Returning To The Workplace After Raising A Family

For moms who leave the workforce to raise kids, returning to work later in life can be a monumental challenge — with both practical and emotional implications. Writer Katherine Reynolds Lewis discusses her piece in this week's Washington Post Magazine about mothers returning to work. She is joined by the subject of her piece, Amy Beckett, who went back to her law career after a 17-year hiatus.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we open up the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, which we do just about every week, to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This weekend, the magazine took on the conflict many mothers have been having for decades: to work outside the home or stay home with the kids. For many women, the decision is made for them. They just can't afford to stop working.

But many other women have the choice, but the decision is agonizing. Would somebody else watch those first steps, celebrate the first tooth? No way. But then usually it changes and at some point, the decision is made to go back out to work.

In this economy, many stay-at-home mothers are making that decision as the men in their lives lose their jobs or see their hours cut, and the choice to go back to work can be just as hard as leaving to begin with.

Freelance writer Katherine Reynolds Lewis followed one mom back to work. That mom is Amy Beckett, a mom of three, who after 17 years decided to return to her career as a lawyer. She's the subject of Lewis's story, "The Return." And they're both here with us now in our Washington, D.C., studio. Welcome.

Ms. KATHERINE REYNOLDS LEWIS (Writer): Thank you.

Ms. AMY BECKETT: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, Katherine, how did you get onto this story?

Ms. LEWIS: As a mom myself, I struggled with the issue of, will I go back to work after maternity leave? How much will I go back? And I always wondered about that path I didn't take. And especially with this economy, I figured if any time was going to be impossible for a stay-at-home mom to return to work, it would be now. And I wanted to take an in-depth look at the specific challenges and the struggles that she would face.

MARTIN: And one of the challenges, as we understand it, in older workers - I'm going to use that term gently - are less likely to be unemployed, but when they are unemployed, it takes them much longer to get back into the labor force. So, is part of the challenge here the age of the person involved? Or is it just the long break in service from paid employment?

Ms. LEWIS: It's both. One of the things that workers in their, you know, late 40s, 50s face is the perception that they want to come back at a certain salary level, they want to come back at a certain type of job, and that can be almost insurmountable for many people - not only in their own heads, but also when they're trying to explain the situation to an employer.

MARTIN: And as you point out in your piece, this is not uncommon. About a third of married mothers leave the labor force to care for their children in any given year. The Census Bureau counted 5.3 million stay-at-home mothers in 2008, about 24 percent of all married mothers with children under 15.

So Amy, tell us. You said in the piece that you really had no intention of staying home, initially, as a lawyer. You had no intention. And so what happened?

Ms. BECKETT: Oh, yeah. Be very careful what you swear you'll never do, because it's probably a roadmap for what you'll end up following in the end. What happened was I had taken a maternity leave, and I was absolutely convinced I was going to go back when my baby was 4 months old. But I started thinking about child care for her. I took my leave, then my husband was going to take his leave.

And friends of ours had a nanny who they were hoping to pass on to me. She came highly recommended, and so I invited her to our home to interview her, and she sat down on the couch next to me and picked up my baby, Nellie(ph), at the time, and was holding her and looking at her and looking into her face. And then she turned to me and said in her Jamaican accent, so, what will be my duties?

Ms. BECKETT: And I welled up, and my voice started shaking and I said, oh, to love my baby.

MARTIN: That was that. You're, like, oh, no. This is not going to happen. So, you were fortunate enough that your husband earned enough to support the family, so you quit your job. But as I take it, you really never intended to stay out, as it were, for this long. Or is that...

Ms. BECKETT: Absolutely not.

MARTIN: Was it, like, a year-by-year thing? What happened?

Ms. BECKETT: What happened is that in a couple more years, we had a second child, and I'd stayed home with one. Staying home with two seemed equally demanding. But you know, I started kind of sniffing around and taking on little projects from time to time, and thinking that about the time that my second daughter was 2 would be a good time to start to look for work. I wasn't quite sure how or what.

