Caregiving-related absence can make you feel ill-equipped for tough questions. Here’s your blueprint for acing the interview!

If you are feeling nervous about heading into that first interview after you’ve taken time off to care for a child, spouse, or ailing family member, take a deep breath. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, nearly one in four adults have stayed at home to take care of a family member. An additional quarter of respondents have not had to take this step yet, but foresee it in their future. If you’re dreading the unavoidable interview question about your caregiving employment gap, you are not alone.

While there is strength in numbers, it’s not uncommon for professionals to feel alone and lost during the all-important career re-entry process. Addressing the employment gap on your resume is the first step. However, preparing for the interview has its own set of underwater currents and obstacles to avoid.

Here’s your map for explaining your employment gaps and navigating the path to your next career success.

Process the experience internally

This might sound like advice from a therapist but don’t discard it as “too fluffy” for interview prep. You must allow yourself time and space to reflect on what has happened and to integrate it into the complete picture that describes you as a human and as a professional.

As you do this, you may experience pride at having made the right choice. There might be some sadness at having missed out on career opportunities or anxiety at the financial consequences of not working for several months or years. No matter what your emotional mix is, acknowledge it and accept it. Remember that you have made the best possible decision given the circumstances at the time. This internal acceptance should eliminate the temptation to apologize to anyone for that choice. It will also allow you to walk into the interview with genuine confidence and excitement about what’s next.

Come prepared

Most interview experts will tell you to not over-rehearse responses to specific interview questions at the risk of sounding robotic and rote. However, skipping interview prep altogether will likely backfire. This is particularly true if you expect having to explain a deeply personal and emotional decision.  

Your decision to stay at home and become a caregiver involved sacrifices, sleepless nights, and emotional upheaval. Talking about this experience with a stranger might make you feel vulnerable, uncomfortable, or even teary-eyed. How do you handle a tough question while maintaining composure and a professional demeanor?

The answer is simple: You must prepare.

Some candidates find it helpful to write out their responses to the difficult interview questions they expect to field, while others prefer to role-play with a trusted friend to try out different question-and-answer strategies. In the end, your goal is to find the words that convey your values and frame the experience in the way that moves you towards your goal. Short and sweet is often a great way to start but be ready to elaborate if needed. Here are some examples.  

“When my son was born, I chose to stay at home and focus on raising him until he was old enough to start school. I feel great about that decision, but I am equally excited about the opportunity to come back to the professional world. Here’s why I think this role at your company would be a great fit for both of us.”

“My dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness last year. I am glad that I got the chance to spend my time taking care of him, but now I am ready to return to my professional role. From what I’ve learned about this position, I believe I have a lot to contribute.”

What makes these responses effective? They provide just enough color to eliminate second-guessing, while strategically leaving out deeply personal details that might make a hiring manager uncomfortable. They are factual, direct, and positively charged. They are also future-focused. Your goal is to address the question and turn the conversation back to your skills, qualifications, and professional potential.  

Watch for inappropriate digging

Tough choices and emotional stories have a way of drawing people in. While experienced and well-trained HR professionals are unlikely to overstep, some hiring managers may be tempted to ask probing questions to show empathy or interest (or just to satisfy their curiosity).

Here’s what inappropriate digging might look like.

“Wow, it sounds like your family is really lucky to have you stay at home and take care of your son. Do you plan on having more kids?”

“Was your dad diagnosed with cancer? I’ve heard it runs in the family. Have you had any genetic testing done to see what your risks are?”

If the line of questioning turns personal (or downright illegal), remember that you don’t have to give a direct answer. After all, if a question isn’t relevant or appropriate for evaluating the fit between your professional experience and the job, answering it won’t help your candidacy. This uncomfortable situation may require some quick thinking and deflection. Here are some options.

“Kids are great. However, I’m curious about something you said a few minutes ago about this position. I wonder …” (turns the conversation back to the interview)

“Thank you for your concern. Can you help me understand how this question is relevant for the job I am applying for?”

If you are asked an illegal or inappropriate question, you have many options: answer the question directly, deflect and avoid the question,  or interrupt the interviewer and walk out. If your interviewer’s line of questioning about your time as a caregiver is coming off as biased or aggressively intimidating, walking out of the interview is a fine option — why would you want to work for someone like that, anyway? However, if you sense that the interviewer’s question is asked with good intentions, then you’re better off trying to gracefully steer the conversation back on track.

Address caregiving skills

Many professionals are unsure about whether they should talk about the skills they developed or demonstrated while taking care of a child or an ailing family member. The answer depends on the circumstances. If caregiving helped you develop skills that are directly relevant for the job you are seeking, be prepared to highlight them. Otherwise, don’t stretch the reality. Your goal is not to justify your caregiving decision but to focus on the skills and accomplishments that position you as a great candidate.

Excitement is key!

The last piece of advice is no different for a professional seeking a job in the course of uninterrupted employment and someone who is returning to work after a leave of absence. Bring positive energy and genuine excitement about the position. Time away from work can be a great advantage as it can give you space to reflect on what you want from your career, what impact you want to have, and what you want to accomplish in your next rule. Sincere interest, combined with a set of skills to match the needs of the company, is a sure recipe for success!

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