Returning to Work After Kids – Career Decisions by 6 Irish Mothers
Leaving a good job and taking that career break to look after kids is not an easy decision – you may well be giving up a well-paid job for one that pays nothing, puts you on duty 24/7 and provides no prospects of promotion. Still it is a decision that thousands of women in Ireland (and even a few men) are taking each year.
We talked to six mothers who made this difficult decision including some who made the even harder decision to return to work after a long time away from their career.
Emer, a business analyst, took 3 years off to look after her children, “emotionally for me it was tough to take the backseat, but I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. I wanted to spend some time with the children because they were at the school going age and I wanted to be around for them”.
In Emer’s case she made a choice, however there are many examples in Ireland. A European Labour Force Survey of 19 countries found that 21% of who want to work can’t due to family responsibilities. There are many examples in Ireland which reflect this; “There was no real choice for me” say Marie, “We decided to have a fourth child, but got a huge surprise when we went for the scan”. She smiles “It was twins. I was in total shock. There was no way we could afford childcare for 5 boys under the age of 7. I had to give up work, though I must say I miss it more now than ever” she laughs.
“My priorities shifted once I had kids” says Mary Lou, who took a redundancy package from her well paid job in the bank after her third child. “It was just too difficult to juggle everything – the school holidays, the sick days, the after-school classes and all the while trying to deal with the pressure of deadlines a work.”
A Break from a Career Break
The women we talked to all agreed the first year of their career break was the most enjoyable. Emer explains “The first year I was off I really enjoyed the time. I did volunteering at the school… I took care of my mom and got involved in things I wouldn’t necessarily have had the time to do before that.” Mary Lou also agrees “despite the ongoing bickering, constant hungry tummy’s and my new role as my kid’s on-call taxi driver, I liked being off work and appreciated not being tied to a desk.”
Most parents will eventually tire of the repetitive “Mummy, mummy, mummy…” conversations with 3 and 4 year olds or the untimely tantrums at the supermarket checkout. Mary Lou agrees “After four years, I felt I needed to return to work, even if it was just to restore my sanity. I wanted to use my brain for more than singing along to episodes of Peppa Pig on a loop or identifying the different Paw Patrol dogs from Rubble on the Double to Chase who was definitely getting on my case!”
”Emer’s intention was always to return to work, but like many parents who take a break from their career, the length of the planned break often gets extended. “one year actually turned into 3 years. I originally thought 1 year, maximum 2, and it turned into 3”.
“I started to have dreams of sitting at my desk, having a conversation with an adult, drinking a full cup of coffee without anyone pulling out of me” says Marie who has five young boys. “I got sick of the sound of my own voice giving out and the days & days of not interacting with adults. Although the two older boys were in school, it was often too difficult to take the twins and older toddler out of the house when I was on my own. I mean the kids are great. I love them and though I know my dream will have to take a backseat for a while my return will happen. Once the boys are all in school it will be time for a change from the endless cleaning, dinners, lunches, snacks and then more cleaning”.
Barriers to Returning to Work
Although many parents find the ‘stay at home’ work more challenging than their previous career roles, they often struggle to step back to their career path after a long break from work.
There are many barriers for return-to-work parents. The process of returning to work has been compared to returning to a book which is half read, however “leaving a career isn’t like putting a bookmark in it and setting it down. It’s like having to start over again, and this time the book is written in a different language.”
Childcare costs and taxation can make it financially impractical for many parents to go back to work particularly if they still have young children. Creche fees in Dublin are typically over €1000 per child. This was also a dilemma for Emer. “Personally, by the time year 2 came I was ready to go back to work” she admits, but she had to consider the costs. “The cost of child care was very expensive particularly when you’ve got two children, so, you’re pretty much working for yourself once the numbers go to two or above.”
The Value of Flexible Working
For most parents, who are considering returning to work, there are concerns around the work-life balance. All of the women we talked to who have given up work to raise children expressed a desire to find a job which offers flexibility; Emer’s thinking at the time was “can I get something with reasonable hours, reasonable pay that will offer some sort of flexibility that will be family-friendly? ..the worry is if one of them gets sick, what do you do?”. Flexible working arrangements are important for working parents who need to deal with unexpected family issues, sick children, school pick-ups, afterschool activities, matches and parent-teacher meetings etc. This flexibility, whether it is part-time work, compressed hours, job sharing or flexitime, is a priority for most returners and many women are willing to trade-off their career and their pay for this flexibility, Emer concurs “what was much more valuable to me at the time was that flexibility, rather than pay. Obviously, I wanted to get a job that I was suitably qualified for that was interesting, but flexibility was really key”.
