Dear Interviewer: Please Ask Me About My Work Gap

by Jillian Thomadsen
Opt-Out Mom
svetikd / iStock

I know how the interview will go. You’ll sit across from me in the conference room and examine my resume. With pen in hand, you’ll ask me about my 11-year work history in finance, my degrees and my professional certifications. Yes, the years 1999 to 2013 are well accounted for on my resume. Then you’ll see the big huge nothing in the “Work Experience” section starting in 2013, and there will be a pause.

Here is how you see it: I was a highly educated career woman on an upward trajectory, and then I “opted out”—a term coined by Lisa Belkin back in 2003. I gave it all up to take care of my kids, and now I’ll have to fight to get back in the Fortune 500 door I once so breezily strode through in a business suit and heels each morning.

If the fight is real, the narrative is not. Our country’s notion of the stay-at-home mother is completely antiquated. I think our ideas of stay-at-home parents still cull from 1950s sitcoms—evoking images of house dresses and lounging on the couch, indulging in chocolate confections and watching Spanish soap operas. To be sure, I did more lounging, more indulging and more aimless (internet) surfing when I worked full-time before having kids than I do now.

We need to change our views of what stay-at-home mothers do, and it won’t help if you don’t ask me about it. I’m not suggesting that you ask, “What is it you do all day?” with a quizzical expression and a raised brow of judgment. I hate that question almost as much as if you’d just assumed the answer was: “Nothing.”

But you can ask me whether or not I want to talk about the last few years. Give me the option to tell you why tending to three young boys and managing a household is entirely relevant to the workplace.

If you ask me whether or not I’d like to talk about it, I’ll happily oblige. First, I’ll let you know that staying at home doesn’t put me in an information quarantine. Thanks to the Internet and our 24/7 news cycle, I’ve still been able to follow the markets. I may not have a Bloomberg terminal that feeds me headlines on a constant basis, but I can still hold my own in a conversation or debate.

Secondly, I’ll tell you that managing a household means allocating a budget, hiring occasional workers, and sometimes being the very inauspicious position of having to let someone go. It means refereeing disputes in which both sides are being unreasonable; it means multitasking, figuring out solutions that are “out of the box” and constantly making decisions. By the way, did I mention negotiating? Parenting one of my strong-willed 8-year olds means hours and hours of negotiating. I’ve negotiated with large companies, and I’ve negotiated with this child, and I can tell you without hesitation that the latter is more difficult.

I think part of the issue is the way that companies view parents. Once workers have children, there’s a tendency to focus only on the time away from the job that having children demands. Parenting in this sense is viewed as a net negative. But there’s a flip side. From what I observed in my last job, workers who are also parents tend to be more compassionate and patient. They are more willing to wait to find the correct answer than rushing to judgment. And they worked smarter, meaning more efficiently and with less time wasted.

One thing I’ve left out of this essay so far is the amount of time stay-at-home parents spend raising funds for schools, planning events like auctions, carnivals and auctions, governing the PTO, putting together and coaching teams, managing communications between teachers and parents, and so much more. The amount of work accomplished by dedicated parents that never makes it onto a resume is mind-boggling. This is not just important work but relevant work involving networking and outreach, sourcing and hiring vendors, Excel and Access database management, and presentation skills just to name a few.

I have been doing plenty of these activities during my time as a stay-at-home mom. But you’ll never know this, dear interviewer, if you keep treating my time away from the office like a cancer in remission, a shortcoming that I’ll have to fight to overcome. On paper, I’m an opt-out mom, but my time away wasn’t “opting out.” It has been a time of hard work and enhancing skills that are directly relevant to the work I would do for you. But you’ll never know unless you ask me.