Return to the office is shoving moms out of the workforce—again

Without access to affordable childcare and flexible schedules, many mothers are finding themselves edged out of the workforce once more.
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A lot can change in one year: Princes take over as king, Wordle turns from a national craze to a phase; the beloved Bed Bath & Beyond shifts from coupon-lovers’ paradise into dust; and, more seriously, a greater number of moms are staying at home. 

So finds Motherly’s recent State of Motherhood report that surveyed nearly 10,000 mothers, 4,700 of whom are Gen Z and millennials. It found that the number of stay-at-home mothers nearly doubled from 2022 to 2023, jumping by 10 percentage points from 15% to 25%. That’s actually a pretty normal rate of stay-at-home moms, which has typically ranged from 24% to 28% over the past five years, with the exception of last year. That was such a big outlier because mothers had more flexibility at work; but as more companies required a return to office this year, some were left with no other option but to drop out of the workforce to take care of their kids, bringing the percentage of moms staying at home back to the norm.

“It’s likely that in 2022, many mothers were still benefiting from flexible or hybrid work arrangements as a holdover from pandemic-related changes,” Jill Koziol, Motherly CEO and cofounder, tells Fortune. “With the recent return to in-office work for numerous employees early this year, it seems mothers were the ones to pay the price.”

Eighteen percent of mothers changed jobs or completely left the workforce this past year; 28% said they wanted to stay home with the kids, and 15% said they didn’t have childcare options. For 64% of at-home moms, flexible work schedules would get them to return to the workforce. Just over half (52%) said affordable childcare would. 

“Sadly, the Great Resignation is not over for mothers,” says Koziol. “The fact that a significant percentage of mothers are leaving the workforce or changing jobs due to the lack of affordable childcare and the need to stay at home with their children is concerning.” 

Welcome to America’s childcare crisis

Finding affordable childcare in the U.S. has long been like searching for a needle in a haystack, but the pandemic has thrown the struggle into an even larger limelight. Childcare costs have soared by 25% in the last decade. Over the past year, more than a third of parents saw their child care costs rise, a 2023 New York Life Wealth Watch survey found. Those polled who pay for childcare often spend about 26% of their budget on it.

But many women are drawing the cutoff line at 25% of their paycheck, dropping out of the workforce if childcare costs are higher than that, according to a Harris Poll conducted on behalf of Fortune in February.

“It’s either stay home and wait until all my children are in school—which given the number of half-days and vacation days and summer camps, there are still very considerable costs and inconveniences,” Jennifer Parks, a stay-at-home mom who formerly worked in pharmaceutical manufacturing, told Fortune about the tradeoff. “Or go back to work, make no profit, and still be juggling dropoffs, pickups, and probably the need to work after I put all three kids to bed.” 

The majority of moms (67%) are spending at least $1,000 a month on childcare, per Motherly’s findings, with 31% dropping at least $2,000 a month. One-third said the cost of outsourcing childcare is “often” or “always” a source of financial stress.

Remote work at least offered moms more schedule flexibility to adjust their childcare needs. While many CEOs made multiple attempts to get workers back in the office last year, many began putting their foot down for good this year. Now that that flexibility is waning, and childcare costs continue to climb, some moms just don’t feel it makes sense to keep working. Dropping out is only stunting career growth for those who hope to rejoin the workforce some day.

But doing so isn’t easy or cost-efficient. “I loved working and want to have a professional life again, but the costs, logistics, and the high likelihood of needing to be in-person [working] at pretty set hours, makes it all feel unrealistic,” Parks said.

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