Making the Shift From Stay-at-Home Mom to Working Outside of the Home

Here are the professional consequences of turning down that 'off ramp,' and what you can do to better position yourself for opting for the 'on ramp' later

Back in 2013, if Natalie Gasiorowski of Lake Orion could have foreseen how difficult it would be to find a nursing job just two years after taking time off to be a stay-at-home mom, she would have considered her decision more carefully. Now actively looking for part-time nursing work, Gasiorowski has found that despite eight years of previous on-the-job experience, she may have to accept an entry level position – and all that comes with it.

“For the positions I’m finding, I’d have to work nights and every other weekend and every other holiday,” says the mom of three. “It’s hard. It’s like my slate has been wiped clean.”

Still, Gasiorowski is intent on finding a job – and one that will work for her and her family.

“I’m ready to fulfill the other half of who I am,” she says.

Gasiorowski’s experience is far from isolated. A study titled Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited, in 2009, revealed that 73 percent of women trying to return to the workforce after a voluntary timeout for child care or other reasons have trouble finding a job. And only 40 percent of the 3,420 professional women surveyed who wanted to go back to work were able to find full-time, mainstream jobs.

Tara Gonsalves, a local research assistant, says that the women surveyed also had to take a pay cut when they on-ramped back into the paid workforce.

“On average, women took a 14 percent pay gap if they took one or two years off – and 46 percent less pay if they took three or more years off,” she notes. “Many were also demoted. Twenty-two percent had a lower job title upon return. Twenty-four percent had a decrease in overall job responsibilities, and 26 percent had a decrease in management responsibilities.”

Add to this the demanding hours required of many jobs – coupled with the lion’s share of household and child care responsibilities falling to women – and the prospect of a return to work outside of the home can be a daunting one.

Looking for the right fit

Sarah Edwards of Bloomfield Hills worked as a manager for a large consulting firm before starting a family in late 2007. Her experience in the business world was that work always came first.

“If you had plans to attend a friend’s wedding on the weekend but something came up and your program had to go live on that weekend, you were expected to drop your plans and make the program happen,” she says. “I can’t operate that way now as a mom of four. If I were to return to that type of work, I could never give them what I gave them before.”

Still, Edwards, who has been a stay-at-home mom for the past six years, isn’t ready to turn in her employee ID badge forever. When it comes to returning to work outside of the home, she says she’s in the “thinking about it” category.

“Ideally, I want a job that is flexible,” Edwards says. “I still want to be able to volunteer at my kids’ school and be the person who drops them off and picks them up.”

When it comes to pay and status, Edwards says she has been there, done that.

“The driver for my return to work wouldn’t be money; it’d be to get out and do something fulfilling,” she says.

Edwards’ career desires are echoed in the survey findings of the Center for Work-Life Policy, which revealed that women tend to be motivated by non-monetary rewards, including flexible work arrangements, working on collaborative teams and the ability to give back to society.

Gonsalves indicates that many women who held high power jobs before starting a family aren’t looking to return to that same type of situation.

“We found that only 9 percent of highly qualified ‘on-ramping’ women wanted to return to the company they used to work for,” she says. “Along the same lines, 69 percent of women would not have left their companies if they had had work-life balance options that were specifically tailored to them.”

For her part, Gasiorowski is standing her ground on what she wants from a job.

“For us, thankfully we are not in a position where I have to go back right now,” she says. “I am firm in what I want to do, and I have experience in areas others do not. To leave my kids with someone else, it has to be a really good opportunity that works for us.”

Gasiorowski is holding out for a flexible position where she can work during the day and be home at night with her young children.

“Hospital schedules are always a challenge,” she says. “I’d like to find a doctor’s office where I can work a few days a week.”


Keeping relevant

To remain marketable after taking time away from the workforce, Mary Quigley, author of Going Back to Work: A Survival Guide for Comeback Moms, recommends that women who take time off to raise young children keep a hand in the game.

“The best way to address a gap on your resume is some work history,” says Quigley, who is also a journalism professor at New York University and the blogger behind “Do some kind of work, voluntary or otherwise, that shows measurable results.”

Quigley uses the example of a department store buyer consulting for a local retailer. She also suggests volunteering for activities like fundraising at your child’s school.

“I hate to be a mercenary, but don’t volunteer for the teacher-recognition lunch,” she says. “Take on fundraising so you can show on your resume how you helped your child’s sports team raise money to travel. Or volunteer for the curriculum committee investing in a new reading program.”

“It sounds hard-nosed, but what would a man do? Would he head up the teacher recognition luncheon? Probably not. He would organize 40 people to build a playground.”

