“Women. Wow.” Maybe you know this quote from the star of the movie Booksmart. It is an apt description of my admiration for women, especially now. It’s a heck of a time to go back to work. The pandemic has been especially hard on us as women. But as another famous saying goes, we do persist.
I’ve been a career woman and a stay-at-home mom. I have learned some things the hard way, and other lessons I have learned from years of working both inside and outside the home. I want to share a few of these lessons with you so that you can avoid my mistakes and more confidently walk through the door of your new (or old) workplace.
It’s very easy to underestimate your value going back to work. If you left the workplace many years ago, you may be especially prone to thinking you are a bit out of touch and worth the same or less than when you left your last job. If you left work out of necessity during the pandemic, it may be difficult to feel good about returning. These are all very natural responses. But I have to tell you something. You’re worth more than you think. As women, we tend to downplay our abilities and wait until we are exceptional at something to feel as though we’re worth it.
I went back to work after staying at home for five years to spend more time with my children. My daughter had health issues that needed my full attention. I completely underestimated my value going back in, and it took me years of working hard to get back to where I was before in terms of my earning power. I deeply regret I did not just ask for more money when I started my reentry job. I felt that I had to prove myself, and prove to myself I could do it again, so I took less money. It takes so long to make up for a salary reduction, so many sweat hours. I still wonder: what if I had just asked? So ask!
It can also be very lonely returning to work and leaving work environments. I felt when I wasn’t working that I didn’t fit in because I had worked for so long. My peer group was still working, and I didn’t have a peer group in the nonworking crowd. It took me a while to build an at-home community, which I did through activities with my children, volunteering, and just being in a different environment. When I went back to work, it was hard to start fresh again and find people I could relate with about my new experiences. My time became less my own again.
Adjusting to new patterns is always difficult. And while some part of the return-to-work journey may need to be a solitary one, it’s a lot easier now to find communities to relate to and connect with, whether it’s online or via social channels or common interests at work, school, or in service to others. I would like to see more women reaching out to each other and checking in, helping each other. I will say, I’ve never felt judged like some of my female friends have. I’ve not felt like I had to justify my career or at-home choices. I always felt that no matter what I was doing, I was making the best decision. I hope you receive the validation you need, from yourself first and then from the people around you.
A final word of hard-won perspective: remember to have perspective. I used to think in more absolute terms—I’m going to be working for a long time, or doing one particular job forever. But life doesn’t always go according to a neat plan. Something in life might happen. A parent dies, something happens with your kids, or the pandemic scrambles everything, and it rocks our world. The most important thing to know is that not every day is the best day of your life or an example of how it will always be. Sometimes, it’s just a day. Just because your work and your plan are where you need them to be now doesn’t mean you won’t have a different plan later.
If you want something else from your work and your life, don’t give up on dreaming of a different plan for yourself. You may be totally changing what you’re doing every single day from one year to the next. This perspective should be something to embrace and not fear. A lot of times, I find that people are afraid of change, of being judged, of worrying they’ll fail, so they keep at it when they could actually dream a better or different dream for themselves.
If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that life is definitely full of risks. Doing what we love is worth as much as any other risk we take every day. Maybe that’s not feasible today, or maybe it is. Today is just a day. Make it yours as much as you can.
Jennifer Hoff is President of Colibri Real Estate, empowering professionals to start or advance a career with unmatched learning solutions.