|Back in the saddle
Author: Malia Jacobson
Before kids, Lorraine Wilde had a great job managing supplies for a chemistry lab in a vibrant college town. It was the kind of job she’d trained for when she earned her master’s ashe thought she’d have forever. But nine years ago, her plans changed in a heartbeat – or, more precisely, two heartbeats – when she found out she was expecting twins.
Wilde planned to work after having a child, but with two babies on the way, the picture was less certain. Full-time childcare for two infants would eat up much of her salary, and her employer wasn’t offering much flexibility. Ultimately, she decided to trade her dream job for twin duty.
Wilde has lots of company on the on-again, off-again career track of early motherhood. Though over 70 percent of moms with kids under age 18 participate in the labor force, the number drops to 63.9 percent for moms with kids under age six, and just 56.5 percent for moms with infants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That means a sizeable population of parents put work on hold to raise children before hopping back into the professional arena.
And when they do, many find a post-kids professional landscape that looks different than the one they’d envisioned. When parents opt-back, can they keep their career on track and get the flexibility they want? Or will they pay a penalty for temporarily stepping off the career train?
Paying the price
With our competitive, fast-paced job market and little in the way of protective leave policies for parents, those who take time off can pay a steep price. One study found that American women who take a between four and 12 months off work after the birth of a child slash their chances of being promoted by 15 percent, compared to women who take a shorter maternity leave. The same study also found that having more children increases the career penalty: after having two or more children, women are more likely to make a downward career change than an upward one.
Working moms bring home less bacon, too. According to U.S. government reports, women earn 78.7 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Research from the American Sociological Association found that moms face a seven percent wage penalty per child. Another study found that for every two years a woman is out of the labor force, her earnings fall by 10 percent.
Most moms can’t count on governmental policies to safeguard their careers – job-protected parental leave is far from universal. Though some parents receive 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid parental leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the law only applies to employers with more than 50 workers and employees must work 1250 hours over the preceding 12 months to qualify. Based on these stipulations, only 45 percent of working-women qualify.
True, some studies may show downward mobility or wage penalties for moms with young kids, but the moms themselves are initiating many of those career changes. “A number of moms are actively choosing to take a step back in their careers,” she says. “They may only be willing to work 40 hours a week instead of 65, or they may not want to travel for work anymore, and they’re willing to accept less compensation. They want to balance a career and family, so these are changes they want.”
Though studies suggest that moms want career flexibility – recent surveys have shown that around 60 percent of moms with young children would prefer part-time employment – many, like Wilde, find that part-time pickings are slim. And flexible work arrangements (including flextime, job sharing, compressed workweeks and telecommuting) can exist in a number of industries, but whether or not a mom will be successful in creating flexible work arrangements depends on her boss: without extended, legislated job protection, most employers are free to decide whether they’ll offer job-sharing or perks to moms.
If a mother isn’t getting the career flexibility she wants or needs, should she jump the track and train for a new career? Not so fast, cautions McGeachy. “If you switch industries, you not only have to overcome the learning curve, but you have to then convince people to give you flexible work options. If you love what you’re doing, and you can try to figure out how to do it in a scaled-back way, that’s ideal,” she recommends.
What if a pre-kids career is no longer a good fit? Career switches are highly common – modern workers hold more than 10 jobs during their prime working years, according to the BLS. But whether moms take a new career path or a familiar one, they will face changes in the workplace, especially if they’ve taken time off.
One surprise for many is the heightened importance of social networking. Job seekers can’t afford to underestimate the value of LinkedIn, stresses McGeachy. “Companies have lots of search tools at their disposal, and this is the number one tool they use.” Keeping an up-to-date profile and checking it regularly is essential.
McGeachy recommends taking advantage of social networking months before career re-entry. “Six months to a year before you’d like to start actively searching, update your LinkedIn profile and start attending networking events in your field.” Simply creating a resume and sending it out without doing any prepwork or networking isn’t a sound strategy, she warns.
Forging a new path
After struggling with feeling like a failure for stepping off the science career track, Wilde found part-time career happiness as a freelance writer. These days, she works 15 hours a week in between volunteering at the twins’ school and managing the household.
Nearly any career change requires retraining (she’s invested in writing courses and dozens of books on the topic) as well as a new mindset, she says.
“I grew up with the idea that you try to find the job you can retire in. It took a while to convince myself that another job could be fulfilling.” It’s something that she’s still working on, she admits. But at this point, she’s thrilled to once again be working in a field she loves.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published freelance writer and mom. She blogs about health and parenting at www.thewellrestedfamily.com.