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Five Tips For the Suddenly Stay-At-Home Parent

The economy has forced you out of the workforce due to a layoff or a lack of decent-paying work, and now you're at home full-time with the kids.

You never saw yourself being a full-time, stay-at-home parent but here you are, suddenly grocery shopping on Tuesday morning alongside all the retirees and other stay-at-home types. Attention shoppers, there's an emerging career crisis on Aisle 9!

I was surfing news the other day when I happened upon a Carolyn Hax column about a suddenly stay-at-home mother who is having a hard time adjusting. Here's the letter:

DEAR CAROLYN: I feel like I'm a working mom stuck inside a stay-at-home mom's body. This is a new and strange lifestyle that's just not clicking with me yet, and I worry it never will. I'm afraid going back to work isn't going to happen anytime soon, nor do I necessarily want it to. All the "mommy friends" I've made are educated, driven career women like I ... was. They work during the day, and I'm left at home with my little one. How do I adjust to this new lifestyle?

This letter hit a bit close to home, because I'm now a few years into the amateur stay-at-home mom experience courtesy of the Great Recession and emerging Internet news models where the stories I used to get paid $1,000 to write as a freelance journalist are now going for as little as $15 in some markets. Factor in overhead (e.g., expensive daycare costs), do the simple math, let reality sink in, and staying home with the kids quickly becomes a financial decision.

I'm far from alone; I meet freelancer moms all the time who have watched their pay scales become equal to, or dip below, the cost of daycare. When this happens, it's cheaper not to work. It's Economics 101: When you're paying out more money than you're taking in, something's gotta give.

Let me say that I've very much enjoyed the extra time with my kids. It's been the one bright spot in this recession, really. But to paraphrase the philosopher Katy Perry, work -- or thinking about how to jump back into it at some point -- is a part of me that you're never, ever gonna take away from me. As I watch the kids run around the playground, I do occasionally work on my five-year plan in my mind. Where do I want to go from here?

But that is then and this is now, and we amateur stay-at-home parents must find a way to make "now" work for us. Here are my five tips for parents, male or female, who are trying to get more comfortable in their new, stay-at-home skin:

1.) Limit your Facebook time. You've been chasing the kids all day in your jam-smeared yoga pants and you haven't even had time for a shower when you log onto Facebook to find a working "friend" dissing the "soccer mom" lifestyle or complaining how hard it is to live on a $200,000-a-year salary in a major urban area. Face it: Sometimes your duly-employed "friends" don't stop to think how insensitive they might sound in this horrible recession that has affected so many. It's okay to lay off Facebook and other social media when you're feeling fragile or frustrated. Sometimes the constant stream of perky self-marketing can be a bit over the top. In fact, I've declared October "Turn My Back On Facebook" Month. I will not be checking Facebook all month long as part of a personal experiment to see how I feel come November 1. (And yes, I will blog about it.) Join me!

2.) Don't be too hard on yourself. The economy has forced a few tough decisions, and it can be far too easy to get down on yourself for not doing the "right" things, not doing enough, not moving ahead. You've moved through the four stages of career grief, but you're still stuck on the fifth stage (acceptance). Hindsight is always 20/20, however, and looking back can drive you a bit crazy. So give yourself a break. Stop comparing yourself to others. It's the economy, stupid. You're the captain of your own ship now, and you've pulled into the harbor for a respite until the storm passes. Have faith in yourself that your ship will set sail once again -- and on your own terms this time. You can do this.

3.) Never apologize. One thing I've learned about being an amateur SAHM with an advanced degree is that there are people who can't understand why you're not making the same life choices. But they don't walk in your shoes. Never, ever sound apologetic for making the economic decision to stay home for awhile. Own it. When prying people ask prying questions, simply say: "The economy has made it easier to stay home for now." Don't elaborate unless you feel comfortable doing so. Besides, after this recession millions of Americans will also be trying to explain their own resume gaps, which could force employers to redefine the term "resume gap." Be proud of yourself for making things work in these tough times. We're all on different paths for getting through this economic maze in one piece.

4.) Do something work-related once a week. Where do you want to be in five years? Set a few attainable goals and then start laying the groundwork in your very spare time. This might mean reading up on trends in your industry, taking a night class, watching YouTube videos, joining a group, following someone fascinating on Twitter, updating your LinkedIn profile. Aim for very small, doable things that propel you in the direction you eventually want to go. For me, this blog is my playground. Trust me, I know you're tired and the last thing you want to do at 10 p.m. is to read a long, involved article about logistics trends. You'll need to carve out some time when you can rub two brain cells together, which brings me to Tip #5.

5.) Playdates, playdates, playdates! Is there another parent you feel comfortable arranging regular play times with once a week or a few times a month? This parent watches your kids for a few hours (for free!) and you reciprocate, and so on and so on and so on. The kids get to have fun while you get a few minutes of quiet time to read that article, update your LinkedIn profile to 55% completeness, make a few calls, return a few emails, write a blog post. Or just sit on the sofa and stare at the ceiling, depending on how your day is going. We've all been there. When this happens, refer to Tip #2.

Whatever you do, just know that you're not alone. Settle down, it will all be clear. Soon enough. For now, find enjoyment in the journey.

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