For all the talk of leaning in and taking every amazing opportunity that comes along, there are certain times in every woman’s life when a big career shake-up might feel untimely, inconvenient, or just plain terrifying. It seems like you can’t take a new job when you’re pregnant, recovering from a major illness, caring for a sick parent, going through a divorce, or just generally dealing with crazy shit (who hasn’t been there?). But you don’t have to put your professional life on hold just because your personal life is chaotic. You just need to be prepared.
When I began interviewing for jobs after the birth of my daughter, I thought I had my bases covered. I had placed her in a warm day care with good reviews and primary-colored walls, where she was greeted every morning with a hug from the grandmother-like proprietor. My résumé had been updated, professional clothes procured, and I practiced talking points as to what I’d been doing for the past year. My previous job had been a freelance contract position that had ended when Lucy had been born. I’d been able to pick up freelance assignments during her first six months, but the money I made was less than I would have if I’d been working at a full-time job. Plus, I missed my professional life. I knew it would be the best thing for both of us if I went back to work. I nailed my first interview and was asked to come in on a trial basis as a freelancer. For the next two months, I worked three days a week. I was doing well and loved getting to know my coworkers. Then, I got offered a full-time position. I was terrified. I was still trying to freelance, was the sole caregiver for Lucy, and had no help at home. Three days a week had me stretched to the max; deep down, I knew five days would be tough. But I didn’t say anything to the hiring manager. I forged ahead and signed my employment agreement. Two days later, Lucy got a 104-degree fever. I had to stay home as she recovered, only to find myself catching the same bug just as she began to feel better. I tried to work from home, which was nearly impossible as I was just beginning to get up to speed with an unfamiliar work process. As a freelancer, I’d been given a set list of projects to do for the week; as a staffer, I needed to helm long-term projects and be integral to strategy. Three weeks later, and totally overwhelmed, I quit. If I hadn’t, I would have been fired; my hiring manager told me as much. I knew my work wasn’t nearly where it should have been. But what I didn’t know was something I should have figured out in the interview process: That a complicated personal life demands a whole new interview strategy. “It’s important to be honest with yourself before you interview and really think about what you need to make your whole life happy,” says Rachel Kim, a career coach for finance company SoFi. “A 60-hour work week isn’t right for everyone.” For one, if you’re already in a tolerable job, the best thing may be to stay — at least for a bit. “I saw the ideal job posting just as I was in the middle of treatment for Stage III cancer,” says Erin, 34, who works in technology. “I knew that I did not have the emotional or physical energy to interview for a new job during chemo. But I saved the job description and link under the title ‘dream job.’ When I was feeling a bit better, I looked at the job link again…and was amazed that it was still available. Erin polished her résumé and applied for the job, concentrating on how the job description perfectly matched her skills. Still, she was nervous when she got a call for an interview. “I only had an inch of hair and was still drawing in my eyebrows. I put the hiring manager off for a bit on an in-person interview, but then I realized that it wasn’t my cancer that was the obstacle. It was me and this internal belief that somehow I wouldn’t be able to do the work. So I took a good look at my résumé and my experience and pumped myself up for an awesome interview,” she says. Erin made the decision not to disclose her health status during job-application process, but decided she would be honest if anyone remarked on her close-cropped hair. Although protection and legal rights exist to protect women in all sorts of situations, including pregnancy and disability, it’s almost impossible to prove that one of those reasons was why you didn’t get the job. For that reason, experts say disclosing details about your personal life is a judgment call that depends on your personal needs, your relationship with the hiring manager, and where you are in the interview process. Placing all your cards on the table will immediately let you know whether or not the position is the right fit. Plus, if you’ve been referred for the position by a personal recommendation, the hiring manager may already know that you have kids or are ideally looking for a four-day workweek. But if you’re entering the hiring pool blindly you might want to protect yourself a bit and not over-share. Informal research via Glassdoor.com and chats with former employees may give you the intel you need on just how much the company values work/life balance without placing you at a competitive disadvantage. When Katie, 32, a financial analyst at an e-commerce company was interviewing, she found that doing some DIY detective work was one of the best ways to figure out if the company would be amenable to her mental health needs. Katie has major depression and although she’s under a psychiatrist’s care, she’s had a few relapses in her twenties. “Something non-negotiable to me is being able to work from home when I need to. Stress is not good for me, so I really need to be able to have control of my schedule,” she says. When Katie was called back for a second round of interviews, Katie decided to conduct some interviews of her own regarding the company’s workplace culture. “I used LinkedIn to find people who’d worked at the organization in the past. I felt they were likely to be more honest than people currently in the company. I asked if I could speak on the phone for 10 minutes. I didn’t want any of my questions to be over email, just in case they did make their way back to my hiring manager. I would ask general questions about whether they were happy at their position and be pretty frank about the fact a friendly and flexible corporate culture was key for me,” says Katie. “I figured the risk was that it would come back to the hiring manager that I was asking these questions. But I decided if a hiring manager would take offense at me doing external research, then it wasn’t the right place for me. My priority is my mental health, and I needed to find a position that fit that mindset.” Meanwhile, job candidates who’ve been through it agree that it’s best to keep the formal interview process all about work. As Erin made her way through the hiring process, she found it easier to focus on her skills and less on her story. “Even if the cancer did come up, I got to the point where I knew in my gut that my experience and passion would shine through and prove I was the best person for the job.” Erin adds that her genuine enthusiasm was a really good clue that the job — if it were offered — would be the right one for her. “I think too many people, especially when dealing with personal/health issues, think that a quick fix would be to just make a change, any change, even if it may not be the right one for you. Really consider what your strengths and motivations are, and focus on a select few jobs that you feel really strongly about. No sense in adding more stress and chaos to your already upturned life for a new position that may not be the right fit,” she says. And that had been my mistake: I had taken the first job offered, thinking that I was lucky someone would even consider me. I hadn’t done due diligence and I felt a pang of dread in my chest even as I signed the new-hire paperwork. And yes, I found it’s possible to find a job, even when you’re dealing with a lot in your personal life. But staying in it was another matter. A week after I quit, I was invited to discuss a part-time position at a company I’d freelanced for in the past. Because I’d had a working relationship with them for the past two years, they already knew I was a single mom, and that my personal life hadn’t stood in the way of professional deadlines. I was confident about my track record with them, so I even brought my daughter in for the informal job interview. I knew it was a risk to bring an infant to what was ostensibly an interview, but I also knew I wanted them to see all my cards on the table. I was offered the job with the understanding I would be able to leave at 5 in the evening. Instead of dread, I felt excited about the challenge of finishing my to-do list during my day. It’s a career cliche that as much as they’re interviewing you, you should be interviewing them. But it’s true. Because a new job is intense. But it shouldn’t consume your life — especially when your life is already complicated.