Several months ago, I found myself back at work after a second period of maternity leave, and feeling not particularly enthusiastic about being there. I enjoyed what I did, but my company was having a lot of financial problems and political infighting, and work was just generally unpleasant and stressful. It didn’t seem worthwhile to schlep my kids to their very expensive daycare just so I could work in this environment, and to make matters worse, a dramatic turnover in the company leadership led to the loss of a huge chunk of business, a loss that resonated soundly throughout but hurt my department in particular. I knew there was no place for me to go in that job but out the door — whether by my own choosing or by way of the dreaded layoff. So I started looking into my options.
I love what I do for a living, but it’s a profession that is very tough to find a great job that pays well and also lets you work in your ideal setting. That’s true for a lot of us right now, but especially true for this line of work. One huge difficulty I had was that the work came in spurts, resuling in a feast or famine situation — one week, it would be difficult to be productive, while the following week, the demands were so great that it made juggling work and family pretty much impossible, and corners would inevitably need to be cut. So what I needed (besides money) was flexibility, or at the very least, the ability to control my schedule.
I realized that I couldn’t simply find a lower-paying day job that would allow me some breathing room, because that meant that I would be unable to afford the aforementioned expensive daycare. Sure, there might have been cheaper child care options out there, but good quality daycare that is also inexpensive is difficult to come by. Actually, when I thought about, it made more sense for me to pull the kids out completely, and find a job working evenings and weekends while my husband could be home with them.
That’s when it struck me: retail! It’s regular work that you can do part-time, and definitely on weekends and in the evening. Sure, it would likely pay barely minimum wage, if that, but then, without the financial burden of daycare, the pressure on me to make money was much less. My husband and I attempted to crunch the numbers, and after some back and forth, he looked up and announced that I only needed to bring in, after taxes, around $1,000 a month in order for us to stay afloat. It was sounding more and more like I could do this.
At this point, I should probably point out that I’m well into my thirties and have a master’s degree. Although I had waited tables long, long ago, I didn’t have any retail experience and had absolutely no connections to any particular retailer, related to my current career field or otherwise. In addition, I was likely to be viewed as simultaneously overqualified and underqualified for any retail job, making me unable to compete with high school or college students, who at least were expected to take low wage work. In short, I knew it would look absolutely ridiculous to walk into the Gap and ask the 22-year-old assistant manager for an application.
Or would it? In this economy, more and more job seekers are being creative with their careers and willing to do whatever it takes to get their foot in the door at the company of their choice, including taking minimum wage jobs. Some believe that entry level retail is the new management resume builder, and the interwebs is replete with stories of seasoned professionals taking lower level positions in order to make career changes.
I was perusing Craigslist one evening when one retail job posting in particular caught my eye, perhaps because it was the last thing I expected to see: working on the floor and behind the register at one of our local chains of adult novelty stores. Yes, that kind of adult novelty. For what it’s worth, there are adult stores in sketchy, run-down looking neighborhoods, and then there are adult stores with nice-looking storefronts in well-kept commercial areas that market to bachelorette parties and married couples. This is an industry I have some knowledge of, especially the whole marketing to women thing. I took part in feminist consciousness raising groups in college — you know, the whole love your body thing — and the way I saw it, I could pitch myself as the kind of cheerful, friendly, not scary looking salesperson who could disarm a nervous customer and convince her to buy a vibrator.
So I applied. I didn’t up and quit my job, but I decided to apply online and see what happened. I even threw a paragraph into the email about how my experience to that point, although not in retail, would translate well in that environment and would generate sales. I got an email the next day from a manager asking me to stop into one of the stores to meet her on Monday.
I went to my office job that day, made an excuse to leave early, drove the 25 minutes or so to the store, and shortly thereafter, found myself walking in the door of that paper-covered storefront. I’m not going to lie — I felt totally out of my element, but I really think it was not so much the sex toy environment, but the bare fact that I was asking for a job in a workplace full of college students and young twenty-somethings trying to save up for their first apartment. As much as I told myself that this was totally going to work and that I had nothing to be embarrassed about, it did feel weird.
I filled out a detailed application — you know, those form applications you can buy at Staples for general use, where they ask for your entire work history, including wages. I ended up talking to a manager who noticed my current salary. “You … make that … and you want to work here ?” I was ready with my explanation. “I basically want to be a stay-at-home mom, but I need to make some supplemental income, and do work that allows me to be home with my kids during the day.” I also gave her the elevator pitch about marketing and wanting to break into retail because I feel that I have an affinity for sales and a natural ability to connect with customers. Let me also state, for the record, that I absolutely believed this to be true, and I still do. And as weird and out of my element as I felt in my conservative black skirt and sensible office pumps, standing in an aisle adorned with phalluses and latex, I strangely felt like I was on the precipice of something hugely empowering. I felt empowered, in that moment, because it was dawning on me that I was so confident in my choices when it came to work and my family, that I let the judgment and preconceived notions of who I was professionally and where I was supposed to be career-wise fall away. I didn’t need to be defined as a thirty-something mom of two with a high-powered job in my chosen career field. I realized that I could CHOOSE to put my kids and my happiness first, and not let myself be defined by my career. This realization was wildly exhilarating.
Let me also say here that it’s not that just I planned to show up, work a POS system, straighten out the dildos and then call it a night. I made it clear that I had always worked hard, and that I would continue to do so and learn everything I could about the business. I also explained that, if this gig worked out, I would be seeking an upper level management role within the company — and that if one did not exist, I would surely find a way to create one for myself, once my kids were older and I could take on full-time work again, of course. I’m talking Chief Operating Officer upper level. Sheryl Sandberg would be so proud!
The manager must have liked what she heard, because she started talking to me about transitioning to a keyholder position in one of the stores after an initial training period. She proposed a pay rate and a basic schedule, and we decided that I would talk to my husband and let her know what I decided to do. I got home that night to my husband’s news that we had made a major miscalculation in reviewing our finances: it was $2,000, not a mere thousand, that I would need to bring in monthly, even if we saved the money by pulling the kids out of daycare. Earning barely above minimum wage, there was no way I could make that kind of money without committing to full-time hours — defeating the very reason for leaving my lucrative professional job and keeping the kids home in favor of evening, part-time work. I called the manager the next day and left a voicemail to explain.
So, here we are. I have a new job situation lined up, and things are looking even better than I would have anticipated those several months ago. The few friends and family who have heard my little sex shop story assume that I saved myself from making a rash decision that would have destroyed my career and ruined my life. However, I disagree. I think I needed to have that experience in order to learn something about myself and be where I am today, personally and professionally. Also, your life will not be ruined if you work retail or at some other form of entry-level work mid-career. If stay-at-home moms opt out entirely, how much worse could it be to say you are staying home for a while, then pick up some retail hours just to bring in some extra cash and maybe, just maybe, try something new, and perhaps even fun for a change? After all, there are easier, more reliable ways to destroy your career and ruin your life. Those ways include staying in a job you hate just because it’s what societal norms dictate you should do.