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Post Magazine: Stay-at-home moms returning to work

After nearly two decades, Amy Beckett is ready to go back to the work force. Can she revive her career?

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Katherine Reynolds Lewis and Carol Fishman Cohen
Monday, April 5, 2010; 12:00 PM

How hard is it for a stay-at-home mom to find a job? Can women revive their once-flourishing careers after decades away from the workforce?

This Story

Writer Katherine Reynolds Lewis chronicled the story of Amy Beckett, a woman attempting to return to work as a lawyer after 17 years at home, in The Washington Post Magazine.

Lewis, who writes about working moms for About.com, and Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of iRelaunch.com, took questions on April 5. The transcript is below.

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Carol Fishman Cohen: Hello all participants,

I am looking forward to engaging with readers around your questions relating to career reentry. We have a bunch already and will do our best to keep up with the flow!

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Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Hi, it's Katherine. I'm so happy to be here to answer your questions. Bring it on!

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Hamilton, VA: had 3 children in 2 years (a single and twins) and stayed home for 3 years, due primarily to child care costs. I returned to the workforce because (1) I was going crazy at home and (2) I was afraid my professional skills would disappear.

Petula Dvorak had a column on this a few weeks ago, how child care costs can outweigh the financial benefits of having both parents working. Apparently I'm not the only one willing to make a short-term financial sacrifice for eventual financial and other gains.

washingtonpost.com: With rising child-care cost, many parents are paying to work (Petula Dvorak, Jan. 26, 2010)

Carol Fishman Cohen: When weighing the decision to go back to work, if you have a significant other, don't fall into the trap of thinking it's not "worth it" because your incremental income earned will be wiped out by the costs of working - childcare, parking, transport, etc. Think in terms of your joint projected income and weigh the costs against that number instead.

If you do look at the costs against your project income alone, you may have a couple of breakeven years at the beginning, but those are an investment for the profitable years to come. Over time, your income will grow, either through raises and promotions, you do consulting work and then take a conventional full time job with one of your clients, or make money through an entrepreneurial venture.

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Bethany Beach, DE: I was a volunteer domestic relations counselor for many years before retiring and moving to the beach. My one caution with stay at home mothers is that, if their husbands die, leave, or become disabled, they may find themselves up a creek without a paddle. Stay at home motherhood is not given much economic weight by the courts when setting alimony, and the mother will most likely be expected to go out and find a job to contribute to her children's support. Ms. Beckett is lucky that her husband apparently makes enough to support her well, and he is still in the picture, but many women are not that lucky.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Your point is well taken. From our experience working with women returning to work after a career break, I can tell you the decision to leave the work force is often very complex and may involve situations where there are special needs of children, spousal relocation, overwhelming eldercare and childcare issues occurring simultaneously, or finding oneself marginalized at work when loving and needing your job but unable to negotiate a schedule compatible with your new responsibilities as a mother.

If a person takes a career break for whatever reason, it is advisable to do project work, volunteer work, cover maternity leaves, remain active in your professional association, etc, in an effort to remain connected to, and active in your field. If during your career break you realize you were not in the right career to begin with, your career break is a time to do some exploration and alternate activities in a new area that may allow you to relaunch your career in an entirely new direction when ready to return.

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Arlington, VA: While I am sure that Ms. Beckett was happy to stay home with her kids, I wonder how she would have felt had she been offered a longer maternity leave (say 6 months) or more flexibility (part-time work, teleworking from home -- have a nanny with the baby so she could focus on work, etc.).

Speaking as a mom who has left my kids in daycare as infants, I can say how hard that is. It is, no matter how accredited the daycare is and how good the caregivers are. I totally get why Ms. Beckett couldn't do it.

