Ask the Bitches: “I Took a Career Break to Care For Someone. How Do I Explain My Caregiving Resume Gap?”

Ask the Bitches: “I Took a Career Break to Care For Someone. How Do I Explain My Caregiving Resume Gap?”

Recently we got a question from a reader about how to explain a caregiving resume gap. Meaning, they took significant time off from work to care for someone who was sick or disabled. And now there’s an employment gap in their job history that they worry is negatively impacting their resume.

I haven’t seen this problem addressed much on finance and career blogs. That’s surprising, considering how common it is. One in four American adults is a caregiver to someone with a long-term illness or disability. Millions of them are simultaneously working outside the home.

It’s unendurably difficult to be a full-time employee and a full-time caregiver. But the “second shift” is a reality for many people. Caregivers pay an incredible physical and mental toll to do what they feel must be done. It makes perfect sense that someone would choose to pause one to focus on the other.

But of course that doesn’t stop certain prospective employers from holding that choice against you in your job search…

The question

Here’s the question from our beloved Patreon donor. (Pssst, friendly reminder that Patreon donors get to ask us questions directly—and we guarantee an answer, whether it’s on the podcast, on the blog, or in the private sanctity of a Patreon message!)

Hey P&K.

So I’ve had to take some extended time away from my career (about a year or so) due to a wide range of stuff. I’ve started looking for work again and haven’t had much problems getting interviews or interest. But they rarely go past the first call. 

I think it might be due to that space in my CV, but I’m not sure what to say about it. I tell interviewers that it was due to my dad being ill (which is partially true), and assure them that he is stable now. But no matter how I put it I get the feeling that it’s hurting my chances. I could really use some advice on how to phrase it or just some other ideas on how to explain the time off.

– Patreon Donor Fanta

Our answer

Fanta’s question really resonates with me. I took a career break to care for my mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. I managed on my own for a while, but she reacted very badly to the chemo, and had to be hospitalized, followed by a long stay in a rehabilitation facility. After her hospital stay, another family member stepped up to take over (thank jeebus). But I was unsure of her long-term prognosis, and her youngest child was still a minor. I NEEDED to get a new job to make sure I could help support him if she passed.

So, this is something I have personal experience with. And I’m super happy to get to share it with y’all.

Literally, every other job is easier than caregiving

First, I think it’s important to affirm how difficult and legitimate the act of caregiving is. I believe that being a caregiver is probably the hardest thing that anyone will do in their lifetime. And that’s especially true if you’re taking care of an ailing parent.

It’s physically and mentally exhausting. And that exhaustion is compounded by the complexity of a child/parent relationship inverting. The One Who Helped is now The One Who Needs Help. And it’s weird! It creates friction in even the happiest of relationships. And for those of us who grew up in difficult circumstances, expect this period to reanimate long-buried childhood resentments and traumas like fucking zombies.

We don't even have time to get into it right now, Cordy...

How much time ya got, Cordelia?

You may come out of it—as I did—with mixed feelings about your performance as a caregiver. You’ll probably relive moments where you lost patience, or dropped the ball. You may view your caregiver skills in a self-critical or minimizing light. FWIW, that’s grief talking, not sense.

Which is why I think it’s so important to start by validating exactly how hard it is. Anyone who gets through caregiving deserves respect and congratulations, period.

You don’t owe a potential employer your truth

I sense that our letter writer has mixed feelings about their role as a caregiver. Because I’m a reasonable person, I see that uncertainty as evidence of a lot of neutral or even positive things. Perhaps Fanta had a complicated relationship with their parent… or regrets not having the means to hire a professional caregiver… or holds their behavior to an impossibly high standard… something like that.

Unfortunately, interviewers aren’t reasonable people. They represent the business interests of nonliving companies who don’t want to hear about your messy human bullshit. They are primed to be critical and skeptical of everything you say. And if I’m sensing doubt in a two paragraph email, an interviewer is almost certainly hearing the same thing in Fanta’s answer to their questions.

For that reason, you must rehearse an answer and work really hard to scrub those unconfident statements from it.

For example: Fanta says caregiving is only “partially true” as a reason for their resume gap. I urge them to label it, at least for purposes of this question, as “fully true.” There may have been compounding factors unrelated to your father’s illness, but you do not owe a perfectly scrupulous and emotionally vulnerable accounting of those circumstances to a potential employer.

Why the fuck should I explain my caregiving employment gap to you? I don't even work for you yet!

Honestly, you don’t owe them to anyone except yourself. And possibly a therapist.

Your life is yours to contextualize. You are allowed to simplify. You can even tell lies in the service of that simplification. For example: I told one potential employer that my mother had fully recovered, even though she was still quite sick, because I knew damn well it would count against me.

I am not obliged to give anyone ammunition to use against me. And neither are you.

Two main ways to explain a caregiving resume gap

There are two basic ways you can explain a caregiving career gap to a potential employer.

  1. Minimize it. Try to disguise or cover up the employment gap. Avoid talking about it. When asked directly, promise it will never happen again.
  2. Highlight it. Boldly put it down on your resume or cover letter. When asked, give an authentic, enthusiastic answer that highlights the challenges you overcame and the skills you acquired along the way.

The emotion tied to the first option is shame. It’s how I would expect someone to respond if they have a resume gap for something that is actually shameful in their industry, like a journalist outed for plagiarism applying for another journalism job.

Please don't describe your caregiving resume gap this way.

The emotion behind the second one is pride. I think it’s how caregivers deserve to feel. And it serves another valuable purpose: weeding out the companies you don’t want to work for.

