Out of all the challenges that motherhood presents us, returning to work after baby, if you so choose to do so, has to be one of the greatest. Usually a totally overwhelming prospect, the idea of where to start alone is enough to leave you crying into your coffee. Thankfully, on this installment of Expert Editions we have Felicity Dwyer, career coach at The Heart of Work to offer up some advice on the subject.
Is there ever a right time to return to work, or is the perfect time just a myth?
For some fortunate women, there does seem to be a right time – a point at which being a full-time mother is losing its appeal, and your energy is drawing you back to the workplace. But for many of us, there is more of a nuanced trade-off. We may need to return for financial reasons when we’d honestly rather stay at home at big longer. Or we may be keen to return to work, but find it hard to find a job that is demanding enough to satisfy us, but also fit with family.
And it’s a rare working mother who hasn’t felt some degree of guilt over balancing work and family. It can be helpful to know that there is significant evidence that working can have a positive impact on your children in later life. Research indicates that girls with working mums are likely to earn more in later life. And boys of working mums are more likely to help with the chores when they become men.
Being out of work for so long can leave you fearful that your skills have vanished – how can mums looking to return to work reconnect with their workselves and re-realize their worth?
Taking some active steps to reconnect with your professional self. If you have copies of previous appraisals, re-read them. Take a few minutes to sit quietly and remember yourself at work: what did you achieve in a typical day? What are you most proud of?
Write down all your professional achievements, as well as what you have learnt during your months or years at home.
Make sure you have a good LinkedIn profile. Get a professional looking photograph and dress for your profile photo as if you were going for an interview. Write a summary statement that clearly states what you are looking for, and what you can bring to an employer. And if you haven’t already, get in touch with previous employers to ask for recommendations.
And LinkedIn can be a great way to re-establish contact with colleagues from your past. If there’s someone you would like to catch up with, send them a message and perhaps suggest a coffee. It can be helpful to spend time with people who knew you in your professional persona, as that’s how they will treat you now.
And consider taking a course to refresh your skills. There are plenty of online courses, but there are also benefits to face-to-face training. You will meet new people who won’t know you primarily in your role as a mum. And anything you do to expand your network can help you potentially tap into a wider job market too.
And what part do the new skills we have acquired as mums have to play in our return to work? And how can we translate them into an advantage when talking to prospective new employers?
In a recent interview, Joanna Lumley’s compared the process of growing older to a tree developing a new ring every year. You are still the capable person you were pre-family. And you have even more to offer now.
Write down everything you have learned through being a mum – these might be skills (e.g. organizing PTA barbecue), or personal qualities (e.g. patience).
Do this in a structured way, for example three columns headed: What I did; what I learnt; how I can use this learning in future.
Now related these SPECIFICALLY to work-related objectives. So, if you are looking through job specifications, try to give specific examples of how your career-break experience is relevant to the work task.
If we’re looking to go back to work only part time, does that mean that applying for full time jobs is out of the question?
It is usually easier to request part time work with an existing employer, as they know your skills and capabilities. A new employer has nothing invested in you. To apply for a full time job and then ask for part time straight away is a risky strategy and one that could lead to trust issues.
If you see a job where you know that you would be a perfect fit, particularly if it involves specialist skills and knowledge, then you might have more leeway. But contact the company first to ask if it is worth applying on the basis that you are looking for part time, don’t spring it on them later. And some employers will be open to job share arrangements.
There are a number of specialist agencies that can help you find a part-time job. These are often quite high level jobs, so you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice career ambitions because you want to work part time. Try Capability Jane.
What different approaches to job hunting should mums looking to return to work try?
Many jobs are never formally advertised, and if you looking for work locally, make sure you let friends and family know. The school gate can be a gateway to local employment intelligence. And resources such as community Facebook groups can work well too.
Employment agencies can be helpful. As well as putting you forward for jobs, agencies can give you advice in fine-tuning your CV and preparing for an interview.
For online job-hunting, Indeed.com is a good starting point. It’s an aggregate job board which pulls together opportunities from difference sources, and you can filter by different criteria.
Consider starting your own business. There is a lot of support around to help people start up micro-enterprises, including free advice and training in many areas. Provision varies locally, and your local council may be able to signpost you to suitable courses. I’ve shared several case studies on my blog about women who have started enterprises since becoming mothers.
And how should mums go about asking for flexible work?
You have the statutory right to request flexible working after 26 weeks’ employment. Your application must be in writing and dated. You can only make one request within a 12-month period. Your employer should consider your request in a reasonable manner and can only refuse it if there is a sound business reasons for doing so.
Agreeing a flexible working pattern is ultimately a negotiation, and for a negotiation to be successful it must work for both parties. So a good approach before you apply is to look at it from your employer’s perspective. What could be the benefits to them if you work flexibly? Once you’ve looked at it from this perspective as well as your own, it will help you to put in a successful request.
You can find more detailed information on how to request flexible working from ACAS.
How can mums go about working out the right back to work working pattern for themselves?
Take time to really think about your values – what matters to you? Is it just about bringing in some extra income? Or is it about getting back onto a career ladder? If you are ambitious but are happy to compromise in the short term while your children are small, then how could that work? It may be that you are prepared to take a lower level job now, but in an industry that you would like to work in longer term, where you can aim for a promotion in a few years.
Speak to your partner. It sounds obvious, but I’ve found that sometimes people make assumptions about what their partner wants, and a wide range of options aren’t fully discussed. I’ve certainly come across situations where a husband has reduced his working hours to allow his wife to expand her career.
How can we be more confident in our requests for flexible working terms
Believing in ourselves and our value. Doing our research and preparing a business case to back up our request.
How important is knowing your rights when returning to work?
It is very important, both to protect yourself and your family, but also because it can expand your options. For example the relatively new right to Shared Parental Leave can help women to return to work, by allowing her partner to take more time off for childcare responsibilities. Your can find out more about Shared Parental Leave here.
In general, what things should mums keep in mind during their back to work job hunt?
To be as clear as you can about what you want from your working life, and what you can offer.
Treat each job application separately. Once you’ve put together your basic CV, then tweak and adapt it for each application to make sure you emphasise the most relevant part of your experience.
Prepare for interviews by thinking through in detail how your experience matches the job specification. Consider the type of questions you may be asked, and practice answering them out loud. Find a friend or coach to practice with.
If there was only one thing you could say to mums looking to make that move back to work it would be….
Do something every day to reinforce your belief in your strengths, skills and qualities. And that includes believing that you can have a great career and be a great mum too!
Anything else you would like to add?
Putting focused time into thinking through what you really want from your life as a working mum will pay dividends. If you can get really clear you are about what your ideal job would be, then you can focus your energies more purposefully in that direction.
Felicity Dwyer is a career coach, who works with people going through career change and transition. She helps you to get clear and confident about where you want to go next in your career and life.
Felicity works one-to-one both in person and by phone or Skype. She also runs regular workshops on how to return confidently to work after a career break. For your free career change toolkit and other resources, please visit Felicity’s website http://heartofwork.co.uk/.
Read more expert advice on the Expert Editions series here.