Jennifer Feuerstein is AARP Michigan's new associate state director, a position she earned in January 2014. At first glance, she's a professional, put-together, successful career woman, but there's much more to her story.
In fall 2008, Feuerstein took a leap of faith. A stay-at-home mom with three kids, she filed for divorce from her alcoholic husband to remove herself and her children from an unhealthy environment. At the time, she wasn't working outside the home; suddenly, she had the responsibility of sole parent and provider. "It was a terrifying place to be, especially because I was taking this huge risk at the time the economy was falling apart," Feuerstein said. "I had no job. And the economic bubble burst literally at the same time I was contemplating my decision."
After filing for divorce, she began her job search. Feuerstein had what she describes as a "very thin" résumé, with work experience right after college, and some part-time and volunteer work experience during the time she was at home with her kids. Between the birth of her second and third children, Aidan and Ava respectively, Feuerstein had been a part-time producer at FOX 17, for a short time. She lists that experience, her work on church fundraising campaigns, and her skills as a domestic manager (aka "stay-at-home mom") as the basis of her skill set, coupled with her enthusiasm and intense work ethic. She credits the part-time job with FOX 17 as a real asset in her job hunt: "If it hadn't been for this stint, I would've had a more difficult time selling my assets after being a stay-at-home mom for eleven years."
Feuerstein landed a position doing marketing and outreach for a geriatric healthcare organization. But it wasn't an easy transition at first. Feuerstein recalls attending a meeting at Frederik Meijer Gardens, sitting in a conference room overlooking the Children's Garden, watching all of the moms playing in the gardens with their kids, and tearfully thinking, "I'm on the wrong side of the window." It was a pivotal moment in which she realized she couldn't change her circumstances, but she could change her perspective. "Until then, I had put all of my energy into being a mom, and now I knew I would have to shift some of that energy into a career, too. I had to drop the old labels of who I was and reinvent myself."
Once she accepted the reality, she dove in to build up her experience and enhance her learning opportunities, to open more doors in her career. "I became like a sponge and absorbed everything I could. I joined various networking groups, coalitions, and affiliations related to this field and got involved. I used these opportunities to connect with as many people as possible. Not just to get a business card, but to genuinely connect." Feuerstein earned a certificate in aging from GRCC, and eventually began a master's program in management at Aquinas College. She continued to move up the career ladder and was hired by AARP earlier this year. "I never set out to work in the field of aging," Feuerstein explains. "Honestly, the opportunity presented itself when I desperately needed a job. And now, after becoming completely integrated in this work, I can't imagine doing anything else."
Six years later, Feuerstein is proud of how quickly she's risen in her career. "When I started in this field, it was out of necessity. But I worked hard, proved myself, and now am working as an associate state director in the most powerful nonpartisan advocacy organization in the country. I'm honored I can help steer the mission of AARP and advocate for older adults." Another role she's proud of? Being a mom. "My kids are my priority. I work for them. I want them to see me succeed, and to learn hard work pays off. I hope I've shown them even when life gives us lemons, we can make not just lemonade, but lemon sorbet. We can thrive under adverse circumstances. It's all about choices, a positive attitude, and hard work."
Feuerstein has learned that sometimes it takes difficult choices to make it all work. Recently, she decided to hit the "pause" button on her master's program, to achieve better balance in her family and professional life. She's given herself permission to readjust as necessary. "It's trial and error, exploring paths. It's not failure—it's just not working for me right now." She said that making the decision brought a sense of peace. "I know my limitations playing the role of both mom and dad. I pray every day that where my abilities drop off trying to raise my kids on my own, God will pick up the rest. I am very aware of my shortcomings. I'm not a perfect mom or working woman. I just try to do the best I can in an attempt to balance both."
Building a career has been a learning process. When it comes to the world of work, Feuerstein found that maintaining even a small professional presence during her time as a stay-at-home mom made building her career a little less daunting. Authentic networking and a willingness to learn all aspects of her new industry have provided opportunities. She credits the immense help from her mom, her oldest son, Tyler, and support from friends and other family members to stay afloat, balancing it all.
"When you reinvent yourself, it may not always be neat and tidy. The process can be messy. You may start down one path and realize it's not what you want, or that it's not right for you. It's OK to give yourself permission to stop and try something different.
"Sometimes, we don't want to take risks because we don't know if it'll be the right thing. All we can do is try."
Written by Jennifer Reynolds, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.