Returning to Work After a Pause: The Challenges

Busy motherRejoining the workforce after taking some time off is, regardless of the reasons, an experience both exciting and stressful, and this is especially true for mothers who have put their career on hold while they raise their kids. Whether a mother goes back to work immediately after her maternity leave ends or chooses to stay at home for a few years while the child or children grow up a bit more, the transition is a complex one and involves both an emotional adjustment and purely practical considerations such as arranging childcare. And, of course, the first thing is to find a job, for those who have taken a longer pause.

Starting with this scenario, where a woman takes several years to raise one or more children, the usual practical issues that she is most likely to encounter include outdated skills and natural self-doubt, says Sue Shellenbarger in an article for The Wall Street Journal. Raising one or more kids is a full-time job that often completely displaces professional ambitions and, to make things harder, employers are more likely than not to feel a certain bias against such “dropouts” from the workforce. Drawing on the stories of women who have succeeded in returning to work after years at home, Shellenbarger suggests that moms staying at home and planning to relaunch their career at some point in the future should keep their professional skills up to date and hone them to suit new demands in the sector. Career coaching within neighborhood networks is one option, doing volunteer work is another. Career coaching from moms for moms is also a very good tool to build confidence, says one mother who made the transition successfully (Shellenbarger, 2009). What’s more, doing volunteer work while out of a full-time occupation can look good on a resume and encourage employers to take the candidate on. It should be noted, however, that it is not necessary to return to the same field of work; a 2005 study from Wharton School among 130 people found that only 39% of them had returned to the same kind of job, while most opted for a career change. During a longer stay at home it is not unusual for a woman to discover that she is good at something she did not notice before and decide to strike out in a whole new career direction. One of the mothers Shellenbarger interviewed found out she was good at investment advising and decided to try for a career in this field, for instance. This requires more preparation time for training and getting the necessary credentials but it could be more rewarding than going back to the same thing you used to do before the children were born.

Another interesting finding of the Wharton School survey was that many of those rejoining the workforce tended to choose a smaller company than the one they had left. It seems that smaller businesses are more flexible in their attitudes, even though there is the risk of a candidate who had formerly worked for a big corporate coming across as overqualified. As a whole, however, the study found that half of the women previously in executive positions found the experience of going back to work frustrating. One of the authors of the study, Monica McGrath, who is an adjunct professor of management at Wharton, said that one way to avoid such frustration was to start thinking about returning to work as soon as you leave it and, when the time comes, start the job hunt with realistic expectations, although these expectations could not entirely cancel the feeling of frustration when women found it hard to get beyond the initial job interview. The study also noted the importance of keeping professional skills up to date to avoid a difficult transition.

When it comes to employer attitudes that can put a spoke in the wheels of a candidate who has been out of work for a while, a more recent study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics last year, confirmed the bias, discovering that identical resumes that differed only in terms of the period during which the candidates had been unemployed tended to be perceived very differently: the longer the period of unemployment was, the lower were the chances of the candidate to be invited to an interview. Analyzing the results, Fred H. Merrill Professor of Economics at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Paul Oyer in an article for the Harvard Business Review suggests the same as Shellenbarger — keep professional skills alive and up to date while you are out of work and also don’t lie on your resume but make sure to include anything pertinent to the potential new job that you did during that time.

That said, the other major source of frustration for many mothers returning to work is the conflict between wanting to be productive professionally and wanting to spend more time with their children. For many career-oriented women staying at home is not their first, or even second, choice, but even they often find the return to an active career challenging. One such mother, Stephanie Tsales, offers some advice in an article for “Moms Against Guilt.” The first thing, she says, is to be patient. Going back to work after maternity leave could be invigorating for a while, but then the guilt would creep up and you may find yourself at a crossroads not knowing which way to choose — switching to working from home, giving up the career altogether for a few more years, or trying to adjust to a new situation. For those who are career-driven, the third option may prove to be the best one and here are some of the adjustments that it requires. Apart from patience, Tsales says, which means giving yourself time to come to terms with how having a child and spending a stretch of time taking care of him/her has changed you, steering clear of any big decisions in those first few weeks is also essential. Being patient with yourself will let you realize the new skills you have acquired and some improvements to your old ones, such as better time management and multitasking. Leaving big decisions for later gives you time to adapt to your new role and accept the fact of how much becoming a mother, adding a new role to that of a professional, has changed you. The third important adjustment is avoiding comparisons between yourself and colleagues in terms of productivity or any other aspect of the job, and between yourself and other working moms. Being kind to yourself, says Tsales, means finding something good about each day, and not letting negativity take you over. As time goes by, things will get easier.

