returning to work after being a stay-at-home-mom

A reader writes:

There are some high-level MBA type moms who have made a business giving career advice for moms who want to “relaunch” themselves back into the paid workforce. I am just wondering if you agree with this advice, which includes unpaid internships and per-project contract work, on the basis that getting a foot in the door of a company is going to be extremely difficult unless you have a champion on the inside.

I have a master’s degree (not an MBA) and was a career changer (and never at a high level) before I received it, and in the ten years I’ve been home with my son and since getting my degree I’ve been doing what I (and others who I’ve consulted) would consider high-level volunteer work (public speaking, legislative lobbying, writing, so that makes up the gap on my resume). On the other hand, I think that may mark me as “overeducated mom of a kid with an issue” and may turn people off. I am trying not to get more terrified with each new headline that talks about how long-term unemployment hurts your chances for reentry. Thoughts?

It’s definitely true that having been out of the workforce for a while makes it a lot harder to get back in, especially in this job market, where employers generally have tons of well-qualified candidates with more recent experience to choose from.

Networking becomes extra important in this context, because being a known quantity often lets you leapfrog to the front of the line, ahead of applicants who they don’t know. One way to position yourself well for that is to stay in touch with past managers and colleagues while you’re out of the workforce — including doing occasionally freelance work for them when that’s feasible.

If you haven’t done that, though, and you’re re-entering the workforce without a great existing network — or hell, even if you have done that and you have a good network — it is indeed a good strategy to take on project work. That gets you more recent work to put on your resume, and it also will start building up a group of new contacts who might eventually hire you for full-time work, or refer you to it somewhere else.

I’d be skeptical of the unpaid internship idea though, unless you’re changing fields and starting at the bottom. Volunteering for legitimate nonprofit organizations, yes — but not unpaid interning unless the paid jobs you’re targeting are entry-level. Otherwise, you’re devaluing your work and skills in a way that won’t send the right message to prospective employers who see that on your resume.

It’s absolutely difficult to re-enter the workforce in this job market. (This job market is hard for everyone, re-entering or not, so of course it’s extra difficult without recent work experience.) But contract work is a good way to get yourself back on the playing field, at least.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Runon*

    I think that based on what you said you likely have a very good network that you’ve built thru the volunteer work. Use that network. If you’ve been blogging, fbing, tweeting, meeting with people, talk to them. Say hey I’m looking for a job. Chances are good based on what you said you have a bigger network of people than many others. Use that network. They’ve seen you working.

    1. Julie*

      That was exactly what I was going to say, Runon. If you’ve been doing a lot of volunteer work, especially high-level stuff, you almost certainly have a network of people you can call on to start the process of job hunting. Definitely take advantage of it. (Not in a pushy, “Find me a job!” way, but in the “Hey, I think I’m ready to go back to work now; do you happen to know of anyone at Chocolate Teapots Inc. who’d be interested in talking to me” sort of way.)

  2. Eric*

    It’s not applicable for all professions, but my wife has been able to stay somewhat current with her skills by taking part time, online, contracting through sites like while staying home with our 3 kids. It’s even possible she continues this work while they are in school and beyond making about what she would in traditional workplace.

  3. Jamie*

    A good way to let your network know you’re on the market is to ask select people if you can use them as a reference. This can open the door to a discussion of what you’re looking for, etc. And the volunteer work will be a source of professional references.

    I agree completely with Alison about contract work. I was a SAHM for 15 years and didn’t reenter the workforce in my 30’s – I entered it for the first time. Having freelance work under my belt not only helped tremendously, but that in addition to my volunteer work, helped tremendously in keeping up with the softer professional skills.

    I don’t have your educational background and networking for me was irrelevant since I was living in a different state by the time I went back to work – but I made a similar leap and all of my volunteer/advocacy work (some also high level) was as “the mom of a kid with an issue.” I was nervous because I needed to show the experience but I was afraid that they would reject me assuming I would need a lot of time off or be high maintenance because I had a special needs child.

