Career Changes after Parenthood

  • File photo | Credit ABC Everyday

A change in career as a result of the impact of parenthood is common among group of unplanned career changes. Policies and legislation have changed significantly over the last couple of decades, and there is now considerable support for parents who want to change their working patterns to accommodate their new family member and the new life role they have taken on. But social expectations and working cultures have not kept pace, and working parents often feel pulled in different directions, finding that it is just not possible to have it all.


Notwithstanding the progress that there has been towards gender equality and the positive changes in legislation, policy and expectations, women all too often find they have to compromise. Career development after motherhood is generally a process of trade-offs, and although women do have a choice, every option has its price.

Mothers’ careers these days divide fairly neatly into three equal groups:

  1. those who are not working,
  2. those working part-time, and
  3. those working full-time.

Women are more likely to carry on working after the birth of their first child and opt for part-time employed hours or a career break after their second or third child, and they are more likely to return to work as their children get older: by the time the children are 16–18 years old, there are fewer stay-at-home mothers and about half are working full-time (ONS, 2017).

Women who leave their previous jobs after motherhood usually do so for a combination of reasons, including push factors (reasons to leave their jobs) and pull factors (reasons to be at home).

Spending time with their children tends to be at the top of the list of drivers, but it is rarely the only factor. Women who go back to work do so because they are looking for the intellectual challenge and the company of good colleagues, and for intrinsic interest in their work. They are also keen on the money, whether to contribute to the family finances overall, or because they are keen to have the independence associated with their own income (McGrath et al., 2005).

Career Breaks and Returning to Work

As career coaches, you may be particularly interested in the experiences of women who have taken a career break since this is a group who often seek out the support of a career coach as they work out how to re-enter the job market. This groupd of women find that is not always easy to retrace their steps back to their old career, or indeed to find a suitable alternative. Coaching with this group can involve time spent helping women to renegotiate their own career goals, and some collaborative creative thinking to explore options.

Career breaks for women incur penalties. Women very often find that when they return to work after a career break, they find themselves in jobs which are lower-level or lower-paid than their pre-motherhood positions, and they are more likely to work for smaller organisations, which may not have the opportunities for promotion seen in larger corporations.

Mothers incur a wage penalty which increases with the length of the career break, (at three years out of work stands about 37%) and which never goes away, even 25 years after the career interrupton women are earning less than they would have been had they not interrupted their careers (Reitman & Schneer, 2005).

There are four possible options available to mothers who are looking for paid work outside the home: women can make choices about whether to change their occupation and industry, and whether to change their contracted mode of working, moving to part-time, compressed hours or freelance. Table 1.1 illustrates these options.

Table 1.1   Mothers’ Career Options
Same job, same mode:Whole new career:

Going back to work exactly like before

A chance for reinvention

This almost always happens immediately after maternity leave. If ties with an organisation are severed then women rarely return to their old role, and only 5% of women who take a career break (i.e. longer than maternity leave) return to their old job. Mothers are more likely to return to their previous jobs after the first than after subsequent children.A larger proportion of women (61%) are interested in looking to change industry after a career break, and this often links to a desire for a shift to a more values-driven career. These choices are often made after a career break, during which mothers have had some time to think about the kind of future they want, and women often seek the help of a career coach to help them identify and choose a suitable option. One strategy women often adopt is to start in a new field part-time, or on a voluntary basis perhaps when their children are still young, and then build up their hours gradually. Another option is to re-train, working towards a new qualification whilst the children are still very dependent.

