After an 18-year break to care for a special-needs son, a mother has no idea what to put on her resume.

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Q: For 18 years, I stayed at home to care for a child with special needs. My son now has an independent living arrangement, so I am in the process of looking for work. Before he was born, I held several retail and clerical jobs, but after being unemployed for so long, I have no idea what to put on my resume. How can I encourage someone to hire me?

A: Now that you’ve decided to return to work, a self-study program can help you learn about the five basic steps in a job search. These include setting realistic goals, creating effective “sales tools” (including a resume), networking, interviewing and making a wise job choice. Many books and online resources (including NWjobs.com’s Career Center) can provide guidance in these areas.

With an 18-year employment gap, you should give special attention to networking. Blindly sending out resumes is a waste of time, since competing with other applicants will be difficult. You need the added boost that comes from making a positive personal impression or being recommended by a strong connection.

To strengthen your resume, include any volunteer work you may have done for charitable or civic organizations. You might also consider increasing those activities, since volunteering can provide recent experience and references. Work is still work, even if you’re not receiving a paycheck.

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Finally, congratulations to you for devoting so much time to your son. Your dedication has undoubtedly made a tremendous difference in his life.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach.Submit questions at yourofficecoach.com.