What do we normally do when we’re thinking about making changes in our lives? Our natural instinct is often to talk things through with friends and family – to get their opinion and test out our ideas. I remember many mornings spent discussing future plans with other mothers over coffee when I was on career break.
It can be useful to chat about your return to work ideas – setting up a business, returning to your old field, retraining, or whatever your inspiration may be. As you speak about your thoughts, this can help them to become more concrete and move you to action.
But this can also be a risky strategy as your trusted friends might not be the supporters you need to develop your fledgling ideas. If they pour cold water on your tentative plans, this can be a major knock to your confidence, raising more doubts and worries in your mind and stopping you moving forward to action.
These are some reactions potential returners have told me they received:
From other at-home mums: “What do you want to go back to work for – you’re so lucky to be able to be at home?”
“I can’t imagine having the energy to work. All the working mums I know are exhausted”
From family & ex-colleagues: “I never saw you as a [creative person / entrepreneur / mature student ..]”
From partners: “Well, if you’re absolutely sure that’s what you want to do …”
“If you think you can manage that and the kids without getting too stressed …”
There’s a big difference between these generalised negative comments, which can make you want to give up, rather than helpful specific questions that encourage you to reality check your ideas. If you’re facing comments like these, rather than simply taking them at face value, it’s worth putting them in context. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
- Your friends who are also on career break may want to keep you ‘on their team’. They don’t want to lose you to the workplace!
- Your plans to return to work may raise doubts in their minds about the decisions they’ve taken. When we experience ‘cognitive dissonance’, where our actions don’t directly align with our beliefs (eg I should be using my education but I’m not in paid work), we feel uncomfortable. They may subconsciously try to convince you that it’s too hard to be a working mother to prove to themselves that their decision is correct.
- Your ex-colleagues tend to define you by the role you used to have. This is similar to the cognitive bias called ‘functional fixedness’ where we find it hard to see familiar objects in a different light. Which is a real advantage if you’re returning to the same field, but limiting if you’re considering a new direction.
- Growing up within a family we all often have set roles (the smart one, the creative one etc). If you’re stepping into a sibling’s role, they may feel challenged or disorientated.
- Your partner and children naturally will prefer the status quo if it’s comfortable for them. Accept they may not be your cheerleaders initially at least!
To balance the naysayers, think about creating a group of return-to-work supporters:
1. Identify & seek out friends and family members who are encouraging and positive and fill you with a sense of possibility
2. Partner with one or more women who are also looking to return to work
3. Seek out a mentor – find a woman in your field who has successfully returned after a career break and ask for advice.
As our network grows we’re thinking about setting up a return-to-work support group. Also a number of successful returners have offered to be to mentors. Would you find either of these useful? In what format (eg.LinkedIn)? Let us know in the comments below or on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Julianne Miles, from the blog Women Returners: Back to Your Future aka Julianne Miles and Katerina Gould, an occupational psychologist and an executive coach who support professional women to return to work after a long career break.