I felt, though, that I couldn't leave my field for more than a few months, since things change so fast, so I made that choice. I've really been struck of late at how having my current boss has made it possible for me to continue working, let alone full-time. And it's all off-the-books flexibility -- nothing is formalized. It can't be -- this is the feds. And almost every working mom I talk to has a similar arrangement -- off-the-books flexibility, and those who quit just couldn't get that.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: After following Amy for so many months on her job hunt, I'm convinced she would've quit her job to stay home no matter what. Personally, I had a 6-month maternity leave and felt ready to return by then. But she speaks so passionately about wanting to be there when her kids were babies -- that was how she felt called.

As someone who has covered work-life balance for seven years, I agree with you that off-the-books flexibility is key. In fact, that can sometimes work better than an official flex work schedule that your disgruntled manager is trying to undermine. For instance.

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Upstate, NY: As a divorced woman, I have seen a lot of women who gave up work to raise families, only to find themselves divorced with no job skills 10 to 20 years down the road. I underscore the importance of keeping a bit of involvement in the paid workforce world or with relevant volunteer work, just in case. You never know if a spouse might leave, die, lose their job, or become disabled. I have seen too many women wind up in poverty because they did not have a Plan B.

Carol Fishman Cohen: see answer to question just published - same issue

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Washington DC: She took off 17 years and then tried to return to work. Do you think the same barriers exist for someone who takes off 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?

Carol Fishman Cohen: We have not done a statistically valid study on this, but anecdotally our experience speaking with hundreds of women returning to work over the last 7 years, we have seen that success is less a factor of age or number of years out and more closely linked to the ability to identify what it is you want to do, update yourself to be qualified, and have the perseverance to push and push until you ultimately get hired.

If you are out for less than 3 years, you are in a different category because these days, people who are laid off could be out for that long, so it's much more common.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: I would add that the length of time out isn't as important as your determination and skills. Also, whether you've kept your hand "in the game" as Carol suggests above, with project work or simply staying in touch with colleagues and mentors.

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Depressing Story: Wow, what a depressing story. I am soon to be a mom and trying to figure out how I can keep my career and spend as much time as possible with my baby. Any advice to employers on how they can make sure they keep qualified woman in the workforce? Women, and men, sometimes have to face tough choices and employers who fall on the old "women can't have it all" line.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: You're actually in a better situation than mothers facing this question from the other side -- how to return to work after a hiatus at home with children. You can think strategically and plan your decisions, so even if you want to scale back your career you can lay the groundwork for ramping back up.

I would suggest that you talk to many other parents who have combined work with family and ask how they did it. As much as you can, leave your options open since you won't know how you feel until you actually are a mother. And of course, visit my site: http://workingmoms.about.com for many ideas and strategies on combining work and children.

Good luck to you! It's not always easy but at least you're asking the right questions.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Also take a look at the last section of "Back on the Career Track", entitled "Advice About Opting Out and Relaunching for Women Just Starting Their Careers". Highlights:

*Before you leave, establish a strong professional reputation

*Try to acquire transferable skills, for example sales, and negotiation

*Know when to quit! Quit when you are doing your very best work

*OR pay your dues early on so you are in a better position to negotiate a non-traditional work arrangement while your kids are young

*Look at the examples of firms like Goldman Sachs, Sara Lee, and BBN Technologies (now part of Raytheon) that have "returnships" programs for returning professionals, and also Deloitte, PWC, and Skadden, which have formal extended leave programs where professionals can take time off and then return. Talk to your employer about these examples to see if one of them could work for you.

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Leesburg, VA: Good article, would like to see more about mom's re-entering at all levles of the workforce. Being a lawyer is something only a few of us can relate to. I would suggest to moms or anyone re-entering after a period of leave be careful on how they discuss thier time off. I have one lady at the office who came back after 15 years off as a mom and that seems to be all she talks about. It seems to isolate her from the others and she has many times put down the working moms that work beside her now. It can be a ploarizing topic.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I am sorry you are having that experience at work. Engaging in talk isolating moms who have worked all the way through without a break or who have taken a career break is a bad idea all the way around. It not only offends the moms, but everyone else too.

