I went back to work full-time after 8 years as a stay-home working mum
By Lisa Twang, Nov 12, 2020
As a working mother, I know how hard it is to choose between my career and my child. I work part-time as a writer, while spending time with my daughter. The thought of working full-time again feels daunting, though I've only been gone for two years — I wonder if the corporate world will judge me for taking time off to raise my kid. I worry that my future company will question my commitment to my career, and that society will see me as less valuable than a woman who continued working full-time, all the way.
I was happy to speak to lawyer Florence Goh, who successfully returned to the workforce full-time after eight years of being a homemaker who worked part-time from home. At 34, Florence left her full-time role as a practicing lawyer at the peak of her career to be more present with her kids in their growing years, while working part-time. Today she’s in her 50s, and is a consultant at a law firm in Singapore.
In her story, Florence shares how she adapted back to full-time work after a long absence, though it was “very intimidating” at first , and how we can all be more understanding towards mothers who take time off work to raise their children.
I was 47 when I returned to the workforce full-time. Prior to this, I was a stay-at-home mum who worked part-time, fully from home, for eight years. I’d tried working full-time, then subsequently part-time in the office three days a week while raising my son and daughter, but the long hours and demands of my job made it difficult to give my kids the attention they needed, so I quit to become a stay-home mum, without knowing what was ahead. Thankfully, I was offered that flexible job arrangement, which allowed me to practice law part-time at home and keep my skills relevant, while devoting quality time to my children.
When my son was 14 and my daughter was 16, one of my previous firms offered me a full-time job, and initially, I struggled over whether or not to accept.
Though my teenage children were spending long hours at school and their CCAs (co-curricular activities), and didn’t need me so much, I felt that I lacked confidence. I didn’t know whether I could adjust back to the rigours and demands of full-time legal practice.
The years of my flexible work arrangement, which allowed me to prioritise my time for my children, had also invariably resulted in me feeling cut-off from working society, as I’d handled my work commitments almost entirely from home. But despite my doubts, it was my faith, and the support of my dear husband and close friends, that gave me the courage to give it a try.
I finally decided to go back to full-time practice because I felt I’d done my part for my children as a mother, being with them as much as I could in their younger days, and it was time to make full use of my skills at work again. I also felt a calling to contribute to the business community, helping to protect my clients’ interest and providing as best a service as I could for them. I was also passionate about sharing my knowledge and experience with younger lawyers, which is something I really enjoy.
Women who return to the workforce after being stay-home mothers may need to adjust their expectations on remuneration, and be willing to work their way up from there. When I went back to my full-time role, it took time for my hard work and dedication to be recognised in terms of my salary. Over time, my firm gave me increments based on my performance, and my salary was adjusted to market rate after two and a half years.
Going back to full-time work was a struggle at first. People don’t always understand that when you leave the workforce for a long time, you need time to make up for what you’ve missed, and ease into your new role.
When I went back to the workforce, I had to work doubly hard to catch up to where I’d left off. It was a time of learning the ropes all over again. I needed to readjust to the demands of meeting urgent deadlines, and familiarise myself with certain work processes which had changed since I’d left full-time work. I was expected to respond and deal with work demands as swiftly as any full-time practitioner, who’d never left work.
As the technology landscape had also evolved very quickly in more recent years, transforming the way services were provided, there were many new skills to pick up. There were new laws to learn, and new ways of doing things. It was quite a challenge indeed, but I managed to work hard to catch up. I researched new trends to better understand new areas of practice, like how services are performed through online platforms and smartphone apps, and how cryptocurrency is used to raise funds. To this day, I have never stopped learning.
As an older woman returning to the workforce after a long break, there was always the nagging thought of how younger colleagues would regard me, compared to other senior colleagues who never took a break off their career.
Despite my earlier years of experience, I wondered: would my younger colleagues think of me as less capable or worthy of respect, because I took time off from full-time work? However, my experience gathered over my earlier years of practice proved to be an advantage, especially when handling more challenging clients and complex matters. This became obvious when my work entailed overseas travel, and handling clients in an unfamiliar jurisdiction.
Once, I was shouted at for no good reason by a male CEO, who was in a bad mood. In a culture where women were treated as less than equal and expected to be subservient, I did the unexpected by retorting, and voicing my great displeasure at his rude behaviour. To my surprise, he apologised. I then learnt later that apologies from men to women in that culture were unthinkable.
