Coaching Case Study By Juliana Landmann, Transition Coach, SWITZERLAND
Coaching Career Women: How Coaching Can Help Women Restart Their Careers After a Family Break
As a little girl, Amanda was sure she wanted to be a pediatrician helping kids in Africa. That was her dream. By the time she was 17 and had to choose which university she was going to apply for, she struggled to decide whether she wanted to be a journalist, a diplomat, a pediatrician, an architect, a psychologist, or an artist. She truly really believed she could and wanted to be all these things. In the end, she settled for a degree in Communications. She specialized as a Journalist and worked in the field for many years. And life was good for her.
Then, something unusual happened to her; she fell in love, moved abroad, got married, and had a baby. Amanda always wanted to be a mother, so it was not a problem for her when she found herself at home with two children in a completely different country. She took care of the family, of the house, and was always busy.
Time simply flew and it wasn’t until both her kids started to go to school that Amanda began to feel a new and strange emotion. She explained; “it feels like there is a void, a space inside of me that desperately wants to be filled, but I have no idea with what”.She couldn’t understand it; she loved her life, her kids, her husband, her friends. Everything was meant to be perfect, but it simply did not feel like it was enough anymore; she wanted something more. She thought about going back to her previous job. Only to realize that she no longer was that same Amanda as before, nor did being a full-time journalist suited her new life anymore.
Living abroad and being a mother had changed Amanda and even though she was very confident at home, she felt lost as to who this new Amanda was or what she wanted. That little self-assured girl who had a million different career dreams and knew she could be everything she wanted and more was long gone. This new Amanda didn’t know if she wanted to go back to the same career, to a new career, maybe simply doing a new activity, or what could be that would fill that void she had of wanting more. And, deep inside she didn’t believe she could or deserved to have it.
That was when she looked for professional help.
Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.- Rosamund Stone Zander
Like Amanda, many women take a back seat in their own lives and careers after motherhood. Whether it is because that is what feels right for them because it is the best situation for their family or because of social pressure.
A 2012 Pew Research survey showed that society views the bond between mothers and their children to be the strongest, with very few adults (16%) saying that having a mother who works full time is the ideal situation.”
It comes with no surprise that for some women, this internal and external pressure to give all they’ve got to raising children can easily make them put their children first and forget about themselves, about their dreams, aspirations, and goals. But some of the potential risks of overlooking themselves are a life filled with frustration and blame, lack of energy, and even depression in worst cases.
The “void” that Amanda mentioned is something very common in women in their 30s and 40s, especially after taking a family break and parking their careers. I like to think of this void as a “yell” for help from their higher selves. This is the moment in time that they realize something needs to change for them to be able to fill that void and live a fulfilling and enjoyable life that makes sense for them.
But, just like Amanda, even though they are smart, creative, resourceful, kind, and passionate women, they have no idea what to start addressing to make the change. And, even worst, they might have convinced themselves that:
- They are too old to start again or change careers in their lives.
- They are not confident enough.
- People will not take them seriously.
- They don’t have the skills to play the game.
- They don’t deserve to do something they truly love as it might be “taking away” from their family.
- They will never be as successful as others.
- They don’t have the time to focus on themselves and their goals.
- It is simply too scary to make a change.
This Is Where Coaching Can Make All the Difference in Coaching Career Women
For women who want to restart their career after taking a family break, coaching can:
- Offer a safe and trusted space for them to reconnect and re-evaluate what they want and need in their lives.
- Help them move forward by creating awareness of their limiting and underlying beliefs that are making them feel stuck.
- Give them a confidence boost.
- Assist them in identifying a career that will allow them to live a fulfilling life by discovering their values, strengths, passions, and what gives them energy.
- Support them with the creation of tangible action steps towards restarting or changing to this career.
- Serve as an accountability partner that will hold their hand through the entire process and make it as positive and effective as possible.
Offering a Safe and Trusted Space
Having the time and space to focus on themselves is something very rare for many women. Even more so when it comes to a judgment-free space where they have someone deeply listening to them and helping them see things that they are not able to see on their own.
Coaching can offer this safe, judgment-free space for them to open themselves up, to explore and discover their thoughts and how they are serving them. A place to be truly heard, to get in touch with their true self that is; creative, resourceful, whole and that has their best interest at heart. A place where everything becomes possible.
At the beginning of Amanda’s first session, I noticed she was constantly looking around as if to make sure no one else was listening to what she was saying. She kept on repeating that her life was good and that she had no problems, even though she had come to me for help.