Those returning after a career break should make a huge effort to integrate smoothly back into the work environment. Help co-workers out, be honest when you don't know something. In our experience, the women who return are in a more stable, grounded life stage, so one of their strengths is their authenticity and ability to interact constructively at work

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Thank you for the kind words about my story. I would love to write about moms re-entering at all levels -- for my next story I'd love to write about a family living on the edge financially. Please get in touch if you'd like to share your story!

As I recall, Carol's book addresses the issue of how you present yourself. It's smart to take your cues from colleagues and bosses about how much to discuss your personal life, whether you took time off or worked straight through. It's too bad the woman you work with is antagonizing people. I wonder if it's because she feels self-conscious or defensive about her choice? Maybe if you engaged her in a neutral way she might drop her guard?

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Potomac, Maryland: How do you do it all? Your husband.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Hi honey!

And yes, you have answered your own question: my husband. That's how I do it all.

All kidding aside, it is so important to have the support of your spouse/partner and other family members when you're trying to balance the demands of work, or a job search, with the needs of the family.

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Winchester, VA: I'm a 42 year old mom, trying to re-enter the workforce after 16 years of being a "stay at home" mother, working various part time jobs over the years, most recently, over the past seven years, as a substitute teacher. I have sent probably 100 resumes over the last two years, mainly for entry level positions. I have only gotten called for three interviews for positions that didn't pan out. I have a bachelor's degree in Bus. Mgt. and worked in accounting for four years before staying home with my children. I'm wondering if I need to go back to school at this point. I've been pretty discouraged lately with the job market and feeling that I don't have the necessary skills or recent experience to compete.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: I am so sorry that you are discouraged. It is not easy -- so don't think that it's you. I would suggest that you send out fewer resumes and instead focus on developing leads through networking where you have a personal connection. Do you know whether you want to go into teaching or back to accounting? Having a focused goal is important both in selling yourself and in targeting your job search. Sometimes you can spend days just sending in resumes when the time might be better spent meeting people for coffee and figuring out the answer to your question: do you need to go back to school?

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from a fellow feminist: Making decisions that are right for your you and your family makes you a feminist. The fact that you have a _choice_ is a success of the feminist movement. Don't listen to what anyone else says about being a stay-at-home-mom (and I'm not even a mom, let alone a stay-at-home mom!) Great story. Best of luck to you and yours.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Nothing to add - but I bet Amy will appreciate this comment.

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Pittsburgh: How accurate (or inaccurate) do you think the TV series "The Good Wife" has been in depicting the reentry of lawyer Alicia Florik into law practice after years off to raise children and be a political spouse? Seems as though she had a lot easier time than most women.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: I love that series, but I think it's pretty unrealistic that they throw Alicia into all the hottest cases when she's been out of the workforce for so long. I do buy the tension between her younger peers who are now at the same level as her -- that strikes me as realistic.

Carol probably has something to add, given her background...

Carol Fishman Cohen: I love The Good Wife too. Agree it is unrealistic she has the crucial role in many cases right out of the gate.

However, looking purely at her issues of returning after a break, the situation is much more realistic:

*She returns to a firm where one of her law school buddies works. This happens a lot. The networking piece in terms of getting in touch with "people from your past" as we call them at iRelaunch (people with whom you worked or went to school)is key and often leads to employment.

*Her mother in law comes in to run the show at home. Obviously if there are school aged kids, arrangements have to be made to cover for the mother's absence now that she is back at work - whether that be grandma comes in, the kids go to the afterschool program, a babysitter is hired, or they are on their own.

*She has moments of "recognition" with her younger colleagues, who are also her peers. This happened to me when I returned after 11 years out of the full time workforce to a finance company. Everyone was younger than me - my boss, my co-workers, everyone. However as Alicia demonstrates and I felt, a strength of the "relauncher" as we call them is maturity, and an ability to navigate a working world without making such a big deal about relative age.

*She works really hard and efficiently. There is little wasted motion (well most of the time....not sure about the new romantic "issue"). The working hard part is truly characteristic of the relauncher. The kiss with the co-worker is not!

