cecilia-ford-phdDr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she responds to a stay-at-home mom suddenly facing a crowded job market—and quietly devastated by her upcoming divorce.


Dear Dr. Ford:

I am getting a divorce—and having such a hard time. I have been married for 30 years and was a stay-at-home mom after working for 15 years after college in sales at a financial firm. Perhaps I was naïve, but I never expected to return to work. My husband and I were very good parents and had a wonderful family life . . . or so I thought.  We developed a comfortable relationship over the last 10 years that rarely involved sex, but I didn’t question it, since I was never all that interested in sex if the truth be told. Then my husband told me last year that he wanted a divorce. He said that we had “drifted apart” and he wanted more from life than our suburban existence. As these things go, I guess, I found out that he had been having an affair with a married coworker for 10 years. And they finally decided that they wanted to be together.

I am left with very modest support, health insurance until I am 65, and a smaller house in a suburban area where we brought up our children but where there is very little opportunity for me to develop a new relationship or to find work.  I have begun to “network” through my college and went to a headhunter I knew socially, who told me that I should go back to school and forget the financial sector. I was too old and had been out of work for too many years. She said that a 60-year-old woman had a better chance at winning the lottery than finding a good-paying job with my qualifications.

I am becoming increasingly hopeless.  I am not depressed in the way that people are who need drugs.  I know what is wrong in my life, and I can see how it all happened. I am able to sleep, exercise, volunteer at church, keep my house clean, garden, and do all the things that I sort of did before the divorce, just on a much smaller scale. I go to church and see girlfriends, but have to be so careful with my finances that I can’t afford to reciprocate, and am concerned about even small outings. My children have all turned out well and they treat me nicely, but they are already seeing their father more, since he has the country-club membership and the vacation house.  I don’t blame them, but I do feel that I have wasted my life.  Do you have any advice for me?



Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Roberta:

It’s not hard to see why you are feeling hopeless, as so many things have changed in your life and you have difficult new challenges as well. What surprises me is that you are not more angry than you sound in your letter. You have been dealt a bad hand, and, while yours may be a familiar story, that doesn’t make it any less painful. I don’t want to encourage you to be angry if you are not, but anger can be a source of emotional energy that can help motivate us to get things done. On the other hand, repressed anger is debilitating, enervating, and can cause depression.

You describe yourself as functional, and while it’s true that you don’t meet the criteria for clinical depression, you may be suffering from a milder form that leaves one unable to have much motivation or hope for the future. Frankly, I would be surprised if you were not, despite your obvious resilience. I think you should consider yourself as someone who has been through a traumatic experience, and like a soldier with the emotional wounds of PTSD, you also have circumstances and injuries that present new obstacles and challenges to your lifestyle as you are recovering from the shock.

While you may not need drug therapy, I strongly suggest that you seek supportive psychotherapy. In addition, I think you should talk to you children (in a manner designed not to make them defensive or guilty) and explain how much you need them at this moment in time, even if you can’t offer as much as their father. If they know this, they can keep it in mind and be more considerate. You may be putting on too much of a brave face, which is admirable, but your grown children would not be happy to know you are suffering. Similarly, let your good friends know, if you can, that you can’t fully reciprocate just now but want to see them as much as possible. Some may be quite understanding, and if you put your heads together you may be able to come up with activities at your house that aren’t costly (e.g., pot luck and a DVD) or things you can do for free, like walks in the park. The most important thing is to stay in touch with other people at all costs.

It’s really smart that you are networking with old college friends, but it seems that getting in touch with a headhunter may have been a bit too much cold water. Many of the things she told you about re-entering the work force, particularly the financial industry, may be true, but you need to reframe the present as a time when you are entering a new phase of your life with different parameters, priorities, and goals. A corporate job, high-paying, demanding, with long hours and a competitive culture, may not be available to you, but is that really optimal? You may have changed and developed, not just aged, since you last worked, and now you have interests and skills that might lead you in a different direction. Martha Stewart, who had once worked in finance, decided after her divorce to turn her flair for entertaining into a catering business, and, well . . .

The one thing you may have to accept is that you probably cannot find or create a high-paying job right away. But your letter indicates that you are getting by, so if you could find things to do that could supplement your income while you are exploring your possibilities, eventually you can get there. This may involve doing things that are low-paying, such as baby-sitting or house-sitting, but they can add up, and leave you time to pursue you long-term goals of learning new skills/finding new connections/building a new business. 

The good news is the Internet is available to help you with all those goals. There are now many ways to learn new skills and get very useful degrees on online. I recently met a woman who lives in a rural area not only got a degree online, but is also helping clients online as a personal coach.

Marketing and advertising has become something almost anyone can do from his/her own home. You may even find you have a friend or connection with someone who already has some skills in these areas and may be looking for a partner.

Finally, it’s very important that you recover from the feeling that you have “wasted your life.” The way you put this, saying, “I don’t blame [the children], but I feel I have wasted my life,” makes me feel that in some respects you feel that they are your only “achievement,” and now that their father has left you, so have they. The wonderful family life you remember was not an illusion—you experienced it as wonderful, and they did too. It’s what helped your children turn out to be healthy, independent adults. But your children will always be yours, and the loving mothering you gave them is something to be very proud of. Is there any more important achievement?

Dr. Ford

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  • Toni Myers August 11, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Roberta, Well, I am angry for you! You have a right to be more than annoyed with this emotional and financial upheaval in your life. You actually HAVE been working, for years, and have developed a long list of skills, raising kids and managing a household, while developing connections in your community. I think your kids could stand to hear how challenging this is for you and how much you value their support.
    You are right on in exploring possibilities in the job market and your financial consultant is right in the difficulty finding just the right position at this point in your life. Start small—(for example) you would make an excellent office manager as I am betting you have all the qualities needed, some of which you can’t train someone for…interviewing and training people, I know that many have missed on (or not yet developed) the basics: being reliable and accountable, having attention to detail, working well with colleagues, etc. You’ve got this! And you could consider online training as well.
    Here I am, amateur helper, overenergized by empathy with your situation. I want you to have lots more help, but help you yourself are soliciting. I guess it’s really just the networking you are already doing. People first need to know what they can do to help a capable woman who is beginning her journey to a new and scary, but potentially exciting new life.
    Forgive me for making any assumptions!
    Yours, Toni