Reentry After the Parenting Sabbatical

Mom with daughter in city

Ah, parenthood. That time when you took a leap of faith and surrendered your professional self in the service of becoming someone’s mom or dad.

That is what you did, right? Gave up your entire sense of self and walked away from your career, which was, at the time, your whole life. It may sound dramatic, but it has been suggested that people out of work quickly become strangers to themselves. And once you leave the old you behind, it can feel as though you can’t go back.

If you’re nodding your head, please keep reading. It’s time to start believing that reintegration of your perceived, separate selves, is possible.

Parenting is not a “break”

Having worked as a full-time oncology social worker in a major medical center before my parenting sabbatical, I had already established my sense of identity, my sense of self, and my purpose—or so I thought. Yet during my sabbatical, slowly but surely, my name had changed. People no longer called me Jennifer. I wasn’t even Jenn; I became “Jaden’s mom.”

In the beginning, I was okay with this—I actually really liked it. My role as Jaden’s mom felt as vital and important as the work I used to do at the hospital. There was a sense of productive satisfaction in the daily ticking of boxes which signaled his survival. Wake up. Change diaper. Feed. Nap. Wake up. Change diaper. Feed. Walk and Nap. Play. Feed. Bathe. Bottle. Bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Then came the day when I started missing my morning coffee routine, reminiscing about holding the mug in one hand while studying my patient census for the day, and reading about the newly diagnosed or those being transitioned to hospice. That role was vital and important, too. I missed making medical rounds, and I missed the nursing station where I would spend time with other team members chatting about life.

I began to worry that becoming an expert in burping had diminished my professional skill set. The work I had done with patients and families around literal matters of life and death was no longer part of my daily narrative. What had I become? What did it say about who I would be? Was I still capable of facilitating a family meeting? How could I get back out there?

I had internalized my parenting sabbatical as “time off.” My confidence lagged. My sense of professional agency had been compromised.

And then came the cognitive reframe.

You are not your work

Maybe I hadn’t run a support group in a while, but that didn’t mean I had forgotten how to do it. I was still a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Sure, I was feeling out of practice, but, by making slight tweaks to the thought patterns interfering with my confidence, I was able to reframe my situation. I reminded myself of all that I had done to earn that degree. I went to school and studied (hard!). I wrote really long papers and spent hours participating in practice demonstrations. I successfully interned at agencies who then hired me.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 55% of the workforce derives a sense of identity from their job. If you are one of those 55%, then it’s likely a prolonged professional absence can leave you feeling as if you’re out in the cold when it comes to your professional community. Your former colleagues haven’t been changing diapers, warming bottles, playing peek-a-boo, or walking around with spittle on their shoulders. They’ve been really working. All you’ve been doing, 24/7 (ahem, full-time), is shaping a tiny human being. Anyone can do that, right?


The parenting sabbatical is an opportunity for growth

As a parent, you’ve unwittingly taken life courses in the areas of child development, self-reflection, morality, and patience. You’ve embarked on a journey that, some might argue, is the most socially responsible one out there.

And, you are the person you were when you left, only with a serious new skill set. Not only can you still write a grant and manage five researchers, someone else literally depends on you for their daily existence.

Don’t forget, there are also ways to stay connected while you’re working the kid gig. Keep in touch with your colleagues and contacts. Stay informed through professional publication subscriptions. Maintain memberships in professional organizations. Receive job alerts to see what’s happening in your industry so that you’re still plugged in.

I am not the first parent to have fallen into the abyss of professional insecurity, nor are you. In my psychotherapy practice, it is a common topic of discussion. Am I still relevant when I am not Emily’s mom? Am I still good enough to keep up with my team? It has been so long since I have been a professional, what if I can’t perform anymore?

If you take one piece of information away from this article, let it be this: A parenting sabbatical is planned time away. It is not a break.

For readers about to take this leap, I invite you to share your questions or concerns in the comments. Or, if you have already been down this road, is there anything you would add so that others might benefit from your experience? My parenting sabbatical enhanced my personhood and I am happy to report that I returned to my professional life as Jennifer, Jaden’s mom.

