Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Topic of the Day: Women Leaving the Work Force

Last night I met up with a good friend of mine for happy hour drinks in our neighborhood where we talked and talked for nearly three hours…

We’re both parents of kids who aren’t yet eligible for Covid vaccination – but soon they will be! – and are among the more cautious in a peer group, so when we get together it’s always outside to limit the risk of getting Covid and bringing it home. There was a little nip in the air yesterday, but not too cold yet that we felt uncomfortable being outside, and the bar/restaurant that we chose even has branded wool blankets they offer to each outdoor party. We didn’t need to use ours, but it was a nice touch.

Anyway, over whiskey cocktails, we discussed a wide range of things – our experiences with ghosts and supernatural stuff (we’ve both lived in haunted houses), working for ourselves (she’s a photographer), and the effect the pandemic has had on women – women in the work force, mothers, wives. Last month alone, more than 300,000 women left the work force in the US – the largest drop-off since September of 2020. (Men, on the other hand, gained 220,000 positions.) One in three women is leaving the work force, many of them citing burnout as the leading cause for their departure.

For women who live with partners and/or have kids, that’s a whole lot of them who have joined the ranks that my friend and I have been in for many years: the main domestic manager of the household. For some, that may be a welcome shift (see: burnout) and for others, they may hope this change is only temporary (nearly two out of every three women who’ve left the work force plan to return). Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, there’s likely to be some feelings around the transition from full-time money-making labor to doing much more of the domestic kind of labor that one does not get paid for. (For many, I suspect it might just be the former that has changed and that the unpaid, domestic workload was always high, even when managing full-time work outside the home.)

My friend and I both have side businesses that bring in some money and let us financially contribute to the household, but mostly we are financially supported by our husbands, and for some women this can be a real spot of tension, discomfort, and even resentment that we grapple with in various ways. I’m among those women. I think my friend is too. We talked about what it means to have a culture that values the support the partner who earns an income provides versus the support the partner at home provides to the one who works full-time. But if you are a woman in a domestic relationship who has either recently made the transition to full-time or part-time unemployment or has been a longtime stay-at-homer, know that you are supporting your spouse as much as he or she supports you. In a culture that values a specific kind of labor – the labor that generates money – it can be really, really hard to embrace that idea and to see the value in the kind of labor that doesn’t generate money, but that labor is as necessary to keeping the wheels in the cog spinning as anything else. Arguably more necessary.

I’ve mentioned – just this week – how my income has been affected by the pandemic (I am currently making less than half of what I earned just before the pandemic began), and so I’ve been thinking more than usual about what it means to be mostly unpaid for my labor and how that affects my self-esteem, how that impacts my “value” and for whom it changes my value. That this is happening at the same time I’m entering middle-age (I turned 45 last month) has been especially interesting as so much of the way women in our society are valued is youth-based. Fortunately, I am married to someone who values me for me and not all the other bullshit. And I have a pretty healthy self-esteem. But even with those considerations, on my worst days, I think about how my value as a woman could be higher; I worry that I am not modeling for my kids the image of a woman who does more, is more, has more to offer. If I am thinking these things on occasion, I suspect others might be too.

It’s a battle, combatting cultural expectations and a value system that places a much higher appreciation on paid labor as well as on youth. People – even men – transition out of these categories – youth, paid labor earner – all the time. Aging will happen to all of us who are lucky to live long enough, and retirement is a normal life stage that, again, happens for anyone lucky enough to make that transition. These aren’t new transitions, but the pandemic has increased a collective shift to unemployment that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, and it has affected women far, far more than it has men, and at a time in our cultural history when women had finally achieved a status in the work force on par – or getting close to it – with men. The cultural reverberations of this shift will likely be felt for decades. The personal consequences, too, will be felt individually for many years – in ways that are good, bad, and very complicated for a lot of us. Are you among those whose work/income status has shifted over the past year and a half? How has it affected you?

39 comments… add one
  • Helen October 28, 2021, 11:51 am

    I stopped working when covid hit. I owned a cleaning business that I had recently restarted when we caught covid March 2020. Decided not to return after recovery because my 2 year old was being cared for by my husband who works from home. He couldn’t do his job & parent a toddler at the same time. Daycare is way too expensive. I’ll probably go back to work part time when she enters kindergarten. Not working doesn’t make me feel bad or that I’m not contributing. My husband is amazing and expresses his gratitude for all I do every day. He acknowledges that he wouldn’t be able to travel or work overtime if I wasn’t running the home. That helps

    Reply Link
  • Moneypenny October 28, 2021, 12:03 pm

    I’ve talked about this topic with my mom since she was a stay at home mom since my sister was born in the late 70’s. At the time she had been working, but realized then that her pay would just go to childcare. Plus my father worked out of town for 3 month stints so it just made sense for her to be at home to take care of the household and kids. She has definitely felt a stigma about it- not from other people she knew but from society and the media. Like, it wasn’t a “real” job (not that you have to get paid for something to be a job!) and that she wasn’t equal to her husband. Basically everything you’re saying! Frankly, having my mom around all the time even when my dad was gone working made my life less stressful and pretty smooth. It was great knowing that mom was always there and she kept the household running!

