Over 1.5 million working mothers are no longer in the labor force due to the pandemic. Startling data explores that, while other women without children are returning to work, many working moms may permanently stay out of the job market.

We know that women’s employment was disrupted by COVID-19 more than men. Their employment in leisure and hospitality, where women tend to be concentrated, took a nosedive. However, women also shouldered more of the caregiving, oversight of virtual learning, and household chores. While some women managed to balance all of these duties, others dropped out of the workforce to prioritize their families.

The good news is that women’s employment has been recovering, though slowly. However, labor force participation for mothers faces a rocky road to recovery that may not materialize entirely. Mothers with school-aged kids are still not returning to the workforce in large numbers as would be expected even as job creation is accelerating across the whole economy.

The trends 

Analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by the Wall Street Journal illuminates some interesting trends about working mothers:

  • The labor force participation rates for fathers and women with no children has rebounded nearly to pre-pandemic levels, but for working mothers, it has been a rocky road: rebounding, falling again, and then flatlining.
  • Mothers’ labor-participation rates typically fall during the summer and recover in September. The opposite happened in 2020.
  • Mothers with kids under age five have fluctuated the most. 
  • Mothers with school-aged children in school have had trouble staying in the workforce since classes resumed this fall.
  • This summer, the percentage of moms on leave from work peaked.
  • Participation rates for women of color—especially Black and Hispanic mothers with children under five—have fallen more than their white counterparts.
  • Men and women are working fewer hours overall, but men’s time has fallen more significantly leading to a narrowing of the hour gender gap.

The stories are compelling

Data provides some insight, but the personal experiences of the difficult choices working mothers face brings the data to life:

Rasheba Stevenson (Age 38, from West Orange, N.J.): “When school started, my husband and I went from zero to 60. A year in, I finally had to ask myself, ‘How can I sustain this?’” Six months after school started, she couldn’t balance a full-time job and virtual schooling for her two boys and switched to part-time work.

Liz Anthony (Age 38, Brooklyn, NY): “I cannot do both. I cannot be a good mom and successfully work to further my career simultaneously.” Anthony was a self-employed public-relations consultant but closed her business indefinitely to care for their daughters, one of whom is school-aged while the other two are under age 5. Her husband continues to work.

Esme Williams-Berenc (Age 40, Los Angeles, CA): “It’s like, [childcare] is your job now. “I just couldn’t do it all,” she says. “I was hitting this really good stride in my career before the pandemic and then it just fell off a cliff.” Williams-Berenc gave up on her job search over the summer to care for her 1- and 3-year-olds.

The implications

The reopening of schools for in-person learning and the relaxing of pandemic lockdowns and mandates was expected to help American workers, especially parents, bounce back in the labor force. However, as we’re learning, the decision for working mothers to return to work is dependent on more than the abundance of jobs and their ability to juggle caregiving responsibilities. Women are also considering the quality of jobs, pay, career advancement, and quality of life. 

Many women want to regain their footing in the workforce, but worry that their time out of a job and the pay they are being offered is not enough to incentivize them to return or to help them get back to where they were before the pandemic or close to it. The added supplemental unemployment benefits passed by Congress is also another incentive that is keeping workers at home.

There are no easy answers, and no one-size-fits-all policy will solve these challenges. In part, these are very personal decisions that need custom solutions. The solutions are not just from Washington, but individual women, civil society, and the private sector. For example, some women are retooling their skillsets through community programs, shifting to different industries, starting their own businesses, and taking advantage of flexible work opportunities such as in the gig economy.

Policymakers are also grappling with how to help women, especially working mothers, but jump to one-size-fits-none entitlements. We expect President Biden to introduce another type of “infrastructure” package that will aim to boost taxpayer-funded childcare, paid leave, and caregiving. These proposals will be pricey but, more importantly, they will likely not solve the challenges that all working mothers face. We have to respect that some women may choose family over their careers, and that’s not a bad thing. However, for those who desire ways to stay attached to the workforce while balancing their other responsibilities, we have to think about removing the barriers that make it difficult to do that.