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Jennifer Abcug, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in New York City, where she specializes in women’s life transitions. Prior to this, she counseled patients and families at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Convinced the earth moved after reading Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” the question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” has become a focal point of Jennifer’s practice.
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    • Kem Jennings
    • May 1, 2017

    I entered a back-to-work job, called a Re-Entry Internship. The 12 week internship was in another state and was less than promised, we weren’t attached to a mentor as promised, we were taught very little, we did even less as we were isolated from the people doing the job and couldn’t get put on any ‘projects’ or meetings since the data was confidential. But the company came back with an employment offer regardless after the 12 weeks were over and I accepted, knowing I wasn’t up to the caliber that was necessary to have that position, but believing there would be a plan in place to get me up to speed when I was offered the position since they were aware of that as well. I found out I was wrong, there was no plan in place to get me up to speed, I was thrown into projects with no support, as if I had been doing this job forever. Which I couldn’t contribute to. It came as no surprise for that reason when the company came back to me offering a separation package. THIS deal didn’t work out for me, and now I’m looking for a new job but what I will say is IF people get an internship, and nothing is going as the ad that brought you in says, be VERY CAREFUL when selecting to come back to that position because chances are very high what you experienced in the internship is really a reflection on how the company is run and exactly what you would get if you return. Ask lots of questions, listen carefully to the answers and ask yourself if this is really what you want to do, especially if you have to relocate.

      • jennifer
      • May 1, 2017

      Thank you for sharing your experience, as well as some advice, Kem. It sounds both disappointing and frustrating. Good luck as you continue your search and I hope that Idealist Careers continues to be a useful resource for you. Please keep us updated on how things turn out!

    • Sara G
    • May 1, 2017

    This article really resonated with me, although I’m thinking that the author’s parenting sabbatical was not quite as long as mine, as I am long past diapers and have two teens now…I spent some time lamenting the career (and salary) I gave up, even though I never questioned my decision WHILE I was doing the mom job, not for a minute. Also, there were some pretty significant kid issues to deal with, so I’m grateful to have been there to see those issues through so successfully (some are ongoing).

    HOWEVER, what frustrates/discourages/makes me feel great anxiety is that my early career was a unique path, and I took a couple leaps of faith to go from practicing law to publishing law, and then a brief ride on the crazy 90’s “dot com” train. SO, it all made sense at the time, and was fulfilling and enjoyable work. But when I look back at my resume on paper, there is not one thing to go back to that I had been doing for many years and have extensive experience in. It’s like I’m starting over! Not only in experience but in terms of “Who am I and what is it that I do??” I realize there are worse problems to have in life, and yet it has seriously thrown me into a spiral of regret, anxiety, and spinning my wheels about what to do now.

      • Jennifer
      • May 1, 2017

      Thank you for posting this, Sara, as I’m sure there are many folks out there who can relate to the feelings you describe. I imagine you honed a robust (i.e. marketable) set of skills following your “unique” path. How about getting back in touch with the “you” who was bold enough to make those prior “leaps of faith?” Hopefully, spending time on Idealist Careers will help you spin those wheels in a new direction. Check back in with us so we can hear how you are doing!

      • Kelly
      • May 2, 2017

      Me too. I look at my resume and see various experience, but no expertise (and therefore no clear path as to what is next)

    • Kelly
    • May 2, 2017

    I am currently on a mom sabbatical and it’s emotionally taxing. I left a dead end law job just 6 months after my second was born. Now I’m home 3 days a week while my kids are in school. I’m taking the time to try to figure out my next career move. It seems self indulgent and selfish. I struggle with this daily. I’m not a good mom for taking them to daycare when I could be with them. But, i know that I wouldn’t be happy if I was a SAHM. I definitely feel the pressure to get back to work so that i have an identity and something to call my own.

      • Jennifer
      • May 2, 2017

      Try not to be so judgmental of yourself, Kelly. Taking time to sort out what’s next is wise. Why rush into something without clarity? And, if it’s easier to sort this out while your kids are in daycare, that’s ok, too! It’s hard to focus when the kids are around. Hopefully you’re finding some interesting job postings on Idealist. Please keep us posted on your progress!

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