Like a lot of young parents, I’m fairly immersed in online communities for parents. From my pregnancy message boards where I talk to other people expecting new babies in June, to Facebook groups for cloth diapering, attachment parenting, babywearing…I really do go out of my way to find people who are going through the same kinds of experiences and challenges that I have been since I became pregnant with my first baby in 2013.

Sometimes, though, these groups make me a little angry, and it frequently comes from issues related to working mothers. My own experience as a working mother has not been bad. I retained employment throughout my first pregnancy and my position was held for me while I took a year of government-paid leave. My employer went out of business shortly after my return, and I was able to secure part-time contract work from home rather than having to go into an office full time. I had no desire to be a full-time stay at home parent, but also wanted my daughter to spend more time with me than away from me (currently she is in childcare 3 days a week, and home with me the other 4). I am aware that I am privileged and lucky to be able to contribute adequately to my family’s finances while being a stubborn stick in the mud about not going into an office for 40 hours a week. Most women are not in my situation.

So it’s hard, from my own comfortable parenting/working situation, to read what other women frequently go through when dealing with employment and motherhood. Many face immediate but hard to prove prejudice as soon as they inform their employers that they’re pregnant (even, and seemingly especially, in the US, where maternity leave is generally only 6-12 weeks anyway). Employers suddenly turn negative, grasping at straws, trying to find any little thing from that woman’s work history to use as grounds for demotion or firing without coming right out and saying “we’re letting you go because you’re going to have a baby.” Obviously most employers aren’t like this, but the stories are not unusual, and they’re heartbreaking to read. Women who are the primary breadwinners in their families suddenly end unemployed or under-employed, or just stressed and hating their jobs. Every time I hear it, I want to get on a plane, go give that poor pregnant lady a hug, and punch her employer square in the nose.

So, becoming a parent can be an ugly, stressful time in a woman’s career. But what about the other side of it: returning to the work force after an extended leave due to parenting? While here in Canada, a woman who was at her job for at least a year before taking maternity leave is entitled to come back to her position at the end of that leave, many women decide not to do so and instead take an extended period of time off, either to spend more of her child’s toddler/preschool period staying at home or to get pregnant again without having an awkward short period of returning to work in between. Or maybe the time off of work just gave her some clarity to realize she was not happy with her previous work position, or was not making enough money at her previous job to justify paying for childcare to return to it. Whatever the reason, it is not uncommon for a mother to be returning to the workforce after a gap of a few years, with her previous position long since filled. So she must start sending out resumes.

Recently the question came up in one of my Facebook groups: How do I reflect my years of stay-at-home parenting on my resume? Employers are always apt to ask about “employment gaps” in your work history, and anyone who has spent time as a stay at home parent knows that it’s a difficult and intense job that both challenges and teaches you every day. Naturally, this mom wanted to include this period on her resume, talking about what she did and what it taught her.

I knew the answer immediately when I read it, but I didn’t want to say it: just don’t do it. Do not list “stay at home mom” as a position on your resume. I immediately felt torn between giving this woman practical advice, and telling her what SHOULD be true: that of course that’s a valuable job you were doing that anyone should value. But as we’ve talked about here, the “motherhood penalty” is a very real thing, and mothers are seen as less competent in the workplace (fathers of course are immune to this and are seen as more competent: thanks, sexism!). So as unfair as it is, your prospective employer is less likely to be impressed and more likely to just roll his eyes and throw your resume in the trash.

While I held my tongue and contemplated this dilemma, the answers that did come rolling in were fascinating. At least one woman suggested that, in her experience, it was best not to let on that you had small children at all as employers would assume this means you are less available, less committed, distracted, and all kinds of other bullshit assumptions that would only ever apply to a mother (because fathers never make it a priority to spend time with or think about their kids, I guess?). One thought it was a great idea, and said she was planning on including it on her own resume. Most of the responses, many coming from people experienced in HR or who consulted family members in HR for their opinions, said not to include it, but that you could mention it in the interview or cover letter, if you wanted. And several more, while acknowledging the reality of the situation, simply said how much it pissed them off.

So what’s the verdict? Should you include it or not? Here are my tips:

  1. If it makes sense for the employer you are sending it to, go ahead and include it.

If you’re applying to a bank, skip it. But if you’re applying to a doula practice, a birth centre, or a part-time position organizing events aimed at new parents? Go for it. Especially if you happen to know that the employer is a part-time working mom, this will probably be a safe and beneficial thing to include. I hate the word “mompreneur” (can’t we just be entrepreneurs without the qualification that we’re also mothers?) but if that’s the kind of person you’re sending your resume to, likely they will be more understanding and aware of the value of parenting as a “job” and what you can bring to the table from your experience raising small children.

2. If you’re applying for a traditional full time job, don’t list it on your resume

While you and I may understand that calmly dealing with a toddler for 24 hours a day has made you a conflict management ninja and given you amazing self control and patience, society is not 100% ready to acknowledge this in a corporate setting. List your work experience and education, and if you decide to include a “skills” section on your resume, you can include your conflict management expertise there, without the toddler explanation.

3. Consider addressing it in your cover letter or interview

The person reading your resume is going to notice a gap of a year+ on your resume. Some, if they have received a ton of resumes and are trying to quickly thin down the competition, may see it as a red flag and skip past calling you for an interview. Those that do call you will almost certainly ask about it in the interview. This is where you can explain that you chose to stay home to raise a young child (I would frame it as a choice, even if it was more dictacted by circumstance: “I couldn’t afford day care” doesn’t sound as good to an employer as “it was important to me to spend these valuable early years with my daughter”) and also show that you are now committed to joining the work force (again, don’t say “my husband got laid off and we can’t make ends meet unless I get a job”, even if it’s true – stick with “I’m ready and eager to rejoin the work force and would love to put my talents to work for your company”).

4. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to

As I mentioned above, it’s very likely you will be asked about your gap in employment. But if you’re not, and you’re nervous you may be discriminated against because of your small children at home, you can definitely choose to just not mention it. This is a tricky one. Personally, I would want my employer to be aware of and supportive of my family, and I’d prefer not to work for a company that would be so discriminatory and shallow as to hold my children against me. But I guess I might change my tune if I just really needed a job, any job, and was having difficulty. It’s great to be choosy about employers if you’re in a position to get away with it, but sometimes you’re just not. So do what you have to do to get in the door and prove how amazing you are. Rock it out there, Mama.