Going back to work after baby can be challenging when you’ve been gone for a few months. What about if you take a longer period off to care for your children? What’s it like to go back then?
We talked to six local parents who’ve been there, whether they took four years out of the formal workforce — or 17. Some returned to roughly the same job they’d done years before while others reinvented themselves – taking a job that hadn’t even existed when their babies were born – or started their own business. They shared advice with us about how to set yourself up for a successful return, get the job you want — and make it work going forward.
Making space — before the change
So you’re considering going back to work. But wait! Before you dust off your resume and break out the blazers, set yourself up for success by laying the groundwork at home.
“Set the priority before you get the job,” advises Julia Freeland, who runs a Seattle-based consulting business targeting professional relaunch and reinvention. Freeland went back to work as a professional development consultant in 2014 after 10 years out of the workforce. She founded REvolve You two years later to guide others through their own reinventions.
Looking for a job — and readying yourself for a return to professional life — should be treated as a job in and of itself, said Freeland, a mom of three kids now aged 11, 14 and 15. You have to make room in your life for the change, she said.
“Buy yourself the time you need to focus on this,” Freeland said. “It will give you the time to re-frame your brain, and it will also give your kids the time to realize that you’re not going to be around all the time.”
That’s what Joy Carpine-Cazzanti did. Carpine-Cazzanti took four years out of the workforce when her sons were 2 and 4 and the family moved to Italy for three years for her husband’s work. When they returned to Seattle, Carpine-Cazzanti enrolled her sons in after-school care so she would have time to network and interview. When she went back to work months later in government relations for the Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, childcare was set and a rhythm well-established.
“For them it was not as huge of a transition when I started,” she said. “They already had that routine of staying at the Boys and Girls Club after school, and they were used to it.”
It’s also a good idea to sit down with your partner early and figure out how the household responsibilities will get divvied up between both parents working, said Chris Casazza, who stayed home to care for his sons for 10 years before returning to work himself.
“Its important to have that conversation as a couple to decide how you can partner, parent, and run the house,” said Casazza, who works as an employee assistance counselor. “You have to share the duties more, and there is a potential for more conflict because you’re working more in a partnership.”
Adaptation and connection
Pam Arora said her biggest challenge was understanding how her industry had evolved since she left. Arora, a transportation planner, spent seven years out of the workforce caring for her children and assisting her aging parents. She found that going back to work required more than just getting up-to-date on the technology.
“I thought, well my field isn’t going to change much, we still use a lot of the same metrics and tools,” said Arora, whose children are now 9 and 11. “But it’s a lot more public outreach now. There are so many more pieces and players involved in the picture; it’s not just putting infrastructure out there.”
Arora recommends reaching out to potential mentors who can help negotiate workplace changes and offer support.
“One person might not have all the answers,” Arora said. “Connect with people you look up to, talk to them, and get advice from them.”
Some parents, especially those who’ve been out for a while, are entering a completely different professional world than the one they left.
After 17 years out of the workforce, Lauren McGuire felt like she was either overqualified or under-qualified for every posting she saw. Before kids, McGuire worked in strategic marketing, human resources, and organizational change management. During her 17 years as a stay-at-home parent, she held several volunteer leadership positions with parent-teacher organizations and ran for the Seattle School Board. But it was challenging to quantify all that experience for job applications.
“My boss offered me like the same amount I made in 2000,” McGuire said. “It was really kind of brutal because people didn’t know what to do with me, and also I didn’t really know what I wanted to do myself.”
Instead, McGuire pivoted and enrolled in the Washington Technology Industry Association’s Apprenti program, which provides tech industry training and apprenticeships to underrepresented groups like women, veterans and people of color. She said the program gave her what she needed to get her foot in the door, and her experience as a parent gave her flexibility and perspective that helped her to shine at her job.
“Now that I’ve been in my job for two years, I get a really high performance rating,” she said. “I bring so much more to the job than someone who is 27 or 25.”
A faster-paced world means shorter turnaround times, but also different expectations on level of completion, Freeland said. She said stay-at-home parents are much better positioned to adapt to these changes than many people who’ve been in the workforce all along.
“We understand from watching the development of our children that it’s two steps forward and two back,” Freeland said. “We understand that there’s no such thing as a “perfect project” when supporting a child.”
