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Life After 50: Derailed by the 'Mommy Track'? 10 Tips to Get Back to Work

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It's been over 20 years since Felice Schwartz published an intriguing and inflammatory article in the Harvard Business Review called "Management Women and the New Facts of Life," which was immediately nicknamed the "Mommy Track." Ms. Schwartz's premise was simple: professional women are more diverse than we realize, and quite different from men. Some focus on careers, while others choose to have families, possibly removing themselves from the workforce for a number of years. Ms. Schwartz wrote:

The one immutable, enduring difference between men and women is maternity. Maternity is not simply childbirth but a continuum that begins with an awareness of the ticking of the biological clock, proceeds to the anticipation of motherhood, includes pregnancy, childbirth, physical recuperation, psychological adjustment, and continues on to nursing, bonding, and child rearing. Not all women choose to become mothers, of course, and among those who do, the process varies from case to case depending on the health of the mother and baby, the values of the parents, and the availability, cost, and quality of child care.

In 1989, when the article came out -- igniting the "Mommy Wars" (an invisible but contentious line was drawn between women with families who worked, and those who chose to stay home) -- I was 32, had gone to graduate school and was still building my career in the magazine publishing world, convinced that I could, when the time was right, have my career and my family, too. Not yet married, I worked around the clock, traveled constantly, barely dated, trying very hard to prove myself in what was still a male-dominated business. In my mind, I was the quintessential career woman.

It wasn't until I was in my late thirties that I married and started my family. In my mid-forties, I made the crucial and, for me, heart- and stomach-wrenching decision to quit my job as president of a small but growing international conference company to be a full-time mother of two daughters. I truly tried to run a company and be there for every school play, art show, fever, heartbreak and days off from school, but the older my children got, the more complicated it became. My kids were angry, I was guilty (and exhausted) and my husband was unsure how to help. Leaving the firm and taking on some consulting jobs where I could work from home and be more flexible was the solution I chose. I hopped on the "Mommy Track" and hoped for the best.

Sound familiar? There were (and still are) throngs of incredible, successful, hard-working women who did exactly what I did. There were also those who continued to work full-time while raising children, and those who chose to be full-time stay-at-home moms. One of the greatest legacies of feminism is that we should be able to choose our own paths without being judged.

The challenge, however, that many women -- including me -- didn't think through was this: If I decide to remove myself from the workforce for a period of time, will be I be able to get back in?

During the last 10 years since yanking myself out of the corporate world, I have been the de facto CEO of my household -- balancing the budget, organizing the family's diverse schedules, inspiring, leading, and resolving conflicts large and small. Every ounce of training I had, and skill sets I possessed, were easily transferred to the home arena with great success.

However, I found that when I was ready to get back to business, I was faced with a double-whammy: I had not been employed for almost seven years, and I was over 50. This is not an unusual situation for many women, but it can be daunting, scary and enough to make you pull the proverbial blanket over your head. But don't.

Ceri Wheeldon, founder of website FabAfterFifty, had this to say about why companies should strongly consider hiring women who are returning to the workforce, including those who have spent time raising families:

These women...

  • bring maturity and confidence
  • tend to be less flappable and react well in a crisis
  • offer a wealth of skills and experience
  • make excellent mentors
  • are masters of multitasking and hence have strong organizational skills
  • are able to communicate across the generations
  • are reliable and motivated to work
  • tend not to take as many days off from work
  • generally stay in jobs longer (unlike younger counterparts), reducing recruitment costs and creating more continuity

Ultimately, I decided to focus on helping other women enter their fifties with confidence and style through writing "The Best of Everything After 50" and giving talks around the country. I've re-entered the workforce, but on my own terms.

During these talks and workshops, women often want tips on how best to return to the workforce after having spent time raising children, having been laid off, having been out of work for any reason, or even if they want to now get off the "Mommy Track" and go back to full-time status.

Here are some of the best tips to help you get started:

Create your own "Board of Directors": Invite several trusted friends or associates (or even just one) who will encourage, inspire and guide you (see my recent Huffington Post article, "Need a Push? Create Your Own 'Accountability Group," on how to start your own group). I can't stress enough how important the group dynamic is, especially when you're trying to make major changes in your life.

Network, network, network: Get out there and talk to people, letting them know your plans to return to work. Gather information, seek encouragement and learn something from everyone you encounter. Stay in touch with them and, when appropriate, ask for help.

Review your clothes, hair, makeup: The impression you make on a potential employer is important, but equally important is how you feel about yourself. If you know you look polished and put-together, your confidence level will soar. Check out the appropriate chapters in "The Best of Everything After 50" for simple tips.

Know who you are: It's smart to have a good understanding of your character, nature, work ethic and strengths and weaknesses. Do you want to work inside, outside, with people or alone? Knowing this will clarify a lot and will help you decide the right path. When I was ready to re-enter the work force, I knew that I wanted to do something to help other women, and that's when I realized I should write this book.

