By the time I was 29, I was advertising manager at Vogue and was leading the magazine’s New York sales team. It was a plum job at Condé Nast, and it put me on a track toward a publisher role. But then I became pregnant a few years later, and I was overwhelmed with a desire to take time off to raise my daughter. I had worked one 60-hour week after another, entertaining clients at night and enjoying the glamour and income that came with the job. But the moment my tiny, beautiful baby was placed in my arms, I wanted a new plan.
That was 23 years ago. Now my two daughters are grown and are confidently pursuing their own careers.
When I left my job, I traded revenue and prestige for time. For me, the payoff was exponential. I didn’t do it for my kids; they would have thrived even if I had maintained my career. I did it for myself, to fulfill my vision of what I wanted my parenting experience to look like. During those 18 active parenting years, I worked part time, consulted, helped launch a magazine in my community and developed a sales business, mostly from home.
So now I am well-positioned to reenter the work world. I can secure meetings with former clients and assemble a team from a network of smart people I worked with years ago or recently met. I am not embarrassed, tentative or apologetic about the choices I made.
I recently created a website and blog for empty-nesters who are embracing their kid-free life, based on my experience with a not-so-stay-at-home career over the past two decades. If you are considering taking time away from work to raise a family, here are five things you can do to improve your outcome when you are ready to reenter the workforce.
Don’t stop working. I left Vogue, but I never fully abandoned my career. I adapted it to the schedule I wanted to keep. My first move was to find a part-time job in my field. I worked in sales at Time Inc.’s Baby Talk magazine. It gave me flexible hours, a good income and a supportive work environment. Figure out how you can get paid for your skills. If part-time work still sounds like too much of a commitment, start a freelance, consulting or training business. Begin leveraging your skills and reputation right away. The longer you wait, the harder it will be.
Stay connected. This involves more than sending a holiday card once a year. You have worked for years and know how to connect with colleagues and clients. Stacey Delo, chief executive of Après, a company that prepares women to reenter the workplace after raising kids, suggests “scheduling quarterly coffees with former colleagues, attending speaker events in the area and following industry trends through being active on LinkedIn.” All too often, we let our relationships slide once we leave a job. Keep your feet firmly planted in the world you have exited by gaining and sharing valuable information with your former colleagues.
Stay relevant. There are hundreds of websites hungry for content. Write what you know about. Research what you don’t. Figure out where your voice can be heard. Local colleges look for experts to teach adult education courses. Libraries and religious organizations use speakers for events. Your local community center may hire you to run a workshop. Delo says, “The key is how you position your time away and talk about those experiences.” One hiring manager told Delo people should talk about the gap time the same way they would a previous job: “With confidence.”
Stay informed. The biggest hurdle in returning to work after stepping away is a lack of industry knowledge. Technology has transformed business, and companies are changing their systems and practices constantly. It’s important to remain up-to-date on changes in your field.
According to Tami Forman, executive director of Path Forward, a nonprofit organization that fosters reentry to work after time off for caregiving, says, “Carve out a few hours each week to review newsletters and podcasts related to your field. You can read them or listen to them in the carpool line.”
Jennifer P. Howland, an executive with IBM’s Pathways who pioneered the company’s reentry program in the STEM field, says: “The strongest candidates are people that continually educate themselves during their break. They are able to demonstrate a willingness, aptitude and passion for learning.” Howland suggests taking courses and gaining certifications at local colleges, and keeping up your membership in societies in your field of interest.
Be engaged. You don’t have to become president of the PTA, but do find ways to make a contribution in your new world. “You should keep an eye toward making an impact in the world and you should be able to describe those activities in business terms,” Forman says. “Eventually you will have to communicate your activities in a way that an employer can hear them. Did you raise money or save money? Did you lead groups of people to a common goal or manage competing agendas and create collaborations? These are activities that will be interesting to future employers.”
Join mentoring organizations, especially intergenerational ones. Companies are recognizing the value that seasoned professionals offer younger ones. Establish a track record of mentoring younger professionals so you can integrate yourself into a company when the time is right. Better yet, start a mentoring group in your community.