How to explain "the gap"
Amy Writes Words, #14
Lately I’ve seen moms trying to get back into the workforce and wondering how to explain their gaps to potential employers.
I’m a mom who was out of the workforce when I first had my kids, back in 2003-2007, and now I’m again not an employee, so I have advice to offer here, both to moms and to hiring managers, and rather than answer individually in the 12 thousand private slack channels I’m in I’m just going to address this all at once for everyone.
First, my history: I actually hadn’t planned on exiting the workforce. I got pregnant in 2002 and walked to work increasingly large through all that fall, and then winter came and there was a round of layoffs and I was six months pregnant and I was miserable and work was terrible and one day I walked into work and sat down in the guest chair of a friend’s cubicle1. I sat down and I started crying and after that I walked home and I never went back there until the day I was laid off. I was depressed for months, and when the baby came in April, I was still depressed. I also hadn’t actually figured out any kind of childcare solution at all.
There were a few rounds of layoffs that year at that place, caused by yet another megalomaniacal founder who had overpromised and underdelivered while serving up massive employee cult events like turning our entire parking lot into a beach for the day, complete with sand, a beach volleyball court, and an ice cream stand. Of course. You know this tale.
More layoffs were coming just when I would have had to go back to work, and I had in the meantime resolved neither my incapacitating depression nor my childcare problem, so I told my manager it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if I got laid off, and therefore my last day of full-time employment at that particular cult consisted entirely of a brief meeting with my department head, baby in my lap, in which he laid me off and I bounced the baby.2
For 4 years I did some occasional consulting; I remember working on a project management handbook for my former employer, and some proof-of-concept involving the semantic web (remember that??). I have no idea where I picked up that contract. But mostly I was deep in motherhood, nursing a baby, watching 2 hours of ER every morning while nursing a baby, lying in bed for months puking when I was pregnant with my second child while someone else watched my toddler, chasing after a toddler while nursing a baby; you know, raising two children. I wrote a lot then, it was the Bush years so there was an awful lot to say, mostly about the War on Terror, and also I painted, big canvases of mostly abstractions that I worked on up in my in-laws’ attic while they cared for the children below. But I worked in tech hardly at all.
It was early 2007 when I blundered back in, and I truly mean blundered. Max was playing around with Ruby on Rails and it looked a lot cooler than what I remembered of Enterprise Java Beans, so I decided to join him. We went to a Boston Ruby Group meetup in March that year, I remember because I brought my 3-month-old infant with me, I was the only woman in that packed room and I sat in the back row and I openly nursed my baby in that ‘yeah I know you can see my boob, I dare you to say something about it’ way that La Leche League moms do, and most people were actually perfectly lovely about it. That was the Ruby community, although not always the Rails community — generally welcoming.
Max moved on from Ruby on Rails, but I kept playing around with it, and then I saw a post on Craig’s List (remember that?) from someone looking for a Teaching Assistant3 for an introductory course in Ruby on Rails at the Harvard Extension School. I had TA’d a course before at the extension school, a data structures and algorithms class, way back in 2000, and hey, I’d read a whole book about ruby on rails, so I figured I was definitely qualified for this role, and I guess so did the professor, because I applied and he hired me. So in fall 2007 I was both teaching a class in Ruby on Rails and regularly attending the Boston Ruby Group.
What was my intent here? I was not looking for a job. Was I thinking about my career at all? I must have been, if I’d chosen to teach the class, right? Like so many choices I’ve made or appear in retrospect to have made in my life, it’s not clear when or how I even made the choice.
Anyway I do not remember what my intentions were. But if you are known to be TA’ing a class on ruby on rails and you also regularly attend a meetup full of people who are working in ruby on rails then eventually I suppose it is inevitable that someone will try to recruit you. When I started hiring ruby engineers I too went to the meetup to try to recruit people. And sometimes I did.
Anyway someone approached me after the meetup one day and asked if I was interested in a job and I said I guess but only if it’s part-time (my younger child was just a year old then) and they were desperate I suppose and agreed to that and I interviewed with them. I remember the VP of engineering, who seemed to me to be barely older than a child himself, gave me one of those puzzle questions I happen to like quite a bit, and then I had a job. Nobody asked me about the gap then because I only interviewed at the one place and having told them before the interview I’d only work part-time because of my young children there wasn’t much to ask about, really.
