Restarting Your Career After Kids—And How Your Company Can Help

“What we’re seeing is really innovative, smart workplaces figure out that flexibility is a secret sauce to keeping employees engaged.”

Lisen Stromberg is a culture innovation consultant, award-winning independent journalist, and the author of Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. She joined Veronica Rueckert, the Peabody Award-winning host of Central Time, for a conversation about restarting your career after children and how companies can work with parents, and not against them.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Lisen and Veronica’s full conversation, click here.

Veronica: For years, we’ve been hearing that taking the off-ramp to focus on family and raising kids is, especially for women, a kind of career suicide, that it’s tough to get back on track in the workforce. You see it a little differently. How come?

Lisen: When Lean In came out, I heard so many young women ask, “How do I do this? How do I navigate my career?” Many of the women I interviewed as a journalist either left the paid workforce completely or downshifted to work part-time, and eventually managed to relaunch to great success. I said, “Is that the anomaly or is that the rule?” I went out to find out. I ended up interviewing 186 women and surveying 1,500 more for my book Work Pause Thrive. What I learned is, in fact, the vast majority of women do downshift for a period of time, but manage to relaunch to great success.

Veronica: This is your story, too. You had a big career in advertising, and you surprised yourself by wanting to downshift your career. Can you tell us how you got to your point?

Lisen: Let’s be clear: I didn’t want to downshift my career. What I found is that it was really challenging to be a very engaged mother and a very committed professional in the workplace. The kind of environment that says we have to be all in all the time was great if you had a stay-at-home partner, but I had a husband who had an equally engaged and committed career, and it ended up being really challenging. I tried to downshift and work part-time with my employer, and they were not interested. So I said, “Okay, I’m out of here. I’m going to innovate and create something new and different.” I ended up becoming a journalist, and ultimately now I’m back in the advertising industry.

“It was really challenging to be a very engaged mother and a very committed professional in the workplace.”

Veronica: You use the word “innovate,” and I think that’s key. The women who have taken this downshift come back and do something innovative. They’re a little more flexible maybe than just climbing the ladder one rung at a time. Can you talk about the role of innovation?

Lisen: Here’s what we’ve learned: people had essentially four paths. The first path was women who never downshifted or paused. They were all in, all the time. Those women didn’t leave for a variety of reasons: they loved their jobs, they were thriving, and they had the flexibility they needed to be engaged parents.

The second group were women who stayed in the game. I call them Cruisers. These were women who downshifted to work part-time.

There’s another group of women, Boomerangs, who downshifted, completely left the paid workforce, and then boomeranged back to their previous career. Kuae Mattox, who was a producer with a major television agency, paused for 15 years, and now has relaunched and is a producer at CNN—a perfect example of a Boomerang.

The last group I call Pivoters. They are the people who took that time of pausing to say, “What do I really want to do with my life? What difference do I want to make? What is a life well-lived?” They are the ones who in many ways were the most innovative. They shifted completely and created new careers and new opportunities. Maryanne Perrin is an example of that. She was a technologist, a vice president of finance and operations. She pivoted and ultimately ended up becoming a professor of nutritional science at the University of North Carolina.

These stories were inspiring to me and reflective of how these women were trailblazing paths because the workplace didn’t allow them to really thrive. They did it on their own.

Veronica: I want to ask you about the workplace and what role that plays. Some of the women you talked to were able to go part-time, so they were able to spend more time with their families, but maybe they had a sympathetic boss who said, “Sure, you can go down to 75%.” But not everybody has that, and it did not seem to be the rule. It was the exception.

Lisen: You’re absolutely right. I learned so many stories of women who had quietly and carefully navigated a reduced schedule but who didn’t tell the other employees, or their employer refused to let them tell other people, so you never knew that they were working part-time. A close friend of mine from college was a senior executive in the luxury goods industry. She downshifted for 10 years, and I never even knew. Her answer, when she finally revealed it, was, “My employer didn’t want anyone else to know, so we didn’t tell anyone I was only working three or four days a week.” We have these hidden stories, but to your point, they are the exception and not the rule. Many people want this solution just for a short period of time and aren’t getting it because everyone says, “Well, that can’t happen. It can’t work.” But it happens and works all the time.

Veronica: Are there rules that make a pause like this successful, benchmarks that all of these women had in common?

Lisen: The women consistently had a real sense of their own value. We talk about female confidence, but they really understood, “I have something to offer, and if I can’t thrive in this environment, I’m going to find another environment in which I can.” They were very willing to adapt until they could find it.

The other thing they told me in volumes was the power and importance of having a great partner. So many of the women shared that it was their partner that allowed them to thrive, that in fact their partner kept their careers alive, made introductions when they were ready to relaunch, or downshifted for a period of time while the women themselves were trying to advance their careers.

