Does Working From Home Secretly Suck For Moms?

What if it’s just another example of forcing women into a losing battle?

does-working-from-home-secretly-suck-for-moms: An illustration of a mother of color working at a desk while two children, a young boy and girl run around and play around her. The older one is doing a cartwheel. The background of the illustration is a blue-gray.
Malte Mueller/Getty Images

It’s been four years since the Covid pandemic upended our lives, and for most people, the day-to-day has long since resumed its normal pace. Yet for many workers in the U.S., the pandemic brought a seismic shift to the workweek that some employees are still enjoying today—working from home. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of home-based workers more than tripled from 2019 to 2021 (from roughly 9 million people to 27.6 million), with women making up the majority. Fast forward to today and the exact number of people working from home is hard to pin down. While most experts agree that the majority of the workforce are still in the office, a recent survey found that 42 percent of full-time employees were either fully remote or in a hybrid arrangement. I fall into the latter category, going into the office once a week and spending the rest of my time squirreled away in a home “office” (a 5 x 8 foot backroom that doubles as a closet and storage unit) trying to cram as much as I can into the eight hours while my kids are at preschool, a not insubstantial block of time only afforded to me because we pay for aftercare.

This is great, right? The having-it-all mother’s dream? Indeed, the introduction of work from home was hailed by many as an answer to working mothers’ prayers (‘Work from Home Is the New Feminist Frontier,’ reads one headline from 2020 and ‘Working From Home: Is It The Great Equalizer For Women?’ reads another.) No longer were women expected to work as if they didn’t have children and parent as if they didn’t have jobs—every interrupted Zoom call made it clear that women were (and had always been) juggling both childcare and work. And while normal life may have resumed for the most part, many experts credit the increase in flexible work arrangements post-pandemic to the current record number of women in the workplace.

More women—and mothers specifically—in the workforce is undeniably important on both a micro and macro level. For families, research shows that kids with working moms benefit immensely. “Women whose mothers worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves, are more likely to hold supervisory responsibility at those jobs, and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full time,” says Harvard researcher Kathleen McGinn. 

As for the economy, we all profit when moms work. According to the Center for American Progress, “virtually all of the economic gains experienced by the typical middle-class family since 1970, for example, have been due to increases in women’s earnings.” Per the organization, from 1970 to 2013, the economic result of women’s labor force participation was $2 trillion and if every working woman in the U.S. went on strike for even one day, it would cost GDP nearly $21 billion.

It stands to reason then that if flexible work means more working moms, this can only be a good thing. And having experienced motherhood both as a fulltime in-office employee and as a hybrid employee, I certainly know which one I prefer. Just yesterday, both my husband and I had to go into work and, as a result, our home life devolved into shambles, with the kids eating cereal for dinner and going to bed much too late. It’s hard to fathom that this was once our norm and still is the norm for so many in this country.

And yet…what if the rallying cry of work from home flexibility isn’t so much the answer to women’s prayers as much as it is a band-aid? There are benefits, to be sure. But what if these benefits are a distraction from the bigger issues at hand? What if it’s just another example of forcing women into a losing battle?

The Childcare Problem

A recent article in The Cut followed couples with full time jobs and zero formal childcare. Per the story and according to data from the U.S. Census’s Household Pulse Survey, among parents with children under age 18, 61 percent of parents said they didn’t have any child care at all, including 35 percent of those with children under age 5 and 54 percent with children ages 5 to 11. 

While some couples say they opt for this arrangement because it allows them to spend more time with their kids, most cite cost savings as the main reason for forgoing childcare.

I chatted to one WFH mom based in NYC who falls into the latter category. “It's only nice in that I can save some money, but it's actually impossible to get anything done. And that means I have to either squeeze work in during naps or feel guilty for working while she stares at me to pay attention to her. Not to mention, I lose the flexibility that WFH would give anyone else, like running errands or working out when I have a break or the time saved by not commuting (which is all spent doing childcare things). Essentially, I am now doing two jobs instead of one.” 