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Falls Church, VA: As someone fortunate enough to have the option of working part time if I chose to, what hours would be ideal for a good work/life balance? 15, 20, 30 hours/week?

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Talk to other people in your field. It really depends.

In the reporting I've done, it seems that an 80% schedule, about 32 hours, works out pretty well because your colleagues can remember that you're always out on Friday (or Monday or whatever). Also, you can generally squeeze most of your work into those hours.

People who try to work two or three days a week often end up working more than that, but being paid only for the time they are supposed to work. You also may be taken off a track for partner or managament - make sure these are sacrifices you can live with. Really do your homework and see if you can leave room to change the schedule if it doesn't seem to be working out.

From the home perspective, only you can say how much time with your children is right for you. When I worked a 32 hour schedule, I loved having one full day free during the week, and that felt right to me. But I know people who work three days a week and still feel it's too much time away from their kids.

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boston : I do see your story as a cautionary tale. It's too bad that it can seem so difficult to raise children while both people work but I think a marriage needs to be a lifelong partnership which recognizes that there is a benefit which might not be readily apparent to have both people in the marriage continue to work after children. And I know it is tough having done it myself but when my husband got laid off from his job, it's what saved us and allowed him to pursue his dream of going back to school to be a teacher. Finally, as a person who hires a lot of people, there would be almost no chance I would hire a person with a 17 yr gap in his/her resume. And after reading the article I may feel a little different about that going forward.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: I'm so pleased to hear this piece may have made you more open to considering people with an extended work gap. I do think Amy appealed to her current employer because she has the age and presence to impress opposing counsel - that might be another factor on the side of people returning to work after a long career break.

I am a perpetual optimist and I believe our society is slowly changing to recognize the important role that both men and women have in raising children. Moreover, many people without children are now facing the challenge of caring for aging parents, so they will need flexibility at work too. I hope that these forces will combine to let everyone have the ability to control the extent to which they want to work, not just mothers on the mommy track.

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Washington DC: Experts always advise networking to job seekers, but casual networking has always seemed overrated to me. I noticed that the subject of the article found her full-time job through her part-time contract work. Is that path common in the legal field?

Carol Fishman Cohen: You bring up an excellent point about networking. The way to look at networking is in terms of what we call "contact pools". We see them in 3 categories - "People from the Past", "People from the Present" and "People from the Future". People from the past not only include old work colleagues and classmates but also groups such as junior people - people whom you mentored, who reported to you or who you just knew. Because these junior people have been moving up while you have been on career break. People from the present include the "casual networkers". Don't discount them. For example, spouses of people with whom you volunteer. I was at an American Bar Association event where a person who had just relaunched her career at a big law firm had her first interview there because the spouse of someone she volunteered with worked there. You have to be relentless and tell everyone you know, formal and informal, that you are interested in returning to work, what you want to do and what you have been doing to make sure you are the perfect candidate for that position.

Regarding contract work in law, I wouldn't say it is common, but I have seen attorneys use it to get back to work. One attorney found out that a firm where she knew one of the partners was facing an overflow situation in the real estate department. She asked if she could pick up some of the overflow by working on cases out of her house. She did that for a year and it led to full time work. Also, quality pro bono opportunities are good entrees to full time work. There is a particularly good group in DC called the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project http://www.dcvlp.org/, founded by an attorney who had taken a 15 year career break.

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Anonymous: I would have loved if you had spent some time talking with your subject's husband or her views about a father's role. I get how hard it is to leave your kids with someone else--I left my son in daycare when he was but a few weeks old and it was hard even for someone committed to returning to work. I felt horrified, however, when I read that she burst into tears at the thought of someone else loving her children. What's dad's role? Why was it okay for him to let her love the kids while he worked, versus both parents compromising over schedules, etc. How did he feel about her staying out of the work force for so long? Did his career choices (moving overseas for example) take into account what impact it would have on her choices?

