Starting Over

Returning to work after staying home with kids can be intimidating. How do you explain the gap on your résumé? And what kind of job should you look for?



Photo by Liz Lynch

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Twelve years. That’s how long it had been since Denise DeRosa had gotten up each weekday morning, dressed for work and headed out from her Bethesda home to a full-time job as a program manager at AOL in Dulles, Va.

In 2001, when she found out that she was pregnant, DeRosa figured she’d keep working, maybe try telecommuting after her baby was born. Then Michael arrived in April 2002. DeRosa’s career in children’s online programming came to a screeching halt.

“Once I had my son, I knew it wasn’t going to work for me. I just wanted to be home all the time,” says DeRosa, now 46. “It wasn’t a decision I thought I’d make, but once he came into the world, I couldn’t leave him.”

The next 10 years disappeared in a blur of child-rearing. DeRosa and her husband had two more children. She volunteered for the PTA at the local elementary school, managed her children’s sports teams and choreographed routines for her daughter’s dance class. “I was always busy,” she says.

Then her youngest child entered preschool in the fall of 2013. At age 45, DeRosa decided it was time to go back to work. But she was nagged by doubts: What kind of job could she do, and who would hire her?

As DeRosa discovered, the decision to exit the career track and stay home with the kids is highly personal and can be driven by a number of factors. Maybe a mom decides to stay home because the family doesn’t want to put the kids in day care or can’t afford to. Maybe her job lacks the flexibility that’s needed while raising a family.

Whatever the reason, a growing number of women are choosing to stay home. Twenty-nine percent of mothers with kids younger than 18 didn’t work outside the home in 2012, up from 23 percent in 1999, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data. That’s a reversal of a decadeslong decline in the number of mothers who stayed at home, and though this increase in stay-at-home moms stagnated during the Great Recession, it resumed again in 2010.

As the kids get older, a mother’s desire to stay at home can shift. In 2011, the Working Mother Research Institute published the results of an online survey of about 3,800 mothers on their attitudes about work. Of the one-third who identified themselves as career-oriented, nearly 75 percent said they wanted to work full-time after their children started school.

Whether moms returning to work are “opting in,” “on-ramping” or “relaunching”—popular terms used by the media—they will find an entire industry offering advice through websites, blogs, books, conferences and re-entry programs.

All that advice seems to boil down to this: Figure out who you want to be.

Carol Fishman Cohen is a nationally known re-entry expert who co-founded iRelaunch, a Boston-based company that hosts return-to-work conferences and seminars, including an October event at Freddie Mac headquarters in McLean, Va. She says women who have taken a break from the working world should think carefully about how their interests and skills have changed over that time. “The longer you’ve been out of work, the more important this is,” she says.

That’s why Bethesda’s Melissa Fireman, CEO of Washington Career Services, a D.C.-based career management firm she co-founded in 2003, says she asks her clients to assess their talents, interests, passions and, most importantly, values before they decide what they want to do. “Values will change, and they’re really the emotional anchor to where you are in your life right now,” she says.

Rebecca Dallek, a Northwest Washington, D.C., mother of two young children, has built her own second career out of helping women, including De-Rosa, find their way back into the working world.

Dallek, 42, gave up her first career in education technology after having kids and realizing that working part time wasn’t going to provide the challenges she craved. Ready for a change that would meet her need for work-life balance, she enrolled in a nine-month training program to become a career coach and, in 2010, launched a business that serves women from the Bethesda area, the District and Northern Virginia.

About 60 percent of Dallek’s clients are looking to reinvent themselves by finding new careers that will fit the woman they are now. The rest would like to return to their former careers or possibly “pivot” in a new direction in the same field. Nearly all, though, are seeking advice on how to get started. “They just don’t know where to go, don’t know what steps to take, and don’t know how to start the process,” Dallek says.

Dallek launched a return-to-work program last winter to help moms navigate the hurdles of re-entry, from the psychological—a lack of confidence and worries about leaving the kids—to the logistical, such as how to explain an employment gap on a résumé.

“The economy has changed, the whole landscape of work and how to get work has changed. Lots of people are confused about how to navigate the tactics of getting work,” Dallek says. The ease of applying for jobs online can seem appealing, but that method can be the least effective way to find work “because everybody can apply for a job. Who’s going to sift through 500 résumés?” she says.

Dallek says she helps women clarify what they want to do and develop a strategy for achieving their goals, including adopting a “strong, compelling” narrative about their lives that will lead them to the job they want.

DeRosa, who signed up for Dallek’s “Re-Work” program, says that creating a structure for her job search, with deadlines for updating her résumé and other tasks, helped her focus. Attending sessions with other women in the program provided the motivation she needed.

“The first thing that I realized was that I wasn’t the only one,” DeRosa says. “These extremely capable women were feeling the same things I was: Was anyone going to want me? You get to the point where you’re not confident in yourself any longer.”

DeRosa had kept up her technical skills by running a website for the PTA for six years and helping students use computers in the media center at her children’s elementary school in Bethesda. During that time, she developed an interest in helping parents teach kids how to safely use technology.

Dallek helped DeRosa figure out how to align that interest with possible job opportunities. Then DeRosa revised her résumé—she had to retype a printed copy that hadn’t been updated since 1989—and polished her LinkedIn profile, joining groups on the networking site that shared her interests. She let others know she was looking for work, making no attempt to camouflage the 12-year gap in her employment history.

“I don’t think there’s anything you should hide,” she says. “It’s there, it’s reality. You can’t sugarcoat a 12-year absence from work. You have to own it.”

Cohen recommends adding a personal section to your résumé where you can include that you took a career break to raise kids.

“You don’t want to have any unaccounted-for time,” she says.

Though DeRosa had given herself until the end of this year to find a job, her networking quickly paid off and she received a job offer from the Family Online Safety Institute in Washington a month after finishing Dallek’s program last spring. She started June 2 and is the program manager of Good Digital Parenting, which the organization was expected to launch in November.

Her advice to other moms figuring out how to get back to work?

“Get over your own barriers to your success. We put those up ourselves,” she says. “People aren’t looking at you in that way. We need to remain confident in ourselves.”

A lack of confidence is one of the biggest hurdles that moms face as they try to re-enter the workforce, experts say. Returning moms may find that their skills and expertise have become outdated, especially in quickly advancing fields such as information technology.

Fireman says she asks clients to list their top 10 talents in order to remind themselves of their capabilities and to help them develop a short pitch they can deliver to potential employers. Then she role-plays with moms and sends them shopping. “Go buy that outfit that will make you feel good on that interview,” she tells them.

Confidence wasn’t a problem at first for Rebecca Quigley, a mom of four kids ages 6 to 12. She had no qualms about her ability to step back into the IT management consultant career that she left behind when her husband’s job required the family to move from Boston to Texas in 2008.

After the family moved to Chevy Chase about a year ago and the youngest child started kindergarten, Quigley polished her résumé, confident that her six-year absence from work wouldn’t matter because potential employers would be impressed by her record of success at large firms.

She soon found out she was wrong.

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