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Society of Women Engineers

Returning to Work After a Career Break

It’s tempting to let our decisions be controlled by fear.  Fear of the unknown and all the potential what-ifs are very real for women taking a career break.

Published On: September 2017

By Mary Foss, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Technology at Weber State University and SWE Faculty Advisor

Mary Foss

When I was pregnant with my first child I thought things would go a certain way, my way.  I had just been promoted from an engineering manager to a department manager and the path of advancement at the company I worked seemed clear and free of obstruction.  I was the engineer that you could count on- reliable, dependable, and technically savvy.  While I was good at my job I would have never claimed to be passionate about it.

What Would Sacajawea Do?

By the time I was close to my due date, I thought I had it all figured out.  I knew enough to know I was embarking into the unknown and even came up with my own slogan to think of whenever I felt overwhelmed with all the juggling that would be required, “What Would Sacajawea Do?”  When I thought of a strong woman that was managing the demands of work and motherhood, she fit the bill perfectly.  Sacajawea would certainly rise to the challenge.  Sacajawea would overcome tremendous obstacles with ease.  In my mind, if she could juggle the difficulties of her job and motherhood in the harsh conditions in those days, then certainly I could.

I had a reservation at a day care that was near my office, a calendar that was slowly ticking by and also a nagging feeling inside of me.  Most days I would return home from work around 6:30 or 7 pm.  I didn’t know too much about kids but I did know that they go to bed early, somewhere around 8 pm.  Was one hour a day with my child sufficient?

Not Returning After Maternity Leave

The day my son was born I will never forget.  In fact, there are some scenes that are so vivid in my memory that it seems surreal, like I can watch it from a movie instead of my mind’s eye.  It was completely and unequivocally love at first sight and I had 12 long weeks to get to know him before I had to return to work.

For me, that time during my maternity leave was like a fairy tale.  I went on a hike every day.  I snuggled and sang to my baby and while he was sleeping occupied myself in things I had always wanted to learn.  I made from scratch crème brule or tamales on a weeknight and even enrolled in a cabinetry course so I could learn some woodworking skills.  My house was spotless and every bit of laundry was clean and put away.  As I write this now, almost 4 years later I can say with vehemence that those days are long gone and probably will never return.

As the 12 weeks of my maternity started to fly by, the thought of going back or not returning occupied more and more of my mental space.  My husband and I were starting to seriously look at numbers and consider what options we had.  Between the two of us, my salary was roughly double what his was, but he had more flexibility in his job and more job satisfaction than I had.  Financially speaking, if one of us were to stay home it would have made sense for it to be him, but as hopefully all of us will one day learn, making a decision based solely on finances isn’t always the right one.  With his salary, we could make ends meet.  We had saved quite a bit while we did have two incomes that would serve as a cushion if we had some unexpected expenses.  It was one of those moments in life that I would call pivotal.  This decision would greatly affect my career, my family life, my marriage, and everything in between.  It was not one to be taken lightly, but at my core I knew what was the right decision.  I had a lot of fears then.  Would we be able to make ends meet?  Would I be able to enter back into the workforce?  Would I be able to survive as a stay-at-home mom?  Ironically enough I still remember the moment when it occurred to me what would Sacajawea do?  Of course, she would work and take her child with her.  I remember floating the idea to my ob/gyn at a post-partem check-up.  “You won’t regret it,” she said even though I know that in her family her husband was the one that elected to stay at home.

It was a leap of faith on trusting our gut when I gave notice to my very understanding boss (who, I might add, was willing to allow me to work from home two days a week).  From that point on, I had a new system to engineer- one that is easy to overlook.  I started to focus my efforts on improvements in my one home.  Not one bill was overlooked and as a result each effort led to small albeit significant savings in our monthly expenses.  And, the time in between I spent watching my child learn to crawl, and play and interact with the world around him in amazement.  In those days, I learned just how impatient I really was and gradually allowed more room in my character for patience to develop- a lifelong skill that I had yet to learn in the workplace, and one that today still needs some serious improvement.

Becoming Full-Time Faculty

I started a website with the idea I could get some work as a consultant (which amounted to nothing) and I scoured the internet for flexible or part time jobs.  Then, out of the blue I got a call to teach a course as an adjunct instructor.  Now, if you could have witnessed my elation it would make more sense if you understood that years prior I had decided that this was part of my career plan.  I wanted to work as a professor at the local university in my town.  I had applied for jobs several times and never even had a phone call.  I was lacking in experience both professionally as an engineer as well as a teacher.  Of course, I accepted the position and was lucky enough to have my mother-in-law volunteer to babysit for 75 minutes twice a week.

The next semester I took on another course and by the end of two years I was nervously applying for a full-time faculty position.  The pressure was on for me because this was really my dream job.  I even went so far as to explain in my interview that my application was the definition of insanity- doing the same thing and expecting different results.  The interview panel laughed but somehow, they didn’t think I was crazy and instead offered me a job.  By then they knew me to be someone that was reliable.  I had proven that what I lacked in years of experience I made up for with pure determination.  I was open and willing to teach the courses that no one else wanted- like Applied Calculus.

My second child was born during my first semester as a full-time faculty.  This time around the thought of not returning to work was non-existent because now I had the job that trumped my husbands in terms of satisfaction and passion.  I returned to teach in the Spring semester and he gave notice.  Again, it was a leap of faith and it was not without anxiety on both of our parts.  Change is hard, no matter what it is and it is only through reflection on the past that these tough life decisions seem so easy.  They are never easy when you are in the moment, but I do believe that if you trust your gut, you won’t regret it.  The feeling that you can’t quantify or record with some kind of DAQ device is real even if it can’t be measured.  A good engineer is one that on some level can do this and believe it even if it doesn’t quite make sense on paper.

It’s tempting to let decisions in our lives be controlled by fear.  Fear of the unknown and all the potential what-ifs are very real and can seem so much worse than the present.  For me, I learned so much as a stay-at-home mom and perhaps that is what it is all about.  By allowing yourself to be challenged in different ways you can develop in different ways.  By not settling for anything shy of your true passion you can develop into the kind of person you would want your child to have for a role model.  And perhaps even more importantly, I even can answer the age-old question- which is harder, going to work or staying at home?

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