    Because the elephant was in the room I would proactively address that and explained how it wouldn’t be an issue. That’s maybe not the right thing to do for everyone – but it was the call I made. Of course once I had work experience that was no longer an issue – but in getting in the door for the first time I was trying to mitigate the fear of absenteeism.

  4. Victoria Nonprofit*

    I’m not a mom, so this is just curiosity: how do you go about getting freelance work when you song have recent/relevant experience? It seems hard enough for my friends who are trying to shift to freelancing/consulting from full-time, high-level jobs in their fields.

    1. Jamie*

      It depends what you do. I had perfect timing as I went into freelancing > 10% of homes had computers and then the AOL explosion and I got a lot of work really fast just setting up people’s basic systems.

      Remember dial-up? I remember getting paid $25 an hour to sit on the phone with AOL tech support and reset a modem string. Good times.

      FTR I hope to never have to freelance again because I would rather be at the beck and call of a company than individual clients – but if you’re in IT there are people who don’t want to pay Best Buy $135 to remove a virus from their computer – they consider it a bargain to pay you $60 to do it.

      A lot of IT people learned the hard way if you give it away for free you’ll never have free time. So I am pro-bono if I share DNA with you or I like you enough to visit you if you were hospitalized. Everyone else it’s either a flat no (now) or a fee (back in the day).

      If you have tech skills it’s much easier because there doesn’t need to be as much of a relationship – if you know what I mean. I can either fix something (or create something) or I can’t. There’s not a whole lot of gray area there so if your prices are reasonable people may give you a shot and if you fix it they come back – if you can’t fix it they don’t.

      I don’t have any idea how it would work with softer skills.

    2. Rana*

      Not knowing your background, this is hard to answer. My initial thought is that it might be worth doing a skills inventory and then start looking around to see what sorts of freelance work might match up with it. From there you can start looking for professional organizations for that branch of freelancing, and go from there.

      But it’s extremely tough/impossible to pursue “freelancing” if you don’t know what you’d be a freelancer in.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit*

        Oh, I wasn’t asking for myself. I was questioning the feasibility of freelancing as a re-entry point to a career.

  5. AnotherAlison*

    I really don’t know many people who have done this, but my mom did it a long time ago, and her “network” was the key. In her case, it was our next door neighbor who helped her hire on at his company.

    I’ve seen people successfully getting jobs right now by networking, having a ridiculously marketable (and generally current) skill set, or by relentlessly pounding the pavement and eventually getting The Call. It sounds like you have a great network, so I would work that for all it’s worth.

    You might also consider joining a professional organization in your field, if there is an active one in your city.

    1. Julie K*

      I want to second the suggestion to join a professional organization, if that makes sense for your field. It’s also important to evaluate the organization to decide whether it’s going to be a good use of your time/money. I was a board member of the local ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) chapter last year, and I had been involved for several years before that. It was a great place for me to meet people in my field, find out about other types of work that people with my background do, make connections with people who can refer me for jobs, and learn a lot more about the T&D field. On the other hand, several years ago when I was a partner in a small business, we joined the local chamber of commerce and didn’t find it very helpful. It seemed that everyone was constantly trying to sell their services to everyone else in the organization. This may have been due to the geographic location and/or the level of business experience of the other members. Perhaps a different chamber of commerce would have been more useful to us. Most groups will let you participate for a certain period of time without joining so you can see if it’s a good fit for you. Try out some of these groups and consider joining the one(s) that seem like they will help you make useful connections. I also recommend returning the favor by volunteering and/or helping other members of the organization once you’re in a position to do so.

      1. AP*

        Especially if there’s a version of the professional organization geared specifically toward women! A lot of fields and areas have them and they might be a friendly way to break in, or hopefully populated with other former SAHMs.

