Creative Ways to Combine Work & Family

A new book outlines career options for mothers.

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Sharon Reed Abboud, author of All Moms Work: Short-Term Career Strategies for Long-Range Success, writes about what US News calls "the new mommy track," or the trend towards mothers finding creative ways of combining work and family after their children are born. Abboud says telecommuting, freelancing, and owning your own business are all ways to make it possible.

Your book seems to be written for moms who stop working full-time after having kids. Do you think more moms are trying to do this now?

My book is not about opting out of the workforce to be a stay-at-home mom or about continuing to work full-time. All Moms Work focuses on a third option—being primarily a stay-at-home mom, while continuing to work part-time, telecommuting, starting a business, freelancing, or consulting. I also focus on the option of working full-time with flexible hours.

In All Moms Work, I advise moms to not just quit their jobs and drop off the professional horizon. If they do, then they may be literally throwing their professional experience and education away. When they go back to work, they may need to go back to entry level. Instead, in All Moms Work, I advise the readers to keep their careers on track while at home by maintaining their professional networks and affiliations--and continuing to work in some capacity from home, whether as a volunteer, freelancer, consultant, business owner, or telecommuter--or by working outside of the home on a part-time basis.

I do not believe that more moms are trying to become full-time stay-at-home moms. Instead, I think there is a nationwide trend of many moms trying to find creative ways to continue their career, while at the same time having plenty of time to spend with their children.

In terms of numbers, according to the US Census, the number of stay-at-home moms climbed steadily from 4.5 million in 1994 to 5.6 million in 2006. The number decreased to just over 5.3 million in 2008, likely a reflection of the nation’s economy. But, the majority of moms, whether full-time working moms or stay-at-home moms, seem to prefer the option of working part-time. According to a 2007 Pew Research survey, 60 percent of women would prefer to work part-time. The mothers surveyed who were the most satisfied with their careers had part-time jobs.

In the book, I include a chapter on telecommuting, which is a work option that is soaring in popularity among working moms. I also interviewed many mom-entrepreneurs who have started successful businesses. As I wrote in All Moms Work, today’s stay-at-home moms are not likely to be only at home “baking cookies.” If they are, then they will probably find a way to market their recipe and sell it to a high priced wholesaler. Moms today tend to be more entrepreneurial. I interviewed many moms in the book who have found imaginative and resourceful ways to continue their careers—on their own terms. It is not opt-out, but opt-in—but with flexibility and creativity.

Do you think it's easier for moms who want to stay in the workforce now than it was 30 years ago, or is it still really hard?

In many ways, it is definitely easier. Many companies have established programs that prioritize the importance of work-life balance, including offering employees the opportunity to work as a part-time professional, telecommuter, or to work full-time with flexible hours. A number of companies are offering extended maternity leaves and paternity leave. Some companies have set up summer camps for their employee's children and on-site or subsidized daycare. In some companies, working moms are offered such amenities as lactation rooms, networking groups, and a range of other work-life benefits.

Most importantly, parents are not penalized in many companies for taking scheduled time off to attend to their children’s needs, for example, to take their child to the physician or to go to a school activity. Work-life balance has become an increasingly important priority for many companies and for their employees.

On the other hand, some companies are still not forward thinking about work-life balance. For moms who work at those companies, it is still perhaps as hard as it was 30 years ago.

There's been debate over whether taking time out from the workforce to care for kids has a long-term negative impact on one's career. What do you think?

Taking time out from the workforce can have a very negative long-term impact on one’s career, if the mom does not keep up-to-date with their skills and changes in their industry. But, if the mom keeps her career in progress while staying at home, then she should be able to re-enter the workforce without any negative impact.

What should a mom who wants to eventually return to the workforce do while she's out of work to make it easier for herself later?

This question is the central focus of my book. Stay-at-home moms can keep their careers progressing during their time at home by maintaining and continuing to build their professional networks. I suggest that they join and become active on an online business networking site. They should also continue their traditional in-person networking. Stay-at-home moms are advised to keep active with their professional memberships, or join professional associations and go to meetings and conferences, whenever possible.

During their time at home, stay-at-home moms should keep up-to-date with changes in their industry by reading industry publications and taking coursework, if needed. It is important to maintain relevant certifications and re-certifications. Some moms go back to college during their time at home.

Ideally, a stay-at-home mom should keep her career on track by continuing to work in some capacity in her industry in order to maintain both their skills and network. One option is to take on consulting projects, if possible.

Volunteering is a great way for stay-at-home moms to continue to build their resume and to use their professional skills. In All Moms Work, I advise stay-at-home moms to volunteer strategically by taking on volunteer jobs that build their resume, when possible. For example, a mom who is a finance professional might volunteer to manage the financial operations of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization or their child’s scout troop.

In the book, I give other examples of ways that moms can keep their careers in progress, including blogging about their industry, teaching continuing education classes, publishing articles, etc. Depending on their skills, job and industry, many of these endeavors may keep a woman’s career on track for eventual re-entry at the future date of her choosing.

Is it easier to do this in some fields than others?

If a mom is going back to her previous career field, then it is generally less difficult when the mom has keep current with the changes in the industry and technology relevant to her job.

The path back to work may be clearer for some moms who hope to re-enter the corporate career sector. Several major companies have established re-entry programs to lure back some of the stay-at-home moms who have left their companies. In the book, I included a list of a number of leading business schools that have set up programs to help bring qualified women back into the workforce by offering short-term executive education programs on their campuses. Many of these programs are operated in conjunction with corporate partners. Several law schools nationwide have also established back to work programs for stay-at-home lawyer moms.

If a mom is interested in changing careers, then several fields are generally easier to enter when they have been out of the workforce. In All Moms Work, I focus on three career fields that are generally very open to career switchers—healthcare, computer/IT, and education. In the book, I specify the types of training or education that may be required for these types of careers and where to obtain additional information.

When a woman who has been staying home does decide it's time to return to the workforce, do you have advice for how to ease that transition?

If possible, the woman should try to ease back into the workforce by working initially on a part-time schedule. Generally speaking, this will help with the transition for both herself and her family. But whether or not that is possible, she and her spouse should prepare their children for the transition by explaining the situation and presenting the changes in a very positive and upbeat manner, so that the children will also view the situation with optimism.

It is important to take the time to find the best possible childcare available. The mom may want to consider placing the children in childcare before she goes back to work, so that the family can ease into becoming accustomed to the impending changes in their routine.

Most ideally, the mom should try to obtain employment with a “family friendly” employer, so that she will have the flexibility that she will need to meet both the requirements and responsibilities of her job and also her children’s needs.