A Stay-at-Home Mom’s Guide to Re-Entering the Professional Pool

According to Pew Research the share of mothers who do not work outside the home has risen over the past decade, reversing a long-term decline in stay-at-home mothers. For many of these mothers, staying at home is viewed as more of a hiatus, an ellipsis in their professional career rather than a permanent life station. So what happens when the inner yearning for work outside the family starts creeping in? Or financial circumstances make it such that work is a necessity?

For some who have exited the workforce to stay at home, re-entry as a professional is a frightening prospect, whether the length of their absence is measured in months or years. But, says local life coach and psychotherapist David Leifeste, M.S., L.P.C., this time can be a remarkable opportunity to connect  with your inner self and even perhaps to chart a new course.

The (Unexpected) Emotional Toll

Having a child is life-changing in most every way possible – a fact that is advertised by just about any parent you talk to. But the choice to stay at home full-time with a child comes with some particular emotional consequences that many women do not anticipate and that are not widely or openly discussed. There can be profound feelings of loss of self, notes Leifeste and self-doubt both in our success as parents and our abilities to one day re-engage with the outside world.

Because of this “loss of self,” Leifeste explains that a consequent desire or a need to return to the workforce can be accompanied by feelings that follow the classic grief model: (1) denial (2) anger (3) bargaining (4) depression and (5) acceptance. As a full-time parent, you’re filled up with the stress of “just surviving” day to day, says Leifeste.  After a period tending to the minutiae of daily life, there is an anger and shock that you can no longer find who “you” really are anymore. You may even start bargaining with yourself, asking “what’s wrong with me – why can’t I be happy with what I have?” or even feel sad or guilty at having negative feelings. Ultimately, Leifeste concludes, this introspective journey should aid in accepting your feelings, honoring them and then, once you’ve emotionally cleaned house, moving forward to re-discovering yourself as a professional.

The Combs Family. 

For Tulsa mom of two Claire Combs, the decision to stay home came somewhat unexpectedly when, last year, her long-time position in a local company was relocated to Texas. After much soul searching, she and her husband decided that she would spend the summer at home with her boys without immediately looking for another job.

As a person who always expected she would eventually go back to work full-time, Combs was surprised when, just a few months into her leave, a former business contact at Git Wit Creative (a Tulsa-based digital advertising agency) approached her about working part-time. The company was open to her naming her own terms. Claire set up a schedule working 9 a.m.-2 p.m. five days per week, which allows her to do school pick up and drop off and still be intimately engaged in her children’s lives. Though the job itself is different from her previous one, the job category is quite similar and she found her skills transferable. “Even though I’m part-time, I don’t feel like I’m stepping back from my career,” she says.

Keep Up Connections

The key to a successful re-entry into the professional world after an absence, like much in life, lies in prior preparation. Though it can feel impossible when you’re exhausted with a nursing infant and a whiny toddler, Leifeste encourages women to keep an eye to the future. If going back into your previous career, even in five years’ time, sounds the least bit interesting, try to keep up with your business contacts, if only to have lunch a few times a year. Don’t cancel your subscription to the relevant professional association. Try to do a bit of industry-related volunteer work during your time at home.

When you decide to actively seek out a job – connect with people wherever you can, says Leifeste. Network, network, network! Churches, civic organizations, any boards or committees you may already serve on – even if they are not industry specific – are all great avenues for leveraging your network by your participation.

Combs, who is currently working in a job that did not previously exist, encourages women to “work your connections, say what you need, be persistent.” It’s those very tactics that led her to find “a super progressive, cool work environment. As women we have to be sure we are going out there and looking and finding opportunities and not expecting that dream job to roll onto your plate,“ Combs says.

Most importantly, “there is nothing to be embarrassed about,” Leifeste stresses. In presenting yourself personally or through your resume, your attitude should be “proud, nothing to apologize for, nothing to prove.” This is a really important state of mind, he says, “so that you can go out confidently in the negotiating process.”

Charting a New Course

But what about those women for whom returning to their prior professional lives is either not desirable or not possible? Leifeste believes time spent at home can be the ultimate jumping off point for changing course.

Tulsa mom of three Amy Herndon elected to take nine years off from her previous career in trading floor risk control for Williams Energy when, soon after the birth of her first child, she realized her often-stressful work and home life were not compatible. She recalls that during that time, people often spoke of “finding your passion,” but that even with photography as a hobby, identifying it as such eluded her. “I never connected the dots,” she says.

Amy Herndon

As a mom, Herndon became “obsessed” with trying to capture photos of her own kids. She recalls knowing what she wanted the end products to look like, “what I was seeing and living with every day…their true expressions,“ and not the stiff studio photos taken against a backdrop with props that were fashionable at the time. “That’s not how my kids looked to me,” Herndon says.