And there I was, employed again. I’m not going to say my gap didn’t set me back in my career; of course it did. And I’m not going to pretend I just got lucky or that it would be that easy for other mothers; there’s an awful lot of the word “Harvard” on my resume, and if I said that didn’t matter, I’m just really good, I earned it all myself, etc. etc., you would be right to unsubscribe from the newsletter immediately; of course the word Harvard mattered. Still, that was my experience and it didn’t feel hard at the time: I took baby steps back in to a programming community, I was helped by a tight market for engineers, and by my resume, and yes, sure, because I’m clever at puzzles, not that I think puzzles are even necessarily a good way to hire engineers. I was helped by a lot of things but I guess my point is that it wasn’t impossible and it also wasn’t very well-planned (by which I mean none of it was planned at all, not the leaving, not the returning), so if you’re sitting there thinking about getting back into full-time employment and worrying that you haven’t planned things very well, I hope this information is encouraging.
But still, Amy, what do I say about the gap? Maybe you didn’t have to explain yours, but I really think I am going to have to explain mine.
Okay, moms, I’m going to give you a ritual (I’m sort of a witch; but feel free to adapt it to your own spiritual or religious tradition) and after you perform the ritual you will know what to say:
First, build an altar to your favorite goddess of prosperity. If you can throw a bunch of Apple Cards on it, or some Doge Coin, or an old 401k statement or two, that’ll help. If you have recently received any kind of mailer full of expensive lady shit (a Lunya ad would be ideal), throw that on the altar too.
Light some candles, being careful not to set the Lunya mailer or the 401k statements on fire. Yet.
Now: summon the carefree spirit of every white man in tech who spent one or two years in the early part or middle part or late part of their career doing basically FUCK-ALL and went back into the job market with nary a thought that the gap in their resume would be remotely a problem.
Breathe all that confidence in.
Imagine saying “it was a really great year for snowboarding and I just didn’t want to miss the opportunity. You don’t want to take all that fresh pow-pow for granted, life moves really fast, you know.” (Oh, grab a screencap from this clip of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for your altar, that’ll help).
Try on “my buddies and I were doing a startup, but we just couldn’t quite get product-market fit”.
Take a deep breath (if you have any mustache wax or beard oil handy, you can anoint yourself with it) and say “I was working on a novel about a startup”.
Smile broadly and say “my girlfriend had a fellowship in Barcelona so I went with her and then did some backpacking through Europe.”
Say “I had some really interesting insights about user experience design when I was in Croatia.” Say “devoting myself to snowboarding really showed me to question what I think are my limits.” Say “of course we learned a ton about running a business even though we never made any money.” Say “working on that novel really forced me to develop the habits I needed to focus on deep work.”
Say “I wanted to do something different and now I’m ready to get back in the game.”
Truly, the number of excuses that white men have for a gap in their resume are endless, and most of them amount to “didn’t want to, didn’t have to, so I didn’t.”
You, my dear exhausted mother, took some time to raise your fucking children, and if you took that time reluctantly and unexpectedly during a pandemic, because the fucking pandemic was a crapshow and our fucking societal response to it was so infuriatingly unhelpful, because our country has never cared about mothers and children, because businesses say family first but they do not mean it, (how can we help, they ask, when they mean “any way but materially”), if you took that time then, you should not have to fucking explain that to anyone.4
Those of us who did try to keep working through it all had to pretend for months and months that we could somehow care for and school our children and keep goddamn milk in the house and also work full-time from a tiny corner of the bedroom — we’re all utterly destroyed and may, frankly, never recover.
Some moms got laid off instead, or just couldn’t get childcare, or it was gonna be their career or their male partner’s and c’mon we all know how that one goes, but all of us went through (are still going) through hell with hardly any help so allow me to bring you my Taylor Swift quote for the week “now I breathe flames each time I talk” from “Mad Woman” and go listen to the whole thing right this instant if you haven’t already.
Breathe in all that casual “didn’t wanna” energy that you summoned in the ritual and then breathe out flames and burn that fucking altar down.
And then when you’re interviewing say “Oh that gap? Yeah, I was climbing Mt. Everest.” Because that’s basically what you have been up to this last year and a half.
