NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- For many women, starting a family means taking a hiatus from the working world to focus on motherhood. According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of American mothers about 10.4 million women did not work outside the home in 2012. While some moms opt to stay home permanently, those who eventually decide to re-enter the workforce can face unique challenges and uncertainties during their job search. With competition for jobs still fierce in our lackluster economy, moms often fear that gaps on their resume will discourage prospective employers from considering them.
The good news: "Being a stay-at-home mom is by no means a resume killer," says Kristin Kelley, chief marketing officer for recruiting firm Randstad North America. The key is to convince prospective employers that you've kept your skills sharp during your hiatus and you're now fully ready to get back to work.
To make the job-hunting process easier, we've asked career experts to offer their top tips for stay-at-home moms looking to restart a successful career. Here's what they had to say.
Let Go of Your Fears
The idea of returning to work can cause a fair share of anxiety for stay-at-home moms, especially those who have been home for a long period of time.
"Most women who have taken a hiatus from the paid workforce to raise their children fear that they are no longer current with their industry or with technology skills," says Eliza Shanley, managing partner for Women@Work Network, LLC, which offers career services for women. "This has a big impact on their confidence, and lack of confidence can greatly undermine a job search."
You can overcome self doubt by reviewing your resume and recognizing your many skills and accomplishments. "Internalize the fact that you are still that capable professional person and the workplace needs you," Shanley says.
Discuss the Career Skills You've Honed During Your Hiatus
Just because you've been away from the working world doesn't mean you haven't cultivated valuable career skills during your time as a stay-at-home mom. It's a good idea to fill any gaps on your resume with examples of meaningful volunteer and contract work you've completed, says Allison O'Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps.
"The chair of the silent auction committee for a school fundraiser uses business development and relationship management skills, and the volunteer coordinator for the library book fair uses management, scheduling and program management skills," says Shanley. "Don't give your volunteer work short shrift."
Don't Discuss Your Parenting & Housekeeping Skills
Although you might be tempted to mention the demands of child rearing and keeping a tidy home to a prospective employer, it's usually a good idea to leave these types of skills off your resume.
"The reality is that most employers already fully understand the demands of parenthood and the skills required to successfully manage a household," says Shanley.
The bottom line: unless parenting and housekeeping skills are directly related to the job you are pursuing, they probably won't impress employers.
You should expect to discuss your hiatus from the working world during job interviews, but don't feel the need over-explain or apologize for your choice to stay home with your kids.
"Many highly qualified women off-ramp at some point during their careers," says O'Kelly. "Have confidence in your time out of the workforce, own your path and focus on the skills you bring to the table."
If you're not sure how best to explain your choice to stay home, Shanley suggests saying something like this: "I stepped away from my career when competing priorities made it difficult for me to give 100% to my workand I'm a 100% kind of personso I took some time away from the paid workforce until I felt ready to return with the ability to fully focus on my career."
You could also mention that staying at home was the best decision for your family at the time and that you're now eager to re-enter the workforce, Kelley suggests.
Don't Feel Obligated to Answer Personal Questions
If you happen to encounter an interviewer who hasn't been fully briefed by the human resources department, be aware that you don't have to answer any invasive questions about your personal life.
"Keep in mind that some topics are off limits in an interview, including questions about your children," says Shanley.
The conversation should stay focused on your relevant experience and job-related skills. "Be respectful, but don't be afraid to be direct with an interviewer who asks inappropriate questions," says Chris Duchesne, vice president of global workplace solutions for Care.com. "Recognize that if the interviewer is any indication of the [company] culture, it may not be a good fitlook for another opportunity and a better fit."
Ask About Flexible Work Arrangements
Striking a healthy work-life balance can often be achieved by taking advantage of flexible work arrangements, such as working from home or creating your own hours. However, moms might worry that inquiring about these policies during an interview could give the impression that they're not wholly committed to the job. While that's an understandable concern, our career experts still encourage you to ask about flexible work policies during the hiring process if you think you could benefit from them.
Of course, asking for a flexible work arrangement should not be the very first thing you bring up in an interview. "Focus first on demonstrating your focus on the role, your career, and how you will help the company achieve its goals and objectives," says Duchesne. "Once you've done that and elevated yourself as a candidate, you can discuss work culture and workplace flexibility."
You should also keep in mind that increased flexibility at work is a growing workplace trend. According to a survey of working men and women conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Mom Corps last year, 75% of respondents reported having "at least a little" flexibility in their job, and 73% of respondents agreed that flexibility is one of the most important factors they consider when looking for a new job or deciding what company to work for.
"Because employers are experiencing a rise in the demand for flexible work at all career levels, it's becoming an intentional talent strategy to leverage flexibility to accommodate the needs of workers," says O'Kelly. "And remember, asking for flexibility isn't asking for a favor or perk, but rather it's a necessity in taking control of your family life, your career trajectory and your work-life alignment needs in a way that will allow you to do your job even better."
Take Advantage of Resources for Working Moms
Despite the challenges of heading back to work after staying home with the kids, there are numerous resources available to help moms get their careers back on track. The Women@Work Network, for instance, offers networking, seminars and one-on-one counseling for women who are returning to the paid workforce after a self-imposed hiatus. Other notable organizations, networking groups and websites that working moms can benefit from include 85 Broads, The Glass Hammer, iRelaunch, Mom Corps, Work It, Mom! and Randstad U.S.'s Women Powering Business.
--Written by Kristin Colella for MainStreet