Mom-ramps: Merging Back Into Your Career

I love what I do. I see all types of clients from different walks of life: mid-career professionals and career changers; first generation job seekers; spouses of expatriates seeking to work while on assignment.  Recently one theme keeps coming up with clients and friends and, as is my tendency when I see a theme, I need to write about it.

It is the re-entry of women into the work force after an absence, usually to take care of family. I call this re-launch ‘Mom Ramping’.  Just like an on ramp to a highway, Mom Ramps involve a lane change, having a sense of where you want to go, making sure everything around you is safe, signaling, merging into traffic and accelerating forward.

My typical ‘Mom Ramper’ sounds something like this, “I really love my kids and would never trade the time I had with them for anything. But………..”  She then launches into how she misses the stimulation of work and interacting with colleagues, a detailed account of the time and effort that went into building her career, how she tried to make it all work balancing career with the first child, and then stepping off of the career track.

She is no longer part of her professional network, feels that her skills are not up-to-date, questions her ability to be successful and her confidence is low.  Sound familiar? All of us who have stepped off of the career track to take care of family, whether children, parents or other loved one, experience at least one of the above examples. If not more. Including myself.

I left an exciting career in finance to spend time with my 3-year-old. Eventually, my family said they preferred me when I was working or, as my then 8-year-old put it, “Mommy, you are a lot happier when you have something to do.  And also nicer.”  Boy, was that a wake-up call!

I did eventually make it back into the work force, but it took a lot longer and was much more frustrating than it needed to be (see 200 Interviews, What I've Learned and Networking - Why We Hate It).  What I would have loved back then was some sort of road map to get me back onto the career highway. Since I continue to see women (and some men!) struggle with the same situation, I humbly share what I call ‘Mom Ramping’ with you.

Changing Lanes

Many of us go back and forth between returning to work or staying home until we come to some point that tells us it is time to change lanes. It might be that a child is old enough to go into an after school program or financial necessity requires two working parents.  Regardless, the journey of returning to work begins with a shift inside – one that eventually outweighs staying at home or with the status quo. It also requires the ability to delegate (or in my case, surrender) some everyday tasks to others, as well as redefine what type of work one wants to do. Priorities shift over time, and what we were willing to do in our single 20’s could be a deal-breaker in our parenting 30’s and 40’s.  Work is no longer only about salary or title. It now includes flexible schedules, intellectual stimulation, making a difference, and a host of other factors.

Know Where You Want to Go

One common mistake is not defining where we want to go.  Sure, we want to have meaningful work, but we also want to have the flexibility to pick up the kids, not work evenings or weekends, or some other need. What Mom Rampers need to do is create a road map of their needs (must haves) wants (nice to haves) and deal-breakers (oh 'hell' no).  This will vary from person to person. But knowing what is and is not acceptable (commutes over 1 hour long, not being able to work from home when your child is ill, required travel, etc.) will help you eliminate opportunities that can distract or disrupt you from your job search process. To help you with this, I have uploaded a very basic Personal Career Road Map to my LinkedIn page to help you navigate your path.

Look Out for Obstacles

Before re-entering the workforce, returning moms need to check for obstacles that might keep or have kept them from merging back into the working world. Let’s face it – working mothers have three jobs: childcare and child rearing; maintaining a household; and working outside of the home.  Oprah Winfrey said it best, “You can have it all, just not all at once.” Arrangements need to be made, whether it is someone to pick your child up from school and take them to ballet, a housekeeper one more day a week, a partner who can pick up some of the slack, a home-cooked meal twice a week instead of five, or all of the above.

Some new services are available today that were not around when I re-entered the work force. Care.com and Nextdoor.com for childcare, pet care and elder care, InstaCart for grocery shopping and delivery (a godsend when one has a toddler) and TaskRabbit for those annoying, time-intensive errands, are just a few ‘outsourcing’ services to make our lives easier.  Of course, the ability to delegate is crucial to creating the time necessary to insert work as part of your daily or weekly schedule. Many clients realize that ‘good enough’ is a fine substitute for ‘perfect’ or ‘doing it all myself’.

Use Your Turn Signal

Once a decision to return to work and arrangements have been made, returning mothers need to let others know they are ready to re-enter the work force.  Learning how to tell their story, understand what they are looking for, and getting the word out are all part of signaling, and coincide nicely with information gathering (also known as networking). Incorporate taking time out to raise a family as part of your overall career arc.  Avoid downplaying one’s time at home or out of the office. Instead, focus on your transferable skills, which come both from work and from staying home.  Planned a school fundraiser? That is budget management and leadership. Oversaw a move or a renovation? Planning and implementation.  Cared for an aging parent? Negotiating complex situations and bureaucracies. Attach numbers to your transferable skills – increased parent participation by 25%, raised a record number of money for the school PTO. One thing is for sure – mothers are the ultimate multi-taskers! Finally, if no one knows you are ready to enter the workforce or what you can do, how can they help spread the word?

Merge into Traffic

Start merging back into the work force by looking for opportunities.  This involves networking and interviewing (notice I did NOT mention filling out applications – see my article Breakfast as Job Search Wisdom). Use informational meetings and formal interviews to understand culture, work scope and expectations, and match them to your own road map of needs and expectations.  Do you remember being a teen-aged driver merging onto a highway for the first time? Re-entering the workforce can also be white-knuckled at first.  It takes practice to figure out how to present yourself, know your boundaries and narrow your focus. As with most things in life, it gets better and easier with practice.

Accelerate

Once you have successfully merged into job-search traffic, start accelerating by speaking to as many people as possible.  This is signaling combined with confidence and intensity. Use LinkedIn and LinkedIn Groups, Meet-ups, lunches, casual conversations and informational meetings to get the word out and create interviews. Many jobs are not advertised (a.k.a. The Hidden Job Market), and often an introduction from an acquaintance or friend can put you to the front of the line in terms of applicants.

Going back to work is not a decision made lightly.  It involves some difficult choices about what you can and cannot do for your family. It also takes time - sometimes longer than we had planned - and the support of spouses, family and friends. Often, a career coach can be the objective third-party to help you figure out what you want to do and how to make that happen. Once the decision is made, do as much as you can to set yourself up for success.  Prepare your Personal Career Road Map, know your obstacles, signal, merge and accelerate.

I look forward to your comments and learning from your experiences!