the school, is also a trustee on that board. Finally, using my network!!! I called Steve and one week later I was sitting in the office of the Executive Director of this non-profit. Not on an informational interview, not a recon mission, but talking to someone who actually had a position they were trying to fill!
None of this would have happened without the months of practice I referred to earlier. All that practice had landed me a face-to-face interview with a key decision maker for a job in which I was very interested. The first interview led to a second interview and then a third – finally, I was one of two finalists for the position. The last hoop to jump through was to meet with two board members. I left that meeting extremely confident about my prospects. But alas, I did not get an offer. At the end of the day, they wanted someone with more experience and I did not have as much as the other candidate. I had to find the positives in this defeat. I had made it to the finalist round. I was a hair away from getting that job. Yes, this was a failure, but I was continuing to build experience and confidence and adding to my knowledge base about the space I was trying to enter.
Soon there were more breaks and interviews, from a charter school in the Bronx, to another one in Newark, to a language immersion school in Brooklyn. All the while I was building my skills, my network was growing, my resilience was improving, and I was polishing my pitch. Just because they don’t offer you a job, doesn’t mean they can’t be a reference or a source for other job openings elsewhere. “We really liked that guy as a candidate. He was a finalist here for XYZ position.” Or “Dave this is Jane form the XYZ Charter School, I hear there is a position opening at a different charter school - would you be interested?”
It sounds easy to say this now, but “failing” can be very valuable. Even a batter who strikes out, is learning about the pitcher who is getting the better of him. He / she is taking mental notes, figuring what is needed next time to get the hit. This is no different. What do I need to do differently next time? How close was I?
Finally the Big Break – Grit Pays Off
In case you’ve lost track, we are now eight months into the job search and still no job. I had come close a few times, but I have to admit, I was getting tired of coming close. I wanted a job! Don’t quit now Dave! The key to not losing at something is not quitting. It may take forever but as long as you don’t quit you haven’t lost. Not an easy mental process to endure, but very necessary. I believe they call it Grit.
Then one day, during my usual routine of checking job boards and making calls, I came across a very interesting posting on an educational job board from an excellent school. I had heard about it, it wasn’t far from me, and, more importantly, people in my network knew about it as well. It was a position that seemed to be tailor-made for me, tapping into my diverse set of skills from school operations to construction management to global studies. I had experience in all the right areas but knew that my weakness was not having “worked” in a school position where some of these skills were actually being used. If I was going to be a contender for this position I would have set myself apart from other candidates and definitely get in front of the decisions makers and tell my story. I needed to tap in to my network and see if there was someone who could help facilitate a face-to-face meeting.
Fortunately the independent school world is a reasonably sized world, and when I checked with my network it turns out they were a big help in making introductions and providing references. After 10+ years of service as trustee and treasurer I had a pretty good track record and good story to tell.
Leaving nothing to chance, I began preparing. I shined my shoes, pressed my suit, studied up on the school, and scheduled mock interviews with key people in my network. I did anything I could think of to prepare. I was not going to lose this job because I did not prepare well enough. Four months of interviews, emails, and phone calls finally led to a job offer! And on July 15th 2013, after a 14-year “break” from the full time paid workforce to stay-at-home dad raising my three kids, I re-entered the workforce. I was a very happy relauncher.