By Sandy Burgham
Returning to the workforce is a very personal journey, writes Sandy Burgham
I collect personal stories of reinvention, mid-life change and reawakening. It is part of what I do as a coach but it is also of great interest to me as a former researcher. One of the micro-trends I have witnessed over the last five years is the changing dynamic in upper income households as women return to the workforce in some capacity after years of being the “stay at home Mum” (in lower-income families women don’t necessarily have the choice to stay home; the debate and the guilt about being a “working mum” has always resided in the middle class).
While the recession unceremoniously thrust a lot of women in over-leveraged households back to work as income came under threat, I am more interested in observing those women who are reentering paid employment for a different reason – because they want to, not need to. These are the women who “off-ramped” from their working lives when they became pregnant, deciding with their husband that it was best for the family if she stayed at home full time. This arrangement suited all family members until the last kid reached school and there became a bit of social and family pressure for Mum to find something to do … but nothing too high-powered which might damage the family framework.
So often these women were frozen in a paradox of too many options and too many restrictions. They were educated and intelligent but wanted enjoyable, socially acceptable work; with flexi hours and school holidays off. Some retrained into something that would fit into the restrictions, but so many others simply circled the workforce listening to their partner’s often unhelpful sideline advice. If only the latter recognised that this re-entry into the working world is part of a personal journey and best driven by the woman herself.
Like a space shuttle entering the atmosphere, sometimes a “skip re-entry” is in order, which involves clipping the earth’s atmosphere a few times to achieve greater entry range and slow down the speed. Try a few things out and see how they fit. You’ll learn what you like and what you don’t and most importantly, get into the rhythm of paid work again. It can take some time to get into the swing of things, as upper-income household women I’ve worked with have found. One went back to full time paid work after a six year hiatus. “When I went first went back it was like I had been in a time warp. Things moved so quickly, I just couldn’t engage my brain that fast,” she says. Another found the level of personal organisation required a step up. “I can’t believe how inefficient I must have been before. I have to just squeeze it all in now”. But after a while, the ability to simultaneously support a complex array of needs, not to mention years of life experience, will pay off. And there is the added bonus of actually underneath it all not caring as much in maturity about what others may think of your choices.
All the women I spoke to have never regretted re-entry. They got clarity about their working lives and above all else, confidence. For another mother now back in the workforce after 17 years raising a family and supporting her husband’s career, there’s been some surprising outcomes . “I have loved the freedom that not having to work gives me, but the positive feedback from doing a job well changes the way I feel about myself,” she says. Being at home entirely focused on the family “is not always that rewarding, as the job is more expected than appreciated. I am quite surprised how not working seems to take away your power …. I have only just started think about this.”
So if you are thinking of re-entry, don’t just sit there, do something! It might not be your life’s passion or purpose to begin with but it will lead to something, even if it is simply a reclamation of time to be centred in your own identity.
— Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson October, 2013