How to Get Back to Work After Caring for Family


There's a lot to consider before halting your career to care for a new baby or sick relative. Although opting out of the workforce isn't necessarily a permanent move, taking a break can hinder job success and cut earning potential. And despite increasing gender parity, the burdens of caretaking – and the career penalties of taking a work break – still fall most heavily on women.


Statistics tell the story. More than a third of women with advanced degrees leave work voluntarily at some point in their careers, and 43 percent of women with children do, according to a 2004 survey of 2,443 women published in Harvard Business Review. Ninety-three percent of women taking a career break say they want to return, but only 74 percent manage to do so, and only 40 percent go back to full-time jobs.


It's not impossible to jump back into the working world after taking time off, and it's getting easier as more companies recognize the value of retaining employees who also serve as caregivers. But making those transitions requires advance planning and savvy maneuvering, experts say.


The biggest takeaway? Don't ever exit your career entirely, if you can help it.


"With the technology changes we have today and the pace at which things are moving, if you completely drop out for eight or 10 years, it's very hard to get back in," says Gay Gaddis, founder and CEO of T3, a national marketing agency. "If you do have a career bent in your life, somehow stay involved, through consulting, freelancing, school or part-time work."


Read on for advice about how to press pause, then play, on your career.


First, Find a Company Friendly to Caregivers

If you foresee that you'll need to take a career break to look after a child, an elderly parent or anyone else in your life, consider job opportunities with companies that provide extra support to caregivers. Benefits like extended family leave and subsidies for child care expenses minimize some of the hardships that force people to quit their positions.


These policies are becoming more common among employers hoping to attract and retain workers who have diverse family demands, says Jim Lofgren, CEO of Klarna, North America, a payment processing company.


"I absolutely think it will be a trend," he says. "We see it already now that there's fierce competition for talent."


Some businesses have long provided accommodations to caregivers. Gaddis recalls that soon after T3 was founded in 1989, four employees working on the same big account became pregnant within a few weeks of each other.


"This presented a bit of a conundrum," says Gaddis, who recently published the career advice book "Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business and Life." "I didn't want to lose them. Twenty-five years ago, it was very common that women would sometimes leave and not come back."


So she offered her employees a creative solution: the option to bring their new babies to the office after their maternity leave periods.


That offer has since evolved to allow working parents to bring their infants, ages three months to six months, into the company's offices. There are lactation rooms that offer privacy for breastfeeding and areas equipped with baby beds where children can sleep while their parents work. Employees sometimes carry their kids into meetings. In total, more than 100 babies have spent their formative third through sixth months of life in T3 offices.


Other companies are following suit. Ansira, a national marketing agency, recently allowed new parents to arrange alternative work schedules for up to 16 weeks and permits children to come to the office. If a new parent has to travel for meetings, Ansira will pay for an additional caregiver and the baby to accompany the employee on the trip.


And workers returning to Ansira offices after the birth or adoption of a child receive $2,500 to help cover associated costs. That financial bonus was designed in part to appeal to working fathers, who may be reluctant to take advantage of other types of paternity benefits, explains Ansira CEO Daina Middleton.


Meanwhile, payments company Klarna recently announced it will expand its parental leave period from 12 to 20 weeks, allow new parents – men and women – to work flexible hours for up to six months and provide a monthly child care subsidy for two years.


"We think people should have ample time to spend with children at an early age; it's important for society," Lofgren says.

Assess Your Reasons for Taking a Break

Before hitting pause on your career, think carefully about why you're doing so, experts advise.


High child care costs sometimes deter new parents from returning to work, even if they'd prefer to be back at the office instead of supervising their kids. If your rationale is primarily financial, consider the future monetary implications of taking a break now, says Allison Robinson, founder of The Mom Project, a digital platform that matches parents with flexible job opportunities.


Women lose an average of 18 percent of their earning power when they pause their careers, according to the Harvard Business Review survey research. They lose an average of 37 percent if they spend three or more years out of the workforce.


"You're maybe saving money over the next three years but walking away from a lot of earning potential," Robinson says. "Women are at the peak of their career trajectory in their 30s, which is when they often take themselves out of the workforce."


If your primary motivation for taking a break is spending more time with your children, envision both the positive and negative aspects of making the transition out of your career, says Kristin Helms, a stay-at-home mother and author of "From Boardroom to Baby: A Roadmap for Career Women Transitioning to Stay-at-Home Moms."


"Can you picture yourself in the role of a stay-at-home mom? You're going to have rose-colored vision," says Helms, who worked in marketing before leaving her job to care for her children. "It really is such a change of pace, focusing on domestic responsibilities at home every day."


Stay Relevant During Your Break

If you decide to quit your job but aspire to return to work at some point in the future, whether in a few months or several years, it's essential to maintain your job skills. Read up on the trends in your industry and consider taking on freelance assignments or working occasionally as a consultant, Robinson says: "Even if you're working a small number of hours a week, keeping that relevancy is really important."


During your break, keep in contact with people in your career network by sending occasional notes and getting lunch with your former colleagues, Helms suggests.


And don't neglect your "digital footprint," Robinson says. Keep your profile and professional website up-to-date, and stay active on social media in ways that demonstrate your expertise.


Get Back in the Game

Some caregivers hesitate to head back into the working world because they realize their priorities have shifted. But it's increasingly possible to find jobs that allow employees to balance work with caregiving responsibilities. Consider applying to jobs in flexibility-friendly fields with companies whose policies suggest "we care about you and your family and life transitions," Gaddis says.


You can find these jobs through your own research or by using a search service that identifies industries and businesses that accommodate caregivers. For example, The Mom Project posts job opportunities that are transparent about typical work hours, the amount of travel required and the possibility of doing remote work.


Another site, FlexJobs, posts opportunities that accommodate remote work, telecommuting and part-time or flexible schedules. According to FlexJobs research, the career fields with the most flexible job opportunities include health care, education and training, computers and information technology, administration, sales, customer service, accounting and finance, project management and translation services.


After you've identified interesting opportunities and applied for jobs, be prepared to answer questions about the time gap in your career history, says Brian Zellner, U.S. downstream resourcing manager for BP, who worked with The Mom Project to recruit employees who took career breaks. But don't feel pressured into divulging too much personal information.


When it's your turn to ask questions, inquire subtly about flexible work options the company offers and whether any employees take advantage of them, Zellner says. If you're worried about focusing too much on the company's benefits, ask these questions in conjunction with other questions related to company values and culture.


If you accept an office job, consider making your transition back into a professional setting slowly, especially if you'll be leaving a child for the first time, says Molly Petersen, lactation consultant at Lansinoh, a company that provides breastfeeding products and services. That might mean working part time for the first few weeks or starting on a Thursday rather than a Monday.

And don't be shy about asking for the caregiving accommodations you need, such as a private room for pumping breast milk. "Help get your manager or employer to buy in, to realize the benefits for the company as a whole," she says, such as "lower rates of absenteeism."


Regardless of your personal life responsibilities, there's a job out there that can provide income and the satisfaction of working while also accommodating your needs.