It was clear that she was not feeling safe yet to open up. I gave her space and made sure to simply listen to every word she was telling me and ask powerful questions to help her feel more at ease, without any judgment.
By the end of the first session Amanda’s choice of words and tone of voice had already changed; she stopped fidgeting and looking around, was focused, and started to talk more freely about her “boring old life” as she called it. At the end of the call, she gave a deep sigh and said: “I knew I needed a change in my life, but I had no idea how much I wanted it until now”. From that point onwards, the trust in our relationship was built, that was the start of our journey as Amanda decided to be the author of her own story and allowed me to be a part of it.
Bringing Awareness to Light
According to the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, we go through our everyday life interacting with reality and assuming it’s all physical reality, that it’s all just given. But much of what we do, and feel, and think each day is determined by social reality, the reality that we collectively have made.
Throughout our lives, we are told what success looks like, how we should behave, what is right or wrong, and what we need to do to thrive. Whether we want it or not, our schools, parents, friends, experiences, the media all make up our network of beliefs that with time we take as absolute truths.
The organization psychologist Adam Grant states that many of our beliefs are cultural truisms: widely shared, but rarely questioned and if we take a closer look at them, we often discover that they rest on shaky foundations.
The problem is we are constantly relying on these underlying beliefs to guide us, without even noticing that sometimes they are not true and might not even be serving us. We make assumptions of what is possible for us based on what other people tell us we can do, or what we should do. But do we know it ourselves? Or are we simply living a life that we know is expected of us and that will please others?
During one of our sessions, I noticed Amanda’s choice of words in the third person. She would make comments like “what will others think about you doing something for yourself” and“you don’t have any other achievement besides becoming a mother”. When asked where these thoughts were coming from, she explained that this was the voice of her wiser self just trying to be realistic. These thoughts made her feel disempowered, small and stuck and when questioned if they were true, she denied and concluded that those thoughts were not from her wiser self, but from her “gremlins” and they did not have her best interest at heart. And from that place, she couldn’t possibly make the change she wanted in her life. This alone began to shift her energy.
Together, we recognized the need for an intentional thought to neutralize her limiting belief that she did not deserve to do something that would bring happiness in her life other than being a mother. “I am the best mother I can be and doing something else that I also love will only give me more energy to be with my family” was one that Amanda came up with and believed. “This new thought gives me energy, makes me excited and even proud of myself somehow”, she said.
Boosting the Confidence
Going through a transition can challenge the confidence of many women, especially those who have left their previous careers to help with the family. By borrowing techniques from Positive Psychology, Appreciative Inquiry, and Strengths-Based Assessments like the VIA, coaching can help them; find self-trust, remove any self-doubt that might come in the way, allow them to visualize all their accomplishments, get in touch with their skills/ talents and thus give them the boost of confidence needed for them to move forward and achieve their goals.
The thought “I am just a stay-at-home mother” was one that Amanda repeated many times with a low gaze and energy. When asked about her choice for the word “just”, Amanda paused for a long time before she began to cry, then laugh until she finally engaged in a high-energy tone monologue about everything that she did and was as a mother. She finalized with a big sigh and said “well I guess indeed there is no space for this just in my life anymore”. She clearly understood how she had been invalidating herself all this time by believing a thought that wasn’t even true and was not serving her. Her circumstances remained the same, but how she perceived herself changed which gave her the energy she needed to start believing again in her abilities as a creative, talented, and resourceful woman. From this point, Amanda made a huge shift and began to allow herself to see possibilities and get excited about them.
When I acknowledged her for this new awareness, she smiled and replied “Indeed, it is time I took responsibility for my own life, that I do something that makes me happy and gives me energy. There is no point in feeling sorry for myself and blaming my family for stopping my career. That choice was mine and I can now do something about it.” Amanda sounded more confident and motivated.
Redesigning the Career
To be able to truly live a life that is meaningful to us, we need to be aligned with our values, with our strengths, and with what is important to us. But when we go through a period of change in our lives, like motherhood, it can often be that we feel disconnected from ourselves making it difficult to access our thoughts on our own.
After a few sessions, Amanda was confident that her life was very good as it was, that there was nothing wrong with it or with her and that all she needed to fill that “void” was to find a new career or activity for herself. But she wasn’t sure how to go about figuring it out.
