Years ago when my children were still babies, I left my reporting career because I didn’t see how the unpredictability of the news business and my husband’s high-pressure job would allow us to be present for our kids, or how we would manage it all.
This feels trite when compared to the 865,000 women who left the workforce in September, largely because the pressures the coronavirus has put on working mothers pushed them out.
Mothers are drowning in childcare, supporting school from home, and household tasks. The latest McKinsey / LeanIn Women in the Workplace Report shows no end in sight: One in four are planning to leave their job or downshift, the report says — the highest percentage since the report began five years ago.
If you’re one of the working mothers who has already left or is considering it, I see you. I’ve spent the years since leaving my reporting job consulting with mothers looking to return to work after career breaks and navigating career and motherhood, and published a book on the topic last year. I’ve learned from talking with thousands of women and working with hundreds of companies that stepping out of the workforce presents an opportunity to recharge and reinvent, but is not without challenges.
If you do leave, it’s important to do these four things:
Reset goals. When you are shifting into caregiver mode, don’t let the magic of what drives your ambition or motivates you professionally completely slip away. Make a plan. As uncertain as the world seems and feels right now, this phase will end. Think about what you want to accomplish while you step away, and try to carve out 15 minutes of each day to focus on that. Research shows that confidence plummets for women in the first year out of the workforce, so to combat this, have a plan for if you’ll stay out two years or five years and what you want to accomplish to keep you focused and productive with your choices. Break out your goals into professional and personal and adjust them over time.
Redefine your relationship. When you stop earning money, the power dynamic in relationships often shifts. If you left during the pandemic to be the parent available to help with school from home, childcare and household management, know you still have a voice. Don’t let the imbalance in paychecks equal uneven contribution to household management. Remember your experience and education and why you left. Keep the lines of communication open with your partner and divide up responsibilities.
Hold on to connections. Keep your connections to former colleagues and friends. Luckily, tools like LinkedIn make it easy to do this. One hiring manager we spoke to recently said she looks at a candidate’s LinkedIn profile to see if the person celebrates others successes — an activity that takes little time. Check in with people you want to stay close to — meet for a virtual coffee. Use your time to explore new career options by reaching out to new people for informational interviews. Think of it as expanding your career circle versus networking. Keeping your network warm and having “one foot in the door” is the most crucial step to easing an eventual return to work.
Feed your brain. Plating fish sticks and navigating Google Classroom full time is not the same as delivering a presentation or launching a new product, and you’re not getting paid for it. While you may feel initial relief upon quitting, like you’ve just left the battlefield (and you have!) eventually you will want to find ways to fill the professional void and keep guilt over not loving every minute of parenting (or unloading the dishwasher) at bay. Consider joining a network of women like The Cru, which matches you with other women to stay accountable to your goals, or find your squad and stay connected to others. Take one of the many free online courses available right now through top universities and learn a new skill or explore something interesting. Even things as simple as going for a walk or run and listening to a podcast will feed your mind — and your body.
Carving out time might seem indulgent when you may have decided to be the primary “available” parent, but investing in yourself and finding ways to keep your own cup and mind filled has exponential value. Think of it like strapping on the oxygen mask first on the plane before putting it on your kids – it could save you all.