    Reply Link
    • Anonymous October 29, 2021, 11:15 am

      My mom was also a SAHM and as a kid, it was nice to have a parent always there. But I do know that my mom felt that same stigma — even though it is a real job and provides tremendous value! — and regrets not working. She has a PhD and while she did work here and there, we moved often for my dad’s job and she never really got to use her degree in the ways she probably imagined she would. My dad was not a great husband or father, I’m sure her role felt pretty thankless, so all around I think she has a fair amount of sadness around her choices and always encouraged me and my sister to be very independent. My mom’s experience made me never want to leave the workforce even if I one day have kids.

      I recently visited my mom and she drove back to Chicago with me for a visit. In the car, she asked how my live-in boyfriend and I split the finances and chores, if we ever fight about money, etc. We’re childless, so I think a lot of the fights she and my dad used to get into simply don’t apply to us. My boyfriend out earns me, but not by a ton, so things feel relatively equal on that front and we play to our strengths with the division of the housework.

      Reply Link
      • Copa October 29, 2021, 11:16 am

        ^^^This was me, just not logged in. Whoops!

  • Miss MJ October 28, 2021, 12:11 pm

    Honestly, between the GOP’s all out assault on women’s reproductive rights and the way COVID has driven women from the workforce, I very much worry about women’s rights in the coming years. We’re moving backwards at a fairly alarming rate. And, if you can’t control how many children you have or when you have them and you can’t work because there is no one to care for them (or affordably care for them) while you’re working, then you’re stuck being financially dependent upon someone else. And, while not obviously always, I do think that a lot of the time, ceding financial independence leads to a loss of power in a relationship, particularly the longer a woman has been out of the work force, which absolutely sucks.

    Reply Link
    • Kate October 28, 2021, 12:38 pm

      Agree with all this.

      But also, I SUPER appreciate everything my spouse does domestically. He has a job that’s a lot more flexible than mine. It’s sales, so yes, he is pretty much always “on,” but he’s not tied to a computer. He’s not on video. He can be out and about and just be prepared to pick up the phone. So he does most of the dog care these days, laundry, grocery shopping, car care, all kinds of things. He makes a good income but less than me, and I really really notice and appreciate all he does and realize that what he does makes it possible for me to work like I do. At the same time, because I have the primary income with the benefits, I feel powerful, in the sense that I can do what I want, buy what I want, etc.

      I’ve mentioned it before, but I grew up in a household where I think my parents division of labor was totally equitable. They both worked FT and shared the domestic shit. Which was EASIER back then, for women to do that. More access to affordable child care, reasonable working hours, no need to always be connected. She could do both for those reasons and also because she had a spouse that carried the load.

      Anyway. I work because I have to but also because I have nothing better to do.

      Reply Link
  • Kate October 28, 2021, 2:34 pm

    Another thing, contracting can be a really good way to go if your spouse already has benefits. In my field, companies are desperate for contractors, and I have a few friends who are moms and work hourly. They used to be FT, but hourly work lets them be totally in control of their time. One friend works 32 hours now, another one’s youngest just got into a pre-k so she has just a few hours a week this year but can do more next year, like maybe 15-20. And a startup will happily take her 5 hours because it makes the founder look like he has a staff. You can get a really good rate too, much more than FT employees make per hour.

    Reply Link
    • Phoebe October 29, 2021, 9:05 am

      You are totally right — I’ve been an independent subcontractor for many years and the power and freedom are wonderful. I can bill whatever I want, and these days I have way more work than I can handle.

      Could not do it if my husband didn’t carry the benefits though, and that’s an enormous privilege.

      Reply Link
      • Kate October 29, 2021, 9:22 am

        I mean, you *can* – there was a while when I was contracting and also buying health insurance on the market. My husband’s company is Canadian and don’t offer health insurance but do factor it into his salary, and I factored it into my hourly rate. But we just had a pretty basic plan, as we don’t use health care outside of checkups and stuff. I know some people would need more.

  • ktfran October 28, 2021, 3:22 pm

    I don’t have much to say on this topic. The husband and I make pretty good money, with him making more but not a ton more. And we don’t have kids. We’re pretty good at equally sharing household chores. He’s responsible for some things, like managing our money (we’d be in debt if I managed it) and maintenance. I’m responsible for meal planning and cooking. We both clean. If one of us gets swamped at work, the other picks up the slack. I’m (we’re both) lucky.

