For Mari Escamilla, the push and pull of work and family life can feel like a tug of war. When she isn’t working her full-time marketing job, she’s taking care of her 7-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son while trying to run a household with her husband.

It’s a feeling millions of working moms in the U.S. grapple with — a feeling that was exacerbated by the closure of school and childcare centers at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. And while women left the workforce en masse during the pandemic, many with college degrees and white-collar jobs stayed or have returned since, including Escamilla.

She, like so many working moms, credits work flexibility. Escamilla says the widespread adoption of remote and hybrid work in corporate America — as a result of the pandemic — helped her remain in the workforce in recent years.

“I didn’t realize it previously to having children or the pandemic, but now that I’ve lived it and I see it, it [work flexibility] will always be important to me,” Escamilla says. “If I don’t have that flexibility, then it doesn’t work with my life, realistically.”

The number of women in the workforce reached a record high this year, with an unexpected group leading the charge: mothers with young children. A report from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution found 70.4 percent of women with children under age 5 were in the workforce as of June 2023, up from 68.9 percent pre-pandemic.

Mari Escamilla headshot

“Not only have mothers with young children rebounded to their 2019 levels of participation, they have far exceeded them,” says Lauren Bauer, a fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the report.

Bauer adds that hot labor market conditions are likely contributing to the uptick, but so is flexible work. But it’s possible that progress could stall if companies continue adopting rigid return-to-work mandates.

“You’ve got this soup of women making different decisions, the labor market being really conducive to people finding jobs … and structural changes in the labor market around telework and flexibility that could all be contributing factors to the change in participation we’re seeing,” Bauer says.

Key takeaways

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  • There are more moms with young children in the workforce than ever before. 70.4% of women with children under age 5 were in the workforce as of June 2023, up from 68.9% pre-pandemic, according to a report from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.
  • Working moms support remote or hybrid work at higher rates. A recent Bankrate survey found 77% percent of full-time working women with children under 18 support a hybrid work schedule, and 74% of working women with children under 18 support working from home. On average, 68% of working Americans support hybrid work and 64% support remote work.
  • Working moms are more willing to make career sacrifices for flexibility. Seventy-eight percent of working women with children under 18 are willing to make sacrifices for a hybrid work schedule, and 83 percent are willing to make sacrifices for remote work, according to a Bankrate survey.

The state of women in the workforce is stronger than ever

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, everything — including schools and childcare centers — shut down, and caregiving responsibilities largely fell on moms, even when they were working. Out of necessity, many women quit their jobs and economists expressed concerns about the potential long-term impact on women’s employment.

But in the last three years, as children went back to in-person learning and life gradually went back to normal, an interesting thing happened: Women’s labor force participation started to reach new highs.

The labor force participation rate for prime-age women — those between the ages of 25 and 54 — exceeded an all-time high of 77.8 percent in June 2023. As of the most recent jobs report in October, prime-age women had a labor force participation rate of 77.6 percent, a slight drop from June but still exceptionally high. Women with children under age 5 have seen the biggest gains since the pandemic, according to Bauer.

“In terms of labor force participation rates, that’s really big,” Bauer says.

The reason for the shift? Full-time working moms, especially those who are married with college degrees, got a taste of flexibility and work-from-home life and emerged stronger than ever. The ability to work from home was a game-changer for all parents, but especially mothers who take on the majority of caregiving responsibilities, Bauer says.

“We’re seeing structural changes to the labor market taking place around telework, hybrid work and ideas about flexibility around work that many had been advocating for a long time,” Bauer says. “The beneficiaries of that seem to be women with caregiving responsibilities, specifically women with young children.”

Around 3 in 4 working mothers support remote and hybrid work

In the three years since companies were forced to embrace flexible work during COVID-19, working moms say the ability to work from home has been a lifeline. So, it’s no surprise that working moms support remote and hybrid work at higher rates.

A Bankrate survey in August found that 77 percent of working women with children under 18 support a hybrid work schedule, compared to 68 percent of Americans in the workforce. The same survey showed that 74 percent of working women with children under 18 support a fully remote work schedule, compared to 64 percent of working Americans. More than 4 in 5 (85 percent) also support a four-day workweek:

Additionally, working moms are more willing to make career sacrifices for flexibility. Seventy-eight percent of full-time working women with children under 18 are willing to make sacrifices for a hybrid work schedule, compared to 73 percent of working Americans. An even higher percentage of full-time working women with children under 18 are willing to make sacrifices to work from home, at 83 percent. That percentage is higher than the three-quarters (78 percent) of working Americans who would make sacrifices for remote work.