  6. Anonymous*

    I would just like to point out, as the mom of a child with an issue, that having the tenacity to lift up your head and conduct public speaking and legislative lobbying on behalf of your child, while dealing with special needs, is an amazing feat. If you have a proven track record with success in a particular issue by getting legislation written or changed, then you are very attractive to companies that rely on lobbying to sway issues with the same public figures. Lobbying is all about relationships. I’d reach out to nonprofits that may work to address the need your child has, and then to other organizations that have lobbying staff in your area.

  7. Anon*

    I also have to cosign with Ask a Manager about trying to get in the door with an unpaid internship, free work, etc. You wouldn’t think it, but generally this kind of stuff is a waste of time in more ways than one, and never pays off the way you expect. Good luck!

  8. WorkingMom*

    I agree with what everyone else has suggested! A woman I work with is back in the workforce after 10 years as a SAHM. While her work is great, the assumption from management is that “things have changed” in the last 10 years and she has to start over. Which, from the mom-perspective, completely sucks. I also understand it from the employer perspective though, too. So, in short – do what everyone has suggested, get out there, join professional networking organizations if you haven’t already and really play up the hard work you have been doing it – emphasize how while it may be in a different field, it helped you keep your skills relevant! Best of luck to you!

  9. CH*

    I did what you are trying to do. I took off 18 years to be a SAHM and then when the recession took away a large part of our college savings right when we needed it, I had to find work quickly. My prior two employers were out of business, former managers were retired or even resting in peace, and this was in 2010, so at job fairs the lines were reaching around the block. Like you, I did have recent volunteer experience related to my chosen field.

    Here’s what worked for me. Although AAM advises against it, I dropped dates from my resume. I did mention in my cover letter that I was returning to work after being a SAHM, so they knew I had a gap. I had a section on volunteer experience near the top of my resume that I changed a bit to match job requirements. I put together a great portfolio,with a mix of old paid and new volunteer work. My references were volunteer supervisors. My network was not the greatest; that is something I am trying to improve.

    But this was key: although I applied to jobs I found online and in our major metropolitan newspaper, the job that I got was with a small company that put a blind ad in the local free paper. This meant much less competition and a fairly straightforward hiring process. And I’m still working there 2 1/2 years later. So go into this with a “leave no stone unturned” mindset. And best wishes for success!

    1. Job seeker*

      Thank you for reminding me of extra volunteer work. I am doing some volunteering for the American Cancer Society I haven’t included on my resume.

  10. Erika Kerekes*

    I spent 8 years at home as a full-time mom and then had to go back to work 4 years ago when the recession ate my husband’s job. During those 8 years I did nothing – no projects, no significant volunteer work, no keeping up to date on my industry. Nothing nada zip.

    When it became clear I was going to have to look for a job, I panicked for a few hours and then dug deep and got myself organized. Between LinkedIn, Facebook and my personal email contact list, I had more or less reconstructed my professional network within a week. I reached out to everyone with whom I’d ever worked, not just my former managers. And within 4 months I’d gotten a job – a good job – probably as good as the job I’d have had if I hadn’t taken the time off – through someone I’d worked with (not for) more than a decade earlier.

    I wrote some tips for parents going back to work after a hiatus here: . It’s a little out of date but might still be helpful.

    1. Job seeker*

      I enjoyed reading your blog, The Crabby Mommy Report how cute. I really was one of the stay-at-home moms that did stay out of the market too long. I have three children and only went back to work when my youngest started high school. It was a part-time job which I am still surprised I got. I really loved it and it made me feel good about myself. The first place I applied and interviewed hired me. But, my job got eliminated and I then went back to school for a year.

      I am now facing another challenge. My mom has been with my family for the past 6 months and I have been helping her with some medical issues. I love having my mother here and she is first, but she may be able to return home soon. I worry how in the world will I explain this gap and still be OK with prospective employers. I just want to be able to find a job and also do the right thing by my mom.