When stay-at-home parents can see the value of their experience and talk about it in professional terms that employers can understand, Freeland said, it changes everything.
Casazza said for some employers, experience as a parent is seen from the get-go as valuable. He said his time as a stay-at-home-dad was seen as an asset to his application to counsel families.
Finding your fit
Lacey Stirkins had been at home with her children for five years when she stumbled upon her dream job — and took the leap. Stirkins, who left her job managing a salon to be home with her children during her daughter’s middle school years, walked into a boutique DIY studio, found out it was a franchise, and spontaneously reached out to learn more.
A few months later, she was in the build-out phase on AR Workshop Seattle, located in Wedgwood. The studio opened in May and offers workshops that teach people to make their own home design pieces like wood signs, chunky knit blankets and hand-lettered wood coasters.
“It wasn’t a baby step back into the workforce; it was 0 to 60,” said Stirkins, whose children are now 11 and 17. “What gave me confidence that I could fulfill this dream is that I’ve done much harder things as a stay-at-home-mom.”
Stirkins said the abrupt transition has worked for her family in part because her children are at the age when they are seeking more independence, and old enough to realize how important the business is to her.
Transitioning so quickly required the rest of her family to take on more responsibility, especially her 11-year-old son.
“Now I have to trust them, and trust that they are doing the things they said they would do,” Stirkins said. “It has enabled (my son) to take on responsibilities and build his confidence.”
Other parents found that a more gradual transition back to the workforce worked best for them and their families. Casazza started counseling part-time in the evenings while his sons were still in grade school, evolving to full-time work when they were 11 and 15.
“When your children become teens and are in junior high, they are pushing you back and saying ‘let me handle this,’” Casazza remarks. “It becomes easier as a parent to see the light, and start charting a course professionally to something outside the house.”
Arora also started back working as a temp and for a consulting firm, and those experiences evolved into a full-time position.
Even now that his sons are in high school, Casazza said it helps to have one parent with a more flexible job to catch the balls when they drop. His wife works in the tech industry, and Casazza said he’s glad to be able to work in the field and from home and have more flexible hours for when the unexpected arises, like the time when his son sat on his debit card at the airport last month and he had to drive there to bring him a new one.
After a positive six-month performance review, Carpine-Cazzanti asked to go down to an 80-percent schedule. Going down to four days a week has given her time for errands, doctors, appointments and household work, she said, but still lets her put in enough hours to excel at her job and be seen as a solid member of the team.
“Having two parents working 40 hours a week and kids and activities and homework — we found it really tough,” Carpine-Cazzanti said. “Just having that day has helped a lot.”
McGuire said it is difficult to re-enter the workforce when you still feel so needed at home. But after a family member had been struggling recently with a chronic health issue, she said she appreciates having a job outside of the house to balance family responsibilities.
“Part of the reason I didn’t want to go back to work was I took care of everything,” she said. “Having a job is what’s really keeping me emotionally healthy and sane.”
All of the parents we talked to emphasized the importance of finding the right fit for your family, and having the confidence to ask for what you need to make it work going forward. The patience, flexibility, and perspective they learned in their years caring for their children improved their job performance.
Ready to dive back in? Here are some local training assets worth knowing about:
Ada Developers Academy is a tuition-free software training and paid internship program for women and gender diverse people.
Washington Technology Industry Association’s Apprenti program provides tech industry training and apprenticeships to underrepresented groups like women, veterans and people of color.
Asian Counseling and Referral Service provides literacy classes, vocational job training and job placement services to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, whether immigrant, refugee or native-born.
REvolve You provides professional relaunch and reinvention consulting.
The Seattle Jobs Initiative provides retraining to lower-income and under-represented groups for jobs in the healthcare, manufacturing and construction industry.
TRAC Associates provides job training and job placement to disadvantaged job seekers including minorities, mature workers and people who have been unemployed long-term.
The Washington State Dept. of Labor and Industries apprenticeships program page is a great resource to discover apprenticeship opportunities in your target industry.
Some people returning to the workforce qualify for the Worker Retraining program offered at all four Seattle Colleges.
WorkSource Seattle-King County runs free workshops and offers job training and job search assistance.
About the Author
Shawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter who occasionally catalogs her personal chaos at Critical Playdate. She is mama to Quinn, 10, Ruby, 8, and Nora, 5. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, reading and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.