I woke early for the 9am start of a three-day coaching course, the second in a series of five towards professional certification.
Almost everything was as expected: typical hotel meeting room in suburban Denver, chairs in a U shape, room filled with high-energy extroverts.
What was not expected was the anxiety - my heart racing and palms sweating.
After a 15-year career break all l could think was: do I belong in this room? I’m sure I’m the only one with “Stay-At-Home Mom” on their resume!
Time for introductions: “Your name, where you live, your work.” My turn. Deep breath. “My name is Suzanne Willian…”
So relieved that is over! Was I able to gloss over the fact that my skill set includes packing lunches, negotiating carpools, and washing smelly uniforms?
Is everyone wondering why I’m here?
My Career Break
I stepped down from my position as a Vice President of a Fortune 500 tech company after the birth of my third child.
While I was scared about losing my professional identity, I was also relieved. Our family routine was getting increasingly difficult to manage. My colleagues and mentors were men with wives taking care of the home and family; meanwhile, my spouse was working long hours and building his career.
I sometimes wonder if things would have been different if I’d worked at a place with more professional women or had a tribe of working women to talk to. I had no role models.
Only an uneasy awareness that, as I exited the professional world, no one was stamping my hand for a seamless re-entry down the road.
Still, I had important work to do at that time in my life and was grateful that my partner’s career afforded me the opportunity to embrace it.
From meals to melt downs, home renovations to school applications, color-coded calendars to sleep-away camps ... I had it!
With me on point at home, my husband had time and flexibility to pursue his career ambitions. At the same time, I volunteered my time, talent and leadership to my church, children’s schools, and community groups. And I invested in relationships with other parents, neighbors, and fellow volunteers.
My career break reaped benefits.
My young adult children are kind, capable, resilient, and launched.
My husband recently wrapped up 28 successful years on Wall Street and is exploring his next venture.
The organizations I stewarded continue to serve my community in wonderful ways.
I have developed meaningful relationships with beloved friends in my community.
But the uneasy reality is that I have many times felt dismissed.
Re-entering the workforce is not just a tough adjustment – there are cultural barriers in place that keep potential returners out.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Kate Weisshaar reports on research showing that men and women who have opted out of the workforce to care for family are penalized.
After submitting more than 3000 resumes to job listings, Ms. Weisshaar found that “15.3% of the employed mothers, 9.7% of the unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of the stay-at-home mothers received a callback.”
Results were consistent for men. Moreover, career breakers fear they have insufficient skills, find the need to rework routines daunting, and most important, lack confidence.
Here are some additional facts: none of the above is insurmountable.
Networks can be leveraged, skills can be learned, routines can be managed. And confidence comes from acknowledging that the work we have tackled while on a career break has imbued us with skills and capacities that are valuable to the professional world.
What did you do on your career break? Did you manage a school fundraiser? Oversee a home renovation?
Finely hone your interpersonal and leadership skills to survive your offspring’s teenage years? And who did you develop relationships with along the way? You have marketable skills and people who can support your reentry.
Of course, the above is most easily appreciated and understood when we have the good fortune to be surrounded by a supportive group of colleagues, peers, role models and mentors who not only show us the way, but remind us of all we have accomplished.
“The only words and actions you control are your own.”
Reflecting on advice I’ve offered my children time and again, I begin to consider how I talk about my career break. Do I own it or do I apologize for it? Do I dismiss myself? How can I expect others to view my life experience as valuable in the workplace if I don’t claim it myself?
Let’s try this again …
"My name is Suzanne Willian. Earlier this year I co-founded The Co-Co, a women-focused, collaborative co-working and co-learning community in Summit, NJ. Our community is flourishing.
My professional journey started at IBM. After graduating from Purdue University with a BS in Civil Engineering, I spent 15 years in technology sales and marketing.
I took a 15-year career break to raise my children, support my partner’s career ambitions, and immerse in my local community as a friend and volunteer.
I re-entered the workforce 5 years ago as a consultant to non-profits and small businesses. Since my re-entry, I’ve become certified in change management and am pursuing certification as a coach.
As an entrepreneur, I call upon the skills and capacities earned and learned through the totality of my life experience, every day."
That felt easy. No more glossing over. From now on, I’m owning my career break!
Suzanne Willian is a consultant, coach, and co-founder of The Co-Co, a women's focused co-working and co-learning community.