How to go back to work after an extended maternity leave

Getting potential employers to take you seriously after an extended parenting leave can be a challenge. Here are some tips for landing a new gig.

When Karen Leslie applied for an extra six months off at the end of her third maternity leave, some of her industry peers told her it was career suicide. Truth is, she’d had the same thoughts. She was rattled by the what-ifs, she says. “What if I lose that seniority? What if I have to go to a different position?”

But Leslie, a supervisor at a child welfare agency in Toronto, ended up taking not just the additional six months but a full year—and it turned out to be the right decision for her family. She returned to work rejuvenated and even successfully negotiated a part-time job-share with a colleague to maintain balance in her life.

Should you quit your job to be a stay-at-home mom?It’s not uncommon for working moms to extend their maternity leaves—sometimes just for a few extra months, sometimes until their children are in school. But doing so can make it more challenging for them to re-enter the workforce. Why? Employers don’t like to see a long break on a resumé; they wonder whether the candidate’s knowledge and skills are up to date. There may also be an unspoken sentiment that if you spent years away from your job, then maybe you’re just not that passionate about it anymore—perhaps you’re only back for the money. Finally, there’s also a perception that employees who have been absent caring for kids have fallen into a black hole of diaper changes and play dates and, as a result, won’t be as effective now that their loyalties are divided between home and work.

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Unfortunately, moms striving to get back on the career track may have to work extra hard to prove to potential employers that their brains haven’t turned to mush from watching too much Paw Patrol. A 2015 British report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that women face discrimination when returning to work after a standard 12-month maternity leave, in the form of being given less-challenging work or getting passed over for promotions. Ironically, a 2013 study of nearly 2,000 women in the UK by law firm Slater and Gordon showed that 35 percent believe they actually started working harder since having children—as if to prove they’re still good at what they do.

The career challenges for parents who have taken extended time off aren’t just perceived—they’re real, says Michelle Ventrella, a mother of two and human resources director at Pivotal Integrated HR Services, a human-resources consulting outsourcing company. To get back to work, she says, “Women have to be strategic.”

If you’re contemplating a return to the workforce, consider this advice from HR experts and parents who have been there.

Let everyone know you’re looking
The only way to access the hidden job market is to announce, in person and on social media, that you’re looking for work. “Not all jobs are advertised, and this is especially true when you’re trying to re-enter the job market,” says Allison Ford, vice-president of The Headhunters Recruitment in Vancouver. “People who know you and know your work ethic and abilities will often go out of their way to make connections or recommendations. Let everyone know what you want to accomplish with the next step, and ask for introductions to people who might help you accomplish that—then you have people advocating on your behalf.”

This is the strategy Allison Colpitts, a mom of two, used when she began looking for work after a six-year break from her career in the communications department of an oil and gas company. “If you’ve been out of work for a long time, people rule you out. They think of you as just a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “It was important for me to let people know I actually do want to work.”

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By taking advantage of her community connections, she landed a part-time job as an office manager—a step down, but working just three days a week gave her the flexibility she craved. Simultaneously, Colpitts began volunteering for an organization that helps foster a love of reading in kids; that gig turned into her current marketing and communications position with Calgary Reads.

Don’t spend the whole leave in a parenting bubble
It’s important to use your professional skills in some capacity while you’re on leave from your career. Leslie taught visual art and infant development classes at a children’s activity centre; Colpitts helped raise funds for a new playground at her sons’ school.

The work you did while you were out of the workforce will really matter to employers, says Ford, who herself volunteered on the board of her daughter’s preschool and was president of the parent advisory council at her other daughter’s school, on her own extended leave. For example, if you work in web design and helped with your community association by updating its website during your time off, it will show potential employers that your skills are current. Likewise, a journalist on leave can take on occasional freelance assignments or edit the PTA’s monthly newsletter.

Don’t try to hide the resumé gap
Recruiters don’t like seeing long gaps on a resumé, no matter the reason, whether it’s from taking time off to support an aging parent or to travel the world for two years, says Ford. Accountant and finance manager Kate Montgomery* knows that well. She struggled to find a new job after taking three medical leaves and two maternity leaves, plus an extended leave, all in a four-year time frame. In her profession, the career track is like an escalator, with everyone moving up annually. There was an obvious gap on her resumé she couldn’t hide—nor should she have tried to, say experts. “Gaps do need to be addressed, and it’s becoming more and more acceptable for people to put right on their resumé, ‘During this time, I stayed home with my young family,’” says Ford. “Just call it what it is.” That said, never try to sell your “mom skills” as assets in your application or in your interview, she says. All applicants should be organized and able to multi-task—moms do not have a corner on these traits.

After nine interviews without a job offer, Montgomery decided to talk openly about the gap. “Instead of shying away from the leave because of the impression it would have, I addressed it head-on with confidence,” she says. “It was definitely one of the keys to finally getting the job.”

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Check out Breakfast Television’s new podcast Moms in the Middle. Episode 1: Goodbye Baby, Hello Business

Do what it takes to prove you’ve still got it
Still, some careers, like Montgomery’s, are more problematic than others when it comes to re-entering the workforce. “Careers that have really intense times of year, like accounting and sales, and jobs that require a lot of travel—there are questions about commitment and availability,” says Allison Venditti, a human resources professional and founder of Careerlove, a Toronto-based company that offers tools and coaching for women returning to work. Moms will want to address this by letting potential employers know they are well-supported at home and able to go on business trips or work longer hours during busy times.

Positions that require up-to-date skills, such as development and tech, are also extra tricky. “Take a course, if that’s relevant,” says Ventrella. “If nothing else, keep up with industry trends through something like LinkedIn or through the media. It will help give you the language and the tone.” But she stresses that women need to be realistic; they may have to take a step down when returning to work after an extended leave. And it may take longer than they’d expect to find a job.

The length of the leave matters, too. You’re likely to find it easier to return to work after two years than to relaunch a career after five years or more. “Six years was a long time,” says Colpitts. “I didn’t truly comprehend just how hard it would be to re-enter the workforce.”

Present yourself with confidence
Above all, it’s critical for parents to be confident in their decision to take an extended leave. “When I interview people, I find that anyone who has stayed home is quite bashful about it. It’s not a confidently communicated decision,” says Ventrella. “In an interview, you’re looking for non-verbal and verbal cues that speak to confidence and engagement and motivation. That shyness and almost embarrassment takes away from that.” If the topic of your leave comes up in an interview, address it briefly and confidently, and then bring the conversation back around to the job and the skills you’ll contribute.

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Recruiters are really looking for overall positive attitude and manner in which applicants carry themselves—especially as it relates to professional and personal values. “People need to understand what their value is and not to be apologetic for having chosen the lifestyle their family needed,” says Ford. “Recruiters respect someone who’s clear on what they want out of life.”

Read more:
After maternity leave: A diary of my first day back at work
Why going back to work doesn’t suck as much as you think it will