Navigating the off-ramps of career breaks

by Ginny Brzezinski /  / Updated 
Image: Working mom
Working mom talking on the phone while holding a baby and typing on her laptop.PeopleImages / Getty Images
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17 years ago I did something I never expected to do: I walked away from my career to be a stay at home mom to my 14-month-old son and soon-to-be-born daughter.

The tug of being a new mom was more overwhelming than I had ever expected and I wanted to be home with my kids full-time. My off ramp was also unavoidable - I worked on Capitol Hill for a senator who had just lost his re-election bid and I was 8 months pregnant with my second child. It was 2001, and it was all in or all out for women like me. To the shock of my friends and colleagues, I chose to walk away from what could have been a stellar and financially rewarding career.

In my twenties and even early thirties, before motherhood, I had fully expected that I could do everything. I just never considered how. That turned out to be a major oversight, as I soon discovered while trying to juggle my 50-60 hour workweek schedule and my first child. Every meeting worth attending seemed to begin 10 minutes before I needed to pick up my son at day care. Throwing a second child into the mix definitely would have caused the wheels of my work-life wagon to come off. So, when the universe presented me with a graceful exit, in the form of my boss losing his job, that’s exactly what I did. I left.

When my youngest entered kindergarten, I went back to work in a more flexible career - residential real estate. What selling houses was lacking in policy and politics, it made up for in flexibility and lack of commute.

Regrets? I don’t regret the time with my kids. But I do regret that I could not do everything. I often ask myself “what if things had been different? What if my boss had kept his job, could I have kept mine, and maybe gone part time for a while? Or, if there had been a gig economy, could I have done project-based work for a while then returned full time a few years later?”

If I were to get a do-over in 2018, I might approach things a bit differently and try to keep my career options open a little better. Here’s what you can learn from my experience.

If you are working now, have a contingency plan:

Like me, you may think that you will never take a career break. A recent poll of Millennials by the staffing firm Manpower shows that 33% of Millennial women anticipate taking time off for child care (beyond maternity leave) and 30% anticipate taking time off to care for aging parents. Chances are, there are a lot more who will take an unplanned break, whether it’s to care for children or aging parents. My advice: whether it’s part of your plan or not -- prepare.

Carol Fishman Cohen of iRelaunch.com says you should do three things now:

“The most important thing is to document your milestone moments: positive or negative, anytime you learn something. The things that you consider to be important moments in your career,” says Cohen. This will come in handy if you take a career break and then want to re-enter. You will have an easy to access record of your work milestones to reference in interviews.

Cohen says it is also key to nurture your relationships in all directions. “You might naturally think about nurturing your relationship with your boss, but not think about the people who are junior to you. While you are working, make sure to also keep in touch with the people who are junior to you or report to you or who you mentor - if you do end up taking a career break, those people may be moving up and may be in a position to open doors for you.”

And keep your resume and LinkedIn profile up to date. “Update your resume even if you are in the middle of working in a role you love and feel fairly secure about, periodically update your resume to reflect the work you are accomplishing,” says Cohen.

Don’t assume you have to off ramp completely.

If you are valuable to your office, see if you can try and work things out. Perhaps that means a part time or partially remote solution. I wish I had had that option.

“Don’t assume that you need to go on a career break,” says Cohen. “If a situation occurs where your current work or position is going to be disrupted in some way, make sure you have a conversation with your boss. Try and look at your role from the perspective of your boss in terms of discussing alternate arrangements where you could stay employed or you could potentially contract services back to your employer if you end up needing to take that career break. But don’t just assume that you have to completely quit.”

If you decide to take a career break, don’t cut yourself off.

Most women who take time off to care for children eventually want to go back to work. Even if you intend to go back to another line of work, make sure to keep up with your network and not burn bridges on your way out.

Career Coach Carroll Welch of CarrollWelchConsulting.com advises that you cement relationships before you walk out the door. “Sometimes the demands of your off ramp can make it very challenging to stay connected. Identify a group of colleagues, clients or professional contacts with whom you want to stay in touch, and state your intention to them before you begin your off ramp. For example, you can say: “’Linda, I am planning to step away for a year or two while I start a family. I’ve really valued your mentorship and want to stay in touch with you for guidance while I’m out. I’d be grateful if we could keep our connection going. Of course, I am also available to help you or support you in any way that I can while I am in my off ramp phase.” Do this regardless of whether you plan to return to that employer or industry after your break.’”

Consider Project based work as a bridge - to keep yourself in the game

If attempts at contracting back to your employer or finding part-time, or more flexible options don’t work, and an off ramp is unavoidable, try not to shut things down completely. Consider consulting or project-based work. There are many options now – much more than I had back in 2001. Companies like The Mom Project in Chicago, FlexProfessionals in DC and Boston, and Werk, The Apres Group and SecondShift in New York are blazing the trail in helping women find project based, flexible and part-time work as a way to keep their toes in the career water while they temporarily downshift for family.

And remember, if you take a break, it is not a sign of failure.

I always felt somewhat inferior compared to my working mom friends. My off ramp was unavoidable, but still, it felt like a bit of a cop out. Not so, says Coach Carroll Welch, who explains we need to look at this as a strategy of effectiveness, not as a failure. “I encourage women to look at this as being a choice about work-life effectiveness. At different points in our lives, we sometimes need to make choices that will enable us to be more effective parents, partners, lawyers, engineers, bankers, wives, or daughters at those particular points in time. Only we can decide how we can be most effective in each of our roles at a given time. By shifting one’s mindset and making a decision to off ramp from a point of control and a desire to have the best impact that we can in that role, one can start an off ramp phase more positively and confidently.”

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