One of my dearest friends has had many interesting life experiences both in and out of the workforce. She’s a mother and grandmother who has moved through multiple careers in state government, on Wall Street, at interesting non-profits, newspapers, and more. Though her resume is quite impressive, there was a time several decades ago when she was a stay-at-home Mom trying to decide which jello mold to make for dinner.
The jello mold, June Cleaver era is thankfully over for stay-at-home Moms, but even if you’re an active volunteer it can be very daunting to figure out how to jump over the fence and get back into the work world. My friend always tells women not to have “analysis paralysis”. Don’t think too much about your first move back, she says. Don’t worry if it’s the perfect job. “Just dive in and get to NEXT.”
I remembered this advice when I spoke recently at a private school to a group of mothers interested in returning to work. One mother who is also the Director of Development at the school said that she was once a tentative returning professional, too. She also advised women to jump in and get started—without worrying too much about finding the absolute perfect job.
That’s good advice, but how do you make it all happen? I decided to ask this woman how she got from stay-at-home Mom to Director of Development—and how her current work relates to her early career years.
Q: After college, what were your major jobs/titles?
A: I was a double major in Art History and Italian literature in college, and wanted a career in the contemporary art world. Right after graduating, I was a summer intern at Christie’s in New York, then worked as a sales assistant at a large Madison Avenue gallery for two years before moving to Italy. There I worked first as a consultant, helping NY buyers purchase high end European 20th century art, then I was the Director of a gallery specializing in contemporary conceptual art.
Q. When did you leave the workforce?
A. I left in 1989 after the birth of my oldest child, and kept up my art connections for a while by translating art books and gallery/museum catalogues from French and Italian into English on a very part-time basis from home.
Q. How long were you at home before you had the itch to return?
A. We moved to the States in 1993, when I really became a stay at home Mom of two children. I planned to think about working again when my youngest child was entering Middle School. In the meantime, I had become quite involved in running the extracurricular and in class enrichment programs at their school, so I was thinking more and more about education. I had been keeping up my own creative writing somewhat and had done a couple of poetry and short story workshops for my own children’s classes when I felt that the curriculum was a bit lacking. One of these became a “staple” in the 5th grade at their school, so I did it for other classes as well for a couple of years.
Q. Did you decide that you did not want to return to the art world?
A. I knew that a return to the art world would be too demanding at the level I was interested in because it would mean commuting in and out of NYC. I had become more and more interested in education and felt it would be a good fit with having a family.
Q. What exactly was your first back to work job?
A. I started my return to work slowly as a substitute teacher in the public schools, and was lucky to land two long-term stints right away. Substitute teaching is obviously very part time and flexible–you do it when it works for you and you don’t need any special qualifications. I wanted to evaluate if I was interested in becoming a full-time teacher before pursuing the certification exams/masters degree. In the end, I decided I did not want to make that commitment while my children were still at home and started doing individual tutoring instead, as my former students came to me for extra help. The money you earn as a substitute teacher is negligible, whereas tutoring was quite lucrative and again very flexible. From there I jumped to my first real ongoing commitment–a 20 hour per week administrative position in the two-person development office of a small school.
Q. How did you feel about taking on this more “permanent” junior-level job that was so different than the career you left behind? How did your salary compare to the salary you left behind?
A. I didn’t let my ego get in the way. I knew that I had to have some patience to work my way back to a higher level job. I was paid $20 an hour, and when I ran the gallery I made a 6-figure salary.
Q. How long did you stay in that first job?
A. My experience at this small school proved that you never know where a more junior-level job will lead. The Director of Development left within three months and I found myself in charge. The school had just launched a $7 million capital campaign, so I took that on. My hourly salary increased 50% at this point. I was still working part time, flexible hours and was always able to be home when my children got home from school.
Q. Did that first job lead you to your current job?
A. Absolutely. Just 18 months later a Director of Development job opened at my children’s school. The Head of School and the Board felt I had the right skills and qualities for the position even though I did not have anywhere close to the years of experience that were “required”. This was my dream job at this stage–a full-time, well-paid, challenging position at my own children’s school managing a fundraising and communications team of 8, with the responsibility of raising $3 to $4 million a year. I was able to compensate for the demanding schedule of the job by being available to my children all day and part of their daily world, plus there was the ability to take some (not all!) of the same vacation, etc. I did have to work very hard, though, particularly in the beginning, and spent most evenings after dinner doing “homework” along with my children.
Q. So how long did it take to ramp up from “get your feet wet” job to your current job?
A. It was exactly 4 years from the time that I took my first substitute teaching job to assuming my current position.Q. What’s your major advice—or Vitamin “C” for returning professional women?
- Explore new areas. The work you did before might not fit well with motherhood. In my case I explored an area that I would never had thought of otherwise: education.
- Don’t be afraid to try a few different things before you find your dream job.
- Find a role that leverages the skills you acquired in your previous professional life. Fundraising really is a different type of sales—and I was involved in sales with my previous gallery work.
- Swallow your pride and take a lower level job that quickly gives you some expertise in a new industry.
- Look for small operations where you’re exposed to the breadth of the business quickly.
- Don’t assume that you don’t have the professional qualifications that are listed in a job description.
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