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: I did spend some time talking to Monte, and I also observed that is a terrific, very involved dad. One interesting thing to me about their family is that they defied the stereotype of the stay-at-home mom whose whole world is her children and the distant father who was focused on breadwinning. I believe he felt anguished when she was struggling in the job hunt and did whatever he could to help. And he does most of the cooking and a fair amount of child care when he's in town.

In an early version of the article, I had a scene of Monte cooking dinner while also herding their daughter off to soccer: reminding her of the water bottle, asking whether she needed her cleats or a different pair of socks. Unfortunately we had to cut it -- but for a good reason, to add the scene where Amy got the Kaplan & Passman job interview and offer!

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Arlington, VA: Great article, except for the denigration of volunteerism. Please! Volunteering is win/win. I think everyone should do it, regardless of age, employment status or station in life. While not all volunteer efforts work out well, in general, you do good, which makes you feel good. And employers definitely view it as a positive in making interview and hiring decisions.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: This is a terrific point. Thanks for writing in.

During the process of reporting this article, I myself had to challenge my preconceptions about what kind of work is valued. I ended up realizing that I also felt that paid work was somehow more important than the very hard work of caring for children or the crucial work of volunteering in the community.

There's no simple answer but I think it's important for us all to think about whether we treat other people differently based on their income, position, status, etc.

And goodness knows our communities need volunteers to keep humming along.

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Use your alumni office: Moms trying to reenter the workforce should use their university/college career office as a resource. Even if you graduated 20 years ago, that office is still available to help you in your job search.

Plus, tell absolutely everyone you know that you're looking for work. Everyone. Most jobs are found through networking, not through answering job ads.

Also, -always- carry business cards with you. These days, you can make them up at home and they look quite good. You never know when you'll meet someone with a job lead and you can hand them a card. (Make sure they're printed on non-glossy paper so you can write on them.) Put a bunch in each purse you use and in your car's glove compartment. And it helps you feel professional again to have a card with your name, profession, and contact info on it.

Carol Fishman Cohen: These are all EXCELLENT tips - thank you.

Re your alumni office - if you don't live near where you went to school and can't go in to take advantage of mock interviews, video interviewing, company information, etc, then ask your university if they have reciprocity agreements with any schools that are near you.

One more to add is to get in touch with your professional association to see if they offer career reentry programming. If they don't, then you should offer to organize it. In the role of organizer you will be in touch with academics and employers to ask them to speak on panels or make other presentations. This is a great way to establish a relationship with these critical contacts as opposed to the more opportunistic "can you help me find a job" (which you don't want to do anyway - you need to build a relationship first before getting to that point.)

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Columbia, MD: I have 3 children, now ages 7, 3 and 4. I stayed home 6 months with the first and a combined 18 months with the last 2 (the 3rd was a surprise). When the oldest was just a few weeks old,, I said, how can I possibly leave this adorable baby? My working-mother friends smiled knowingly and said, you'll see! And they were so right -- I was practically ready to run to the office by the time my maternity leave ended!

Different strokes for different folks, I know, but, as snarky as this sounds, I wonder how Ms. Becket did not go crazy or die of boredom, especially once her children were in school, and especially since she did not volunteer. I'm glad it's working out for her.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Thanks for the good wishes to Amy.

I was the same way when my first maternity leave ended - couldn't wait to go back to work. After the second one ... I agonized. It can change along the way.

I do think Amy felt bored at home at times. I believe she did volunteer in several capacities, just not at the time I was reporting this story. It really is different strokes - some people love the routine of the household and kids and some people would go insane. I would love to see both viewpoints, and everyone in between, honored.

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Seattle, WA: Your well-researched and insightful article is inspiring for all of us who are seeking to re-enter the workforce after a hiatus, whether due to personal reasons or lay-offs. Very timely and even-handed. Thank you.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Thank you so much!