The different options work for different women, based on what they consider the most important and on what sacrifices they feel ready to make. If a mother decides that work from home is the best option for her, she should take time to first consider how many hours she could devote to working and what would be the best way to employ her skills, says Heather R. Huhnam in an article for Forbes. Also important is to define what is the thing that is the main motivation for working from home. Is it the second paycheck, is it the chance to explore your talents and skills, or get a chance to communicate with adults. Telecommuting is already an established trend and some argue that it will be the dominant work model in the future (Biro, 2014). It allows for flexible working hours, which is of benefit both for the employer and the employee, and it saves costs for both parties. Going about finding a telecommuting job starts with doing some research on what companies in the field that you are interested in tend to hire virtual employees and spreading the word that you are looking for such employment among as many people as possible, be it by word of mouth or by setting up a profile in a network such as LinkedIn. Learning how to detect scams in the area of telecommuting is also a must, following the simple rule that if it sounds too good to be true, it very probably is.

So, the options are out there, it needs persistence and that bit of luck to get back on the work wagon and what’s left are some considerations that have to do with organizing everyday routines for the family. Finding a suitable childcare option and then making a backup plan is the place to start once you begin thinking about going back to work, according to a list of advice from working moms for working moms on the Mumsnet website. Since deciding who will look after the child while the mother is at work is the most important thing, don’t wait until the last minute. Another thing to do early on is establish a routine for all family members to avoid overexhaustion and chaos. Making lists for everything, devising a schedule for chores and planning meals ahead are all tools that would help any working mother adapt to the new situation more smoothly and spare her and the other family members unnecessary stress. A trial couple of days in childcare before you actually start work will help you face the emotional strain of parting with your child before you have to deal with work, too. Once you are at work, be sure to remind yourself that however badly things look in those first days, they will get better.

One final reminder: the balance between work and family life is the responsibility of both parents, and both should be flexible in this respect, so that no one is left with the feeling that they are doing more than is fair. What’s more, an increasing number of fathers are opting to stay at home and become principal caregivers of their children: according to the US Census, the ratio of stay-at-home fathers has risen by 53% since 2008. True, for some of them it was the recession that made them stay at home, but for many others it was a conscious choice. So, there is that one other option for a working mom eager to step into her career shoes once again.

All in all, returning to work may be scary, guilt-inducing and time-consuming, but with the economy going out of recession and on the rise again, chances are that one of the alternatives to staying at home with the kids will work out fine. It takes perseverance, ambition and patience but if a fulfilling job is what you want, the sacrifices you would have to make in order to get it will be worth it.



1. Oyer, Paul. “Finding a job when you’ve been out of work for a while.” Harvard Business Review. January 2014.

2. Kroft, Kory; Lange, Fabian; Notowidigdo, Matthew J. “Duration Dependence and Labor Market Conditions: Evidence from a Field Experiment.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics. April 2013.

3. Shellenbarger, Sue.”Getting from at-home to on-the-job, even now.” The Wall Street Journal, July 2009.

4. “Returning to work tips.” Mumsnet.

5. Tsales, Stephanie. “Returning to work after maternity leave.” Working moms against guilt, April 2013.

6. “Women Who Step Out of the Corporate World Find It Hard to Step Back In.” Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, September 2005.

7. Huhnam, Heather R.“Become a work-at-home mom.” Forbes, October 2012.

8. Biro, Meghan M. “Telecommuting is the future of work.” Forbes, January 2014.

9.Trice, Dawn Turner. “Do-it-yourself dads.” Chicago Tribune, February 2014.