Taking a break from work, whether full-time or part-time, is not uncommon for women. Reasons range from switching locations, going to school, caring for children, and handling medical conditions, but whatever the cause, the idea of a career break brings on anxiety for many women. In fact, according to a study by the London Business School, 70% of women fear taking a career break.
But should they?
I haven’t taken a career break (yet): I’m a 24-year-old at the start of my career. However, my aunt, Teri, took 20 years off from paid, full-time work in order to raise my cousins. She recently went back to work after two decades as primarily a stay-at-home mom, so I talked to her about her experience leaving her job at a government agency in Washington, D.C., then becoming a part-time billing assistant at a dentist’s office two years ago.
Teri got her undergraduate degree, then went to work for the government for 13 years as an analyst. “I was a GS-7 when I was hired and I was a GS-14 when I left,” she told me, referring to the U.S. government’s pay scale. (Today, a GS-7 employee makes about $44,000, while a GS-14 makes around $112,000.) During her time as an analyst, she got a master's degree through work and married my uncle, also a government employee. They had two sons, one in 1991 and one in 1994.
By the time her younger son was 2 years old, Teri was ready to leave her workplace behind. “I felt pulled in two directions: I wanted to spend time with my kids, and I also wanted to do a good job at work,” she said. Teri, who had been a high-achieving student and then a hard worker, was surprised to realize that she wanted to be a full-time mother. She had been raised to believe she would always work.
“It came as a great shock to me, actually, that I wanted to stay home,” Teri told me. She weighed her options for two years before resigning, and those years were stressful. Since both she and her husband worked for the government, they couldn’t work from home. If one of their children got sick, their only option was for one parent to stay home. Besides, affordable child care was hard to find.
Teri resigned not only because she wanted to stay with her children more than she wanted to work, but because it was clear that her husband would make more money than her. If she’d had to keep working while she raised her children, she said, she would have been miserable. By staying home, she felt that she was happier, which made her sons happier in turn.
Teri was content with her decision, but she fears that women working today don’t get a fair picture of how hard it is to be a mother and a full-time worker. “I feel like women today are lied to in that they’re told, ‘You can have it all, and it’s easy.’ It’s not easy. It’s pretty hard to have it all,” she said, echoing Anne Marie Slaughter’s famous 2012 essay, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.’ (Slaughter also left a prestigious government job to spend more time with her children.) “If you really want a career and kids, that is very difficult for both men and women, but I think the brunt of it still does fall to women.”
Teri remained at home for 20 years, though she was far from inactive: she volunteered at her church and took on the occasional direct sales side job. She successfully saw her two sons, Daniel and Peter, through middle school, then high school, then college. Daniel is now a happily married physical therapist, while Peter is an administrative assistant at the World Bank.
Once Peter left home for college, Teri realized two things: one, she was bored; and two, she and her husband could use extra income. She searched for a satisfying part-time job and started as the assistant office manager at a nearby dentist’s office, where she worked two to three times a week. While the job kept her busy, she was maybe too busy: she continued to add shifts to her schedule until she was almost working full-time. Now she's working once a week, which doesn’t keep her as invested in the job as she would like. It also doesn’t bring in the money she and her husband are hoping for.
“I wish I’d gone back a little earlier,” she said, not sadly but just matter-of-fact, with the signature practicality I’d known since I was a little girl. “It’s difficult to find well-paid, fulfilling part-time employment when you’ve been out of the workforce for 20 years.”
Teri’s advice to women re-entering the workforce after a long break: just start. “Even if that first job back isn’t what you think you want to do, getting back into the workforce is helpful. It enhances your resume. And if you can afford it, go back to school.”
She’s considering taking classes herself, since she discovered through volunteer work that she has a love for teaching English as a second language (ESL) to adults in her community. “A second piece of advice: ask yourself what your interests are. You might think, ‘Okay, was that the perfect job that I was in before? Probably not, or I wouldn’t have left it.’ A second career is an opportunity to do something totally different.”
Since Teri is only working at the dentist’s office once a week, she has the flexibility to begin training as an ESL teacher — which is part of what she likes about her second career.
Overall, though, Teri hopes that more women realize how many others are considering a career break or re-entering the workforce after a long pause. “Making these decisions, I think, falls primarily on women and probably always will. Often, women are going to be the lesser-paid of the two people in a couple. I would like to help women feel like they can do whichever they feel called to do.”
Elizabeth Ballou is a content marketer at Clutch, a research, ratings, and reviews company in Washington, D.C. She writes about HR and benefits. When she's not working, she's listening to too many podcasts and reviewing theater and video games for various media outlets.