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Bethesda, MD: This is a serious comment. As a husband and father, I would love it if my wife went out and supported the family while I stayed home with the kids! It just doesn't seem fair to me that the economioc burden of supporting the family should rest entirely with one spouse.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Have you talked to your wife about this? You never know -- she might go for it. I find more and more men who feel this way.

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Chicago, IL: Great article!

I am Amy Beckett's age but did not have children so have had continuous employment. When I hire for my staff, I prefer to hire middle-aged applicants and don't care if they have been out of the workforce, as long as they can demostrate competency. Their work is clean, competant, and efficient -- there are also not the emotional issues of younger staff.

However, I face enormous opposition from my co-workers and supervisors, not because of salary issues, but because there is an erroneous perception that stay-at-home mothers lack ambition and are not "up to task." Grrrrr....

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Very interesting. It is too bad when anyone judges an entire group of people as similar rather than taking each individual at face value.

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Arlington, VA: I'm about to have our first child (in 6 weeks or so) and although my Fortune 50 company theoretically offers very generous maternity leave (unpaid), in reality, my management has only been willing to offer 3 months, forcing my decision to take a break from my career. I thought this would be easier to negotiate in 2010, however, it doesn't seem to be.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: It is really too bad that your management is so opposed to more leave. Do you really have to make a break now? Can you delay the decision until you see what motherhood is really like for you? I would encourage you not to burn any bridges.

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Reentering the workforce: The issue of keeping your skills honed doesn't just affect SAHMs. My father was in the Foreign Service and my mother (a medical technologist) had long stretches where she couldn't work because we were posted overseas. Lots of ex-pat spouses ran into this problem. (It's much alleviated now because of the ability to work online, although that didn't help my mom because she needed to be in a lab.) She kept up by reading journals and didn't have too much of a problem finding work when we got back to the U.S.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Great example, thanks!

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Charlotte, NC: As a stay at home mom (for over a year now), I'm conflicted. I have my M.Ed and really enjoy teaching and writing-yet I also love being home with my baby. I just miss the feeling that what I say matters--actually, what I miss is the feeling of being respected by my peers I suppose. I don't really know how to get into writing freelance (any tips would be appreciated) but how do I adjust my lifelong "goals" (doing it all--successful career, great mom/wife) with my current situation?

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Is your background in journalism? I'd be happy to talk to you about freelance writing if you want to email me. It's not the greatest time to launch a career but you may be able to ramp up slowly as your child grows.

As for reconciling life-long goals with current situation, think of it as a life-long process. If this is working now, great! Think about what you might want to do next and plan for it as you are able. Nothing is forever, as Amy's story shows.

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Farifield, CT : Thanks for the article. I have to say, the older I get the more bitter I am about the choices that women are forced to make. I chose to work for all but a year, but absolutely had to "mommy track" myself, including declining to apply when recruited for a couple of prestigious, well paying jobs in my organization when my kids were young. I just didn't think I could give the jobs the hours and focus they required when I had two young kids. Now my kids are older and I am in a half-time job with no benefits, craving the challenge of exactly that kind of work, but the opportunities are far fewer. I've been looking for a better job for over a year, and despite a great resume and a masters, nothing has materialized. I'm now in my 40s and wonder if my career arc is passed. It is so depressing.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: This kind of story breaks my heart. Can you develop anything on your own, on the side of your job? I wonder if it's a reflection of the continuing inflexibility of mainstream employers that both Carol and I are (happily) self-employed ...

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Washington, DC: As the managing partner of a mid-size DC law firm, all I can say is, Wow, Ms. Beckett must give an amazing interview. I can't imagine hiring anyone, man or woman, after that long an employment gap, esp. in an area like employment law where the rules change almot monthly.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: I do think it was crucial that Amy had immediate, relevant experience in employment law, through her contract work. I agree that if she hadn't been doing that for the last couple of years, it would have been a very hard sell.

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Rockville, MD: I noted that Amy did not want to take on volunteer work and did not think it would be important to future career goals. I and many others I know used volunteer work to re-enter the workforce.