Quigley also recommends women maintain contact with professional colleagues and work their social network.

“It’s 6 degrees of separation,” she explains. “So often, you’ll hear someone say their friend’s husband’s cousin is looking for someone. That’s why it’s important to have a wide group of social contacts. People like to hire people they know.”

Cathi Doebler, author of Ditch the Joneses, Discover Your Family, interviewed a number of women looking to return to work after time off as stay-at-home moms as research for her book. One of the women she spoke with hadn’t even been looking for work when she was approached by a recruiter, a connection from her past, and landed a full-time job at the same level she had left years earlier.

“She had stayed connected with her industry,” Doebler explains. “She read, enrolled in professional organizations and networked. She didn’t drop off the face of the earth.”

Doebler encourages women contemplating a career off-ramp to think about their on-ramping strategy before they even leave.

“Update your resume before you leave,” she suggests. “Five years later when you go to update it, you won’t remember dates, details and who you’d use as a reference. And absolutely plan to stay in touch with your work contacts. Drop them an occasional email or meet them for lunch.”

As for addressing the time off when questioned in a job interview, Quigley advises women to keep their response short and sweet.

“Say that you chose to stay home for eight years, but that during that time you did volunteer work,” Quigley suggests. “Now, stress that you’re back and you have child care and backup child care. That’s all you need to say. No one wants to hear a long song and dance.”

Gonsalves recommends women polish their skills through various on-ramping programs designed to help women navigate their way back into the workforce. One company program she cites is Goldman Sachs’ Returnship Program. It aims to develop individuals who have taken an extended absence from the workforce and are seeking to restart their careers. The 10-week preparatory program provides on-rampers an opportunity to sharpen their skills in a work environment that may have changed significantly since their last work experience.

Starting anew

Sarah Edwards knows her past career is not one she wants to resume. And as she contemplates her return to the work world, she knows one thing for certain: her work must speak to her passions.

“Design and architecture really interest me,” she says.

To that end, Edwards is open to working for a design firm or even growing her Etsy shop where she sells her handmade pinafores, dresses, skirts, blankets, bibs and burp cloths.

“My next endeavor needs to be fulfilling or in an area I want to learn more about,” she says.

Mary Quigley says women contemplating a return to the work world should seize this career juncture to determine what it is they really want to do – even if it’s a complete departure from previous work experience.

“If you’re going back to work at age 40 or 45, you’ll have at least 20 years more to work,” she says. “Few people retire at 60 anymore. So ask yourself what you really want to do. This is a golden opportunity to make changes.”

In her research, Quigley interviewed a woman who, before having kids, held a high-power banking job.

“She knew she didn’t want to return to banking,” Quigley says. “She decided instead to become a physician’s assistant. Over the six years she was home with her kids, she took the necessary classes. Now she works as a physician’s assistant in a school.”

Making it work

Stephanie Scobie of Southfield left her teaching career 10 years ago after the birth of her first son, Elijah, who has special needs.

“Elijah has been deaf since birth,” she says. “I decided to take time off to learn a new language, so I could communicate with him. It has since been determined that he is also autistic and cognitively impaired. He definitely needed one of us at home to advocate for him.”

The mom of four is just weeks into her new job teaching adult education three days a week in the Novi school system. Once she decided to return to teaching to help supplement the family income, she knew she had to get her certification up to date, which she spent a year doing. Then she faced the daunting task of landing a teaching job in what she calls a highly saturated market.

“I applied for an opening as a high school English teacher at a large public high school in the area,” she recalls. “I learned I was one of 4,000 people applying for this one spot.”

Scobie says she “networked a ton,” which played a role in helping her to land several interviews at other area high schools. Within a few months, she was offered her current job, which she started just after Labor Day. The hardest part for her so far has been leaving her two youngest children in the care of someone else while her eldest boys are at school.

“I call it mama guilt,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like my 2-year-old is getting shortchanged, as his older brothers had me at home full time for much longer.”

But when it comes to the work part of the juggling act that has become her new reality, Scobie says she isn’t worried in the least.

“I was born to be a teacher,” she says. “That’s my calling, and I’m good at it. It’s figuring out the family stuff that has me worried.”

Reassurance that her decision to return to work was the right one came via two instances during her first week on the job, when students thanked her for a great class on their way out of school.

“That was exactly what I needed to hear,” she recalls. “I love teaching, and those few words of thanks were validation for me.”

Scobie prays for the rest to fall into place and credits her husband with making her new role as working mom possible.

“It’s a group project,” she laughs. “I couldn’t do it by myself. He’s amazing.”

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

This post was originally published in 2013 and had been updated for 2017.


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