For many, the numbers just don’t add up. Take New York City, for example, where the average cost of infant childcare is just shy of $23,000 or $1,916 per month. Meanwhile the median household income is $67,000, which after taxes, comes out to about $2,188 per month. That leaves just $272 leftover after paying for childcare! And it’s not just a problem for big city folk. Per a recent report from the Bank of America Institute, the average household spent more than $700 a month on child care in 2023 which is up 32 percent from 2019. Is it any wonder that higher costs are driving some parents to leave the workforce in order to look after their children?

Blurred Boundaries

File this one in the category of “One gal’s flexibility is another gal’s murky boundaries.” Indeed, the freedom to work from wherever and handle household tasks whenever has led many women to feel like they’re expected to be everything, everywhere all at once. 

“Women may be expected to respond to more family and household demands during work hours if they’re at home than if they’re at the office,” reads a recent article published by the World Economic Forum article titled ‘3 ways remote work is a double-edged sword for women’s careers, a statement that should come as no surprise to nobody who has ever attempted to sign her kids up for summer camp in the middle of a client call. This could mean putting away the laundry in between Zooms or running back to school to deliver your kid’s forgotten water bottle (even in marriages where husbands and wives earn the same, women still take on the lion’s share of housework and caretaking duties). 

The NYC mom I chatted to agrees, lamenting, “Even though my husband and I both work from home, the burden still falls on me to take care of [our daughter] most of the time.” And even for those couples who WFH and do have childcare, women appear to suffer the most from blurry work/home boundaries. According to a recent study published in Personnel Psychology, both husbands and wives complete more family-related tasks when they work from home versus the office (it’s pretty hard to ignore that giant stack of dishes when you’re staring right at it all day, after all). However, when wives work from home, husbands complete fewer family tasks than when their wives work in the office. The reverse is not true—wives do not complete fewer tasks when husbands work from home.

Childcare and household tasks can eat into the WFH day, yes, but remote work can also easily seep into home life (cue taking that late afternoon meeting from the playground). “Virtual work can create an unhealthy cycle of working all the time, or creating pressure to be available 24/7, or feeling like you constantly need to catch up,” notes the World Economic Forum.

Overcoming the Flexibility Stigma

Perhaps the biggest downside to working from home is the stigma that comes with it. In many workplaces, visibility is seen as productivity. Proximity bias refers to the unconscious tendency of people in power to treat workers who are physically closer more favorably. And it’s easy to see how this might affect WFH women and workers of color who may find themselves left behind in terms of assignments, promotions and raises.

“My CEO flat-out told me that I will advance quicker if I come into the office. And so, I go in,” a working mom-of-two in Maryland tells us. “His tactics are ancient and he’s a rich white man, but he means it and I appreciate that.”

In a recent New York Times article about the pitfalls of working from home for women, legal scholar Joan C. Williams notes that many top executives have outdated work arrangements; they are often married to homemakers and haven’t taken on caregiving duties. “They literally do not see this problem because it’s so far outside of their experience,” she said. “Hybrid workplaces will make it easier for women to remain in the labor force but harder for women to advance.” 

“I can’t imagine going to the office now,” a mom-of-two in Chicago who works remotely full time told me. “The day is already so long and I’m exhausted all the time and can’t remotely keep up with house stuff.” But she also admits that this current arrangement comes with decreased visibility to her colleagues and, ultimately, career sacrifice. “I’m OK not being on a fast track for career progression right now,” she says. 

The Bottom Line

Post-pandemic, work from home arrangements offer welcome flexibility to many families, moms in particular. (It’s worth noting here that the prevalence of WFH varies by income level and race, with government data showing that hybrid or remote workers tend to have more education and are more often white and Asian.) In fact, every parent we spoke with for this story appreciated their flexible arrangement and preferred it to pre-pandemic in-person work life. But to call flexible work a cure-all for moms is to miss the forest for the trees. We need flexible work arrangements, yes. But we also need better, affordable childcare, greater equity when it comes to household work and systems in place that afford flexibility to all women—not just the wealthy, white ones.   

As for me, I’m doing my best to ignore the piles of laundry next to me and focus on the (work) task at hand—even if that means my kids will have cereal for dinner again.

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...