Returning to the Career Life

The joy, the pain and the politics of going back to work

Returning to the Career LifeWe’re a nation of working moms. Some of us work outside the home because we love our jobs and couldn’t imagine giving them up; others, because the mortgage won’t pay itself. The reality
is, a paterfamilias’ income doesn’t guarantee the middle class comfort it did even a generation ago. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, in 2002, 72 per cent of two-parent households had dual incomes, compared to just 33 per cent in 1965. A full 71 per cent of moms with kids under age six work outside the home in some paid capacity. So for most of us, the question isn’t “Will I go back to work?” but “When and how will I go back to work?” “When” is something you’ll have to come up with yourself, but the “how” we’ve got covered. Read on for our expert back-in-the-saddle tips, for moms getting ready to return from mat leave, as well as those keen to get back on payroll after an extended time out of the paid workforce.


While there’s an argument to be made for mindfulness and only doing one thing at a time, there’s another equally valid one to be made for hitting the ground running when you’re returning from parental leave. Andrea Garson of Thornhill, Ont., now VP human resources at, took the six-month leave that was standard when her daughter was born eight years ago, and stayed in contact with her former employer almost the entire time. “I felt it would be hard to disengage for six months,” she says, and to that end she stayed in contact with her colleagues, and requested company tech support and computer equipment so she could keep abreast of work happenings from home. “And if there was an important meeting towards the end of my leave, I started attending, to help me reintegrate,” she says. While her employer never pressured her, Garson was bullish about her continued role within the company. No doubt this played a role in her company’s willingness to meet her bid for a more flexible post-leave work schedule — and in her mid-mat-leave promotion from a company manager to a director.


Part-time hours have become the Holy Grail for modern professional moms. But, says employment expert Dr. Julian Barling, a professor of organizational behaviour and psychology in Kingston, Ont.-based Queen’s University’s School of Business, “You have to guard your boundaries very carefully. With part-time work, you could be taking on two full-time jobs, so exercise caution.” In fact, “part-time” has become synonymous in some career-mom circles with full-time work in a compressed three- or four-day workweek. So if you’re returning from mat leave and are thinking you might want to turn your old full-time position into a part-time one, reconsider. Try negotiating a full-time “flex-time” or a flexible workweek instead, one that includes some work-from-home hours; that way you’re carrying a full work load and netting full salary, instead of carrying a full work load for a part-time salary.

But if what you really seek is a part-time job (about one-third of the nearly one million Canadians age 25 and older who work part-time are doing it so they can balance work with childcare), traditionally female jobs may be your best bet. Service sector positions such as customer service, retail and healthcare may offer you the flexibility you need right now. Many can be easier to leave behind when you punch the clock, too.


Admittedly, the biggest hurdle is convincing potential employers that you’re the one they’re looking for. But also consider if this employer is the right one for you.

“Savvy employers are realizing that the current employment market and corresponding labour shortages are making it more important than ever to recognize the needs of working mothers, and are putting plans in place in order to attract and retain key talent,” says Workopolis’s Garson. So grill them on their flexible work hours and telecommuting policies. These are clues to whether the company believes in work-life balance, or just uses it as corporate window dressing. And find out if there are moms working there in executive and managerial positions. “If you’re looking after kids, the best supervisor you could have is someone who’s doing it too,” says Dr. Barling.


If you’re starting a new job, looking for daycare, or considering moving house, try to shrink the square kilometres that make up your work/life universe. “Sometimes this isn’t an option,” admits Loretta Homes Neebar, 30, mom of two toddlers and a Mississauga, Ont.-based administrator (and mompreneur with her own prenatal classes). “But if you can, working close to home saves time, stress and you’re close enough to get back in an emergency.”


There’s an enormous pool of careeristas out there currently taking a breather from paid employment. Tap into it. Tracey Robertson, mom of a four-year-old and 22-month-old, and marketing manager for a chocolate company in Victoria, B.C. networked with other moms, a move which netted her two job offers, one from another mom at her son’s preschool, and one from a mom she knew from the park. “I was amazed, after six months of talks about nighttime feedings, to find out one mom was a psychologist and another had a Masters in English. There are lots of amazing women who have chosen not to be working for the time being,” she says. Get to know them. One could be your next colleague.


If you’ve taken a breather of two years or more, do some homework before you start applying for positions in your old field. Potential employers will ask about the gap in your resumé, and in many industries, a lot can happen in very little time. “You need to find out what’s changed since you were in the workplace,” says Garson. “Evaluate your skills, be honest and truly assess what needs to be refreshed. Educate yourself to stay on top of the current trends and potentially even take courses to stay up-to-date. Speaking to the things you did to stay current will be very important, in convincing potential employers that your time away from the office hasn’t dulled your expertise.”


No study has definitively proven that having a working mom hurts a child. In fact, if anything, it creates a powerfully positive imprint on your kid. Take pride in your work; explain what you do and why you like it, and how it’s useful to others. Bring your kid in for a visit on a slow day. Dr. Barling, who’s studied the effects of work on families for over two decades, says the important thing is to be happy with your decision. “Homemakers who want to be homemakers and experience that role positively have a positive effect on their kids. Homemakers who’d rather be employed, or employed moms who’d rather be at home, are in a more ambiguous position. It’s not what you do or where you do it, but how you experience it that matters.”

Now let’s get to work.

Yuki Hayashi, who left her full-time job to write freelance “part-time” from home, did, in fact, complete this story at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday night.

Ready to step back into the work force? Consider consulting a career coach to find the best path.

Is a Career Coach Right for You?

More in Parents
Canadian Family’s 1st Annual Great Teacher Awards