Other data shows that flexibility in the workplace allows women to better balance their work and caregiving responsibilities. An International Workplace Group survey found more than half of female office workers are caregivers, with more than 70 percent agreeing that hybrid working allows them to participate in child or parent events and get time back to focus on projects around the house. Additionally, 72 percent of them say they would look for a new job if their employer didn’t offer a hybrid work option.

A mompreneur sees remote work as the ‘best of both worlds’

Like Escamilla, Diana Carter views teleworking as a flexible way to make time for work and family, even with the pandemic in the rearview mirror. Up until the pandemic, Carter had worked multiple jobs in person — even after giving birth to her oldest son in the spring of 2019. When her office went remote at the start of the pandemic, she got a taste of the “best of both worlds:” building her career while being home with her son.

Diana Carter headshot

“I probably cried like every other day thinking of going back to work. I desperately wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and never ever thought that I would want that because I have a high-achieving mentality,” Carter says. “But our reality was we were a two-income family. I needed it to work.”

Carter, now a mother of three, was working full time and freelancing when she decided to take a leap into entrepreneurship and start her own marketing agency in August 2020. While she acknowledges it was a risky move, she says being able to make her own schedule and work remotely from her Charlotte home has made a world of difference.

For one, her mental health improved when she traded a commute for spending afternoons with her children. Two, she has more time and energy to care for her growing family. Within two years, she went from running her entire business herself to hiring eight employees.

“As companies say, ‘get back in the office and we want butts in seats,’ that continues to not work for working parents, specifically working moms who are traditionally the primary caregivers for their kids,” Carter says. “I believe there will be a boomerang effect of women continuing to leave the traditional workforce and do things similar to what I’ve done.”

While working moms prefer flexible work at higher rates, it’s important to note that it’s not just women who want — and benefit from — flexible work. Most full-time working Americans, including a high percentage of men with and without children, prefer flexible work. According to Bankrate data, 89 percent of the U.S. adult workforce supports a four-day workweek, remote work or hybrid work. Specifically, 62 percent of full-time working men support a hybrid work schedule and 59 percent support a remote work schedule. The percentages are similar for working men with children under 18.

Could return-to-office mandates reverse working mothers’ progress in the workforce?

Work flexibility has been so beneficial for working moms that some worry growing return-to-office mandates could potentially reverse the progress made.

“It’s still shaking out to a certain degree, but it does feel that the tides have shifted permanently toward a more flexible work environment,” says Stacey Delo, CEO of Après, a company that connects women returning to work after career breaks. “However, that might look different for individual companies.”

In the current U.S. job market, many employers have transitioned to a hybrid model or taken remote work arrangements off the table completely. Among major employers, Amazon, Apple and BlackRock called their employees back to the office this year.

At the same time, data from Indeed shows that remote and hybrid work job openings are dwindling. In an analysis of job postings on Indeed starting in April 2019, researchers found the peak for remote/hybrid jobs was in February 2022 at 10.3 percent. But that spike fell quickly by May 2023, when 8.4 percent of Indeed job postings targeted remote/hybrid applicants. Some occupations have experienced a decrease in remote and hybrid job postings, while some haven’t. For example, Indeed’s analysis found jobs with fast-rising remote opportunities over the past year were in civil engineering, social science, chemical engineering and banking and finance. Meanwhile, human resources, marketing, media and communications and arts and entertainment experienced the most significant declines in remote and hybrid job postings over the past year.

Other research shows remote work remains more common than before COVID-19 shut down many workplaces. The average U.S. worker currently spends 3.8 days per month working from home, according to a September Gallup poll. That’s down from 5.8 in 2020 but higher than the 2.4 average from 2019, per the poll.

Employers who can accommodate evolving work preferences may have an easier time attracting and retaining top talent, especially younger and female workers, says Mark Hamrick, Bankrate’s senior economic analyst.

“Employers must adapt to these shifts while striving for success and greater productivity,” Hamrick says. “Otherwise, many of their employees are going to seek work elsewhere.”

Bauer says it’s unclear whether the transition away from remote work will reverse moms’ growing labor participation rates. It likely depends on whether women have jobs where flexibilities can be stripped away or if women have taken jobs with guaranteed flexibilities since the pandemic, she says.

