Mothers of young children looking for (paycheck) work

Mothers of young children looking to (re-)enter the paycheck workplace often report things like this: “They don’t even look at my résumé because there’s a gap where I took three years off to have my kids”; “the guy interviewing me thought I wouldn’t be available for conference calls because I’d be too worried about my son”; “I can’t even mention my kids without being suspected of being someone who will always be wanting to leave early, but nobody says that about [current male employee with kids].”

These women rightly find these attitudes infuriating; as an employer, I find them stupid, because the saying “if you want to get something done, ask a busy woman” is true. In my experience, no one knows the value of a half hour, and by extension the value of a time-limited workday, and uses it better than the mother of young children. Unfortunately, these women frequently have to explain this particular skill and their other ones to disbelieving, uninformed employers.  Here’s some advice on how to do that.

If you took time out of the paycheck workforce to bear and / or raise children, you have to explain what you did during that time in terms employers, who are more often than not men, can understand.  You need to show what skills you have, and how you used them, and then show how they are relevant to the job you are applying for. “I led the planning, permitting, fundraising, and installation of new playground equipment, which came in 5% under budget” is a persuasive sentence.  So is “I redid two rooms in our home with a budget of $X in Y weeks in order to achieve [goals of space and new features].”

You will not remember everything you did from the time you started raising kids, possibly because you are too busy and tired, so ask other parents of young children to help you remember.  Get together with two or three other people you know well who have young children about the ages of yours, bring your calendars, sit down, and write it all out together.  You need the people who can say “don’t forget joining the hiring process for the new [clergy at your house of worship]”; “don’t forget raising money for the preschool”; “don’t forget running the clothing exchange.”  It may all have been a fatigue-driven blur, but you have done a lot in getting ready for your children, rearing them, and running a household, and the people who know best what you have done are other mothers of young children and possibly also your close friends and family.

Once you have your list together, start describing what you did and do to in terms of customers, products, services, budgets, projects, risks, and schedules.  Other terms will apply as well, of course, but these terms are among the most critical.  Read through a bunch of job descriptions to learn the current terms to describe what you have done.  Here are some of the skills that I value most in the mothers of young children who have worked for me:

  • Mothers of young children are ruthless prioritizers and make brutal time-driven tradeoffs. This is a skill.  There is never, ever enough time in a mother’s day, so mothers focus on what needs to be done most and first.  You should describe your ability to do that, because it is a valuable skill.  Skeptical employers will say things like “…but that’s just with the kids, right?” which is why you need to show them in terms they understand, around budgets, projects, risks, and schedules.
  • Mothers of young children are ruthless budgeters.  This is a skill.  There is almost never enough money to do all you want or need to do when you are raising kids, so mothers focus on what needs to be funded most and first.  You should describe your control over your household and other budgets (for example, places you have volunteers), how you spend and evaluate it, and how you have made adjustments on the fly, an exceptionally valuable workplace skill, where costs rise and unexpected costs arise all the time.
  • Mothers of young children know how to evaluate risk.  This is a skill.  Mothers of young children constantly assess risk: whether and when to leave their children with caregivers, relatives and friends; which toys, foods, clothes, and activities are safe for their kids; where they should and should not spend money (a hand-me-down jacket means more grocery money; hand-me-down clothes but not shoes are viable; etc.).  Assessing risk goes on every day in organizations of all kinds, and mothers of young children can explain how they assess risk and make decisions.  An example of where you assessed a risk was too great to accept, did something else instead, and later saw a bad outcome you avoided for yourself is most useful.
  • Mothers of young children understand what products and services time-constrained, budget-constrained customers need. This is a skill.  Perhaps the most immediately understandable skill to many bosses in the paycheck workforce, knowing customers’ needs, and the sharp constraints on the choices they make, is a skill mothers of young children can and should highlight.  Especially in cases where they control budgets (households, volunteer groups, daycare co-ops) they can show how they understand customer requirements and customer behavior.
  • Mothers of young children mediate well.  This is a skill.  Mothers of young children mediate disputes well and fast, and not only among their and other people’s children.  When people get into disputes over issues about kids, the disputes can get ugly fast, and mothers of young kids learn to mediate these disputes quickly and stay focused on what matters.  I have just described many business meetings, and in my experience women run them well and solve interpersonal disputes well.
  • Mothers of young children are excellent networkers.  This is a skill. Mothers of young children help each other, quickly evaluate who among their contacts can be most helpful in what circumstances, and remember and act on this information.  They only call in favors at important moments. This is the very definition of value-added networking. When you discuss this with employers, refer to these people as “contacts,” not “friends,” to avoid the age-old business bias that women have friends and men have colleagues.
  • Mothers of young children work well in teams, and lead teams well.  This is a skill.  When mothers get together with other mothers, they tend to be good at parceling out work to get things done: they know who does what well, how to persuade people to do it, what to take on, what to leave for others, and when to step forward and take charge and when to step back.  In the workplace, this skillset is called management.  Volunteer experience tends to be particularly rich in examples of these skills, and you should cite and describe them, particularly in how you handled the local problem person, because every employer has or has had one of those.

Find a man to read your résumé, and ask him to bring his skeptical-of-women-with-kids-as-employees brain to reading it.  If he isn’t skeptical, either thank him and find another man or ask him to pretend.  Show him the posting of a job you are considering applying for, show him your résumé, and ask for his help.  In my experience, this is a task not well suited to a spouse or significant other, but that’s your call.  If you ask “I want to show myself as the best employee possible; can you help?” you will probably be surprised how much helpful advice you get.  Then, find a woman in the workplace who has kids and ask her to read it, too.  Remember their comments and how they differ, and store the differences away in your mind for when you interview.

All these skills that you have and that I have suggested that you rethink, rename, and put on your résumé will help you when you do get into your workplace, where you will find that succeeding and thriving is often easier than getting hired in the first place.  Interestingly, taken together these skills frequently make for excellent project and program managers.  A lot of women, particularly those with significant volunteer experience, find they are well suited to those jobs.

A final note: it is not right that mothers of young children have harder paths to getting jobs, keeping jobs, and getting the raises and promotions due them for their work, but they do.  To change this situation, you and every woman and every man sympathetic to these issues must register to vote, and then you must vote, in every election at every level in your lifetime, for candidates who support policies that help women in the workplace.  Policies and politicians’ attitudes toward workplaces will change if we make them change.  Register, vote, and get everyone you know to the polls.

I’ll write a post for fathers of young children shortly.  In the meantime, younger women in the workplace can find a lot of additional information about navigating workplaces in my book, available in paperback or ebook from Amazon and as an iBook.