I worked full-time with two teenagers in the house and like all the teenagers everywhere they didn’t have such a great time of the pandemic, it was 24/7 teen crisis center, and now that I’m not working full-time I’ll be honest I actually have a little energy to pay slightly more attention to them, to give them slightly more than five minutes in between zooms, to attend to their significant emotional needs and a piece of me feels like shit that I didn’t have that time before, in the thick of it, careening from one disaster to the next, just trying to keep everyone safe and sort of sane, just trying to take care of all the folks reporting to me, many of them also with children at home, and it wasn’t warm and fuzzy and oh it’s so cute when your kids walk in on you in meetings five times a day it was an endless nightmare (don’t think about delta, don’t think about both your kids back in in-person school with delta, cross that bridge when you come to it, I whisper to myself5). So I’m right now creating a gap in my resume, and one of the big reasons for it is my 14 year old, who just started high school and needs me, needs me desperately, has been through hell and is trying so hard to come out of it.
Is that what I’ll say when I’m back on the market though? It’s not the only thing I’m doing right now. I can also say “I was writing a book”. I can say “I was trying my hand at consulting.” I can say “it’s been a dream of mine to learn to pole dance and the pandemic made me realize that I should really seize the day, so I had a pole installed in the same room as the piano and the fireplace and I began to learn pole.” I can say “I was starting a membership site to support my art.”
“I learned so much about marketing funnels and the importance of A/B testing landing pages.” “Wow, pricing and packaging is surprisingly hard, I had to do a ton of experimenting with it.” “Writing that book really helped cure me of my addiction to doomscrolling.” “Getting in touch with my body in such a profound way really informs my approach to management now”. “I met some great people and talked them through some interesting problems when I was consulting.”
Or I can say “I was caring for my children during a worldwide catastrophe, because nobody else was gonna do it. That experience required so much grit that I’m basically made of grit now, I think that’s a thing tech companies value, right?”
I could say “I dunno, what the fuck do you think I was doing, I HAVE CHILDREN” and if they look confused I could just bail out right then, “whoops, looks like my wifi is flaky, I’ll shoot you an email” and then go find someone who doesn’t even bother asking, because why in hell would you bother asking why a mother might have a gap in their resume in the year 2021? What an absolutely stupid question. Even for people who do not have children, it is a stupid question, because all kinds of shit has been going down, but to ask a mother why she might have a gap around now is completely inane.
So yeah, actually, if someone is clueless enough to bother asking, just say the thing about Mt. Everest.
Good luck out there moms, and to those of you who are hiring now, who complain how hard it is to find people, let me offer this warning: Don’t you dare give the moms a hard time about their gaps, because if you do I will come for you, “cannons all firin’ at your yacht”.
I have a new article up on Leaddev about running great one on ones, check it out.
Coming up, I am also moderating a panel at LeadDev Live, about getting and working with feedback as an engineering leader. It’s free to sign up, and it’s sure to be an interesting discussion.
While I’m still not pursuing full-time work, I remain available for engineering management consulting or leadership coaching on a limited basis. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more! I am also still offering my office hours for women and non-binary engineers, sign up here and please share with folks you think could benefit.
I started another newsletter: “Woe: Mental Health Tips You'll Hate From The Saddest Woman In the World” and you can subscribe here: https://buttondown.email/woe This newsletter arrives once a week on Wednesdays and is an experiment, which means I might decide not to continue it after December. But still, that’s a few good months of mental health tips for ya.
Finally, 50,000 selfies later, I now do portrait photography and modeling. Get in touch if you’re in the Boston area and you want a portrait or you need a model. This isn’t the most popular recent pic I’ve taken of myself (using a bluetooth clicker there in my right hand), but it’s one of the ones I’m proudest of, for a bunch of different reasons:
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remember cubicles? We thought things couldn’t get less private, and then came open offices. You could still hide in a cubicle. The panopticon still had blind spots, then.
poor guy, I really should have found a babysitter
yes, yes, it’s not actually Teaching Assistant, it’s Teaching Fellow. Let’s move on now.
I did go through and edit out some of the ‘fucking's but some of them I just needed to let stand, for emphasis.
And my kids are at least vaxxed, it’s a whole extra level of nightmare for the moms with under-12s. CAN THEY FUCKING APPROVE THE VACCINE FOR UNDER-12s ALREADY?