In my 20s, I left a corporate job to go back to school. Five years later, as a grad student, I needed a day job and tried to return to corporate life. But it turned out five years was a very long time, business-wise. I didn’t get the job even though I was completely qualified.
Parents returning to the workplace after time off with the kids often find themselves facing similar closed doors. I see it happening to friends all the time. After taking time off to raise kids, they don’t seem quite as fresh-faced or on-their-game as other candidates. And having a kid who might require time off for doctor’s appointments, or might make them less excited to work late or on the weekends, seems like a liability to employers.
Mothers remain the employees most affected by this, either by choice or economic necessity. The Washington Post reports that one-third of all college educated women will, no matter their career ambitions, at some point stop working in order to care for children or their aging parents.
In response, a variety of businesses, from top-notch financial corporations to Internet start-ups, are offering return-to-work programs to ease the transition back to the workplace, in the hopes that they’ll keep their staff stocked with talented, smart women. While the obvious challenge is to create programs that effectively re-train employees, a second, more difficult obstacle is to make sure these programs don’t somehow stigmatize the participants, or label them “second-class workers.”
This conversation about mothers re-entering the workforce is just beginning in earnest, and it’s the result of more people than ever not just taking a break from their jobs, but talking about it too.
I’ve recently been addicted to the podcast First Day Back, which chronicles the story of Tally Abecassis, a freelance documentarian filmmaker in Montreal, as she tries to get a new project going after taking six years off to be at home with her children. She talks with great candor about her insecurities that people won’t take her as seriously professionally after her absence, and the guilt she feels at cutting back on the time she spends one-on-one with her sons.
What’s clear, from Abecassis’s story and the other working parents she talks to on her podcast, is that many people are juggling career aspirations with parenthood, and that both are long roads. Your children need a lot in those first few years of life, but then gradually become more independent. Stepping away for five years in order to care for your kids doesn’t seem like such a big deal, if you take the long view. And anyone who has stayed at home to care for a child knows that it strengthens you, and imparts deep lessons about being patient, remaining calm under pressure, and dealing with irrational situations.
Those are skills that come in handy in every aspect of life, but especially the office.
That’s not a view shared by everyone in the corporate world, but that attitude will change, I think, with so many educated workers hitting pause on their careers for family reasons and then, like Abecassis, talking about it publicly. Over time we’ll see not just re-entry programs for parents, but more robust family leave policies in corporate America. We need these, in order to keep our workforce strong, and also to keep them satisfied and happy. Which, as parents know better than most, are necessary feelings if you expect someone to engage, contribute, and work hard.