      Time is going by and I am now trying to find a job part-time again. Right now I am juggling because my mother also suffers depression and is lonely and a widow and my sibling or no-one else in our family will help her but me. I am going to buckle down and try hard to work on LinkedIn. I haven’t done very much with this. I feel like a fish out of water and don’t know how to get unstuck. Your post is very encouraging. Thank you.

      1. the SAHM letter writer!*

        BTDT also – in addition to the “kid with an issue” I also had my dad living with me for a year and was on the phone with him every day or driving to another state for months before that while he had a series of medical events. If she is depressed, try to see that she is on the right meds (the wrong ones for the elderly will make it worse) and try to connect her with people her own age. This saved my dad and he has a new lease on life. And try to get her financial affairs in order so you know what she can pay for (help) so that you can go back to work eventually, if that is what you want.

  11. ChristineH*

    I’m not a mom, but I can definitely relate the fears associated with having been out of work for several years. I have a Masters in a field I love, but my limitations have made it challenging to easily and quickly jump back into the workforce.

    Since my layoff, I have been filling my time with volunteering, two short-term temp gigs at one place, and two unpaid internships that didn’t really pan out. I’m incredibly grateful for my current volunteer work (county-level council and a grant proposal review committee)…I just hope it will be enough as I haven’t had any paid work in over two years :(

  12. the SAHM letter writer!*

    Thanks everyone. Yes, I definitely have to reach out to my network more. I loved reading some of the success stories in some of the comments about how you did it. WorkingMom, is the mom in your company working in an entry-level job and you think in another universe (better economy/not having been out for 10 years or fewer than 10 years) she wouldn’t be entry level? I definitely wanted confirmation that I should not apply for internships (I am applying for fields related to my masters and or past work experience….)

  13. Victoria x*

    Oh ugh, my heart sank when I read this as I am a mostly SAHM career changer trying to re-enter the workplace who is 2 weeks into an internship. Are they really useless? EEk, I have been afraid of that. I fear that I lost one great job because of the the conflict with the timing. And there is another position that I would like to apply for, but have hesitated since I am into the internship now.

    I am learning a lot at the internship and enjoy the work and the people there, but do not think I would want to go on to work there f/t after the internship is over (if they did even offer me a job). Should I finish my 3 month stint there and hopefully at least have the experience and references when it is done? Or keep applying to jobs now and quit if I get one?

  14. Anisha*

    My situation is unique. I came to this country with my family in 2003. I worked few odd jobs initially and then for last 4 years, I have been mostly a housewife. I was happy being a housewife, but now suddenly situation got changed and I want to get back to work. I checked few career websites and I am not able to find any internship in my chosen field. Employers offer internship to fresh college graduate but not to a housewife who is desperate to take charge of her life and her career. I have bachelors’ degree in accounting and finance and also took couple of certification courses in recent years. Although, I am able to find some odd job, I want to pursue my career in my chosen field only. No more compromise. I have started sending my resumes but no luck so far. I was advised by a friend to lie on my resume, but I do not feel comfortable with the idea.

    Any suggestion?

    1. annon*

      This is a blog and “this country” could mean anywhere, although I would make an educated guess you could be in the U.S like Alison.

      It’s tough, no doubt. Try job finding clubs in your area? Also maybe a business English course to brush up on your communication skills and build a network with people in your position as well. Sometimes it’s easier to start doing the odd jobs for a large company in your chosen field and move up the ranks internally. Get any job to get in and work your way up? For example the big 4 accounting firms as well as other accounting/finance companies regularly do quick hiring for contracts during the tax season – from everything from tax work to all the office support needed. Some of those short term contracts only require high school and office skills. So, in a few seasons you might be able to work your way up to a tax related position or find a lower level perm job at an accounting form and THEN try to get recruited for entry level accounting jobs like recent graduates from accounting/finance bachelor programs are.

  15. Sally*

    I have an interview soon and I don’t know how to answer (why you are here today after been SAHM for five years?what is the best answer please???!!

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