Caroline Kennedy's candidacy for the vacant New York Senate seat brought to the fore the issue of whether volunteerism of at-home moms is ultimately valued by prospective employers when these women eventually want to return to work. While her withdrawal from consideration could be viewed as a setback, in fact there may be no greater time for optimism. Now more than ever, as we enter the Obama era, there is reason to hope that the resume of the Parent cum Volunteer will be viewed more favorably.
For years women who returned to the workforce after taking time off to parent have had to spin the voluntary nature of their work to improve their marketability. Career advisors emphasize skills-based resumes that focus on the tasks women have accomplished, rather than the positions they held thereby fitting into the corporate model and avoiding association with the pink-collar ghettos of the PTA and soccer team. Similarly, the "experience" lexicon has changed -- moms were fundraisers (bake sale coordinators), event planners (school party organizers), project managers (committee chairs), and equipment procurers (team uniform purchasers).
Part of the reason for this approach is that neither full-time parenting nor the volunteer work associated with it is highly valued in the business sector. The type of volunteer work that many at-home moms tend to do -- tasks associated with PTAs, sports teams, religious institutions and charitable causes -- is largely viewed as unskilled with questionable economic value. For that reason, Emma Keller, author of The Comeback, suggests women use the term "pro-bono" instead of "volunteer" when discussing their time away from work. Thus, they legitimize their work to a prospective employer by cloaking it in professional language.
But now we have a President who is a former community organizer himself and who has made service a priority on his agenda. In his Inaugural Address, President Obama spoke of a spirit of service "that must inhabit us all" and how, among other things, it is a "parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate." Moreover, we have a First Lady who calls herself the Mom-in-Chief. A new emphasis on service, and the example of Michelle Obama may influence the prospects of women returning to the workforce.
President Obama wants service elevated to a level of national importance. Among the many programs he proposes to accomplish that goal is the American Opportunity Tax Credit worth up to $4,000 in exchange for 100 hours of community service by college students. That amounts to $40 per hour, which is more than double the average hourly earnings in the private sector. Attaching an economic value to volunteer work may go a long way towards boosting the status of at-home mothers. (Imagine if all moms calculate how many hours they volunteer, multiply that number by $40, and then deduct that amount from their tax liability!)
Obama also has sent a clear signal that community service is valuable in and of itself, regardless of the nature of the task. He has been photographed doling out food and painting a building, two tasks many moms have undertaken without any paparazzi following them around. If the Obama Presidency is all about dreaming big, is it too
far-fetched to imagine that the White House's emphasis on service could lead to the prevalence of service-based resumes? That type of development can only benefit moms.
Furthermore, the First Lady's position as Mom-in-Chief may have a profound effect on people's perceptions of women who are reentering the work force. Here is a smart, Ivy League-educated woman who is so focused on the value of parenting that she has deferred embracing a traditional First Lady issue that might make her seem more "serious." It is hard to predict if or how that decision will have a trickle down effect on other womens' choices. At the very least, it should bolster the confidence that moms will need, first, in choosing to put their careers on hold and then, in developing the confidence to transition back into the workplace after a long absence.
At the same time that this is a period of optimism for women who want to transition back to work, Caroline Kennedy's choices highlight the complexities of the issue. Commentators looking at her as-yet unexplained withdrawal suggest that her story is a setback for other women because she appeared indecisive and ill-equipped for the transition -- qualities that onramping mothers and employers worry about. The Kennedy missteps may well scare women who are not certain whether they can transition from full-time parenting to careers. Fortunately, most will not have to live out their missteps in the public eye (although sometimes the nagging voice of self-doubt is worse). Hopefully, both moms and prospective employers will recognize that like all things Kennedy, this situation was unique and not reflective of the trajectory most women face. In the meantime, we should be encouraged by the priorities of our new Mom-in-Chief and her working husband.
Barri Gordon Waltcher is a former law yer, full-time parent, and co-founder of Mind Your Own Business Moms, which provides career advice to women who have left the workforce to raise children.