I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to be a stay-home mother cum part-time working mother, while my children were young.
My husband and I decided early in our marriage that if our kids needed more attention, I would be the one to give up my job to care for them. It was my choice to sacrifice my career for my kids, because I felt it was important for children to have their mother around for them in their early years. My husband supported my decision to care for the kids by providing for us financially, and being involved in our kids' lives as much as he could.
I’m fully aware that some mothers don’t have the chance to give up their jobs even if they want more time with their kids, because of their circumstances and commitments. I would encourage young couples to plan their financial commitments carefully, so that their family can survive on one income if their situation needs one parent to give up his or her career. As you might imagine, a flexible work arrangement doesn’t bring in much income. So we kept our lifestyle simple, and seldom dined out except for birthdays and special occasions.
While I enjoyed the rewards of being close to my kids in their growing years, it was not without cost. I loved being with my children, but also felt conflicted about giving up my full-time career to be with them.
My children and I now have a very strong bond because of all the time we spent together. To this day, my daughter comes to our room every night to snuggle with us in bed. My son, who missed me very much when I was working full-time, was also very happy to have me at home in his kindergarten days. He grew up secure and very creative, as we spent lots of time playing together with simple homemade toys.
I had so much fun bringing my kids to parks, going to all their school excursions, and running stalls at school events, where my kids would proudly tell their friends: “That’s my Mummy!” I found time to do my work while my kids were in school, or after they’d gone to sleep.
That said, saying you will give up your job for your kids is easier said than done. I left my job at the peak of my career, after I was promoted to junior partner in my firm. Leaving the workforce was considered counterculture in my social circle at that time: most of my female law school classmates continued working after having children, and really soared in their careers. I saw them at parent-teacher meetings, smartly dressed in suits, while I was in my T-shirt and jeans. Sometimes I hesitated to join gatherings with my old classmates, because I’d compare myself to them and feel really small.
I felt I was “just a housewife” who could tell you where to buy the best tomatoes and fish, but was losing touch with the corporate world. At times, I asked myself why I’d worked so hard to enter law school and achieve a successful career as a lawyer, only to give it up for my family.
For a long time, I had mixed feelings about leaving the workforce for my children. Sometimes I’d be very happy, enjoying this precious season in my life. At other times, I’d wonder if I’d made the right decision, and felt I was losing out in my career as my friends progressed in theirs. I’d yo-yo from one emotion to the other, and feel very confused. I wouldn’t say I felt bitter, but there were times when it was hard for me. The only thing I knew was that I couldn’t turn back the clock, and wish I had spent more time with my kids in their childhood days. I didn’t want to regret not spending enough time with my kids while they were still so young, and needed more nurturing.
During those times, the main anchor I had was God. I knew my decision to be with my kids was made under God’s guidance, and I did not have to worry. My husband has always been my best friend: he has always been encouraging, and when I decided to return to the workforce, he supported me by listening patiently when I unloaded my work woes.
As I adjusted to life as a full-time working mum again, I learned to let go more as a parent. I couldn’t be as involved with my kids: I had to concentrate on work, and they had to figure things out for themselves as they grew older.
About a year after I re-entered the workforce, my son became very heavily involved in his CCA and neglected his studies. I was worried and thought of giving up my job to help my son, but my husband discouraged me from doing so. He felt it was important to let our kids learn to face the consequences of their actions, because they were old enough to do so. My husband also reminded me to focus on my work, and my overseas work trips helped me let go of my children and entrust them to God’s hands.
Returning to the workforce required me to rebalance my time between work and family. It was a different season: my children were older, they did not need me so much and also needed space to be with their friends. I had more time to myself as compared to when they were much younger.
By God’s grace, my children have turned out well: my daughter has graduated and is already working, and my son made it to law school.
I think working mums who feel they need to spend more time with their children should consider a job that gives them flexibility, rather than give up their jobs completely, whenever possible. I believe this option is good for both mothers and their kids.
As a stay-home mum, there are times when you may lose your self-identity, as your life seems to revolve only around your children. You may even forget that you have a life of your own, and you need to exercise self-care.
For a long time, I saw myself as only a mother and after a while, I lost my own identity. The space I had to be able to do light work for eight years prior to rejoining the full time workforce helped keep my mind alive, and allowed me to stay relevant although I was not working at full speed. It also helped me regain confidence quite quickly when I went back to work full-time, after a period of adjustment. Things may have been different if I had quit work totally.
