(MoneyWatch) When you make the decision to take some time off--be it 6 months of 6 years--to stay home with the kids, you do so knowing that it's going to have an impact on your career. But some people (and it's more often mom than dad who stays home) underestimate just how much of an impact it will have.
First of all, you not only give up the salary you would have earned, you are likely to come back at a lower level than those people who used to be your peers. And chances are, you'll never catch up. Choosing to stay home is a family decision, as is the decision to return to the workforce. Tom Gimbel, President of LaSalle Network, a staffing firm, gives some advice to moms (or dads!) who are returning to the workforce after staying home with the kids.
First, he said, it doesn't matter if it's 3 months or 3 years, taking time off will affect your career. Things went on while you were out, and it's important to continue to develop yourself and your career while you're out. Of course, the longer you're out, the more critical this is. But, if you plan to come back, it may be worth the out of pocket money to maintain memberships in professional organizations, or attend an occasional conference. "By attending meetings and conferences," Gimbel says, "parents are in front of industry experts and able to gain an extensive amount of information on industry trends, which can be referenced in an interview."
Gimbel also advises that there are some ways to ease back into the workforce. "Temporary-to-permanent positions are a great avenue to help returning parents figure out which career would work best. Temporary employment acts as a test drive to see if the job is the right fit. If you don't like the position, you can end the assignment and search for other opportunities. If you love it and work hard, there may be a job offer at the end." Often, additionally, companies may be willing to hire you in a temporary position, even if they wouldn't be willing to hire you in a "permanent" position. (Remember that almost all jobs in the United States are "at will" which means that you can be terminated at any time, although most companies do not do that.)
And what about pay? If you take 3 months of under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) you'll return to your old job (or a substantially similarly one) with the same paycheck you had before you left. But, if you take several years off, you can be unsure of what salary you you could land. You need to not focus on how many years you've been out, nor on what your last salary was, but on what you offer the news company, right now, Gimbel says. Ask yourself these questions during salary negotiations: "What can I offer this company? How can I contribute to their bottom line? How can I help this organization?" That's what your salary should be based on--not what your previous paycheck nor the current paycheck of your former coworkers.
And what can you offer? Quite a bit. Don't underestimate your abilities. You're still smart and capable.