8 tips for parents returning to the workforce

If you’ve been a stay-at-home parent who’s now returning to the work force, you might feel intimidated. After all, you’re competing against candidates who didn’t step away from a professional track, your skills might feel rusty, and it might have been years since you interviewed. But with some effort and the right mindset, you can get yourself back to work.

Here are eight key tips to make the transition from stay-at-home mom or dad to working parent.

1. Don’t put child-rearing on your resume as a job. Some parents who are returning to work are tempted to list their time at home as its own job, complete with titles like “domestic engineer,” “family CEO,” or “household manager” and duties like scheduling, budgeting, and childcare logistics. Don’t do this. Your resume is for professional accomplishments and employment where you were accountable to someone outside of your family, and don’t want to come across as if you don’t understand why the difference matters.

2. Do explain the gap in employment in your cover letter. Employers will wonder about the gap since you last worked, but you can simply explain in your cove letter that you took a few years (or however long it’s been) to stay home with your child but are now eager to return to work full-time.

3. Don’t try to hide the your time away from work by using a functional resume format. Stay-at-home parents are often advised to avoid a standard chronological resume format and to instead use a “functional resume” to downplay their work gap. Functional resumes don’t show employment dates or a clear career chronology, but instead simply list skills and achievements. The problem is that the format is an immediate red flag to hiring managers that you’re trying to hide something, and makes it impossible to understand what you did and when you did it. Functional resumes are often an instant deal-breaker to employers; they’re not worth the risk.

4. Lean on your network. Your network will be one of your most important assets when you’re ready to look for work again. When you’re competing against candidates with more recent work experience, having a connection to the hiring manager or a referral from someone who knows you can be the thing that gets you an interview and serious consideration.

Hopefully you’ve been maintaining your network long before you began thinking about returning to work, by staying in touch with your past colleagues, occasionally going out to lunch, and just generally not letting those connections lapse. But if you haven’t done that, it’s not too late! You can still reach out to past colleagues, classmates, neighbors, even parents of your friends’ kids, and let them know that you’re looking for work.

5. If at all possible, do some contract work while you’re out. Doing a few contract projects will give you more recent work to put on your resume, and it will start building up a group of new contacts who might eventually hire you for full-time work or refer you to jobs at other companies.

6. Join a professional organization in your field.Professional organizations can be great places to meet people in your field, get job leads, and generally position yourself more strongly for your return. You can amplify the benefits of membership even further by volunteering to serve on the organization’s board or one of its committees, as well as attending its networking events.

7. Talk with your partner about how you’ll divide child care duties now that you’re returning to work. If your partner has been working while you’ve been at home, he or she may assume that you’ll continue to be the primary person responsible for juggling school pick-up and drop-off, homework supervision, packing lunches, field trips, and everything else that you juggled when you were at home full-time. But just because it used to be your job doesn’t mean that it should continue to be. Now that you’re both working, it’s presumably time to revisit that division of labor and come up with a new plan that’s fair to both of you. You may even need your partner to take on more than half while you’re getting settled in your new job. Whatever you decide, don’t assume you’re both on the same page; sit down and talk it through.

8. Make sure you have a solid child care plan with back-up options. If your daycare won’t take sick kids, do you have a back-up sitter, an agreement with your spouse to split the care on those days, or some other plan? Sick kids can eat up your annual leave quickly, especially if your company gives fewer days to new employees, so you’ll want to have plans to place to handle inevitable kid illnesses when they arise.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Mean Something*

    This is a great article, and everyone should take special note of #7. One of the weird things about children is that just when you think you’ve got a routine going and things are more or less predictable, they change it up on you–they stop taking a morning nap, or start waking up later, or want to have a long conversation about why we wear socks! And they don’t stop changing just because you need them to be predictable because you’re going back to work. So it’s really good to talk through a lot of contingencies.

    1. neverjaunty*

      Yes to all of this! And #7 needs to be a conversation not just about the logistics, but about how your respective attitudes to childcare and your jobs. All the scheduling in the world won’t help if there is a disagreement about one person’s job being the ‘real’ job or the ‘most important’ one, or that childcare is one person’s primary responsibility and the other is just helping out or is backup.

  2. b*

    Off topic, but these ads (flash and autoplay) on the site are driving me crazy. Especially the one at the bottom before the comments. It looks like spam and it keeps making my web browser freeze. I wish they didn’t play automatically!

  3. Meg Murry*

    And on par with #7 and #8 – let your kids’ school/daycare/nanny know about the change and who should be their primary point of contact during the work day. And retrain whenever you can. You called me about sick kid? Ok, I’ll get someone there, but please put a note in his file to call dad first when, not me.

