Why Are Almost Half of Women with Children Leaving Work?

I just found out the other day that one of my dearest friends is expecting her second child. There was a note of fear in her voice when she told me, and when I asked her what that was about, she told me she didn’t think she could keep working with a toddler and a newborn.

One of my other friends at work often comes into my classroom and tells me she thinks she could definitely be happy leaving her job and staying home with her year-old son.

Another work friend of mine is expecting twins in October — her third and fourth children — and has decided to take the rest of next school year off to care for her growing family.

I had to pause after hearing all of this and ask myself, is this the Twilight Zone? Don’t we live in an era of feminist reforms and famous working moms (Marissa Mayer, anyone?) that have allowed mothers to stay at work without the stigma associated with being a bad mom?

That might be so, but my friends are not alone. The Atlantic reported recently that 43% of women with children leave their jobs. This statistic was featured in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” but was unfortunately not accompanied by any advice or wisdom about how these women could re-enter the workforce when their children were grown up. With almost half of working women leaving the traditional workforce to become stay-at-home or work-at-home moms, and women making up about half of the population, we’re talking about a quarter of America’s workforce here. Why are they leaving en masse, and how can we get them to re-enter the workforce when they are ready to do so?

The story of the working mom is not a new one. As a teacher, I have the unique opportunity to work with teachers who are moms and to see parents of my students who are working night and day to make ends meet. On both sides of that spectrum, I have seen haggard women walk into my classroom after a long night with a sick child. I’ve seen the strongest women I know reduced to tears because they just don’t have time to breastfeed and work. Our generation has been told that we can do anything and that we can have it all — we can choose whatever career we want and have a family, as well. Of course we can! But maybe we can’t do all of that at one time. One of the most powerful things a woman can know about herself is where her limits are, and if she knows that taking time off to raise her children is what she needs to do — not only for her family, but for her own sanity — then we, as a society, should make it possible for her to do that.

The problem is, we don’t. Once women leave the workforce, it’s difficult to get them back. The bottom line is that companies are not very family-friendly. Of the top 2012 “Working Mother” family-friendly companies, only one offers telecommuting as an option. Hardly any offer flex time, and many of those might require new training for someone who already has a lot of experience in the workforce. Top this off with the fact that we already live in a sexist world where employers hire men strictly because they believe men will not take as much time off and can work longer hours even if they have children at home, and we have a situation in which it is incredibly hard for moms to re-enter the workforce.

Some moms, like Paulette Light, are able to start their own business or find freelance work that allows them to work from home or create their own hours, essentially giving them the best of both worlds. However, this isn’t always an option, and certainly won’t make ends meet in the first few years if she has become the sole breadwinner in the house.

The bottom line is that our nation needs more comprehensive maternity leaves that would allow women to stay at home during those all-important first years of the baby’s life. We also need better flextime options and a workforce that encourages women to take time off to deal with family emergencies rather than punishes them for it. I, myself, don’t have children yet, but I hope to in the future. While I doubt that, by then, these policies will be in place, I hope to see some improvement very soon.

Photo Credit: rankun76


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

with my first son I was forced to stay at home by my possessive controlling husband. At the time it infuriated me (I'd always paid my own bills. Started working at 15 and worked until i was 8 months pregnant. He wanted control over the money, and didn't like that I had my own), but I actually loved spending that first year with my son. I left him when my son was 13 months old, for various reasons, mostly his affair. I was lost. No place to stay (we slept in my car) no job, and only $500 to my name. It took me awhile but someone took us in. i cleaned houses and churches to squeak by, and finally got a job bartending nights (nearly 5 months after leaving my husband). That kept me afloat, I even was able to save some, then I got a job working security. I worked my way up to assistant supervisor and loved it, although 3rd was rough with a toddler at home and no child care. when I was 4 months pregnant with this son, I was unable to continue due to scheduling, sickness, and the chemicals we guard (very toxic for pregnancy.. high risk) I plan to take a year with this child too, and am living off of the saving i built up for just such an occasion. But that money will run out. My bf (2 years going strong) and I are trying to figure it all out, since I have my heart set on homeschooling. its craziness, a difficult world.

june t.
june t.3 years ago

Back in the 1980's I worked at a place where after their maternity leave was over, new moms had the choice of coming back to work full time, or taking up to 5 years off but could work up to 4 months every year, so that they kept current with their job and thus was relatively easy when they did come back full time.