I think children also benefit from relaxed parental expectations when their mothers have a strong sense of identity, which partly comes from work. Some stay-home mums can become very competitive over their kids: they feel they’ve sacrificed their career for their children and hence, their children have to succeed in school to compensate for this sacrifice.
I can understand why this happens, because as mums we want to help our kids to do well in life. But working gave me a different perspective, and helped me see that I need to accomplish my own goals while my kids accomplish their own dreams and goals for themselves, and not for me.
Right now in Singapore, many families don’t want children because they know it’s very demanding to have a hectic full-time job and kids at the same time.
We need to develop a culture that accepts mums who need some time off for their families, embraces part-time or flexible work arrangements for young mums, and gently eases them back into the workforce.
It’s important for the business community to value women who return to the workforce after a long break, because we bring a wealth of experience with us. I’ve found that women who return to the workforce also work doubly hard, because we’re committed to our jobs and eager to make up for lost time. We want to show that we can do our part, as long as we have a chance to prove ourselves.
I would encourage the business community to be more open to hiring mothers who have left work for some time to care for their kids, and welcome them with open arms. It would definitely be helpful to offer training programmes and refresher courses to help them adjust back to the workforce, especially in IT skills, which can change very quickly in a short time. I think mothers — especially older workers who struggle with technology — would find this training useful.
It’s also important to have reasonable expectations about mums who return to the workforce. Give them a period for adjustment, to pick up new skills and adapt to the speed of the daily routine. Also, offer them opportunities to grow in their careers, instead of leaving them to fight and compete with younger colleagues. Their precious years of experience should be recognised, and they deserve to be rewarded fairly for their contributions at work.
If you’re a mother looking to go back to work after taking time off for your kids, you may doubt yourself. But we mothers are resilient and brave, and work culture is improving to make it easier for mums returning to the workforce.
Back then, when I was struggling to balance part-time work and family, I lacked a support group because most mums either worked full-time or were housewives: few of them worked from home, like me. But nowadays many of us work from home, and when we support one another, it helps a lot. You don’t feel so alone, because you know other people are facing the same challenges, and you can learn from each others’ experiences.
Socially, I think it’s good for mums to join exercise groups and hobby groups when their children are in school. This helps them develop a network of friends, rather than isolate themselves.
Mums who want to keep up with industry trends after being away from the workforce should also keep reading about what’s happening around them, especially when it concerns their industry. I’d encourage mums to stay motivated and continue picking new skills or taking courses relevant to their work from SkillsFuture, because learning should be a lifelong mindset. There are also groups like Mums@Work, who offer resume writing workshops and post job listings for flexible work arrangements for mothers.
If you’re a mum who is torn between work and your children, know that you’re not alone in your struggles. By sharing my feelings honestly, I want to encourage other mothers that it’s possible to fulfill your career ambitions, and be there for your kids.
Each person has to find their own balance in time management, and every decision comes with a price: it may mean less quality time with your children, or a slower advancement in your career path. It is not an easy choice for any mum to make, but I would suggest making those choices with your end goal in mind, rather than making short-term decisions.
That said, I have observed many mums who succeed in their careers and are still very close to their children, because they manage their families well. Some mums are more fulfilled when they work full-time, and others prefer to be more involved in their childrens’ development at home. Some children are also more independent and self-motivated, and don’t need parental guidance as much. The decision whether or not to stay home is a very individual choice, unique to every family. What works for one mum may not work for another.
Mums can explore going back to work once their children are more independent. I’ve observed that a number of stay-home mums return to work when their children reach secondary school, and CCAs will keep them busy. Teenage kids also welcome the time and space to be with their peers.
At times, I wasn’t sure if I could return to the workforce, but now I don’t regret it at all. I love my work, and I’m thankful that God has given me the chance to use my talents in this industry. I hope we can all be more understanding to mums who want to re-enter the workforce: alleviating their fears, encouraging their ambitions, and valuing the sacrifices they’ve made for their children and families.
Photos provided by Florence.
For more on SkillsFuture, which offers courses to encourage lifelong learning, please visit https://www.skillsfuture.sg/. SkillsFuture provides all Singaporeans aged 25 and above with an opening credit of $500, with an additional one-off special $500 credit for all Singaporeans aged 40 to 60.
My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I recall the joys and struggles of being a mother to my four-year-old daughter Tully, and how I found my confidence as a working mum after years of self-doubt and uncertainty.
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