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

The Volunteering Boost

Some women find that their involvement in volunteer work naturally transitions into full-time, paid work. This is most often true for women whose volunteering builds on skills they developed in their professional lives. "Women have gotten very smart about volunteering strategically," Shanley says. "If they come from PR, they take on the PR job for the fund-raiser. They are bringing to bear all their education, all their critical thinking, all their business skills on those projects — and it can help them make the move back to paid work."

Jennifer Brown, 42, had been volunteering at the private school her son attends during the five years she stayed home to care for her two kids. Previously, she had been the director of marketing at the International Association of Food Industry Suppliers, in McLean, Virginia. The skills she picked up there came in handy when she was asked to direct alumni involvement at the Maret School. Even so, she was restless. "I was starving for a challenge," she says.

So in 2004, when a friend from Maret recommended Brown for a consulting project at the Washington Scholarship Fund, a K-12 scholarship organization, Brown leaped at the offer. The WSF had just been awarded a $15 million federal grant to pilot the District of Columbia school voucher program for low-income families, and Brown’s consulting job soon turned into a permanent position as chief program officer; she’s just been promoted to interim president. "Getting hired wasn’t difficult," she says. "It was essentially irrelevant that I had been a stay-at-home mom." And while many women do suffer an income penalty from their time out of the office — a CWP study found a 37 percent salary decrease for the first new job women had taken after being out more than three years — Brown also managed to nearly double the salary she’d had before she stopped working. That too is not unusual for this select group of women. Says Shanley: "We are seeing many women get rehired at a comparable salary to the one they left."

Brown did suffer some emotional fallout from the dramatic change she’d made, but her commitment to her professional life made the feelings relatively easy to resolve. "About a month after I returned to work, I realized that I didn’t know all my children’s classmates and I couldn’t volunteer," she says. "But I don’t want my kids to know the agitated stay-at-home mom desperate for a challenge. For me, going back to work was like taking a bite of a sandwich and suddenly realizing I hadn’t eaten in years."

The Ambivalence Factor

For the most part, high-achieving women who are committed to going back full-time are able to; it’s women with a need for flexibility who are forced to make tradeoffs in salary and risk. "I could find 100 full-time jobs tomorrow," says a 52-year-old former law firm partner with four kids who has been out for 10 years. "But what I haven’t been able to find in two years of looking is flexible, part-time work that allows me to contribute at a meaningful level and still be there for my kids." This holds true across diverse professions and geographic locations, says Ellen Galinsky, a cofounder of the Families and Work Institute: "Truly flexible jobs can be difficult to find, especially for people who have been out of the workforce."

Leaving work to care for children still raises a red flag for some employers, and plenty of unsubtle questions about commitment and reliability get lobbed at women who have spent time at home. Women reentering the workforce after a long absence may also get blindsided by age discrimination, which most likely was not an issue the last time they were out job hunting. "Women over 50 face an additional challenge to their confidence when confronted with a young hiring manager who views them as a potential healthcare drain running from an empty nest," Wharton’s McGrath says.

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