After practicing the technical aspects and taking tons of snaps of her family, other people took note and started asking if they could pay for Herndon’s photography services. It was the realization that she loved taking photos coupled with her continuing desire to learn and expand her technique that allowed her to develop her eponymous business.

“My true passion is capturing childhood moments – so when [parents] look back they see how their love felt at the time. It’s what makes me love my job,” she says. Herndon’s success, which she credits as “preparation meeting opportunity,” is a prime example of a hobby organically becoming a new career path. “If people can find what brings them joy, then that will lead to satisfaction and joy and accomplishment in whatever they pursue,” she advises.

Changing course for Tulsa mom Margo Woodward meant an opportunity to return to school. Though she says she “never imagined or even wanted to be a stay-at-home mom,” her choice to stay at home came following a company layoff from her job as a customer service specialist in 2014, during which she was also a full-time student pursuing her bachelor’s degree. She graduated and soon thereafter welcomed a second daughter. Staying at home while pursuing her master’s degree in Communications from OSU-Tulsa just made sense for their family. “I think trusting that it’s going to work out is one of the biggest things,” says Woodward. Once she completes her Master’s in 2017, Woodward is hopeful that a career shift to either teaching or advising at TCC is in her future.

Margo Woodward 

Not sure where your particular aptitudes or passions lie? Leifeste suggests taking a career assessment test either through your prior institution of higher education or online. These tests can do wonders in helping to identify your interests, personality and lifestyle values as you seek out a new career.

Best Foot Forward

Writing a resume after an absence can be tricky business in the best of circumstances. But for women who have a “gap” in their professional work history, the big question is how, and if, to address that time at home. Leifeste suggests pointing out things you developed as a full-time parent that will be a benefit to the company – skills such as organization, juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, showing initiative and creativity.

And a lot of the fear surrounding how full-time parenting will be perceived is in the eye of the beholder, assures Leifeste. Indeed, “for many companies there is an awareness that this time has value to them, and there will be a respect for the time spent at home.” Showing that you have spent your childrearing time cultivating yourself personally will bode well when a potential employer is assessing how much time they’ll need to devote to training. “Moms with advanced degrees and flexibility are wasted resources,” notes Combs. Think of yourself as highly valuable.

Still need help crafting a resume or feeling generally unsteady about the process? Work your connections — but this time of the alumni variety. If you attended a four-year university, community college or a trade school, call up the office of alumni relations or career services and ask for help. You’ll be surprised at the (free!) guidance you’ll score.

Kitchen table and sticky fingers not cutting it to give you that “professional vibe” as you send off cover letters? Head downtown to the awesome co-working space 36n (36degreesnorth.co) at 36 E. Cameron Street in the Brady District. Day passes are available for $20 per day as are memberships for $149 per month. Coffee, printing and wifi are all included — all you bring is your laptop. A great (and free) way to try it out is on Women’s Co-Working Days the third Wednesday of each month, complete with complimentary babysitting for children over age 2 by Seeking Sitters. You may even do some constructive networking while there that leads to your “next great thing.”

Go Team

Support is so critical as a woman seeks to re-enter the workforce. It’s important when making a life change to reach out to others, whether professionals, the right friend, or a spouse who will support you, says Leifeste. Attempting to do it on your own just makes it that much more difficult.

“It almost makes me emotional thinking about it, “ says Herndon. “At the time I started my business my husband was commuting to Houston [for work] each week.” At home alone with her three small children, Herndon would spend the nights after bedtime online doing photography courses and learning technique. Touting the benefits of having a “cheerleader in your corner,” she notes that her husband felt passion toward their children – her original subjects – and was excited that “I found something that brought me such joy.” As her business has grown, and she opened a physical studio outside of their home, he remains, she says with a smile in her voice, “incredibly, unbelievably supportive.”

How to ask for help from a partner? Leifeste suggests women attempt to be as specific and concrete as possible. Take time to know your needs and objectives well so that you can articulate them clearly. This, in turn, notes Leifeste, will give you a more effective partnership.

You’re In! Now What….?

The challenges surely don’t end with a formal job offer. “The first week back I felt a bit flustered about it,” admits Combs. But, she advises, “Calm down, be patient and give yourself time to adjust to the new normal.”

As a part-time worker in a full-time office, Combs also has had to establish clear expectations. “I have to be clear, these are the hours I work..setting up a structure and sticking with it.” Making sure everyone is on the same page, including her employer and her husband, has also been crucial to success.

“There is no mom out there who will say whatever they do is ‘easy’,” notes Herndon. “Whether working outside of the home, staying home or both, [it] comes with benefits and challenges.”

“At the end of the day,” Combs says, “ I would still rather be doing this than anything else…that’s my ‘north star.’”

Categories: Features