"I'm Too Scared to Go Back to Work"

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The Counselor's Turn

"Jan didn't realize it when the couple started therapy, but she was lost both emotionally and intellectually because she didn't have a career. She blamed her unhappiness on fears about Scott's health, his dismissive attitude, and their conflicts over her going back to work. But over the years her self-esteem had plummeted. In order to restore it, Jan needed to rejoin her profession. Once she felt better about herself, I was confident that her anxiety would subside and she and Scott would communicate better.

"Jan refused to believe she could be a good mother and a good doctor. My job was to help her understand that she could succeed in both roles -- and that her family did not have to take a backseat to her profession. 'You'll be a happier and more interesting person if you have your own life, too. And you'll have more to offer your family.'

"Jan broke down when I raised the subject of her returning to medicine. 'I know I should work in case Scott dies, but I'm afraid I'll fail,' she said, sobbing. 'And who'll run the family while I'm studying and working? I don't see how I can do it.' I pointed out that she had a long history of academic and professional success and that, with her children getting older, this was an ideal time to launch the next phase of her life. 'It's okay to be nervous,' I said. 'But it's not okay to let nervousness paralyze you.'

"I encouraged Jan to view going back to work as a project she could break into small pieces, such as taking one course at a time. Using that framework, she enrolled in a course on new trends in endocrinology with the intention of going back to work part-time next year, when both girls are in high school. To make time for the class, she scaled back the kids' activities and reduced her volunteer work. Scott now takes the kids to school. 'It's great not to feel constantly pressured to get somewhere,' Jan said.

"Next we addressed Jan's anxiety about Scott's health. 'You can't just sit around terrified he'll die,' I said gently. 'Scott is doing everything he can to stay alive. The only thing you can control is your attitude, so think positively -- and go skiing.'

"The couple also improved their communication. Instead of bottling up her feelings until she flew into a rage, Jan learned to say, 'I'm upset about XYZ. Can we set aside a time to discuss it?' Scott admitted that he often dismissed Jan's concerns with a sharp remark. I urged him to ask himself two questions before responding: 'Is it worth fighting about? Or does it make more sense to acknowledge Jan's perspective, reassure her, and give her a hug?' Scott put this advice into practice and almost immediately the couple's day-to-day interaction became smoother.

"The lack of a social life also hurt Jan and Scott's relationship. At my urging, Jan asked a few mothers she knew for recommendations for reliable babysitters and now the couple go out every Saturday night. 'Having dinner together makes me feel closer to Scott,' Jan said. 'And that seems to have kick-started my sex drive.'

"Over the next year the couple's marriage improved steadily. Jan signed up for another class and will take the recertification exam this year. She also changed her hair and bought new clothes. And the family recently took a ski trip. 'I feel so much better about myself,' Jan said, 'and I'm much more relaxed because I'm not obsessing over Scott's health or whether the kids have done their homework.'

"'I love seeing Jan smile again,' Scott said. 'She's back to being the girl I fell in love with.'"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2011.


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