Once again, I gritted my teeth and muttered something noncommittal in response. Since my third child had started school, I was facing this question on a daily basis – and the truth was that I didn’t have a good answer. What was I going to do with myself now? All of the possible paths ahead of me seemed to end in a thorny tangle of difficulties.
Once upon a time, my career path had seemed fairly clear cut. I had been a solicitor in the City for 10 years – on a path to eventual partnership – before I had my first child, Harry. To cut a long story short, Harry suffered severe brain damage at birth – resulting in quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Another child came along (thankfully with less drama) a couple of years later, followed by a third. After my second, I gave up trying to juggle the long hours and commuting and devoted the next few years to therapy appointments, SEN tribunals, hospital visits – and the general maelstrom of life with three under-fives.
When all the children had finally started school, and I emerged blinking from the chaos, I started to consider my options. I could resurrect my legal career through a women returner scheme – but this would do nothing to tackle the reasons I had left law in the first place – the hours, the inflexibility. Alternatively, I could look for something local within school hours. Inevitably this would mean low-skilled and low-paid – and still probably wouldn’t offer me the flexibility to attend Harry’s regular appointments. So I started to look at option 3 – studying to do something different.
I’ve always been passionate about learning – my random forays into adult education have ranged from Japanese and Latin to screen printing and steel pans. So learning a new, employable skill set certainly appealed – but I couldn’t afford to invest ££££ in an MA or similar, only to emerge after a couple of years no clearer than I was at the start as to where to go next.
Retraining with Digital Mums
Enter Digital Mums. If you haven’t heard of them, Digital Mums is an award-winning social media training provider set up by Nikki Cockrane and Kathryn Tyler with the aim of reducing maternal unemployment by enabling mothers with the skills to find “work that works”. I grasped the opportunity like a lifeline.
The six-month course leading to the “Diploma in Strategic Social Media Management” was very different from any other online course I had tried. Instead of just learning the theory behind social media strategy you are thrown in the deep end, designing and delivering your own campaign from day one. Putting learning into practice, creating content, analysing and testing what works, and learning from your own mistakes – alongside a peer group of other women who have your back all the way.
From identifying overall objectives, defining audience personas, developing a content strategy, understanding analytics and then testing, reflecting and refining – the course goes way beyond a basic understanding of social media platforms. It’s a unique approach which equips you with the ability to apply your knowledge to a real business from Day One.
This, too, is where the Digital Mums approach differs from other online social media courses. There is no shortage of information about social media on the internet. What the Digital Mums course gives you which cannot be found elsewhere is a tried and tested strategic approach (the clue is in the course title!) -which is equally relevant and can be applied to any business from a sole trader to a well-known brand.
So where do I go next? This course has given me the confidence and self-belief to know that I can do something for myself – and I don’t have to be trapped at home as a mum and carer for the rest of my days. I am now studying (also with Digital Mums!) to become a certified social media trainer – and in October I am starting Emma Van Heusen’s Facebook Ads course. It’s exciting to be at the start of a new chapter in my life, with options opening up ahead of me, rather than all paths being beset by difficulties.
Lifelong Learning – top tips
Needless to say, I am a huge advocate of learning new skills as a way of getting back that career confidence that can so easily be lost after having children. For those who may also be starting their own learning journeys, or considering getting back into work after a long break, are my top tips:
Play the long game
It is easy to be discouraged by how long it is going to take to be any good at something, comparing yourself to those who are already experts. Stop already. The only person you need to compare yourself is the one who looks at you out of the mirror. Learning a new skill takes time, and you need to be in it for the long haul. BUT just think, a year from now, with commitment, how much will you know? How about two years, or five years from now? Becoming an expert takes time – but probably not as long as you think.
Get over the hump
Being in it for the long game means it is crucial to get over what I call “the hump”. You start off any project with enthusiasm – excited at the possibilities of learning something new, and perhaps with slightly unrealistic expectations of how quickly you will pick it all up…. A few months in, you may have mastered the easy things, but you suddenly realise how much you still have to learn. It’s disheartening and easy to think you will never get there but… DON’T GIVE UP AT THIS POINT. Work through it. You will find yourself on the other side, doing what you might have once thought impossible.
Create a learning roadmap
It’s all too easy to get overwhelmed with all the opportunities for learning out there these days. There are so many online learning providers offering everything under the sun – much of it free. I often find myself sitting down at my laptop to study one thing and then getting distracted by other opportunities. In order to focus on one thing (or at least, a handful of things) I have a Trello board with all the courses I am interested in, so I can keep tabs on them and pick them up when time allows. I also like to add some more long term goals on there – five, ten year or even lifetime learning goals.
Don’t try to go it alone
The most fantastic part of the Digital Mums experience was getting to know the group of brilliant women in my peer group – and sharing all the highs and lows with them. I doubt I would have carried on without their encouragement – and I think this is where many online learning experiences fall down, as you lack that real camaraderie and support. Since finishing the course I have also joined the membership group Go With the Pro to give me encouragement, advice and accountability. Studying or getting back into work is not an easy path – don’t try to go it alone. Whether you find a real-life accountability buddy or mentor, or join an online community, there are bound to be many people out there in the same boat, who will be rooting for you.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn. I am always keen to connect with other lifelong learners over on LinkedIn, or on Twitter!