You have no control over how a potential employer judges a caregiving resume gap, so don’t waste time trying

Similarly, I think there are two reactions a potential employer can have to a caregiving gap. How they respond reveals a lot about a company’s philosophy and culture—and how much you would enjoy working for them.

  1. Evil, entitled robot overlords: “This potential cog in our machine seems suboptimal because it is riddled with flaws such as ‘human attachments’ and ‘interest in things other than our profits.’ DECLINED. DECLINED. Beep boop, beep boop, time to flood the Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin.”
  2. Normal human beings: “Holy shit, you took care of a sick parent? It’s really cool that you were able to do that. If you managed that, you can definitely do this job!”

As a potential employee, you have no ability (or imperative) to influence company culture. That’s why I think some level of honesty about the nature of the employment gap is wise. It will allow you to screen out the bad jobs.

I would consider explicitly stating that you took a year off to be a full-time caregiver, either in your cover letter or as a bullet on your resume. Pump yourself up before interviews. Suggested mantras: “This is a source of pride, not shame. Caregiver skills are something to brag about, not hide away. I will never apologize for spending my time on this earth being loyal or dutiful.” Obviously, show discretion by letting them bring up the subject of a career break, and don’t go into sad or gory details. Just keep it bright, brief, and humble-braggy.

The bad companies will reject you, and that’s AWESOME. Even if you could convince them to hire you to work for them, you would never be happy there in the long-term. Because they suck.

How my caregiving resume gap helped me land a great job

I once had an interview with the Vice President of a sales division. It was my final interview to secure a great and much-needed job.

This woman was an absolute shark. Very Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock: direct, goal-oriented, fair, yet crackling with power. Very “step on me mommy.” I’d been warned she was very hard to impress. And that was true. In our interview, she made sharp observations and asked disarmingly direct questions about everything she saw.

Then she got to the employment gap in my resume. I looked her in the eye and gave my prepared answer.

“Yes, that’s where I took several months off to get my mother through chemotherapy. I’m happy to report she’s cancer-free now—but I learned that being a caregiver is the hardest job in the world. After surviving that? Pfft… nothing in this job description scares me.”

This ultra-intense, bottom-line-driven woman’s response? She let out a huge laugh and said “I knew I liked you!”

Literally my future boss when I explained my caregiving resume gap.

She went on to tell me that she lost a sister to cancer at 35, and her husband battles a chronic illness that will shorten his life. When she’s not working, she runs ultramarathons to raise money for cancer research. Though not the soft and cuddly type, she was emphatically human. My experiences and caregiver skills resonated with her, especially because I’d framed it as an asset to be highlighted, rather than a defect in my conformity. Even people who seem like they’re all business can surprise you.

The employment gap red flag is turning pink

It’s galling that there are still plenty of potential employers who see caregiving resume gaps as a “red flag.” I guess it’s evidence that you’re a less-than-satisfactory automaton with no dreams beyond (checks notes) “excellence in customer service.” I did not have to look far to find shamefully bad takes on it.

Overall, I sense a shift in the way hiring professionals talk about resume gaps and career breaks. I attribute this chiefly to the rise of women in leadership positions. They are statistically far more likely to be caregivers themselves, and better understand the potential value that experience brings.

Additionally, with the mass workplace exodus following the COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be more compassion for unexpected life changes, priority shifts, and burnout. It’s my hope that the job market tipping in labor’s favor will cement new, fairer national expectations around work/life balance. It is so bold of them to think they deserve an explanation of what’s not on our resumes!

I want to thank Fanta again for asking this question. Donations from readers like Fanta allow us to pay ourselves and our staff a fair wage. If that’s important to you, please join our Patreon community and get your question answered. (For those who don’t vibe on that model, we also accept one-time donations via our PayPal.)

6 thoughts to “Ask the Bitches: “I Took a Career Break to Care For Someone. How Do I Explain My Caregiving Resume Gap?””

  1. I think most employers (at least ones you’d want to work for) are human beings and would be understanding. I had career gaps, although granted for personal reasons like self improvement (education / volunteering). And anyway I was able to discuss them pretty well when asked (often people don’t even notice the gaps now).

    If you don’t quit the quick and say take a leave of absence, you don’t have to say it was “time away” if you didn’t fully resign. So that’s an option too if your employer allows it. You could always leave at the time when you plan to return I suppose.

  2. I had a PhD student who did her dissertation on exactly this question. (She didn’t publish it because she went into industry instead of academia.) She ran a field experiment where she explained some work gaps and didn’t explain other work gaps in the cover letters. Caregiving gaps were more likely to get callbacks from employers than were unexplained gaps or lengthy unemployment gaps.

    These were not highpowered 6-figure kinds of jobs, IIRC, just normal jobs like administrative assistant, so I don’t know how valid her results would be for say, a high powered lawyer’s job search. It was also pre-pandemic– the labor market is tighter now so employers may be more or less forgiving. And she did the study in the US– employers in other countries may be different.

    So, I can’t answer the question of whether or not a work gap will hurt you, but if you do have a caregiving work gap, explaining it is better than not. This includes maternity leave (which I wasn’t really expecting).

  3. I fully endorse the concept of owning the gap confidently. Many years ago I took six months off work after spending three years in humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. When a recruiter asked me about the gap, I replied honestly, “I needed a break after working three years in a war zone.” That shut her up quickly…and advanced me to the next interview stage!

  4. Love it!

    It would also be great if we could address the flip side (aka the person who took a break to handle their own illness, and is now trying to re-enter the working world). It’s so messy to talk about this without disclosing too much about yourself personally, let alone avoiding the implicit question of “Will this happen again and why should we bother hiring you”.

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