Thursday 28 March 2013

Thinking small: an alternative route back to work

“I’m worried about being sucked back into working too hard and feeling like I’m back on the ‘treadmill’ … stressed, guilty and no time for anything”.

Carol*, an ex-marketing director, had quit her demanding job 8 years before to be a full-time mother and admitted that she was afraid of work taking over her life again if she went back to a corporate job. A career to Carol was all about 50+ hour weeks and high pressure.

I often come across this ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking among professional women returners - seeing only the extremes rather than any middle ground.  The thinking goes: either I have a full-on demanding job or I don’t work and have time and energy for my family/personal life.  Seeing this as a black-and-white choice between work and family leads many mothers to wait for the ‘right’ time to return to work:

“I’ll go back when the kids are at full-time school … when they’ve got through their exams … when they need me less …”

But there is never a perfect time to return to work - there will always be multiple demands on your time and energy. Even when your children are at school, the days can easily be filled with numerous small tasks for the home, the family or the school, plus visiting ageing parents, staying fit and so on. 

If you think that you may want to return to corporate life at some point in the future, the consistent advice from successful returners is to ‘keep your hand in’ with some form of skilled work, no matter how small-scale. This helps to keep up your confidence and maintain your 'professional self'. I found that starting small was also a good way to ease back into work after a break as a full-time mother. Taking on a series of one-off consulting and training projects rather than leaping into a larger employed role helped me to regain my professional identity in a manageable way with a young family.

Other returners have found many ways to adopt this ‘small steps’ approach. Carol* got back in touch with some old colleagues and was offered a six-week brand consultancy project that she worked on in school hours. Janet* took on a freelance role as a sub-editor two mornings a week, Maria* took on a non-exec role for a few days a month and Justine* became an occasional lecturer in legal education. Katerina found skilled volunteering to be just as effective (for ideas see Some of these women, like us, have since ramped up to make work a larger part of their lives; others have chosen to stick with small-scale work as it continues to give them the life balance they are looking for at this stage of their lives. 

*names & some details altered to maintain confidentiality

Posted by Julianne

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