List your skills: Every one of us has something to offer, and, arguably, women who are returning to the work force have even more. Take stock of your talents, skills, experiences and contacts to get a better idea of what you are truly qualified to do.

Learn new skills: Keep your skills up to date, and learn new ones if you need to, especially if you are considering entering an entirely new field from what you had been doing before.

Research companies: Spend time figuring out which companies have the best track record of hiring women, and especially women who have been out of the workforce for a while. Use search engines, but also check out the websites of women's magazines. They occasionally do "best companies for women" articles. Companies do, in fact, exist that try to accommodate women and men who are in need of flexible schedules, for whatever reason.

Talk about your "sabbatical": Many professionals take sabbaticals to renew, refresh and even to do research. Instead of calling it the "I quit my job to raise my children" period of your life, refer to it as your "planned sabbatical." It's true, and it's a subtle yet important difference.

Write a winning résumé: Focus more on your skills, attributes, accomplishments and what you can contribute to the company than on the timelines and dates you generally see on more traditional résumés. Write about who you are and what you can do. Companies are often eager to find employees they can train who have strong characters, moral centers and work ethics, not necessarily those who have already done the job elsewhere.

No regrets: We may all sometimes pine for our former employed selves, but that doesn't mean you should (especially during an interview) convey regret for having stayed home for several years, or however long your sabbatical was. Instead, talk in terms of what you accomplished, how it was part of your master "life plan," and how you are now ready to return to the work force, prepared, excited and motivated.

The problem, as I see it, is that 20 years after Felice Schwartz wrote her article, we are almost in the same place. Of course there have been improvements, but necessary changes are too slow in coming, and young women who are just now entering the workforce are worried about how they will deal with the inevitable question of "Mommy Track" vs. "Career Track." Many talented and motivated women -- whom Ms. Schwarz called "treasured resources" -- are still not being offered flexible schedules, or opportunities for re-entering the workforce, without sacrificing status, position or salary. It's disappointing that women in this country are often still penalized and criticized no matter what decision they make.

Recently, I started a discussion about this on Facebook and asked Facebook friends (mostly women over 45) to tell me about their own experiences. Here are a few examples of those who figured it out along the way (reprinted with their permission):

I cut back. I stepped back from a management role to part time sales for about 5 years. I wanted the primary care of my babies to be provided by my husband and me. The only thing I sacrificed was a few years of my career and I have no regrets. Restarting my career was difficult, but I just want to do what I love and love what I do. I am fortunate to work for a company that values people over profits and allows working women flexibility in their jobs.
--Toni Marie

When my son was born, I stayed home with him and didn't go back to work outside of the home until my daughter went to kindergarten. I was a stay-at-home mom for ten years. It was hard going back to work after having been out of the workplace for so long. My confidence was low, but it returned after I saw that I could manage everything. My job allowed me to be home when the kids came home from school, so that really helped me not feel guilty that I wasn't there for them as I had been.
--Kathy Hach Wadelton

I stayed home for 10 years while having my children (3). I went back to work when the youngest was 3 years old (part time). Continued onto a full time career as if I never "skipped a beat". I am very thankful that I was able to take that period of time to be at home and raise my 3 wonderful children. I don't feel it ever "interrupted" my life or career but rather gave me back so much more doing one of the most important jobs in the world . . . parenting!
--Susan Milton

No, I didn't stop working when I had my kids. I've always been in the restaurant business so they simply went to work with me. I took the morning shift, opening the shop, dealing with deliveries and suppliers. My husband would take the afternoon/evening shift and I would go home. Yes, it was difficult but I enjoyed having my kids with me. We made it work.
--Ronel Coetser

I had switched careers several years before having kids for two reasons: first, to do what I was meant to do on this planet (be an artist), and second, to have a home-based business for when we had kids. Raising my kids at home was important to me. I took 6 months off after each child was born (they are 19 months apart); had a babysitter come to the house for 4 hours a day so I could get some time in my studio; and as they grew up and went to school the hours in my studio increased. I'd work many hours in the evenings once they were in bed. So my kids grew up seeing me work. It was a lot of juggling and I learned a lot about patience, planning, and flexibility. It was, and still is, worth it.
--Sally Prangley

The very best advice for any woman who is re-entering the work force is this: Be fearless. Walk with confidence, grace and style. You know what you are capable of doing. Now you just have to let the world know how truly amazing you are.

Welcome back, women. You've been missed.

(P.S. If you know of firms that are especially welcoming to women who are returning to the workforce, please let us know about them. And, if you've successfully segued back to work, tell us how you did it. Thank you!)

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Staying connected is essential. Please "friend" me on Facebook, and "tweet" at me on Twitter. Email me at Barbara@bestofeverythingafter50.com. For more information about "The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts' Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money and More," please visit my website, www.bestofeverythingafter50.com. Stay well and stay in touch.

Around the Web

Mommy track - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The New Mommy Track - US News and World Report

Fired From the 'Mommy Track' - NYTimes.com

The Mommy Track - Will the Mommy Track Lead You to Paradise or ...

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