I have babysat my autistic children all my life. How am I supposed to find a job in my 40s? | Sophia

II’m trying to find a job right now, but I feel like the more I try to get out of my situation, the more obstacles I face. I have the option of working part-time, but if I make changes to my situation, it could affect the benefits I receive. I wouldn’t get as much help with housing benefit – I live in a privately rented two-bedroom house – so I would have to make up the shortfall. On top of that, if I continued to live where I currently live, I would have to pay the underoccupancy charge, otherwise known as room tax.

It’s heartbreaking because my child comes home from college every other weekend and during the holidays, but when I called a financially challenged advice line and asked where they could sleep, the man at phone suggested “the couch?” When I looked online, it seemed to me that families with kids in college wouldn’t be penalized. So I try to get help and advice, but it’s hard when you’re given wrong information.

A little part-time work might not be a huge amount of money, but it will mean a little self-esteem, a little dignity, and my own money. I’m also trying to figure out how my universal credit will be affected if I work part time, but can’t seem to get a clear answer. I’m afraid of making changes and being worse off.

So, for now, Boris Johnson and I are unemployed. I can’t imagine the next Prime Minister will care more about people on benefits. I remember canvassers knocking on the door before the last general election, trying to get me to see all the good things the Conservatives had done. I just thought, you took benefits away, and now that the cost of living is going up, it doesn’t feel like we’ve been thought of.

The image that some people have of benefit recipients is that life is easy. Although I am grateful that having allowances allowed me to raise two autistic children as a single parent, it had a negative impact on me. I think that shook my confidence. There is no validation that comes with being on the benefits of how you get on with a job.

Four days a week I volunteer at a food bank and I really feel like I’ve done something good, but I wonder if I’m using that as an excuse not to try harder to look for a full time job. I love what I do and wonder if I could still do some volunteering if I had to work part-time, but would that be enough to cover my expenses? It’s been so long since I’ve had a paid job, I don’t know what to do, and it’s a real problem.

In school, I wanted to be a long-distance truck driver, but the guidance counselor turned it down and told me I had to do something else. I never ended up learning to drive. I left school at 16 and entered what was called a youth training program. I got pregnant and left before I finished it. Because I haven’t had a job before, it’s not like I have anything to go back to. Now I’m in my 40s, just trying to find something that works for me, and I’m scared. What if I can’t? What if I give someone the false impression that I can do a job that I’m not really capable of? It’s hard to believe you can do this. And I feel old.

I applied for a job at my local supermarket, but didn’t get very far before I felt overwhelmed. The questions about using my initiative made me feel almost deceived: I didn’t know the answers. I just thought I’d never get anywhere, and just closed the page. I can’t even imagine what a job interview would be like.

For the past few years, I’ve taken a few free online courses just to put something on my resume, because when people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m just a mom.” But I do realize that being “just” a mom has given me a transferable skill set, from organization to timing. Being the sole parent of two autistic children means my negotiation skills are fantastic and I am able to think on my feet. I just don’t know how to show off, or get someone to see that in me. I no longer have confidence in myself and I feel like I am fighting against a lot of young people.

Part of it is a lack of self-esteem, but it’s also practical. ‘Cause if it goes wrong, what do I do then? If I lost my benefits but my job was not working as I hoped, I would have to start a new claim. It’s not just me that I have to think about, my child is in university but I am still responsible for it, even if my universal credit no longer covers it. I try to improve myself but changing the situation is like stepping into the unknown.

  • The Trussell Trust is an anti-poverty charity campaigning to end the need for food banks. Show your support at: www.trusselltrust.org/guardian

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