UPDATED: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - 3:11pm
"He doesn't remember you wearing a T-shirt and yoga pants covered in baby spit-up."
That's Carol Fishman Cohen talking about my former supervisor. Actually, she's talking to hundreds of people attending an iRelaunch Return to Work conference.
After spending many years as stay-at-home mothers, Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin created iRelaunch to help others return to work.
Apparently, Cohen thought my former boss hasn't been following my three years of stay-at-home motherhood, with all of its typical battles with a small child's feeding and diaper schedules. Or the subsequent divorce, which made my job search that much more urgent.
Maybe he remembers me talking my way into real estate meetings two days after 9/11, going into downtown hospitals to meet the few people injured but alive after the terrorist attacks and walking onto ground zero to interview carpenters cleaning up the site.
After I get home from the conference, I e-mail my former supervisor to ask him about opportunities at his latest company. He sounds happy to hear from me and asks me immediately to focus on what I want to do next and get back to him. (What a delightful question in this economy.)
There's nothing like being told that my insecurities about returning to work were normal before I made that call -- and, lucky for me, only inside my head. A 16-year veteran of the media industry (not including that three-year mama gap on my résumé), I needed to change my thinking about my abilities and experience. That realization was a key moment in my return to work.
Although the current 7.7% unemployment rate is the lowest since December 2008, jobs are still scarce, and technology is rapidly changing the ways many industries do business. It still feels like an uphill climb for people who want to return to work to find jobs. It's easier to get a job if you have a job, according to a 2011 UCLA study. And the same study shows that the longer you're out of work, the harder it is to get a new job.
I knew all that depressing news, but it couldn't stop me. Being thrust back into paying my own way, I was highly motivated to find paid work, no matter what. So I took advice from anyone who sounded smart to me, applied what I liked and left the rest behind.
Self-doubt and real-world challenges abound for anyone looking to return to work this new year, whether after a hiatus for parenting, health issues or a job loss. But there are a few ways to prepare oneself for battle. I found the most useful tools at that iRelaunch conference. Here are Cohen's suggestions for getting back in the game:
Figure out your strengths and interests
Soon after I stepped out of the rat race to parent my child full-time, the media industry appeared to collapse before my eyes. Newspapers were laying off colleagues everywhere, magazines were shutting down, and everyone was expected to do more with less. After attending the conference, I did a career assessment to identify my skills and what I like to do, and I tried to imagine where else those skills could be applied.
Despite my assumption that my investigative and research skills would be useful nowhere but a newsroom, I soon learned that other industries value those abilities to dig and snoop and figure out the truth of a situation. They just don't publish the findings: They use them to make money. I also valued my volunteer work serving as a board member of a journalism nonprofit and fundraising for my daughter's preschool (although Cohen says to call it "experience" rather than "volunteer work").
Reach out everywhere
After more than 15 years in my industry, I knew people all over the country who were still working in media and many who had left the industry for jobs in other fields. I e-mailed or talked to everyone to let them know I was returning to paid work and asked them to let me know whether they had any openings. I asked former colleagues now working outside the media how they pitched themselves for corporate jobs and what advice they'd give to make that transition easier. I communicated with former colleagues using the professional social network LinkedIn rather than just plain old e-mail to signify my re-entry into the work world.
I also reached out to people I didn't know. My undergraduate and graduate school alumni offices found communications, consulting and university professionals willing to talk to fellow alumni about their work. Even the mamas on my parenting listservs turned out to be invaluable, as they knew what it was like to juggle full-time work and children. One mom at a really fun company offered to help me apply for a contract position (a valuable way to get a foot in the door) on the spot.
Can you do it?
You may want to head right back to work this minute, but you need to be realistic. If you have responsibilities to care for children or elders or a sick spouse -- or if your spouse or ex travels a lot -- you need to get support systems in place.
I switched my child from a part-time to a full-time school months before I returned to work so I'd be ready to start at a moment's notice. I looked for a job with some flexibility to work at home occasionally if my child is sick. My ex travels a bit for work, but because of joint custody, we mostly have been able to work things out. To be prepared for contingencies, I interviewed a lot of babysitters to help with school pickup if need be.
Start wherever you can
Some employers will be nervous hiring people who haven't been paid for their work for a few years. Assuage their fears by offering to freelance or work on a contract basis. If you're starting out in a new field, Cohen highly recommends internships or entry-level jobs.
I started out as a freelancer at CNN.com, writing mostly about parenting. I knew I was auditioning for my potentially future bosses, but I was also seeing how they edited my stories and how they treated me as a freelancer.
A few months later, when a contract position opened up, I got the call. A few months after I was hired on contract, a full-time permanent writing job opened up, and I was already in the building to know what the job entailed (what I was already doing) and what else I needed to learn to have a successful interview.
Don't downplay or date your accomplishments
When I finally wrote down everything I had done in my career, I saw that I had accomplished enough to rebuild that self-esteem and sell myself as a flexible, multitalented journalist.
I'd covered seminal U.S. Supreme Court cases, ridden in Air Force One and helped build a magazine's online community in the early days of Internet journalism -- all before I turned 30. Then I spent nearly three years covering the aftermath of 9/11. I taught the coolest kids in New York how to write personal essays and learned how to write those essays myself. (Those kids taught me how to edit kindly and efficiently.)
While I was willing to leave journalism to return to work and support myself and my child, it turns out I didn't have to do it. One of the biggest gifts of my relaunch is that everything I went through to get here -- teaching, becoming a parent, going through a divorce and making my way back into the work force -- all feed my work at CNN.com. Besides the paycheck and health insurance, that's the biggest gift of my return-to-work journey.