This is when we started to look at her values, what was important for her, her passions, her interests, what gave her energy, what took her energy away. Digging deeper into her new self was a very effective way for her to start understanding what this new career could look like. She talked about wanting more creativity, beauty, authenticity, art, and making a difference in the life of the ones she loved.
A new world of possibilities started to open up for Amanda as she reconnected with what was important for her and what she wanted more of in her life. It was from this place of possibilities that Amanda began to move forward into action.
Creating Tangible Actions Steps
Taking action can be scary sometimes as there is uncertainty around not knowing where we are moving to or what will happen if we fail. That is why most people don’t get into action and simply continue to overthink the issue, the problem, or the decision. Thinking is an entirely safe pursuit: no fear of failure, the possibility of embarrassment or judgment. But when we get caught in these thought loops, we convince ourselves that the answer to poor thinking is simply more thinking which only makes us stuck.
Fear is overcome by doing what we fear to do. Action defeats fear, just as scissors cut paper. And paper covers rock, and rock breaks scissors. It’s the circle of life. But you’ve got to start it yourself. It won’t happen on its own. The action you take doesn’t even have to be perfect. It will begin to feed itself the power it needs to continue. Like — starting a car by pushing it. You start it by moving.- Steve Chandler
At around our10th session, Amanda had figured out exactly what she wanted her new career to look like. She was confident and excited about her new journey but was afraid that her everyday life would get in the way of her pursuing her new goal of becoming a freelance Art Writer. Setting smaller miles stones as well as digestible action steps made her feel like her goal was easier to get to while continuing to take care of the family.
She came up with a structured calendar to split her “tasks” into three different blocks; family and house, study, and new business. Within these blocks, Amanda allocated her daily hours accordingly so she could give all the focus needed to every block on its own time. With this structure in place, Amanda didn’t feel overwhelmed with everything she had planned to do in the coming months and it made her feel more empowered.
In a few months, Amanda had started an Art CriticismCourse and by reconnecting with a few people from her previous job, she had already two projects that she had started to work on. As a result of being able to accomplish these things for herself, she began to fill that void and gained more energy. Even though she had less time with her family, she was present and loving when they were together and she felt supported, they were proud of her and she was proud of herself too.
Going through a career change or transitioning back to work can be a difficult moment for many women, and even though doing it alone can sometimes be simply too hard, some women still struggle to ask for help.
Requiring accountability while also extending your compassion is not the easiest course of action, but it is the most humane, and, ultimately, the safest for the community.- Brené Brown
Having a coach who can help them navigate this process, partner with them through the entire journey, and be able to hold them accountable for their goals and actions can be the key to a successful transition.
Accountability can be defined as the fact of being responsible for our decisions or actions and being expected to explain to them when asked.Having someone to hold us accountable for our actions can help us stay focused, committed to our goals, feel empowered, have more ownership of our actions, and therefore increase the chances of success.
It was clear since the beginning of our coaching journey that Amandafound hard to hold herself accountable for her actions. “I want to do something, I try it but as soon as it becomes difficult I simply stop it, as I feel no one will check it anyway.” This belief she had about herself caused her to doubt herself, not to commit to anything, and to feel stuck.
This time things would need to be different to be effective, thus at the end of every session when Amanda came up with small action steps that would help her move forward I made sure she also explained how she was going to hold herself accountable for them. For her, it was also important that we immediately scheduled the date and time of our next appointment so she had a feeling that someone was going to be there checking in on her progress.
During our first sessions, Amanda came up with different excuses and said she did not have enough time to work on herself. We coached her through what was holding her back and slowly she began to realize how she was the only one responsible for her results. By the 4thsessionherenergy changed as she started to trust herself more and believed now that she could keep up with her promises to herself. She was now ready to commit, inaction, and move forward with her life. And, for the first time, that little girl who believed she could be everything she wanted was now back into life.
The wizard didn’t give anything to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have.-Steve Chandler 
The Benefits of Coaching Career Women
Transition back to work or changing careers after a family break can be very hard and overwhelming for many women. Maybe their self-confidence has taken a hit since having children and putting themselves in second place; maybe they are worried they will not manage to be mothers and have another activity or career at the same time; maybe they are scared that they won’t be taken seriously, or maybe they simply have no idea what kind of career would give them energy and keep them ticking.
Coaching can help these women shift their perspective, let go of underlying beliefs that are keeping them stuck, give them back a sense of self and potential. It can be a catalyst for positive change and can offer these women the opportunity to step back and re-evaluate what activity or career they want to have to be able to live fulfilling lives that give them energy on top of being the best role models for their family.
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