The other thing that women did was they always considered themselves nurturing their career whether or not they were in the paid workforce. They networked, went to conferences, used social media to continue to build their brand. They didn’t look at whether they were being paid or not as a measure of whether their career was thriving. They looked at their career in the long view and nurtured it along the way.

Veronica: Did you look at whether this was an option that was available to all women or just women who had a partner [and] a certain degree of wealth? Did it turn out that taking a pause was more of a luxury good?

Lisen: The survey was limited to women who had a college degree and were mothers. I did that because I was asking, “What’s the breakpoint of women’s careers?” You’ve invested all this time and money into your career by going to college—what does that look like? But in fact, we are seeing a huge increase in women in the middle classes and under-resourced women who are pausing, not because they necessarily want to, but because the workplace is so constrained and our public policies don’t support parents in the workplace. We don’t have paid maternity leave. We don’t have universal childcare that’s affordable and high quality. So we’re seeing women and men be forced to make solutions. The majority of the women I interviewed were in long-term relationships. They did have partners that allowed them to downshift for a period of time. If you’re a single parent, it’s a lot harder.

Veronica: Let’s talk about the willingness of an organization, a corporation, to take on an employee who might say up front, “I want to work part-time. This is my situation.” Are we seeing more workplaces that are amenable to that kind of arrangement, or is it still a tough bargain?

Lisen: I’m hearing and seeing a fascinating series of trends. I’m in Silicon Valley, [where] the average age of an employee is 30, and they are just about to hit a huge baby boom. 64 million millennials are expected to become parents in the next decade. And millennials tell us again and again in the research that they value time over money, although they need and want to be well-paid; and they really value meaning over marching up the traditional career ladder, although they do want to have successful careers. Guess who that sounds like? That sounds like the women of my generation that have been trying to navigate and innovate and trailblaze this entire time because the workplace wasn’t supportive.

What we’re seeing is really innovative, smart workplaces figure out that flexibility is a secret sauce to keeping employees engaged. We’re [also] seeing a real commitment to advancing women in leadership. Companies are doing things like providing return-to-work internships for women who have paused their careers, or men for that matter. Let’s be clear—it doesn’t have to be a woman.

We’re also seeing a real movement away from face time priority, to remote work or flexible working. We have the technology now to work from home one day a week and know that work’s going to get done, and so we’re seeing a real shift. I think we’re going to see more and more of that as the millennial generation becomes more rooted in management and can make decisions.

“What we’re seeing is really innovative, smart workplaces figure out that flexibility is a secret sauce to keeping employees engaged.”

Veronica: Back-to-work internships? How does that work?

Lisen: Companies say, “Look, we have a mid-career problem. College-educated women are leaving the workforce in droves.” In fact, about a quarter of college-educated women leave every year for caregiving responsibilities. That’s a lot of well-educated talent that the workplace needs to have back.

Also, all the research shows that when we have women in leadership, we are seeing great changes for the bottom line. It’s not corporate social responsibility. It’s economic. So companies are trying to figure out how you get those mid-career women back. They’ve started to launch these three [to] six month internships where women or men come in and do an internship where they are being trained in various areas or working without a permanent job, and then get hired full-time. I’m seeing up to 100% retention as a result of this, and it’s completely changing the pipeline to the top.

Veronica: Do they get paid for the internship?

Lisen: Of course, as they should. Here’s an example: Andrea Chermayeff was out of the workforce for 15 years. She did a return-to-work internship at JP Morgan, and she is now a vice president of wealth management. I asked her when I interviewed her, “How long did it take you to get back on track?” She laughed and said, “One year. In one year, no one knew that I had been out for 15 years.” That’s how quickly they were able to assimilate her and get her back into a senior level position, and we’re seeing that more and more. All this incredible talent who refocused their energies on home matters are now able to recommit to the workplace full-time, and are thriving.

Veronica: Is there a downside to this? Did you hear from women who said, “I didn’t make as much money over the course of my career?”

Lisen: Yes, money is one of the number one downsides. Look, if you’re unemployed or reduce your hours, you’re going to be paid less. That means you’re putting less money into your retirement, into supporting your family. Then, of course, divorce happens. Death happens. Job loss happens. It’s a risk, so I try to explain how you can strategically support yourself. If you choose to downshift your career, what can you do over the long haul to support yourself? There was no way for me to analyze when I paused my career for two years what it would do financially, what the impact would be, but there is a really fascinating calculator that you can find from New American Progress. If this is your salary and you decide to take it out, they’ll tell you the long-term implications for your family’s budget. It’s a little surprising.

Veronica: In that you take a bigger hit than you think you’re going to take?

Lisen: [Yes,] because not only are you losing your actual income, you’re losing the 401(k) benefit, disability insurance. What you don’t realize is that over the course of time, your career might have moved on track faster. So there are financial implications, and you have to decide if you’re willing to make those compromises. 78% of the women who paused their careers said they had no regrets, even though they did take financial hits. They said it was worth it for their overall life quality and satisfaction.