We lived in Chicago at the time. I had a lot of connections. I had a fabulous network. And I actually was starting to get a couple of offers. One was to teach a labor class to union workers. I was getting feelers from a firm, maybe to come part time, but then my husband had a fabulous opportunity to work in Australia.

MARTIN: So, there you go. So, again, you're sort of the trailing spouse, and you come back here. And the rest, as we say, is history. And you were also candid, I think, about the fact that part of the impetus for going back is the economy. Your husband's hours were less, or - right?

Ms. BECKETT: Well, in 2006, he lost his job. And that was at a point at which I really needed to ramp things up. I had done some contract work. I had sort of thought about looking. I had gotten admitted to the D.C. bar. But when he lost a job, I really needed to be able to find work. And I got close, but I could never seal the deal.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is? Do you think it's because you are -saying this very gently - older - which is, you're not 25. I mean, if you have, you know, three kids and, you know...

Ms. BECKETT: Well, a couple things.

MARTIN: Is it that they felt your skills weren't up to par? Or what do you think...

Ms. BECKETT: The gap is really, sometimes, insurmountable. It's really hard to overcome. And part of the benefit and value of the lawyers re-entry program that I later signed up for - in the iRelaunch seminar - was that they helped me come up with strategies to account for that gap, you know, and...

MARTIN: Why should you have to account for that gap? It's not like you - you weren't selling dope, as I recall. You know, the fact - I mean, so, what...

Ms. BECKETT: There's an assumption that your skills are stale, that, you know, that you don't have a sufficient commitment to your career.

MARTIN: So how did you overcome it?

Ms. BECKETT: In a couple of ways. One way was I did start to do part-time contract work. So I got back into a new subspecialty. I had always done, sort of, labor law and some employment law, and I found my way to doing that on a very part-time basis from home - not actually meeting or serving clients but rather, working for solo practice lawyers who needed help. So that was one way I actually filled in the gap a little.

Number two, I absolutely had to reduce my expectations. I was looking at jobs where I thought I could go in as a lawyer with 10 to 15 years' experience, and what I found is I needed to scale back. Now, that presents its own set of problems, because there were employers who didn't want somebody with my experience. Now, is that a code word for age discrimination? I don't know. But I was told...

MARTIN: They thought you'd be perpetually dissatisfied, that you would be annoyed that you were scaling back. That's interesting. Well, I don't want to -well, how can I put this? I don't want to give it all away, but let's just say there was a happy ending. And so people can read the piece. We'll have a link on our Web site so they can read the piece to see how that happy ending came about.

But Katherine, I wanted to ask you, there were some low moments that you followed with Amy, some real discouraging moments - some tears, if you don't mind my saying, until we arrive at the end. What do you think the takeaway is of the piece? Obviously, Katherine had some advantages. She's highly educated, and better educated workers tend to do better, no matter how long they've been out. She had the advantage of a program that specifically kind of helped her buff up her presentation, I think. But is there any other takeaway for people who are embarking on this journey?

Ms. LEWIS: Just that it's persistence that pays off. The majority of job seekers give up after just a couple of months of looking, and Amy was looking in earnest on an almost full-time basis for, I want to say, eight months. And she was very - every time a hit came, she maybe had some tears, but she picked herself back up - as her husband, Monty, says in the piece - and she dusted herself off.

And just to have that inner resolve and persistence and the support of her family and her colleagues from the training programs, I think that's really invaluable - to have people that you check in with who are going to ask you, what have you done on your job search, and have you rewritten your resume? And the other takeaway is, you have to sell yourself. Nobody is going to do it for you.

You have to come up with a good story to explain the valuable things that you did do when you were home with your kids. And if you can, if you're thinking strategically, when you're home, keep connected to your workplace or your colleagues, and keep those networks alive. In Amy's case, she moved - from Chicago to Washington - so it was a little harder.

MARTIN: So, keep hope alive. OK, all right, Amy Beckett is a mother of three who - well, I'll give it away: She recently returned to her law career after a 17-year break to raise her children.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a freelance writer. She wrote about Beckett and her search for work in this week's Washington Post Magazine. Her story is "The Return." And we'll have a link on our site if you'd like to read it for yourself. Ladies, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. LEWIS: Thank you.

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