Same job, different mode:

New family-friendly career:

Working part-time is the preffered choice of most mothers, since many feel it allows them to be the mother they want to be, whilst holding on to their independent identity or income. But this option is not always feasible and employers are sadly still not very creative about finding ways to make it work. Self-employment is one option that appeals to some because it holds the promise of allowing women control over their working conditions but still offering status and earning potential.For many mothers, particularly those who have taken a career break, the impetus to find a job that fits around their family commitments is their first consideration. Many part-time and flexible options are in lower-level roles, such as retail sales, and tend to be concentrated in certain, predominantly female dominated spheres, such as education and social care. Mothers are also not always able to commit to lengthy commute to access a wider range of options, so find that the options available are limited. Many women choose lower-level jobs.
Case study
Caroline had a degree in fine art, and had spent the first ten years of her working life carving out a successful career in the challenging world of galleries and museums. She love her field, and enjoyed working so closely with works of art, and with colleagues who shared her passions. But the work wasn’t terribly well paid, and in any case she had always promised herself that she wanted to be the kind of mother who was always there for her children, helping them with their homework, baking cakes for the school fair and being around during the holidays. So when her son and later her daughter came along, Caroline was happy to give up work, and whilst the children were young, she relished the chance to be the mother she wanted to be. As the children got older, Caroline started to get more involved with their school. She volunteered to come in once a week to read with the children, and ran some art workshops for her children’s classes. She became very aware that some children found life more of a struggle than others, and became particularly fond of one little boy whose behaviour at school was very challenging. Alongside this, Caroline maintained a wide circle of close friends, and started to notice that people often came to her with their problems, valuing the opportunity to talk through their worries with a sympathetic listener. She noticed how interesting she found the ups and downs in people’s lives and how much she enjoyed feeling that she could help.

Caroline came to see a career coach when her children had both started secondary school. She wanted to carve out a new career path, but wasn’t ready to return to work full-time, and didn’t yet have the confidence to embark wholeheartedly into a new field. But after talking through her recent experiences, and spending some time with the coach thinking about her values and her practical constraints, Caroline made the decision to start volunteering as a way to dip her toes into a new world and try out a new identity. She was delighted to be accepted as a volunteer for a children’s helpline, and nervously started the training programme. She found that she loved it. She found the traingin fascinating, loved her fellow volunteers and when it was time to go live with the callers, found that she was actually pretty good at hearing their stories, empathising with their feelings and helping them to cope. And she found it enormously fulfilling, feeling that she was genuinely adding some value. Armed with this confidence, Caroline decided to enroll in a counselling course at her local college.

Becoming a counsellor is a lengthy process and jobs can be difficult to get, but Caroline was determined. She started slowly, and gradually built up her counselling hours and became more and more qualified, and after a lot of unpaid work, and a fair few job rejections, eventually managed to secure herself a part-time job as a school counsellor.

The Challenges

The vast majority of mothers want to and intend to go back to work, but often underestimate how hard it is going to be (Hewlett et al., 2005). They can feel very positive about the career break itself but as soon as they start to engage with the process of re-entry, they find that they are unprepared for the barriers they will face (McGarth et al., 2005).

Women often imagine that their education and experience will be enough to keep them employable, even after a career break, and are surprised with the challenges they face. This can be significantly disappointing and dispiriting for women.

The challenges for mothers looking to get back to work after a career break include the following:

  1. Changes in the workplace, as technology and regulations have moved on and mergers have resulted in a new industry landscape. This links to the idea of human capital, which is the sum of the knowledge, skills and experiences that an individual has which they can operationalise to help their career development, which is a vital component of career success. The gaps in woman’s knowledge are often real, but they probably have more impact on women’s confidence (and employers’ perceptions) that they warrant.
  1. Personal changes — as women’s networks become dormant, their confidence is eroded. They also may have limited support at home, since their families can be very happy with someone who can always be there for the children and take charge of managing the household, and may not be keen to share these responsibilities. Even the promise of additional income is not always well received. As the family adjust to living on one wage, the second wage then isn’t given the weight of the first one, and domestic chores become set in stone as the responsibility of the mother.
  1. Hiring managers, who have limited understanding of the challenges facing working mothers and have no real appreciation of the value that these women can add. Perceptions of women’s career capital has been shown to take a knock from the moment they become pregnant, with employers assuming that they are less committed to work (Woolnough & Redshaw, 2016), despite evidence (Ruderman et al., 2002) that time at home with childen makes women more effective workers with better interpersonal skills, psychological resources, leadership ability, and time management skills.