    When my oldest entered kindergarten, the emergency contact forms listed, in this order: home phone, mom’s work, mom’s cell, dad’s work, dad’s cell … etc. And sure enough, if the school needed to contact a parent, they went down the form in that order. After a couple of instances of them not able to get ahold of us until they reached the “dad’s cell” part of the form, I finally sent a note and asked that it be attached to the emergency contact form that said:

    For routine communication, please call or email in this order: dad email, mom email, dad cell, dad’s work, mom’s cell
    For emergency situations: dad’s cell first, if he doesn’t answer grandma’s cell and she will find one of us. Then mom’s cell, mom’s work etc

    Then I took some time off work when my second was born and went back to being the primary contact point, and then when I went back to work again had to change it all up. Luckily, at that point the school had implemented a new emergency contact form that pretty much said what I listed there: list the numbers we should call in what order, which made me way happier than the old school assumption that the first point of contact should always be the mother (or even the more basic assumption that all families are mom, dad and 2.2 kids).

    1. MaryMary*

      I’m surprised (but not surprised) that this is so difficult. Even when I was a kid, we had a defined hierarchy of which parent was called when.

      Before 8am: Mom
      8am-3pm: Non-emergency: leave a message for Dad, have him call back on his break if necessary. Small emergency: have Dad paged to the phone. Major emergency: call Mom or Dad based on who can get to the hospital/jail quickest (hospital/jail being the criteria for major emergency).
      After 3pm: Mom

    2. NewCommenterfromDaBronx*

      My single parent daughter & grandson live with me. She is essentially unreachable by phone during school hours so I am listed as first contact by cell, then my work #, then email both of us. Don’t even bother trying the home #. I am also able to leave work easily in an emergency, as well as working closer to home. So guess who they try to call first every time, & finally reach me in a panic?

  4. manybellsdown*

    I’ve been volunteering as a bridge back into the work force. This way I’ll have some recent, local references – we moved to a different state three years ago, and I hadn’t worked for a few years before that because I’d gone back to school.

    1. Red Rose*

      Seconding this. I made sure that some of my volunteer gigs used my writing and editing skills, since those were key to my background and my probable future career. This gave me a few newer projects to add to my portfolio and references who were happy to attest to those skills.

    2. Daisy Steiner*

      “I’ve been volunteering as a bridge” – I got that far and conjured some very weird scenarios in my imagination!

  5. neverjaunty*

    And you would be surprised (okay, you totally would not be surprised) how many schools STILL call Mom first, even when you list like three different way to get ahold of Dad before trying Mom.

    1. BananaPants*

      Yes. Daycare and school both do this – my husband doesn’t leave for work until early afternoon, so if anything goes down with one of the kids prior to around 1 PM he’s the primary one available to take the call and after 1 PM I’m primary. Despite both daycare and school having this simple (IMO) rule in writing, I *always* get called first. They will try me on my cell and work lines before calling the house or my husband’s cell.

      The elementary school office staff always seem so surprised when my husband is the one to take our older kid to the doctor, or to go to school to administer medication. Her teacher will call me to discuss academic concerns, even though my husband is more available for most of the school day because he works 2nd shift.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Would you ever point it out to someone in authority there, specifically noting that it seems like an outdated, sexist practice? It may take people clearly calling it what it is for them to realize they need to change it.

        1. AthenaC*

          Oh my goodness – last year I had to DROP EVERYTHING and leave work because my daughter’s school would not accept the fact that her stepdad is the primary contact for all things parent-hood related during the day. Even though he is listed on all the forms as a parent. No – the nurse wanted to talk to a “real parent.”

          Grrrr – still makes me mad thinking about it.

      2. Greggles*

        Whose name is first. I know for my sons school they go in order of the list. If you want to change it you must fill out a new form.

  6. Mean Something*

    One of the things I really like about my current job (department chair and teacher in an independent high school) is that although it’s a pretty demanding job in which you really have to be there during specified hours, the place has a culture of expecting that yes, some people will have kids, and it’s pretty no-drama about parental leaves and about people taking sick days for sick kids or having to leave early because a child is running a fever at daycare. And as a person who figures out how to cover someone’s parental leave–or someone’s class in an emergency–I’m always happy to look at the resume of a returning parent. If they were effective teachers before parenthood, they are likely to be so again.

    1. blackcat*


      Having worked in a similar environment, it was clearly a great place to work as a parent. I’m not a parent, but the culture of covering for each other because shit happens (eg kids get sick) was really great. I obviously never had a sick kid, but I did 1) get hit by a car on my way to work one day and 2) have sudden epic nosebleed. My coworkers were awesome in these emergencies, and I went out of my way to have their backs, too.

      1. Mean Something*

        Yes! My mom made an emergency trip to the hospital a few years ago (doing fine now) and my colleagues had me out of there in minutes–“We’ve got it covered, goodbye!”–and my school head emailed to say “We’re getting you a sub for tomorrow, don’t come in.” Still so grateful for that.

