How to Build a Part-Time Career While Raising Kids

If you want to work in a field where you have talent and interest, but you also want to have children and be very involved in raising them, plan ahead for a career that will allow you to work part-time. Here are some suggestions for charting that kind of career path along with the story of how I’ve made it work for me.

Do internships (work for free while you can)
Your high school and young adult years are great times to work somewhere for free. If you’re living with your parents in high school and your expenses are covered, work for free in a field you’re interested in while you don’t have to worry about rent. I wrote for my hometown newspaper in their teen section during high school, and I got crazy-valuable experience (and no paycheck).

In college, while my living expenses were covered with scholarships, tuition payments, and loans, I worked for the school newspaper (for which I did receive a small scholarship) and did an internship with the honors program newsletter for credit. That means I paid for that experience, but if I hadn’t been worried about college credit, I could have just volunteered and done the same work. I also did another internship in marketing at the company that planned to hire me when I graduated. I paid for credit for that work too, but the company paid me hourly, so it worked out okay.

If your parents are able to help you pay for college, consider asking them to instead help you cover your basic living expenses while you work a job or do an internship in your field. It’ll be cheaper than college, you’ll learn more, and you’ll be much more likely to get a paying job when you’re done.

Start full time
That’s contradictory, isn’t it? I think it’s easier to build a later part-time career if you can hold a few full-time jobs at the beginning. For a couple reasons: 1. there’s often not enough professional part-time work available, especially entry level and 2. you have to put in a lot of hours (the magical 10,000) to master a skill, and you’ll get there faster working full time. That doesn’t mean you have to wait to graduate from college, then work a few years full time before having kids. Skip college and you can get started on that full time work before you hit 20. Then you can get married and have kids during your best childbearing years with a few years of experience checked off. I wasn’t smart enough to skip college, but I did graduate a year early, which helped me get started working sooner.

In May 2003, I graduated with a four-year degree in Writing in three years and started a full-time job as a writer in the marketing department of a background screening company. In June 2003, I got married; I worked full time while my husband, Matthew, finished his undergrad degree.

A year later, in July 2004, we moved halfway across the country for my husband’s master’s degree. I eventually found a full-time job at an ad agency that also owned a trade magazine. I worked full-time while my husband did a one-year MBA. Those two full-time jobs formed the core of my resume and made it much easier for me to get part-time jobs later.

Or start part time
You certainly don’t have to start full time. Working several different jobs part time can give you a lot more diversity early on and help you narrow down what you want to do and flesh out your list of acquired skills. Working two or three part-time jobs in related fields would be awesome experience, but might be hard to find. Another option would be to work one part-time or volunteer job in your desired field and another part-time job that’s unrelated but pays the bills.

In my husband’s first IT management job, he got great experience but didn’t make enough money to support us. So he took on an additional part-time job at Starbucks as well as freelance technology projects. That was a tough year, but the next year, he was able to move to a better-paying job in his field and drop the extra work. (And actually, the better full-time job came through the freelancing he did the year before.)

Network through your spouse
My husband and I have both gotten jobs because of each other. My ad agency job came about through a long-time friend of his family. Many of my freelance clients have been businesses he introduced me to. One of his best jobs came through my blogging about historical costuming. (That is a long and awesome story.) Marriage can double your network. Share contacts and help each other meet people.

Work or volunteer for non-profits and charities
Non-profits are usually in desperate need of skilled workers. Often, they’ll be willing to take you on as a volunteer or contractor with less experience and let you learn on-the-job. The pay probably won’t be great (if at all) but the experience can really help you in the long run.

In July 2006, I quit my full time job in anticipation of becoming a stay-at-home mom. It worked out well for the ad agency too — they were discontinuing the magazine I was working on, so there wouldn’t been full-time work for me any more. Katherine was born in October 2006. When she was only a few months old, one of my clients from the agency called me and said, “I know you want to be a full-time mom, BUT we liked working with you at the agency and we need someone with your skills…would you consider working for us 5 hours a week?”

They were a state chapter of a national non-profit, so they couldn’t pay as much as a commercial client, but they were still generous to me. t went on to work for them for five years as their Education Coordinator and also media liaison. I usually worked 5-10 hours a week for them. They were always so supportive of my breastfeeding and bringing my kids to work as needed or working from home.

In November 2008, my son, Joshua, was born. I ended up with postpartum depression and had an emotional breakdown, which ate up most of 2009. I continued on with my work as a could, and in 2010 as I got healthier I was grateful to extend my reach. I connected with the national organization and spoke at their convention twice. I also connected with some of the other state organizations, traveling to speak to students and helping create a nation-wide youth camp program.

In October 2011, my daughter Estel was born. When she was 10 days old, I went to my first speaking engagement wearing her in an Ergo baby carrier.

Over those years, I also did various freelance writing jobs, everything from writing artist bios for a record label to website content for a granite fabricator.