I was out of the paid workforce for 12 years, went back part time for 3 years and then took another 2 years off before returning full time in a career capacity. Three years later, I have leapfrogged many colleagues who worked steadily since college in terms of position and salary. Volunteering not only kept my skills up to date but also gave me numerous contacts in a variety of businesses that directly lead to my current career success.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: What a wonderful testament to the power of volunteering. It sounds like you are also a resourceful, high-functioning person, which is the most important thing. Thank you for sharing your story.

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Vienna, VA: For someone entering the workforce after staying home with kids, is it worth including volunteer work such as school volunteer, Cub Scout Leader, etc. on a resume or is that better left off?

Carol Fishman Cohen: It depends what you want to do. If your volunteer work is related to a new career direction, then you should not only feature it, you should lead with it. You can include it in a section called "Career Break Experience". Make sure you describe it in business terms and quantify wherever possible. Check the "Tools and Resources" section on www.irelaunch.com for more details on this.

If it is substantial volunteer work but indirectly related to your career path, you should defintely include it, but lower down on the resume. For example if you are a marketing person professionally, and the volunteer work you did was head of membership outreach for an organization, this is essentially a marketing role. So you will want to include it and maybe even bring it up in an interview. You talk about your prior work experience first, and then say "I wanted to remain in a marketing role when I was on career break so I headed up Membership Outreach for the Junior League. I was able to increase our membership by 20% and also increase attendance at our events by nearly 40% over a two year period.

By the way, when speaking about that prior work experience in an interview, talk about it as if it happened yesterday, even if it was 10 years ago. "In my last three years on the Northeast sales team at Xerox, I was one of the top five producers. One of our toughest sales was when....". Don't say "this is ancient history but"

If the volunteer work was completely unrelated but still substantial you should include in personal section at end of resume. Also include if you were training for a marathon or pursuing another difficult personal goal.

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Vienna, VA: I am a professional who has been mostly home for the past 10 years raising 3 kids. I am currently "underemployed" part-time so I can be there for the kids especially after school and evenings. I am itching to go back to a more challenging job but nervous about my husband picking up the slack. His job is very demanding and he often works late. Should I address this ahead of time or wait and see if it becomes a problem?

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Address it ahead of time! Carol covers this in her book - the family has got to be on board before you make a leap. You never know, your husband might enjoy all the fun, rewarding interactions with his kids that he's been missing. Good luck to you!

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Washington, D.C.: Amy,here: I was 17 years out of the full-time, salaried workforce, but also kept my hand in, especially after returning to DC, by attending bar association events, taking contract work, and enrolling in the occasional "CLE" class.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: She speaks! Thanks for joining us, Amy, and for being brave enough to let me tell your story in such a public way.

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Washington, D.C.: To some extent, I really relate to Amy (mother of 3, MHC graduate, lawyer). But I have choosen to continue to work full time. Seventeen years is a LONG employment gap. Are women that surprised to learn that their skills aren't marketable after almost two decades of staying at home? There is no mention of whether Amy did anything legally related during the 17 years (volunteer, etc.) and the article almost makes it sound like Amy expected to immediately land a legal job (in this economic environment no less) without missing a beat.

I really -want- to feel sympathetic to Amy, but women need to realize you can't have it all. Working women sacrifice precious time with their children. SAHMs sacrifice their careers. I admire Amy's preserverance, but what exactly did she expect after being out of work for 17 years??

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: I think Amy expected that once she returned to the U.S. in 1999 she would be able to find a job. I am sure she never thought it would take until 2009!

But yes, I agree that we all make choices and need to own the consequences of those choices.

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Carol Fishman Cohen: This has been a great conversation. If people have more questions offline, please contact me at info@iRelaunch.com and also check out www.iRelaunch.com for career reentry strategies and programming.

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Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Thank you for all the challenging, thoughtful questions and for sharing your own stories. I would love to continue the conversation about flexible work. Feel free to get in touch with me at http://workingmoms.about.com

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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