I would venture to guess that most people, when they leave the workforce to focus on caring for their family, plan to re-enter at some point. That plan may be specific or hazy, but almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to about their restart journey says something like, “I always planned to go back to work.”
And while I don’t think anyone expects that the search for employment will be easy, many people are surprised by how hard it can be. And there is real stigma against people with gaps in employment – a stigma that can become very visible to job seekers as the people they meet with are less-than-encouraging about their prospects. This can lead to people who “always planned to go back” to put off job searching or stop looking before they find a job. And as the gap grows larger, the anxiety also grows.
When I think about what sustained the many (many!) successful returners I’ve met through their searches, I think of these five things:
1. Surround yourself with cheerleaders.
In a perfect world we’d all be surrounded by people rooting for our success. In the real world many of us find Debbie Downers everywhere we look. Whether these are people who are preternaturally pessimistic in life or people who have their own interest in your employment situation not changing, they can drain you of energy and increase your self doubt.
Seek out and spend time with people who will help you stay focused on the positive. You do want people who will give you feedback – honesty is helpful with resume reviews and interview practice! But honest feedback about improving how you present yourself is very different from someone focusing on the factors you can’t change – like your gap!
2. Focus on, and leverage, your resources.
Yes, finding a job is hard for those with gaps in caregiving. But you probably have a lot of resources that you can leverage – your prior professional experience, your education experience, your professional network. You also have the skills you’ve developed through caregiving, which are absolutely valuable in the paid workforce.How do you focus on those things?
Sketch out answers to popular interview questions using specific examples from your past experience. Reach out to your alma mater to see what they might offer to alumni. Reconnect with old colleagues. By focusing on these types of activities you can keep yourself moving in a positive direction.
3. Help others.
Time is probably your most precious resource, but consider if you can dedicate some time to helping others in your community. Not only can volunteer activities offer you the opportunity to develop skills and network – helping others will give you a boost of confidence. Helping others also provides a healthy reminder that lots of people are trying to overcome challenges.
4. Remember that looking for employment is hard for everyone.
Yes, you are facing stigma because of your gap. But job searches are always hard and involve lots of rejection. It’s easy to start to tell yourself a story that you will never find a job because of your gap. That’s not true!
5. Don’t give up.
Job seeking is hard and it’s easy to get discouraged. Add caregiving demands into the mix and it can be easy to get derailed and give up your search. This can lead to a start-and-stop pattern of searching that runs the risk of discouraging you even more because it’s hard to sustain the momentum needed to find success.
Take breaks, for sure. But have a plan for consistently spending a bit of time each day, each week, working toward your goal of full-time employment. And think about how different job search tasks add to or deplete your energy and plan your time accordingly. Try to find a balance between tasks like preparing for interviews, applying for jobs, and connecting with your network.
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Yes, finding a job is hard. Finding a job when you have a resume gap is harder. Here’s the thing though – you’ve done hard things. Caregiving is hard. You can do hard things.
Are you going to have bad days when you want to curl up in a ball and cry with frustration and anger? Almost certainly. But you will also have days that buoy your spirits – a great chat with a friend, a reminder from a former colleague about a project you worked on together, an invitation to interview for a job you are excited about. Focus on those positive moments to pull you forward and you will, eventually, find success.
Tami Forman is the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.