Picture this, you have been given a gift of two free days to spend as you would like, without your children or spouse. How would you choose to spend those days?   I would choose to work!  Yes, work is what fuels my soul and how I show up in the world outside of my family.  I, like many people, have a to-do list that is a mile long.  I also have dreams of girl’s weekends with spa treatments.  However, working gives me a place to express my ideas and have my talents validated by that other important thing…money!

Does this sound familiar? Do you want to go back to work with purpose?  Do you want to have more meaningful work show up in your life?  First you must ask yourself, “Who are you doing it for?”  If this answer is anyone but YOU…it is time to think about your motivation.  Work, true work, purposeful work is simply the action of your true nature.  It is an expression of you and will feel easeful and joyful.  Children engage in purposeful work with passion and inspiration.  When you give a child a meaningful task they often rise to the occasion and are pleased with their result.  This pleasure comes from the inside, not external rewards.  They are working because they are a part of the family and a larger society.  This “meaningful work” mindset is what we need to engage when we think about returning to work or creating new opportunities. With meaningful work on the horizon, try thinking through these next three steps to create your strategy for reentering the workforce.

The first step in going back to work on your terms is to define those terms. Start by carving out some uninterrupted time and get specific and creative with your terms. Imagine a time when you felt empowered and engaged with your work. You can reach as far back as childhood or perhaps a recent project to find a time when you felt a sense of flow and all other things seemed to fall away. When you are immersed in this sense of flow, ask yourself the following questions:

What does you ideal day look like?

What is your ideal work environment?

Who do you want to work with/for/in service of?

Are you more inspired working in a group of people or by yourself?

Do you prefer working in a natural setting or a posh office?

What kind of time commitment are you interested in?

How much flexibility to you need and want?

How far are you willing to commute?

Do you want to work on projects or a contract basis?

Defining your terms before you go back to work will help you to practice creating your future from the inside out. The more specific you are in defining your ideal work situation, the more successful you will be in attaining it. This is not to say that the perfect environment will appear as soon as you define it, but it will give you a roadmap for what you are looking for.

The next step in reentering the workforce is to activate your network. Spread the word about your intentions to go back to work with emphasis on your terms.  Don’t be afraid to let people know that you intend to work part-time or from home. If you are feeling a bit lost, start by identifying with a few role models. Who are the people that you know that work and have a balanced personal and family life?  I like to think of these role models in the context of masters and apprentices.  Seek out two or three of these masters and undertake an informal apprenticeship.  Invite your role models to coffee for an informational interview. Ask them about their greatest challenges to success or their top three life lessons.  Women love to help each other and masters love to teach.

Finally, you may need to update your skills or get the training and education you need to be competitive in the marketplace. This initial outlay of time and money may create an invaluable path to reentering a career.  This choice demonstrates that you are committed to your field and to yourself. As you put yourself out there through training and networking, you are more likely to attract the kind of job that will fulfill your needs.

Defining your terms, activating your network and updating your skills will give you a strategy for reentering the workforce. However, there are numerous places to get stuck along this journey to finding purposeful work in the right environment.  Here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

1)    “I’m not sure what I want to do.”

Many mothers have spent so much of their time serving others that they do not know what they really want anymore. If you are unclear about what your purposeful work is, think about what inspires you. Feel free to dream outside the lines here.  What did you like to do as a child? How do you love to show up for people? Focus on what is important to you and activities that ignite your passion. Often times a career comes from the simplest of ideas such as “I love to write” (writer) or “I like listening to other people” (therapist, counselor, etc).

2)    “I don’t know what I’m really good at.”

This can be a tough one at first, but it is actually pretty easy to solve.  Ironically, it can help to begin by making a list of what you are NOT good at, what you do not like to do, what is going wrong in your life right now. Once you start to list the things that you don’t like/aren’t good at the things you like and are good at will begin to appear.  It is also easy to ask your friends and family.  They have seen you in a variety of situations and can point out where you shine.  Finally, you can take a test. There are a number of great personality and skills tests offered online and you can work with a life or career coach to help you interpret your results.  Some that I would suggest are the Clifton Strengths Finders 2.0, the DISC assessment and the classic Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

3)    What I like to do doesn’t fit into the current job market.”

In order to be successful with your work, you will need a structure that fits your lifestyle.  If you look outward for this structure and try to fit your needs into it, you will not succeed.  You must instead create a structure that supports your work while being honest about your needs.  For example, if family time is important, tell your employer that you need flexibility to work from home. If you would like to be able to show up for school events, choose a short commute or flexible hours.  If you work for yourself or on contract and crave the stimulation of the office environment, look into working in a co working space a few days a week.

4)    “I can do it all by myself”

As modern women, the notion that we can do it all is very tempting. We can have our careers, travel and enjoy cultural opportunities, and raise healthy, confident and socially responsible children.  However, doing all of this without the support of an extended family or community is a recipe for burnout. Chasing the delusion that we have to do it on our own may be creating widespread unhappiness among mothers in the workforce. In a recent article in the Atlantic magazine entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Anne- Marie Slaughter shares that women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, self-employed or well off.  She chronicles her own struggles to balance her family life while working in a high profile job at the State Department. Ultimately, she left her job to return to her family after realizing her own limitations. This article has created waves of debate and touched on many issues that I grapple with. How can we create a strong family, ensure good health and have purposeful work in our current economy?

As Slaughter suggests, we may not be able to have it all at once, but I feel that with clear priorities and the right resources we can achieve great things. Knowing what you value and having a clear strategy to achieve your goals is paramount to reentering the workforce on you terms. Having a great partner or community is another necessary part of creating balance for a working mother. I hope that reading this article fuels your passion and reminds you to check in with yourself often.  And as it is often said, when you work for your fulfillment, the money will follow.

This post originally appeared on www.laurariordan.com.

Laura RiordanLaura Riordan, Ph.D., is a life coach and mother who works with individuals and couples in times of transition. She is a graduate of Cornell University¹s School of Hotel Administration and in 2006 earned her Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology. Laura¹s own passion for a balanced life has been fueled by her long-term yoga practice, extensive travels, continuing education and commitment to community. Laura lives in San Rafael with her husband and daughter. Visit her at www.laurariordan.com.