“The jury’s out to what that mix is going to be, and whether their attachment to working has been strengthened and they feel like they can handle more now, including a return to the office,” Bauer says.

While returning to in-person work makes it harder for moms to juggle work and caregiving, that’s not the only concern they have about returning to the office. Another major concern is costs associated with returning to the office, including the cost of childcare. The annual cost of a childcare center for the average American family with two kids (an infant and a four-year-old) is nearly $18,000, according to the Center for American Progress.

Working moms may also be faced with expenses that had practically disappeared from their budgets during the pandemic, such as commuting costs like gas or public transportation, pet care, car maintenance or eating out. Those costs can add up quickly. U.S. households spent an average of $5,369.26 on quarterly purchases of office-related expenses in 2022, according to Bankrate’s analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

“Our son goes to daycare four days a week for half the day, and our daughter goes two days a week to the same place for half a day — and it’s still over $500 a month for half-time childcare,” says Carter, pointing out that she gets additional help from her parents for childcare. “By working from home and not paying for [full-time] childcare, we’re definitely saving more than we’re spending.”

Average quarterly household office-related costs, by year

Quarterly average spending category¹ 2019 2020 2021 2022
Source: BLS
1: Average only includes consumers who spend in that category, not all consumers.
2: The BLS did not publish this value in their tabular data due to the relative standard error being greater than or equal to 25 percent. Check out the BLS for more information.
3: Yearly totals do not include data on elderly care.
Babysitting and child care $1,161.75 $1,469.72 $1,306.81 $1,647.82
Day care centers, nursery and preschools $1,926.83 $2096.88 $2,320.20 $2,282.76
Care for elderly, invalids, handicapped, etc. $6,170.83 $3,987.5 $2,929.41 N/A²
Gasoline $539.43 $407.49 $548.88 $793.98
Vehicle maintenance and repairs $370.74 $401.30 $433.94 $486.89
Parking fees in home city, excluding residence $81.89 $86.90 $74.54 $82.67
Tolls or electronic toll passes $74.08 $67.03 $73.74 $75.14
Total³ $4,154.72 $4,529.32 $4,758.11 $5,369.26

Career advice for working mothers

Fulfilling the role of mom – especially a new mom — while also holding down a job comes with its unique set of challenges. While it’s impossible to map out all the challenges of working parenthood, experts recommend following these tips while navigating your career and motherhood.

1. Remember transferable skills are important

Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster, wants women to know that unpaid household work does not diminish its value or the effort invested in it. The skills you gain in motherhood are valuable, and you shouldn’t undersell yourself to potential employers, she says.

Salemi recommends putting those skills on your resume, especially if you’ve taken career breaks to care for your children or aging parents. To showcase your planning, time management and problem-solving skills, you could put coordinating a school fundraiser or serving on your child’s parent-teacher association board on your resume.

“Especially if you’re managing a household, those are valuable skills to employers,” Salemi says. “Put those skills on your resume, and know your worth.”

2. Leverage your existing network

Growing your network can be beneficial, but Salemi recommends also leveraging your existing one. Let’s say you worked a bake sale or served on a PTO board. Who do you know from managing that? They could be references for you, Salemi says.

“Your references can be people that were not necessarily a direct boss,” she says. “They can definitely be your colleagues in your community.”

3. Define what work flexibility means to you

According to Salemi, defining what you’re looking for regarding work flexibility and the type of work you want to do is critical. Flexibility could mean starting work early and ending early every day or working remotely at least three times a week.

Outline what you need from your manager and have an honest, transparent conversation with them so you can set realistic expectations. If you’re in the market for a new job, outline what work flexibility means to you and the benefits you need before starting your job search. Also, keep in mind how your definition of work flexibility may change over time based on your children’s age and your needs as a mom.

“Your flexibility right now with a newborn, and your hours and when and where you work, may change from when your child is 3 to when they’re 5, to when they’re 10,” Salemi says. “Be open to speaking to your boss and even looking for new employers that fit your needs at that time.”

Methodology

​​Bankrate commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey on flexible work preferences. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,367 US adults, of whom 1,137 are working full-time or currently looking for full-time employment and 171 were working mothers with children under the age of 18. Fieldwork was undertaken on July 20-24, 2023. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non-probability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.