    What Kate, Moneypenny, Helen has made me think of my parents and how they handled jobs and kids. The plan was for my mom to be a SAHM. That’s the path she wanted to take. My dad is a barber. Tragedy struck with their first born, my older sister, when she was born with a rare disease. From her illness, the parents realized they needed healthcare. It took them 20 years to pay off her medical bills… for a child that died a few months before her 2nd birthday. So, my mom had to work. I’m not sure she actually made much money because she ended up having me and my sisters and, well, childcare, but they did have health insurance. That was the one thing my parents instilled in us. Health insurance. It’s no fucking joke. And even then, you could still end up in crippling debt.

    Both parents helped out with child rearing . They had more typical gendered roles when it came to the house. My mom took care of the inside. My dad the outside. My mom also handled the money. All of us girls helped with yardwork and cleaning as soon as we were old enough.

    All in all, I’m pretty lucky to have grown up in an environment that was fairly equitable.

    Reply Link
  • Ange October 28, 2021, 5:21 pm

    Every woman in my family (except my grandmother) has always worked, many far more successfully than their partners so I’ve never really known any different, I was always encouraged to work for myself for my own independence. In 2017 Australia 72% of women were in the workforce whereas the closest data I could find from America was 2015 where 57% worked so I think it really shines a light on differences in public policy. Being a stay at home parent here is a bit of an anomaly and would be difficult to achieve with the cost of living.

    That said I’ve had periods of unemployment when we’ve moved and I really struggled with it as well. Not having kids I really hated feeling like I wasn’t ‘contributing’. With kids, especially little kids, it’d be so much work. I would rather have a job any day of the week than deal with that amount of work.

    Reply Link
    • Maree October 29, 2021, 4:57 am

      I’m not sure about this. I’m Australian and most mothers I know work part time at most. I’ve just returned to the full time workforce after 15 years at home (both stay at home mum only and working from home part time). That’s the norm amongst my social group – stay home when the kids are young and then work part time when they get to school age. I’m in Qld for reference.

      Reply Link
      • Dear Wendy October 29, 2021, 5:57 am

        It’s very normal in my area for one parent to not work outside the home or to work a freelance or part-time flexible schedule. And I’d say 30-40% of the time, the partner who is the main breadwinner is a woman.

      • Ange October 29, 2021, 5:38 pm

        Right but they’re working, which is supported by the data. Entirely stay at home parents are the anomaly.

      • Maree October 29, 2021, 11:59 pm

        I don’t want to get in a net war but the ABS says 9.3% of families with children are ‘jobless’, 24.5% have one job, remainder two jobs (of various configurations). I’ve been part of both groups and I feel uncomfortable behind defined as an anomaly. More than 30% of 2 parent families by govt data isn’t unusual.

      • Ange October 30, 2021, 4:53 pm

        The fact is in 2020 pre-covid 75% of women worked in some capacity. If it makes you feel some kind of way that’s unfortunate but it isn’t a value judgement on you.

      • Kate October 30, 2021, 4:58 pm

        Thing is, in the US only 50-some percent of women are in the workforce. Australia seems to be doing a lot better than us with our no paid leave and childcare shortage.

      • Dear Wendy October 31, 2021, 6:54 am

        These are really big challenges for American moms/families! When childcare costs as much or nearly as much as what some lower-paying (historically women-dominated) fields pay, it’s hard to justify the time spent away from home/ family obligations. When my kids were really little – mostly before Joanie was born, I spent nearly everything I earned running DW on like 15 hours of private childcare a week and a housekeeper. This was to give myself a break from domestic obligations and to use my other skills in a way that felt fulfilling. But not everyone would want to make or be comfortable making that choice. My goal was always to earn a good part-time salary by the time my youngest was in school full time so that I could contribute financially to the household while being very present at home/ volunteer at school/ puck the kids up from school and be on mom mode for the rest of the day. And I reached that goal! After eight years, I got six months with both kids in school full time, me earning a decent part time salary working for myself, and then the pandemic hit and everything changed…

      • Kate October 31, 2021, 7:36 am

        Right, another issue we have here in the US is paying a wage that allows moms to even pay rent, let alone pay for childcare.

  • Lily October 28, 2021, 9:07 pm

    In theory, when it comes to other people, I do value domestic labor as a real and equal contribution to commercial labor. I feel really concerned about what’s happening with women in the workforce.

    In practice, for me personally, it’s complicated. I’m in my thirties, married to a man, no kids. Early in the pandemic, I quit my medium-high earning job to start a company. It was a risky move. We never got funding and I earned literally nothing for almost a year. It felt pretty horrible. Even though I’ve always earned less than my husband, it was never that much less. I started doing more house work, bought less stuff for myself, and generally got depressed about the power imbalance. My husband was very nice about it the whole time, and kept trying to encourage me to do equal house work or outsource it, so it was basically all in my head.

