Back in Business: Stay-at-Home Moms Return to the Workforce

The good news for stay-at-home moms and former career women about returning to work after quitting a job to raise children.

By Leslie Morgan Steiner

From Stay-at-Home-Mom to Career Woman

After the mommy track and the off-ramp, there’s a bracing reality: the empty nest and bank account. If you’ve been out of the work world for a while, read this — but don’t despair. We have plenty of good news to help you plunge back in.

Bonnie Landes Beer’s years at home ended with 45 minutes in a toy store. As she stared at a display of teddy bears to pick out the perfect gift for a child she hardly knew, it hit her: She needed more. Seven years earlier, she’d left her job in marketing for a large beauty company in New York City to take care of her kids, who were then 4 and 1. "I was stretched too thin," she says of her decision to quit. "I wasn’t being a good mother, partner, or employee." But as her kids grew, she became frustrated by days filled with errands and car pools and started thinking about returning — after all, she had a master’s degree from the Kellogg School and plenty of professional ambition. "I wasn’t sure I was ready to ditch my ripped jeans and pull myself together every day. I didn’t know if I could balance the needs of my family with a job," she says, "but I just wasn’t satisfied without work."

It took three months for Beer, now 44, to edit her resume to emphasize her skills and work experience rather than job chronology. "Writing it was torture," she says. "I had to confront the reality that years of volunteering at my kids’ school and managing our household budget were meaningless in the work world." In just a few weeks, however, she landed a consulting job in her former field. Soon after that, she was asked to go full-time. Now, only three years later, Beer has been promoted to vice president at Elizabeth Arden. After her initial uncertainty, she says, "Going back to work felt like getting back on a bike."

Many of the best and the brightest women choose to go home in the middle of their high-earning years (between the ages of 37 and 42), says Myra Hart, a professor at Harvard Business School. Fifty-seven percent of them are considering going back to work, reports the Boston-based research firm Reach Advisors. How hard is it for them to get rehired? To read some news accounts, it would seem that once women quit, they’re off the job path permanently. In a famous May 6, 2004, article entitled "After Years Off, Women Struggle to Revive Careers," the Wall Street Journal profiled several women who had failed to find jobs, including a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office who became so discouraged after 100 rejections from law firms that she applied for an administrative assistant position, which she didn’t get because she failed the typing test. Similar horror stories have appeared in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes.

Returning to Work

The numbers, however, suggest a different story. In research conducted nationwide in 2005 among 2,443 college-educated women of all ages, the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWP) found that 74 percent of women who want to go back to work do manage it. And when MORE talked with hiring managers, headhunters, and dozens of women across the country, we discovered some encouraging news. In our survey, women were able to find full-time jobs — often only a few weeks after sending out their resumes. The difference in the findings most likely stems from MORE‘s deliberately narrow focus: women over 40 who had been out of the workforce three to 10 years and who had achieved a certain degree of professional success before leaving. Perhaps most important, we looked at women who were completely committed to finding a new, full-time job.

Our methods were admittedly unscientific — and obstacles certainly exist — but our conclusions are supported by a number of hiring professionals. "We’re finding that women who want to come back are having great success," says Eliza Shanley, a cofounder of Women@Work Network, a resource center for women looking to reenter the workforce. "This is not the story of the woman with an MBA who has to work at Starbucks. You can come back." Headhunter Julie Daum, from the executive search firm Spencer Stuart, echoes, "It’s important to realize that leaving for a few years is very different from dropping out."

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