Expert advice on how to get back into the working world after a post-baby hiatus.
Now that there's a bump beneath your business attire, are you secretly thinking about not going back to work after your baby is born? If so, you'll have company. Seventy-six percent of moms took a timeout from paid work, according to a survey of more than 1,500 women conducted by Mothers & More, a nonprofit education and advocacy group. "The reasons women don't go back are about as varied as women are," says Kristin Maschka, the organization's board president.
"But we do find that for many women, the workplace they've known just doesn't fit with the family they've created."
If leaving work for a while is possible, financially and otherwise, you may reap more soul-satisfying returns than you imagined. "Taking time off is a chance to focus on your child and to maybe get some time for yourself," says Mary Quigley, co-author of Going Back to Work: A Survival Guide for Comeback Moms (St. Martin's Griffin, 2004).
"And for women who've spent 10 or more years in a career, it's also a chance to step back and say, 'Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?' " Of course, chances are you'll be back--and want to be back--at work someday. The Mothers & More survey showed that 74 percent of nonworking mothers planned to return to paid employment. You may not have a set plan, but whether you'll be away from the workforce for six months or six years, there are a few guidelines you can follow now to make that eventual transition back to work go more smoothly.
Stay in the know: In the early months of new motherhood, you may lack the energy (or even interest) to follow every hiccup in your field, so get just the major highlights: Sign up for an e-mail newsletter that focuses on your industry, or subscribe to a professional publication and skim the headlines. "Even if you're not working full time, you have to see yourself as still a part of your field," advises career counselor Nancy Collamer, founder of Jobs and Moms. "Get dressed up and go to the next [trade] conference for your industry, so that you can become familiar with the trends in your career."
Within a year of going back to work, become involved with the local chapter of your industry association, Collamer suggests. "Don't just join--make it a point to attend meetings and volunteer to work on a committee." A good resource for locating an association in your area of expertise or desired field is The Gale Encyclopedia of Associations.
Take classes: As you get closer to returning to work, consider brushing up on your professional or technical skills with a course or certification program. You can choose from classes that will enhance your technical know-how (such as website development), polish your personal presentation skills (think public speaking) or update your industry knowledge (attend a workshop about recent legislative changes impacting insurance regulations).
Volunteer selectively: "Choose volunteer work with quantifiable results," Quigley suggests. In other words, don't always jump to judge the local pumpkin-carving contest. Instead, you could volunteer to help raise money for new play equipment at your child's preschool. Later, you can highlight to potential employers the skills you used to generate sales or donations.
Network—with everyone: When you want to get back into the work world, the key is going to be relationships. That was certainly the case for Celeste Farrell, who found her current job as the manager of a physical therapy department in an orthopedic specialists' office through a fellow class mom she'd befriended. "She's the business manager of the office and thought I would make a good manager," says Farrell, an event planner in her former life.
"We'd done some volunteer work together and I always seemed to get roped into being the chairperson, so she'd already seen me in action!"
Rethink your resume: Be sure to catalog all your experience, including any part-time or contract work done during your "hiatus," as well as any unpaid work. As for the myriad tasks you do at home or at your children's school? "Some employers won't want to hear you were the PTA room mother," Collamer says. "However, if you chaired a school committee that raised thousands of dollars and as part of your job responsibilities you'd be managing a budget, highlight your fundraising and budgeting experience."
If you find you still have too much white space on your resume, consider writing a "functional" resume rather than a chronological one, Quigley advises. This means downplaying dates and listing your skills by category, such as supervisory, research, sales, communication, problem solving and team building.
Be realistic when you return: "Know that you may have to come in at a different place from where you left, so make sure you've placed the bar at a realistic level for yourself," says Cali Williams Yost, author of Work + Life: Finding the Fit That's Right for You (Riverhead, 2004). "Yet really value and honor what you've done while you were out--you'll project that confidence."
Think about what you really want: You may decide to return to part-time work, or, after having had some time away, you may want to do something else entirely. A good way to get a real feel for another profession is to "shadow" someone in the job, Collamer says. Spend a day with a lawyer friend or ask to assist a real-estate agent you know with an open house. That way, you've looked before you've leapt.
Realize your true value: "I'll hire moms over other job-searchers any day, because they have so much experience in multitasking," says certified public accountant Karen Sackstein, a mom whose accounting business employs only mothers who make their own flexible schedules--including one woman who had been away from the workforce for so long that she didn't know how to use e-mail.
"Job hunting is hard for anyone, yet many women have successfully gone back to work after having children," Collamer says. "As a mother, you bring an enormous amount of maturity, experience and knowledge to the table." Which means your next employer is going to be lucky to have you.