Getting Back to the Workforce: A Caregivers Guide to Success

“Transitioning back to work after a hiatus as a stay-at-home parent or caregiver isn’t so easy.”

Many parents who take time off from professional careers to raise children (or undertake other caregiving roles) would in due course like to return to the workplace. The dilemmas faced by dual-career couples, especially in the military, involve trade-offs—often very difficult ones. I know; I’ve been there and done that. Juggling two careers, along with graduate school and an active duty spouse with extensive work-related travel is a scenario faced by many dual-career couples.

We decided it was best for our family for me to take a pause in my career. I was relieved to be able to put family first—a closely held value—and become a stay-at-home parent. While the family benefits enormously from a stay-at-home parent, whether it’s mom or dad, the respective professional career does not.

Transitioning back to work after a hiatus as a stay-at-home parent or caregiver isn’t so easy. Women and men face different obstacles. Both face the same unspoken biases from hiring managers. Those managers can’t openly say you are less committed as a professional because you have been a stay-at-home parent and have a “gap” in your resume, but that is the perception all the same. So what is the problem?

Research done for Harvard Business Review noted that only 73% of highly qualified women who wanted to return to work were successful, and just 40% of those landed a regular full-time job. For women, relaunching a career is tough but increasingly doable. The path may be difficult, but at least it is well trodden. A woman’s time away from the career field for family reasons can be explained, and such leaves of absence are understandable.

For men, the bigger challenge may be adjusting to the loss of a “work” identity. Research found that only about 21% (420,000) of the 2,000,000 stay-at-home fathers in the US were home to care for their children; the rest were home for other reasons. Men staying at home is a small club of fathers.

Some of our biases about gender roles are stubbornly persistent. People think there must be something wrong with a man who leaves his career to stay at home with his children. They wonder if he’s hiding something, or least think there might be more to the story. Fathers who take primary responsibility for the care of their children make important contributions; they shouldn’t be ridiculed or emasculated.

How does the stay-at-home parent overcome the challenges of returning to work? Here are a few of the things we’ve learned from our experience that may be helpful to other couples who consider this option.

  • Stay current in your field or discipline. Regardless of your industry, plan your workforce reentry—including how to remain current in your discipline—before you exit, especially if you plan to be out for more than a year. Make sure you have a robust LinkedIn profile and consider other social media platforms to stay connected in your field and to your former colleagues. In many fields of endeavor, we can quickly become dated and left behind. You must also accept the possibility that a new career may be in your future. Changing fields is not a hindrance; it is broadening your skills.
  • Professional network. A professional network, if cultivated and maintained, will provide avenues back into a career. This can be difficult for anyone, but for men, the effect may be amplified. It can take an emotional toll that shouldn’t be underestimated. A stay-at-home dad won’t have the same network of support that stay-at-home moms may be able to develop. Where possible, stay in the loop by meeting with former colleagues every few months. Ultimately, it was through my former colleagues that I heard about an opening that became my new job. My colleagues were only too happy to have me return.
  • Returning to the workforce. You need to dispel any concerns proactively and explain why you are applying for this job at this point in time. Perhaps your kids need less supervision or they have started school and your caregiving responsibilities have lightened. You are motivated and are now in a position to return to the workforce. You may need the paycheck, but honestly, don’t go there. A potential employer will figure you will quit if a higher salary comes along.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Don’t accept the idea that time away from your professional career is perceived as a weakness. In fact, reframe your thinking and turn that view into a strength. If you were a high achiever and had a strong drive to succeed before you stepped away from your professional career, there isn’t any reason why you can’t renew that same drive and add value to a company. Consider the multi-tasking skills of a stay-at-home parent that may actually give you an advantage as a well-rounded and productive employee: time management, negotiation, persuasion, and patience, to name just a few.

Transitioning to the workforce after a period as a stay-at-home parent does require managing and overcoming unspoken biases and assumptions about your skills, abilities, and what you are capable of doing.

For every family, there are multiple roles to be filled. As couples, whether we are dual-career, career/job, career/stay-at-home, or something in between, we divide and conquer depending on our respective circumstances.

Perhaps the key to success is adaptability. Being able to invent and reinvent aspects of ourselves and shifting priorities as needed within the constant context of satisfying our personal, familial, and professional ambitions is what makes a successful work reentry.

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Dr. Katherine Harris
Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is an OpsLens contributor, a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany. Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.

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