  7. Apollo Warbucks*

    I had a question mainly for UK mums, I’ve never heard of pumping being a thing in offices I’ve worked in. Have I just not noticed it or are babies normally weaned before maternity leave finished so it isn’t necessary?

    1. FatBigot*

      Using the UK National Health Service as an example, from http://www.nhsemployers.org/your-workforce/pay-and-reward/nhs-terms-and-conditions/nhs-terms-and-conditions-of-service-handbook/parents-and-carers/maternity-leave-and-pay-section-15 the maternity leave and pay entitlements are:

      Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) and NHS Occupational Maternity Pay (OMP) If an employee qualifies for both SMP and NHS OMP this will be made up of:

      8 weeks Full pay less any SMP/SMA receivable
      18 weeks Half pay plus the flat rate of SMP (or average weekly earnings, whichever is lower) providing the total does not exceed full pay
      13 weeks Flat rate SMP (or 90% of their average weekly earnings, whichever is the lower
      Remaining 13 weeks Unpaid leave

      If weaning starts at 6 months/24 weeks, and is complete by month 9/week 36 then the baby could be completely weaned before the Statutory Maternity Pay has not run out.

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        Plus the interesting thing I never realised is people still accrue leave while out on maternity/paternity leave, which can mean they get extra paid time off after the official m/paternity leave has run out.

        1. jhhj*

          Here you’d get the same TIME leave (2 weeks, 3 weeks, whatever), but your pay would be reduced because you hadn’t earned as much money. So if you took off 2 months, then you’d only get 5/6 of the vacation PAY you would normally get, but 100% of the vacation TIME.

      2. Apollo Warbucks*

        Thanks thats a really good example and I wasn’t sure at what age babies were weaned.

        I’m sure that maternity leave used to be nine months until quite recently. Maybe that was so babies could be weaned before the mother went back to work.

        1. sy*

          just point out here that it greatly depends on the baby and the mother but I’ve known babies exclusively breastfed up to a year, and breastfed in general through toddlerhood

          1. dawbs*

            And age of baby affects amount of milk needed and pumping schedule.

            I went back to work when my baby was 6 weeks old (to a 4-10’s schedule with a long commute and a awesome boss), and my pump schedule was 7:50 am (finish pumping to be at work by8), pump around 11ish AM (mid-morning break) pump around 2ish PM (rescheduled lunch break) , pump around 6ish PM (this was on-the-clock, I did all my phone calls and emails while hands free pumping)

            When baby was 18ish months old, she was still nursing/I was still pumping (which came as a surprise to me–long story not quite as absurdly long, the hormone levels of pumping help w/ my migraines–so we kept on it), the schedule was 7:50, 1 pm and 6 pm (and it produced a similar amount of milk), it’s just that the body adjusts to how it produces milk as baby ages.

            So what I was trying to say (and said absurdly long) is that if baby is older the pumping schedule may be more convenient/less obvious. I’d have been able to do 8 hours at that point.

      3. Sarahnova*

        Many people take the full year, in which case baby can easily get by without breastfeeding for 10 hours or so. Or many slightly younger babies simply get by on solids and water and take extra feeds while mum is there.

        However, I expressed and plenty of people do. It’s not as common as in the US because far fewer people are forced to return to work so early, but it’s hardly unheard of.

        There is no need to wean from the breast when mum returns to work if she doesn’t want to. Still breastfeeding my 14 mo and I’ve been back for 6 months.

    2. LSCO*

      Not a mum, but have worked with returning mothers in the UK before, one of whom pumped. I believe due to UK maternity leave policies giving the new mum around a year or so off work, most babies are on to solid/mashed food by the point mum returns to work. Even if they’re not fully weaned, most mums aren’t breastfeeding past the 6-month mark, which would typically be before they return to work (assuming they use their full maternity leave & annual leave).

      The woman I worked with who did pump was fairly rare in that she returned to work around 6 months after having her son instead of taking all of her maternity entitlement, but was still exclusively breastfeeding him for another few months. She had her own lockable, private office to pump in so no special accommodations needed to be made.

      This question does make me wonder though how the new split parental leave will affect this – if more women opt to return to work sooner after the birth of their child because they can transfer some of the leave to their partner, I can see pumping being more common in UK offices. I guess only time will tell though.

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        Interesting point about the shared leave creating a need for pumping arrangements to be made I wonder how that will pan out.

      2. Sarahnova*

        Granted, it is a minority of mums, but plenty are still breastfeeding beyond six months, since babies need either breastmilk or formula until at least one year. I just want to challenge the unthinking idea that weaning at six months is “just what you do” – I’ve seen a lot of people surprised to realise it’s even possible to feed past then!

