Photo: Karen Pery

Photo: Karen Pery

About two years ago, I made a fool of myself responding to another blogger who urged me to write a post that began with the words “Real moms…” and ended Lord knows where. The unfortunate result was “Real Moms Dream in Gold Lame,” a largely fictional account that involved a 1960s-vintage gold dress that didn’t even fit me, too many drinks in a stretch limousine I couldn’t afford, and a brand of slow-dancing with strangers in a Latin dance club that probably would get me kicked out of my own house.

The good news was that this demented yarn-spinning brought Karen Pery into my life. Pery, a Los Angeles-based career coach and mother of two, had been quietly reading my blog up until that point. Gold lame changed that. Pery left a comment on my blog, I left some on hers, and it didn’t take long before we were sending e-mails and chatting on the phone like old sorority sisters.

In that time, it became easy to see why Pery has built a successful practice around helping real moms (and dads) reinvent themselves for an eventual return to the workplace. I spoke to her recently about the challenges and opportunities facing at-home parents hoping to get back to work. Here’s what she had to say:

What is the biggest obstacle facing at-home parents who wish to return to work? The economy, their psyches, or outdated skills?

When a person believes they are not getting a job because of the economy, or because of outdated skills, they may be a little bit right, but it’s mostly in their head. For a parent who has been at home to successfully return to work, they need to believe in themselves and promote themselves. They need to know what they can offer an employer and be confident that they can contribute both to an employer and their family. Being at home with children is a wonderful, challenging time that can impact how a person defines herself — it’s hard to get a job when one cannot articulate her own value or worth outside of raising a family. Skills can be refreshed easily, self-awareness usually takes more work.

What can at-home parents do to position themselves for an eventual return to the workplace?

The most important thing an at-home parent can do is tell people they know that they are planning to return to work. The more specific they are about their own professional skills and availability, the more likely their friends, family, former employers, neighbors and Facebook friends might think of them when they hear of a potential opportunity.

What sort of skills do parents have that might serve them well in today’s office environment?

Anyone who has been at home raising children has two great assets they can offer professionally: adaptability and the ability to prioritize. Parents who have been active supporters of school fundraisers and leaders in community organizations can lend their talents just as easily to an office as to a bake sale. As much as employers are looking for technical skills, they are also looking for people who are passionate about a cause or project, people who are committed, and people who have the tenacity to get through a project.

How receptive are employers right now to hiring someone who has negotiated more kiddie fights recently than sales deals?

Employers want to hire great candidates, period. A viable candidate is going to speak to their professional qualifications, and not focus on their time in the carpool line. When dusting off and updating a resume, a solid track record in a field still carries weight, even if there have been lengthy pauses in the job seeker’s recent employment.  When adding relevant community and volunteer experience, look at it as an employer might, focusing on skills practiced and objectives met. But please don’t add Chief Home Officer as a job title.

How often are parents returning to a completely different line of work from the one they left before they had children? Why do you think they’re doing this?

Many parents returning to work after being home with children find that their interests and priorities change dramatically, and in going back, cannot reconcile their former hours, travel, or deadlines with the time they want to spend with their family. This kind of career re-entry has an extra layer of complexity, but it absolutely can be done and I love it! Career change like this is fueled by passion, can be very risky, and also hugely fulfilling. I remind my clients that Julia Child didn’t attend cooking school until her late 30’s and Vera Wang didn’t begin designing wedding dresses until she was over 40. Taking time off gives a lot of parents time to pause and reflect, and often, when approaching their career with a new perspective, they want to see big things happen to make their family life and professional life blend, not compete.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about today’s employee and work in general since you started your practice?

I have been shocked at how often people lose their objectivity on their past career achievements after having had children. They look at the sum of their career and time and home and think that, in taking time off, they have completely lost their competitive edge. My job is to help clients see themselves as they are right now — more mature, more focused, and able to consider employment as a part of their life, but not all of it. Work in general has become more flexible, and there are amazing opportunities for parents to re-enter the workforce today, even in this economy.

For more information on Karen and her coaching practice, visit her at www.karenpery.com.

Know of another inspiring person I should profile here? Drop me a line with the details.