I don't know if they are still doing that, but it did make for very loyal employees.

Alicia Westberry
Alicia Westberry3 years ago

It should be standard practice that all employers make work as flexible as possible. Both women and men should have as many options open to them as possible. No parent, regardless of gender, should feel as if they are faced with an "either/ or" proposition.

Amanda M.
Amanda M.3 years ago

Dammit, counter ran out again!

How many working parents run the risk of being fired or unable to pay the bills due to lost work time when something like that happens? TOO MANY.

It's high time that society woke up and realized that a woman or man who quits their job and stays home to raise the kids is just as much a working parent as the one who works and puts their kids in day care. Actually, it's not just a job-it's an investment in our nation's future! It doesn't matter if the work is paid or unpaid-the point is, IT'S STILL WORK. And it is 24-hour-per-day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year work. No sick leave. No vacation time. No weekends. Hell, we can't even get a damned bathroom break without a kid whose idea of an "emergency" being unable to find their shoes or needing a school paper signed NOW or something equally "it can wait until I get out!" banging on the door or having to break up declarations of war between squabbling siblings! Don't even get me started on how we spend all day getting the house cleaned up...just in time for the spouse and kids to trash it up again!

And what do we get for sacrificing career, a social life, and even having friends for investing our time, sanity, and effort into making sure that children grow up to be decent, hard-working, responsible adults? Attitude and insults. What's wrong with this picture?

Amanda M.
Amanda M.3 years ago

Lack of decent sick leave/vacation time, the cost of daycare (to say nothing of the fact that there's NOTHING for the teenagers!), and too many jobs not offering decent pay or family-friendly hours are several of the reasons why I refuse to go back to work until my children are "grown and flown" despite many people (including my own MOTHER, who herself was a SAHM until I was in high school) badgering me to go back to work and refusing to accept the FACT that being a SAHP is in fact a REAL job!

My husband and I actually sat down and crunched the numbers BEFORE we started trying for a family, and we discovered that between day care costs and gas/car maintenance costs of a commute, my paycheck would be getting sucked up by both of those. We'd be pretty much getting nowhere, and for all intents and purposes paying someone else to raise our kids.

These days, it's even worse. There is NO paid sick leave or vacation time at many jobs, and let's face it-when the kids get sick, YOU'RE gonna get sick because you'll catch the bugs they bring home! Heck, my younger daughter is just going back to school tomorrow after missing three days due to a stomach bug (which I had NO warning was going around-would it kill the schools or doctors' offices to report bugs making the rounds so we get a heads-up, PLEASE?), and if my older daughter or I catch it, we're gonna be down for the count too. How many working parents run the risk of getting fired or being unable to pay the bills when som

Jaime A.
Jaime Alves3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Kathryn S.
Kathryn S.3 years ago

Your article makes good points, but these are points that are made often in the media. We all know that there is not enough flexibility in the workplace--but it DOES exist. The next article you write might explore why your friends made the decision to leave. Did they actually ask for flexibility and was that request declined? How did they ask for flexibility? Was it an emotional plea ("I need more time with my children") or a professional proposal ("If I work two days at home, the four hours of commuting time I save each week could give me greater productivity because of XYZ"). Women are not making a professional case for flexibility at their current companies or looking for other companies where the flexibility they desire is more possible. Work is not black and white! I would guess that your friends, like so many other women, see work as a more than 40 hours a week job with a big commute, travel and all other life-engulfing aspects of the traditional job. Work can be five hours a week for freelance assignments or 20 hours a week at a small company down the street (and most part-time jobs are not advertised--they require networking!). My mission through 9 Lives for Women is to help more women find ways to STAY in the workforce and "Find the Work that Fits Your Life", so that they don't have to face the very big challenge of getting back in. In the last decade I've coached hundreds of women who do want to get back in for reasons of self-fulfillment or financial necessity. I'v

Amy R.
Past Member 3 years ago

to much $ for daycare

Marianne Good
Past Member 3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Mary B.
Mary B.3 years ago

I had only one child, and since I was 30 at the time, realized she would be the only one. Her father and I divorced when she was 2 and my part time work wasn't enough to live on, even with child support, so I went on welfare and became a full time stay at home mom. I treasure those years immensly even tho we lived well below poverty level, we had enough and our cozy little cabin in the woods that had no plumbing kept us warm and safe. I never knew how much love I was capable of feeling untill I had my precious baby.There is no bond in all of creation like that of a mother to her child.