The workplace has made so many gains in recent years in accommodating families, from remote work to longer leaves, pumping rooms to on-site child care. There’s a long way to go, but finally, progress seems to be happening at a more rapid pace.
But what if that still won’t make up for the real reason mothers are putting their careers on pause? New research on ambitious women who have downshifted their careers finds that many are not necessarily leaving due to a lack of support or feeling pushed out; rather, they want to spend time with their kids and not miss milestones. This pull factor, often a nonnegotiable one, warrants employers to examine if they need to make another fundamental accommodation to career trajectories: for the mothers who just want to take a break.
“American Mothers on Pause,” a study on the state of stay-at-home motherhood released last month by online community Mother Untitled, finds that the number-one reason mothers opt out of working is to spend more time with their children. I’ve met many of these women over the course of my own career and journey in motherhood (and I confess I have contemplated being a stay-at-home mother many times, which seems to surprise a lot of people). One thing I have noticed is that while many moms have made peace with their decision, the rest of us—employers, friends, peers—have not. Indeed, the study found that the majority of stay-at-home mothers feel misunderstood and underappreciated; more than three-quarters say people don’t understand the work that they do. This works against them when they decide to return to the workforce, greeted with few scant options or willingness to “count” the years away as work experience. An Indeed survey finds 93% of mothers surveyed report encountering or anticipating bias when reentering the workforce.
I spoke to Neha Ruch, the founder of Mother Untitled, about the study findings and how we can be doing better to ensure mothers feel supported and that we don’t lose out on this vital part of the workforce when they feel ready to return. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
What actually prompts mothers to scale back their careers?
I've learned that mothers pause for multiple reasons—not just one—and that every circumstance is different. In the study, which looked at college-educated stay-at-home and downshifted mothers, the number-one reason mothers gave for pausing their careers was to spend more time with their children, followed by not wanting to miss out on witnessing their children's development. The third most common reason was that child care was too expensive. Obviously multiple factors can collide and contribute to someone’s ultimate decision.
In my experience speaking to mothers, I’ve found that parents crave not only the concrete hours, but also greater presence of the mind. With record reports of burnout, we're seeing more working parents feeling like their headspace is burdened.
I confess I have wondered if children are an ‘excuse’ women give for wanting to leave the workforce, when actually, incompetence and mediocre managers and also a lack of general support around childcare and flexibility are to blame. Thoughts?
In our study, we asked working mothers with children under 18 who are considering pausing their careers in the next two years what is motivating that potential choice. By and large, these women said the desire to spend more time with their children was the biggest factor. Between 14 and 18 percent of respondents cited factors like an unsupportive manager, lack of flexibility, and an overly demanding job.
I think what this shows is that yes, we need managers to be more supportive and work to be more flexible. But we also have to acknowledge that some mothers and some fathers will choose to pause their careers regardless. We need to accept stay-at-home parenthood as a valid path that people want and choose, and find ways to make it possible to pause without incurring a major financial penalty or career setback.
What role has the pandemic played in the decision-making?
An unprecedented number of mothers paused their careers in the pandemic. The majority of people who left the workforce were women, and most of the women were mothers. Three years past that peak, most women have returned to the workforce. That said, the communal pause normalized the idea of downshifting or pausing paid work for childcare. A generation raised in the workplace on ‘Lean In’ burned out, and I don't think we will ever view work the same way again. Since 2020, we've seen a normalization of career breaks and a heightened sense of optionality in the remote and flexible workforce, making this option feel more valid for many people who would have otherwise stuck to the traditional path.
I hear from a lot of women lately that when they share at parties that they’re stay-at-home moms, people just stop talking to them. How can we do better?
Too many women feel ‘counted out’ when they pause their paid work—myself included. Early on after my career shift, I sat at a breakfast table for three hours with two other couples and fielded not one question about myself or how I spent my time. In countless interviews with women in our community, this is the most emotionally challenging experience in the shift out of the paid workforce. In a culture that has assigned tremendous value to workplace titles, when asked, ‘What do you do?’, some women feel shame in saying they're at home. Even the term "stay-at-home mother" implies being shut in and stagnant. What we know about modern motherhood is that it's far from that. It's fast-moving, eye-opening, and one part of a larger career story.
‘What do you do?’ is a conversation starter that is likely here to stay, so we need to shift the pendulum to spark more curiosity and less stigma when a person says they are currently home with their children. Raising children in today’s culture demands emotional and intellectual brain power, and warrants interest.
What's the right way to engage stay-at-home moms from a workplace perspective, so that they can return to work if and when they’re ready? Is it more flexible work? Is it acceptance that they might take years off, instead of a few months? Should more of us be advertising jobs that are actually 9-3?
Yes, 100%. At a basic level, workplaces that align with the school day and calendar would lift a tremendous burden from this country's child-care system and alleviate the mental load of caregivers. The rising rates of women entrepreneurs in this country indicate that most women want to do work of meaning in a way that works for family life. Our study shows that 85% of stay-at-home moms report that flexibility is the top factor they’ll prioritize when they return to paid work, and 74% will consider a job’s stress level.
While stress in the workplace is often a function of management practices and division of labor, normalizing and expanding the offering of flexible roles is the right first step. That can include reduced hours, flexible hours, remote workplaces, job-sharing, on-site child care, or even phase-in part-time work for parents coming back from maternity leave for the first year.
What is the best way to lure these women back to the workplace? What are we losing?
Caregiving is an immense leadership training ground. Anyone who has managed extended time with a child or multiple children can attest to the organization, patience, empathy, and creativity necessary. Empathy is one of the most crucial traits of successful leaders, so our workplaces miss a huge opportunity by overlooking this cohort.
Women who take career breaks intend to return, but one in three stay-at-home mothers we surveyed in “American Mothers on Pause” fear the response to the ‘gap’ on their resume. When a mother decides to look for paid work, we shouldn’t doubt her ambition or work ethic for having paused her career. It shouldn’t be so intimidating to try to return. Open up the dialogue past ‘Why is there this gap?’ to ‘Tell me about some experiences away from the paid workforce that helped you develop skills or interests that align with this opportunity.’
What about men staying at home?
One in five stay-at-home parents today are men. Whether men are on career pauses for caregiving or not, we are seeing a generation of fathers who are spending more time on parenting and gleaning much more personal identity from their role as a parent, which means naturally, they have started to encounter some of the same challenges that women face in balancing work and family. The good news here is that as men start making career shifts to accommodate their growing demands and desires in the home, this conversation will only become louder.