Should I lean in? Pivot? Freelance? Quit? If I leave my job, will I ever get back in?
These are just some of the questions women ask when smack in the “Messy Middle” — when job opportunity and family responsibilities collide, and decisions shift into high gear. There are more than 15 million employed women with children under the age of 18 in the United States, and millions more women on the work sidelines, many put there by impossible corporate work structures.
This is the focus of a new book titled Your Turn: Career, Kids, and Comebacks – A Working Mother’s Guide, by Après Co-Founder Jennifer Gefsky and CEO Stacey Delo. We’ve included an excerpt below focused on owning your return to work.
Your Turn is available for purchase on October 1st, and can be pre-ordered today.
Taking a career break helps you become more than you ever knew possible. You have the opportunity to reenter the work- force with so much more knowledge, perspective, and patience— kids will do that for you. It isn’t going to be easy, but it’s also going to change you for the better. It is going to make you even more capable than you could have ever imagined. You’re going to discover energy you never knew existed, and that’s inspiring and infectious to everyone around you.
You will also realize that your second act is a chance to do everything you wish you could have done the first time around but never seemed to find the time, foresight, or guts to do: to mentor others, to be more productive, to launch important programs and initiatives, to stop sweating the small stuff, to do work you really love.
The first time around, when my kids were young and I was still working, I always felt defensive and that I had to prove something to everyone: my boss, my team, my kids, my friends, Jen says. Once I was ready to return to work, those feelings were gone. I know I’m a better employee because of my career break. Being a mother instilled in me a renewed ambition and sense of calmness—and an understanding and trust that everything would work out, even on those really tough days, because I always had something important at home that kept me grounded. Maybe it’s being a little older and wiser, but I came back fresh and eager to take on the world.
We’re not naive: you will still need to juggle. In 2014, nearly 75 percent of mothers with children between the ages of six and seventeen were working or actively looking for work, so you most likely still have kids at home under the age of eighteen who have needs. You will still need to make compromises and sacrifices. But the combination of work experience and fresh perspective that a career break offers makes you a stronger, more thoughtful, more willing-to-ask-for-what-you-want employee. Your challenge is to keep this confidence up so others can feel your back-to-work mojo (and hire you!).
In this section, we are going to get down to the business of exactly what you need to do to get a job and what you need to embrace on your comeback: overcoming your fear of rejection, taking steps to discover what you really want to do, learning to talk about your gap, and understanding how the job market has changed. Here’s what else you need: a healthy dose of risk + knowledge of what’s out there combined with the ability to problem solve.
Know the struggle is real. The Center for Economic Development reports “that having children increases men’s likelihood of labor force participation while decreasing women’s likelihood, even among the college-educated. Thus, among this population, the difficulties associated with reentering the labor force following a career break affect women disproportionately.”
Sexism, ageism—they all come into play here. And we don’t need data to tell us this; we know this through stories like Stephanie Won’s. Won applied to many jobs on her return to work and found it was a tough process. “I went through countless interviews, and was rejected—and felt dejected—each and every time,” she says. “When I felt burned out, I did pro bono work for causes I believed in, exercised daily, listened to TED Talks, and surrounded myself with people who believed in me and supported me.”
Don’t despair. We know it can be done with commitment and perseverance—drawing on your sense of self and leaning into the process. We know through countless stories what it takes and how to get you there. You will need to dig deep and get ready for the ride.
You will doubt yourself, your ability, your judgment, ev- erything. The longer you’ve been out, the worse it’s likely to be. But know that you’re not alone and this scary self-doubt is temporary. Remember that trusted sense of self? This is an excellent time to take the time to bring that person to the forefront. Think back to when you were a fresh-eyed grad and first started your career—you didn’t know anything, either. You probably weren’t even sure if you wanted the job you got. But you took it day by day until you gained confidence and discovered what really moved and motivated you. Channel those feelings again.
Take thirty minutes to sit down and really remember all that you did in your career before your break. Write it down and let it sink in. This is the person a company will be hiring. Someone with previous experience. Bring that person to your return efforts. If you need to, post that list somewhere visible so you can keep the accomplishments you own fresh in your mind. In rediscovering your professional self, you will begin to remember all the qualities that you have to offer a company. Companies will only view you as a mother without work experience if that is how you view yourself. It is time to peel back the layers and recognize yourself for all of your talents, not just the talents that make you a great parent.
When you approach the job search with positivity, your network will take notice. Projecting the image of someone who has a renewed excitement about returning to the workforce makes you someone people want to hire. The world is changing and organizations are changing the stigma around taking a career break. There are employers out there who are willing to give you a shot, if you’re willing to take it. Embody these best habits of returners to get into the right mind-set.
“Career gaps have become far more common in recent years— it’s all in how you talk about it,” Molly Saint, a hiring manager at Squarespace, told us. “It’s really no different than preparing to talk about a previous job. Treating it the same way normalizes it, which I think is important.”
Habit #1: Persist.
This is probably the most important habit. Returning to the workforce will test your perseverance. It will test your confidence. The key is to never ever give up. Stephanie Won was a stay-at-home mom for ten years when her husband got laid off.
They had two kids under the age of ten, and two parents with zero jobs and zero income. Stephanie approached her job search with gusto and applied and interviewed with 29 non- profits, 37 for-profits, and connected with 50 recruiters before getting the offer she wanted. Phew. “The real win is who I’ve become in this process. I’m forever changed for the better— stronger, determined and proud,” she says. Persistence and perseverance are essential.
Habit #2: Be patient.
Once you decide to go back you may feel like you’re behind already. Give yourself plenty of time to endure and enjoy the process. Unless you need to go back to work immediately for financial reasons, start your search at least six months before you expect to go back to work, knowing that it can take months, even more than a year, to find a job let alone the perfect job (one report says to expect it to take one month for every $10,000 in salary you’re looking for). The best returners carefully contemplate their options and their alignment with their goals and family life.
Habit #3: Value your worth.
Your confidence will take a hit; try to keep this at bay. Look at the time you took to be with your family as time well spent—one chapter that leads you to the next. Show how secure you are in your career decisions and no one will doubt them. This is invaluable. Alice Walker famously said, “The most common way people give up their own power is thinking they don’t have any.”
Habit #4: Ask for help.
Confident returners understand that the professional world is a lesson in karma: what you put in, you get back. But sometimes, depending on where you are in the career continuum, you will be receiving more than giving. And that’s okay. Especially if you are grateful and appreciative.
Habit #5: Don’t be afraid to fail.
Be open-minded, curious, and engaged in every conversation. Confident returners explore all avenues because you never know what door may open. Sometimes it will be the right one; sometimes it won’t. But welcoming a chance to learn something new and to step outside your comfort zone will always lead you forward.