How Fonzie (and science) can help you return to work.

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What happens when a decision to take a year or two off work to stay at home with your children turns into 5, 10 or 15 years?

It’s a story we hear often. Women who have previously thrived in stimulating careers, have for varied reasons, spent longer than originally intended at home. And whilst very few regret the valuable time at home with their children, we do know that the longer the time spent away from the workforce is, the harder it can be to return.

The good news is, science has your back. Returning to work after children represents a significant change in your life, and by acknowledging where you are personally at in the change process, you can better enable yourself to take the most effective next step forward.

Probably the most well-known framework that helps us to understand the dynamics of change (and based on decades of research) is the ‘Stages of Change’ model developed by psychologists Prochaska and DiClemente[1] . This model acknowledges that change is a process with a series of stages that we move through, rather than a single event that just “happens”. Consider the scenarios below and see which one corresponds most closely to your frame-of-mind:


You’re aware of the opportunity to return to work, but you have no desire to go back now.


You’d like to return to work, but currently you’re not sure that the pros of returning to work outweigh the cons. Many mothers spend a lot of time and energy in this stage of the change process and it can feel a lot like you’re in limbo. Sometimes the shift from this stage to the next stage of Preparation can happen because of an external event such as a child starting school or finishing school, or a shift in an internal driver that changes your level of motivation. It can often be a combination of both.

If you feel stuck in this stage, it can sometimes be because you’re not clear on what you’d really like to do when you return to work. Our Career Clarity program has been designed to support you to figure this out. Over a 4-week period, our self-led online program helps you to identify and prioritise potential career opportunities that align with who you are and what matters most to you.


You’ve started making plans towards returning to work, and you’re committed to taking action, but you’re yet to get started on your to do list. Many women can feel paralysed at this stage for many different reasons, so I’ve included three core principles below that you can apply if you’ve landed at the preparation stage and are frustrated with your progress.


When you shift to the action stage, you’re doing stuff to make change happen. This is where grit comes in! The road that returns you to work is rarely a straight and narrow one and many women find that their path back takes unexpected twists and turns.

If you find your progress has stalled at this stage, the three principles below can be helpful to get you back on track after a set-back. If you’re not having the success you had hoped for at this stage, it can be valuable to take a step back, evaluate what you’ve been doing, and try some new strategies. Our Career Comeback self-led online program described below may also be of interest to you.


1.   Achieve a micro goal, every day.

50 ideas on a page requiring you to put “yourself out there” can be daunting, but one micro-action each day, in the direction that you want to go is powerful for several reasons. Firstly, doing something, even something small, moves you one step closer to your goal. Secondly, it gives you the experience of feeling success and we know that this feeling builds your belief in yourself. Thirdly, focusing on a small, achievable goal removes most barriers to getting started.

Not sure how to come up with mini goals? Just keep breaking down your bigger goals into smaller pieces until they’re at a size you feel confident you can achieve them in a day.   

2.  Learn and build from every experience.

Relapse is a common stage in the change process and it’s important to acknowledge that the return to work journey is unlikely to be without obstacles. There could be rejection, confusion, frustration and any number of other uncomfortable experiences and it will be your mindset, that will determine how you bounce back after these and how soon you find and secure your next role.

If you approach every opportunity with realistic optimism, and search for the learning in every experience that didn’t go the way you had envisioned, you’ll be well-served to build and learn from every step. Remember that anyone looking for a new role mid-career will likely experience similar obstacles, whether they are returning after a break to care for children or not.

(Tip: If this all sounds a bit much, our Career Comeback Program takes you through step-by-step how to nail this stage of your return to work plan). 

3.  Be confident like the Fonz

A lack of confidence is possibly the biggest barrier you’ll face in taking action towards returning to work after a career break. Confidence would have to be the most common barrier I’ve seen across the hundreds of clients I’ve worked with personally, and the research we’ve done into what holds working mothers back supports this.

So how do you harness the unwavering self-belief embodied by the Fonz in Happy Days? Start with principles 1 and 2 above to get you moving.

Additionally, as well as the macro-strategies we cover in our Career Comeback program, we also encourage return to work mums to nourishing their brain with high quality inputs that build their interest and motivation to return to work. This might include subscribing to an industry journal, thought-leader blog, an inspiring podcast or attending an industry event with an old college or friend.

If you’re itching to make some change happen, or returning to work after a career break has been on your mind, consider where you might be sitting on the Stages of Change Model above. Are you still tossing up the benefits of returning, are you making plans and ready to take that first step forward or are you already on your journey? Have you experienced a set-back that’s resulted in a loss of confidence? With some action steps that relate to the stage of change you are in, you’re definitely a step closer to putting one foot in front of the other in the right direction.


Our Career Comeback program is packed with strategies to cultivate a mindset to thrive, grow your confidence and get a grip on mother’s guilt. We support you to lean back in and secure the job, and develop the know-how to thrive at home and at work once you’re there. Try a free sample of our program here.

[1] Prochaska J.O., Diclemente C.C. (1986) Toward a Comprehensive Model of Change. In: Miller W.R., Heather N. (eds) Treating Addictive Behaviors. Applied Clinical Psychology, vol 13. Springer, Boston, MA