    Women can also find themselves in a double bind in that they can’t get senior jobs because their experience is not acknowledged, but they also can’t get junior jobs because they are so overqualified. Women emerging from longer career breaks too can face the added challenges of age-related discrimination.

The women who carve out a successful re-entry to work after maternity leave or a career break tend to be those who have:

  1. a supportive employer in terms of their boss, organisational policies and organisational culture,
  2. a supportive home arrangement, with a partner or other family members who contribute to childcare and domestic chores and
  3. appropriate childcare facilities.

Organisations may devote resources to drawing up new policies, and governments may boast about their progressive equality legislation, but we will only see significant steps to equality when the culture catches up. Employers are often still clinging to an idea or image of the ‘ideal worker’ who has the ability to work long hours and travel if needed and who is totally committed to the role, and this doesn’t fit with their idea of a part-time worker, or a mother whose first loyalty will always be to her children.


Fathers find themselves in a very different position. Whilst the employment options available to mothers are quite different from those that their mothers and grandmothers had, the employment picture for fathers has not changed much over time. The evidence is clear that it is overwhelmingly women whose careers are interrupted when children come along. But cultural expectations take their toll on men too, and fathers don’t necessarily feel that they have all that much choice about their own career trajectories either.

The number of men working part-time in the UK has been rising gradually for some years, but remains fairly low, with 13% of men in the workforce now working part-time hours. If you look specifically at fathers in the workforce the number is even smaller. In the UK, 93% of fathers of working-aged children work full-time, and the 7% who are working part-time or are staying at home are more likely to cite ill health than childcare as their reasons; and these percentages have barely changed over the years (ONS, 2019).

In terms of paternity leave, the numbers are yet more stark. Despite changes in legislation over the last decade which now permits shared parental leave, fathers are still not taking time out or requesting part-time work after the birth of a child – only 2% of fathers take their full quota of parental leave available and two thirds of fathers don’t even take the statutory two weeks off after the birth of their child. In fact, fathers are likely to work longer hours than men without children (Biggart & O’Brien, 2010).

The traditional and still dominant ideology of father-as-breadwinner means that men who embrace a more involved-father ideology can be thought to be lesser workers for spending more time with their children, and are even seen a lesser fathers for sacrificing their chances of success at work in order to spend time with their families (Sallee, 2012).

Families who have stay-at-home dads generally report that their set-up works well for them, but it can be harder for fathers to become integrated with the local community and some men report social isolation, mixed reactions from family and friends and instances of feeling stigmatised (Lee & Lee, 2018). The negative consequences of men taking paternity leave are felt particularly keenly in male-dominated spheres (Bygren & Duvander, 2006).

Clients typically choose to consult career counsellors when things are not going so well in their careers, so the scenarios we have described in this literature may well be familiar to you as practitioners. It is of course vital to remember that the research quoted here is very generalised; every client will have their own story, with their own individual circumstances and their own individual response. An understanding of some of the common experiences and the range of reactions that are frequently experienced can help you to feel empathy with your clients, and sharing some of the stories embedded within the research can help clients to validate their own responses, which can help them to see a way towards a brighter future.

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  • References
    • Shepherd, D. A., & Williams, T. A. (2018). Hitting rock bottom after job loss: Bouncing back to create a new positive work identity. Academy of Management Review, 43(1), 28 – 49.
    • Lee, J. Y., & Lee, S. J. (2018). Caring is masculine: Stay-at-home fathers and masculine identity. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 19(1), 47-58.
    • Office for National Statistics. (2017). Families and the Labour Market. London: Office for National Statistics.
    • Sallee, M. W. (2012). The ideal worker or the ideal father: Organizational structures and culture in the gendered university. Research in Higher Education, 53(7), 782 – 802.
    • Woolnough, H., & Redshaw, J. (2016). The career decisions of professional women with dependent children: What’s changed? Gender in Management: An International Journal, 31(4), 297 – 311.

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