Live frugally so you can afford to work part-time or volunteer
We lived in an inner-city apartment for seven years. We went from zero to three kids in that home. The neighborhood wasn’t fantastic and the house was old, but it was affordable. As our friends bought houses and then struggled under the housing market crash, as they paid for new windows and leaky basements and new appliances, we called our landlord to fix the windows and the hot water heater and the dishwasher. As our peers bought new furniture, I complained about our 30-year-old inherited orange couches. BUT. We could afford for both me and my husband to pick and choose work that was interesting and advanced our careers. We could afford for me to just break even on working…what I earned went toward childcare and household help.

We were also able to volunteer at our church, helping in our areas of expertise and blessing our church while gaining valuable experience.

Without a house to sell, we were able to pack up and move to the Netherlands in May 2012. My husband switched to a job that would let us move and sponsor our residence permits. We’re here helping my high school youth pastor build an international church. We’re doing some media and web stuff for the church as well as helping them get more administratively organized and starting small groups.

It’s tight financially, because the cost of living here is so much higher than even the US East Coast, but we can mostly afford to live on Matthew’s salary. I kept two of my US-based clients and am still working here-and-there for them.

Sell yourself on your resumé
On your resumé or CV, you do not have to specify what work was part-time and what was unpaid. You just talk about the jobs and your accomplishments and results.

I’ve been interviewing for a job at a European non-profit since November (long process!) and will finally start working for them one day a week this Thursday. My CV and cover letter got me the first interview, my public speaking skills got me the second, and the entrepreneurship I’ve learned from my husband got me the job. (I basically created a position for myself by suggesting work they could take on that they could hire me to do.)

This job will pay enough to cover childcare while I’m working, plus childcare on another day so I can launch a project I’ve been working on for over a year: an online magazine focused on women’s emotional and mental health. I am passionate about this after battling depression myself.

Even if you’re working or volunteering part time, you can create an impressive resume and build a strong career that uses your talents and interests.

What is one step you could take today toward doing work you love while keeping the freedom to be with your kids?

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  • Dan

    Those orange couches were amazing weren’t they?? :-)

  • Bekki

    Ok so here is my opinion. This was a great post, however I disagree with your suggestion that a woman should “skip college” so that they have more time to work full time. What work would a women be qualified for without a college degree? Who wants to pursue a part time career as a cashier? When my children graduate from high school they will be encouraged to pursue one on three paths: college, military or an apprenticeship in a skilled trade. Since most women do not dream of being a plumber or an electrician, that leaves less options. It is also my opinion that college is important in the maturing process. Many times women who never attend college seem to remain in a teenaged, high school mindset towards relationships and life. I will now get slammed by wonderful, mature ladies who never attended college. Take note, I said many, not all.

    • http://www.beckycastlemiller.com/ Becky Castle Miller

      I should have made it clear that I think a lot of men should skip college too. :)

      I agree that a lot of growing up happens in college, when student are away from home and finding themselves. But I am convinced that we can come up with more cost-effective and practical ways to help young people do that while better preparing them for work.

      I enjoyed college, and I’m glad I was able to go without much debt. But I could do the work I do without my college degree. I was already a good enough writer and editor by the time I graduated high school that I could have taken a marketing internship or some online courses and been able to get my first job.

      Also, college now is very different from how it was 10 years ago. It costs more, more students are paying with debt, and graduates are not able to find jobs. By the time our kids go to college, it’ll be in even worse shape. So I’m looking at the future of higher education and seeing very scary trends and figuring out how to overcome them.

      There are some fields that still require college, graduate, and even doctoral degrees, like medicine. (Law and academics, also, but there are very few jobs in those fields, so probably not a good employment direction). And some companies want to see MBAs for certain jobs, which is dumb, because Matthew says the only useful thing he learned in business school was lingo to throw around.

      Apprenticeships and internships and entrepreneurship (for those who are gifted that way) are going to become increasingly better ways to prepare for or even create jobs. And for learning specific skills, MOOCs are becoming more common and accepted: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course

      There’s so much research I could link to, but here’s a start (I got some of these links from Penelope Trunk, a start-up founder and career coach who is really, really good at trend spotting):

      Gawker, We Need Fewer College Graduates: http://gawker.com/5979579/

      Forbes, No Job Requires A College Degree: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johntamny/2013/02/10/sorry-left-and-right-no-job-requires-a-college-degree/

      Women with high student debt less likely to marry: http://www.thegrindstone.com/2013/02/21/career-management/women-with-high-student-loan-debt-less-likely-to-marry

      Oh, and the Onion. It’s satire, but satire is rooted in truth. http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-has-alarming-level-of-pride-in-institution-tha,30853/?ref=auto

      • Bekki

        I will concede that a person with VERY clear ideas of what they wish their future career to be could realistically build that career on drive and ambition.

        • http://www.beckycastlemiller.com/ Becky Castle Miller

          What about people who don’t know what they want to do? Is spending $80,000 and 4 years meandering around college majors the best way to figure it out? Maybe working their way through a targeted list of jobs or internships to see what they like and don’t like would be a better start. Then, if they realize they want to go into a field that absolutely requires a degree, go to college at that point, at the best school for that degree. Dave Ramsey has some good resources for doing college debt-free. A targeted college degree with no debt could be very beneficial.