How to return to work after a career break

Like many moms, after 13 years staying home to raise her three children, Oak Park mother Maria Ping found herself ready to return to work. 

She soon discovered how daunting it can feel trying to figure out how to do it with the big resume gap.

There is no one right answer for anyone when it comes to re-entering the workforce, says Mary Matas, career coach at Restart Your Career, a career counseling firm based in Oak Park.

“Listen to what you need and what your family needs,” she says. “This may mean working part-time, full-time, working from home, a less stressful job, the need for more balance, and even a total career change. It may be a perfect opportunity to try something new.”

Find what you love

When you are ready to get yourself back on the career highway, the first important thing to do is find what you love.

“The main advice I have for women who are looking to re-enter the workforce is to do something that lights you up,” says River Forest author and happiness coach Steffani LeFevour. “Don’t just look to work in a job or career that you’re good at. Go after one that you love and then going back to work won’t even feel like work because you’ll be excited about this new life adventure.”

It worked for Ping. She was a registered nurse with a BSN degree when she got pregnant with her third child and stayed home to raise the kids.

“(I) had a glimmer of wanting to be a breastfeeding supporter, but didn’t know what would be my next step,” Ping says. “While I was staying at home, I decided to volunteer as a La Leche League leader and began my lactation hours to follow my passion and interest.”

LeFevour says she finds that once her clients follow their passion, the rest generally falls into place.

“We don’t need to buy into the limiting belief that says once we’re past a certain age, we can’t reinvent ourselves or start in a totally new career,” she says. “We can and many do. So follow that model and do what you love.”

Create a plan and a pitch

Once a mom makes the decision to go back to work, a great place to start is working with a career coach to create a step-by-step plan.

Elizabeth Newhart, career and executive coach at Chicago-based Elizabeth Newhart Coaching, stresses that it’s important to get clear on the skills, strengths and value you bring to the table and to articulate that to would-be employers.

“I recommend creating a two- to three-sentence `elevator pitch’ that speaks to those things,” Newhart says. “Use this concise pitch during phone interviews and when networking to open the door.”

Matas says practice makes perfect.

“Practice your responses with someone who works in HR, recruiting, a career coach or someone in the field who can help guide you with your responses,” she says. “The more you practice, the more confident you will feel and the better your responses will be.”

Network and stay informed

Your network is often key to getting the word out that you are looking for a career restart.

“Begin networking with friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances you may know through groups, sports and social media,” Newhart says. “This can feel intimidating to some, so start with what feels manageable, like coffee, lunch or drinks.”

She also suggests subscribing to industry or professional publications, signing up for webinars and perusing LinkedIn and profession-related groups for current information about your field. 

Update your resume and online presence

Give your resume a total refresh, not just from a content standpoint, but with a current look and feel.  

“There is nothing wrong with updating your resume or LinkedIn page letting others know you took a break in your career,” Matas says. “Staying at home with children or elderly parents is one of the toughest jobs a person will ever do. By adding this information to your resume, you are letting potential employers know what you have been doing during that time.”

Newhart recommends developing an online professional presence by becoming active on LinkedIn by posting articles related to your industry or joining LinkedIn groups and participating in discussions. Depending on your profession, you can also use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to post thoughtful content. 

“Always make sure your LinkedIn profile is updated with the `open to opportunities’ designation,” Newhart says. “This helps recruiters know you are willing to be contacted. Additionally, update the content on your LinkedIn profile so that it’s not just regurgitating your resume, but addressing key experiences and responsibilities succinctly is key.”

Get help and establish boundaries

Returning to work can be a huge adjustment for a woman, but also her family and routine.

“Don’t be afraid to outsource things you did before such as grocery shopping or cooking, at least temporarily as you acclimate to your new routine,” Newhart says. “And be patient with yourself. Don’t expect to be able to connect all the dots right away or be everything to everyone.”

Newhart suggests establishing boundaries and thinking about the top three to five things that are non-negotiable to you and your happiness, whether it’s being home for regular dinners or bedtime or making time to exercise.

“When you start a new job, it’s OK to be honest about your reality and what an employer can expect from you,” Newhart says. “It won’t be perfect and you’ll need to be flexible, but holding tightly to the things that matter to you will help you to stay true to who you are and set you and your family up for success in your new role and routine.”

Taking the leap

Once Ping decided she was ready to start a new career as a lactation consultant, she put together a resume and got on all the job sites. 

She got an offer from her first interview and is now a lactation consultant at Mercy Hospital.

She says she and her family of five are adjusting to the new routine, including finding time for all the errands that creep up in life.

“I know it’s a privilege to stay home and to change careers, so I’m grateful that I got to pick something that I love doing,” she says. “And I keep telling myself that if this doesn’t work out, I can look for a new job.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.

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