I recently went back and visited my children’s nursery school. I had been asked to speak to a moms’ support group about evolving professional identities of parents of young children, and how to stay relevant while on career break or career slow down. This group met weekly to discuss parenting topics, but had yet to discuss what was the next chapter in their careers.
It had been a while since I was in this preschool – my boys are now 14, 12 and 10. Looking back, it was a complicated time in my life; so many adjectives come to mind… sweet, intense, exhausting, ever-changing. Doesn’t Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, say that “the days are long, but the years are short”?
One thing I do remember very clearly from that sleep-deprived fog was the feeling that I had little sense what I wanted to be when I grew up (that is, when my kids grew up or at least got to “real” school). Following the births of my first two kids, I had negotiated several great flexible work arrangements before hitting the career pause button when my third son was born. My gut told me it was time to catch my breath as I now had three kids under the age of 5 and wasn’t completely engaged in the content of my work.
For the next few years I proceeded to live with the nagging question of what I would do when returning to work. After all, I had always had some kind of job, as far back as babysitting in middle school. While busy defining myself as a parent, I was also redefining myself as a person without paid work. Sociologist Pamela Stone does a great job looking at this in her book Opting Out.
Back to my audience…Taking a break from the typical topics they discussed weekly such as toilet training, discipline, eating, playdates, the mothers I met with began to look inward. How had becoming a mother changed their relationship to work? What was their professional identity now and what lay ahead?
We began our session with a quick Wheel of Life assessment, which provides a holistic snapshot of how satisfied one is with 8 main areas of their life, including career. Then we moved into a discussion of how to stay relevant while on career break, even without complete clarity of what was next and when.
This is the kind of thing no one teaches you when your kids are in nursery school. We do our best to prepare for parenthood, but don’t usually spend a lot of time anticipating the impact on our professional identity and aspirations.
Here were my Top 5 Tips for Parents on Career Break:
- Update your resume, NOW. Even if you don’t plan to use it any time soon, you must capture what has happened to date. I can think of several clients that really struggled years later to recall the details of a position (dates, specific title, details of key accomplishments). Get it down now while it is fresh.
- Keep in touch with old contacts and connected to your industry. This applies if you are expecting to return to your previous profession or considering making a change. Today with LinkedIn, it is easier than ever to stay passively connected to people from your professional past. Keeping a presence on the social networks, as well as real live connectivity, is important because one day you will likely need those contacts, or better yet, you may be able to help them.
- Pay attention to what interests you. I find that my clients coming back from career break often return to work that is different than what they left. This is because we change and grow and our professional interests evolve. Even if returning to work does not seem likely in the very near future, keep a “someday maybe” file of professional work that interests you. Evernote is a great way to capture and organize your clippings. One day you will pull out this file and see themes emerging. Kind of like a file you keep for that “someday maybe” kitchen renovation!
- Volunteer strategically. Choose your community work wisely. Work in the community is a great way to explore a new field or keep your existing skills sharp. Often times substantial volunteer work that shows leadership and accomplishment can nicely fill employment gaps on a resume.
- Get support when you are ready to relaunch. Yes, it’s true: the longer you are out the harder it is to return due to a combination of external and internal obstacles. But it is totally do-able and often my clients are more satisfied with their work than ever before. Check out iRelaunch’s website for a collection of inspiring success stories. Support can come from a trained coach such as myself, or a dedicated friend, mentor or family member who will commit time to your progress. When you find yourself lacking clarity or momentum, just remember you don’t need to do this alone!
The bottom line is that the years of being a mommy to young kids is unique and fleeting. It goes by so quickly. We all know that motherhood is all about juggling. So I invited my audience of predominantly newly SAHMs to juggle two opposing mindsets: 1) the ability to “be here now” and truly enjoy these precious years, with 2) the guts to peak ahead to the next chapter in their professional lives. It will be here before they know it!