Marie, who is planning to return to work when her youngest starts school is being realistic “I might have to change my career. I really want a part-time role, but there are very few firms which offer flexibility”. The reality is for Marie, Emer and most other parents relaunching their career that flexible employment is hard to find. “I did a bit of hunting for different jobs and I actually didn’t get anywhere…there were a lack of part time positions… that was my ideal choice at the time when returning to work, but I simply couldn’t find anything part-time of interest to me.”
Luckily for Emer her husband found a job to support her return to work. “I was fortunate in that my husband at the time got a new role working from home… It was like a safety net for me so that I might go back to work a lot easier”
Traditionally in Ireland, very few jobs, offering flexible working & part-time hours, are openly advertised. Those who are lucky enough to have flexible hours have usually negotiated flexibility within their existing job or sometimes when offered a role.
Ella, a solicitor, was given a career break by her company to look after her three kids, but got a cold response from her boss when she asked for a three-day week 6 months before returning. “I was really lucky and managed to find another job in a local solicitor’s office working part-time for two days a week. My previous role would have been better position for advancing my career, but I’m happy with the flexibility”
Unfortunately, the lack of flexible jobs in many sectors, combined with employer’s attitudes results in many parents returning to the workforce working in roles well below their potential.
“Out of Touch & Technologically Obsolete!”
Another challenge parents face after spending a long time away from the workplace is being left behind as technology or market trends move on. “I really doubted that I would be able to relaunch my career.” explained Aine, who had 20 years’ experience as an architect before having twins “Why would anyone employ me now? I was out of touch with regulations and felt I was technologically obsolete.” Aine managed to overcome this barrier. “I initially took on a few planning applications & house designs from home. It gave me a chance to brush up on CAD and get myself familiar with the new housing regulations. My children are now about to go to school and I feel ready to embrace the world of paid work again!”
The Confidence Crash
The issues around childcare, tax and work-life balance are all well documented and widely discussed, however one important barrier was highlighted in all our conversations with women about returning to work after a long break from their career – a loss in confidence.
Many people, who take time out of the workforce, lose confidence. The ‘mother’ role of wiping bums and refereeing sibling rows becomes the norm. In many cases, they can start to lose their sense of identity which is often tied up with previous roles in their career. Aine commented “taking protracted time off work to look after the kids made me wonder would I ever fit back into the workplace.” The thoughts of returning to work can be overwhelming for many. A key challenge for women after a long break is overcoming this loss of confidence and believing again they are still up to the job
This was a challenge for Emer; “there’s always that inner conflict, that lack of confidence when you do take a career break.” She adds “My biggest flaw was that I was underselling myself in my CV. Because I thought I had a couple of years off, [I felt] maybe not as capable as I probably was at the time.” She adds “I was told my CV didn’t reflect my actual capabilities”. In Emer’s case she got it took over a year for her self-confidence to return, “Taking that initial step back into that previous role that I did helped to get my confidence back, to get experience and become familiar with everything and I really felt motivated then…. I thought to myself, do you know what? I can actually do a lot more than this”.
Judith, who returned to her work as a hospitality training consultant after a long break from her career said she was normally very self-assured in work, but had also lost a lot of confidence during the break. “The feedback I was given after the first training session I gave on returning to work was that I came across ‘a bit timid’. I was very taken back. In my 14 years of work no one had ever said I was timid”.
From Mom Skills to Job Skills
Self-confidence is important for all aspects of returning to work, from drafting CV’s, attending interviews and of course doing the job itself. All too often women who have been out of the workforce will undersell themselves and be modest about their achievements rather than taking credit for them. It is important to never underestimate the skills you have actually acquired or at least honed up on whilst looking after your kids from counselling to creativity. Think about it, dealing with young children involves ongoing communication, negotiation & influencing skills. Regular activities include complaint handling and resolving conflict. Time-management & planning are also part of everyday life when managing kids. Project & event management experience is acquired when organising all the parties and day trips. If you have ever had to deal with a sick or injured child you’ll know that crisis management is vital. Goal setting and the implementation of children’s reward programs, improves performance management skills. So, with all those skills, are you ready to relaunch?
About Tanya Waters
An experienced, Marketing Strategist, with 15 years+ experience in both digital & traditional marketing. Tanya generates innovative ideas and solutions to help clients achieve their B2B and B2C goals through digital technologies. Tanya has been responsible for creating and implementing successful digital marketing plans across financial services & training sectors.