    3. One of the Sarahs*

      Not a mum, but the big (UK) offices I’ve worked in have pumping rooms, so it could be that it’s happening, and you’re not seeing it? Sometimes they’re combined eg “sick” room (I don’t know how to describe that)/pumping rooms, but they’re there.

      (I assume it’s the maternity leave thing mostly, though)

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        I’ve worked for two pretty big companies and not seen any pumping or sick rooms which is what got me thinking about it after the question last week.

        1. Sarahnova*

          You may not have known that a room did duty as a pumping room, though. A standard non-glass meeting room usually does the job just fine. It’s entirely possible some of your coworkers’ ‘conference calls’ were actually expressing sessions. Most of my coworkers don’t know I express, and we don’t officially have a ‘pumping room’.

  8. Thinking out loud*

    No useful comments, but Alison, thank you for making this gender neutral. My husband stays home with our son, and I’m constantly amazed by the amount of articles that assume it’s the mom who stay home and the dad who works.

    1. BananaPants*

      Agreed. My husband stayed at home with our kids for around a year and it’s nice to see articles which acknowledge the increasing numbers of SAHDs.

    2. neverjaunty*

      Yes, especially since dads who take time off work also get the massive side-eye from employers – and all those tips are helpful for SAH parents.

  9. NJ Anon*

    7 & 8 are super important. I never was a SAHM but even so, when I had kids this was crucial. Fortunately, I have a lot of family around so they could help out when I couldn’t send one of the little darlings to daycare. It was a huge help.

  10. Anon this time*

    I was just on a hiring committee that chose a SAHM as our top choice, and #2 (explain the gap in your cover letter) and #8 (have a solid childcare plan) were very important. We wondered why she’d been out of the workforce for so long, and it turned out she had perfectly acceptable, non-flaggy reasons, but in a stronger pool she may not have gotten the chance to explain. It was also clear after interviewing her that one of the reasons she waited so long was to ensure that she had supports in place to care for her disabled child, and had obviously put some thought into how that would work. Even though she’d been out of the workforce for several years, the time was well accounted for with activities geared toward being ready to return, and that made her a very attractive choice. Hopefully she’ll say yes!

  11. Allison*

    I will add that it may be helpful to take some sort of class to update your skills and industry knowledge. In my experience, the most common reason why a recruier will reject a candidate who’s been out of the workforce for a few years is that they’re probably rusty and will need to be caught up in how our industry does things nowadays. I’m not saying it’s fair, but if you can prove that you’re already caught up and your skills have been updated, people may be more willing to consider you.

  12. Marina*

    This is great. My husband is starting to look at getting back into the workforce soon after being the stay at home parent for four years. He’s been temping here and there, but is definitely nervous about going in with a resume that basically doesn’t have any solid employment for that long. Probably networking will be a real necessity for him.

  13. Sunshine*

    #1. Pet peeve of mine. I had one recently that really went overboard with her “accomplishments” as a SAHM. I can get where the inclination comes from (the dreaded GAP), but it truly does make me question their judgment. From my perspective as a working mom, it almost feels… condescending? Although I know it isn’t intended that way.

    1. Analyst*

      It just seems weird to list your domestic chores and accomplishments when trying to reenter the workforce… because who does the SAHP think does all the dishes/laundry/family budget/etc. when both parents work outside the home? Both those parents, in a more compressed time frame. And that’s what the SAHP will be doing as well, hopefully with an equally involved partner, when he/she returns to the workforce.

  14. Aussie Teacher*

    As a SAHM who just went back to work after 5 years out of the work force, this article is very timely. I credit Alison and this site with making me realise it would be hugely helpful to my career to start getting back into the swing of things before my skills got too outdated.
    #2 I briefly mentioned I had taken “some time” (didn’t specify how much) to have children and was now eager to return to the workforce. I spend the rest of the cover letter telling them how awesome I would be for their job, using all Alison’s cover letter tips, and the Principal told me my application was the stand-out!
    #3 Kept my resume chronological but luckily spent a year volunteering at my local playgroup as one of the executive positions which had a number of skills I could link back to my current job, so I listed that job first (with Volunteer in brackets to show it wasn’t paid work). Also totally revamped it to show skills rather than duties, using all Alison’s resume advice.
    #6 One question in my interview was “What professional development are you currently engaged in?” so thankfully I had rejoined a professional choir earlier in the year as a way of keeping my choral/directing skills sharp. Definitely useful to join a professional organisation in your field for both networking and keeping up skills.
    #7&8 Working out child care is really important! A substitute teacher can’t teach my elective subject so if I miss a class the kids just do worksheets and it’s wasted time that I won’t get back. My husband and I had to work things out pretty quickly when our kids had a series of illnesses and ear infections shortly after I started working again, and we had both just assumed the other would drop work to care for them!

    In summary, I credit Alison and this amazing, in-depth site with getting me to go back to work in a timely fashion and also getting me a wonderful job!

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