    I ended up quitting my business partly due to this, which by the way was even scarier than starting a business. I then spent three full months prepping and interviewing for a new job. I ended up getting a much better salary than I had ever earned before. More than double, actually, and frankly higher than I ever expected to earn in my life (though annoyingly, still a little less than my husband). I’ll be honest, I am really happy about the money part of my new job. I feel incredibly lucky, more power balance in my relationship with my husband, more powerful in relation to other people, and just more independent. Interestingly, I still do more housework, but now voluntarily since we can afford to outsource but I enjoy the small amount of physical labor as it helps with my (partly job-induced) anxiety.

    I realize I’m incredibly fortunate, and I do feel bad for having unconsciously bought into the money earning = power. But darn if that hasn’t gotten very deeply ingrained and I can’t get it out. Maybe a decade plus of living in NYC?

    Reply Link
  • LisforLeslie October 29, 2021, 7:18 am

    I’d love to see more data on the types of jobs that women are leaving: service, white collar, manufacturing, etc. I tried to read the Bureau of Labor statistics but my brain refused to comply.

    There’s no clear picture of the family size either (2 people, 3 people, 4 people), the type of work, the age of the people in the house. I’m sure elder care and child care is a factor and while kids get more independent, aging people get less independent. Pre-vaccine, elder care programs ceased and people were pulling their relatives out of care. Now with vaccines in place, people have to make the decision whether they are working just to afford elder care. And with the current staffing shortages, I’d be less inclined to spend my day being yelled at because there’s too much ice in the cup.

    I think the other thing that the pandemic showed us was that for a lot of us, we spent a lot of money on things we didn’t need. As people Marie Kondo’d their homes, and the thrift stores were inundated with donations…. I’m wondering if people who continued working, but spent far less than they normally would, will return to pre-pandemic consumerism.

    But I see all of this as an outsider, I have no kids. My mom does not need that level of care yet. I need to work because I need to pay my bills and more importantly I need health insurance.

    Reply Link
  • MaterialsGirl October 29, 2021, 10:42 am

    This is really hitting home right now.

    I’m a masters-level engineer. I’ve always worked. Before kids, I felt like i was on the ‘Upwards” path.. more responsibilities, lots of travel, the prospect of more money and titles etc. Literally i had a career path that was in technical sales engineering and traveled all over.
    Then i had my first kid and I needed a job that was home 100%. I moved into a department managerial position and this is where I”ve stayed on with the second kid as well. I’d like to move up, but the way I move up now is much slower. I cannot put extra hours in and i have to remain in a job that is “flexible” because my husband is in a job that requires him to be at the plant 10-15 hours per day including saturdays. I feel like i can’t get a new job or go back to the faster moving role since someone needs to be present for the kids. If i wanted to work OT, i need a babysitter. This is certainly an option, but at this point in the game, i’m tired.. and i do want to be with my kids. Husband wants to be with kids too but .. he fully realizes and verbalizes that the only way he can have a demanding high powered job AND a family is because i have flexibility.

    i’m really struggling lately with this even though this is kinda the choice i made? i mean i made a series of smaller choices that have led me to this. When i look back at what i was doing and what i’m doing now (or others (male) in my age range/skill set are doing).. its really really shocking.

    theres a lot going on at work and on my team that is frustrating, so part of this retrospective is colored by that. Most of the time i’m as happy as I can be with two small children and a job and being “in the shit” as they say.

    Reply Link
    • Dear Wendy October 29, 2021, 12:59 pm

      I know it’s cliche at this point, but the years really do go by quickly when you’re raising kids. Soon – sooner than you think – your kids will be more independent. They’ll require less physical labor from you and you’ll have more energy and maybe more time/ flexibility in your schedule.

      Reply Link
      • MaterialsGirl October 29, 2021, 10:05 pm

        Thanks Wendy, I’m trying hard to savor the sweet moments with the kids, but sometimes the literal and figurative butt wiping gets me down

  • Bittergaymark October 29, 2021, 1:32 pm

    Hopefully, a certain armeror has left the work force. Nepotism mixed with sheer and utter incompentence is a deadly mix.

    I have so much to say about the lack of safety on sets. But I have to much else to deal with this friday afternoon.

    Reply Link
  • Classic October 29, 2021, 4:25 pm

    This is such a complicated topic that it is impossible to address it from all directions. We each get to choose our priorities, of course, and I chose mine. But I wonder if what I chose was the best. I guess that I was one of the earlier female programmers, and logic was my thing, and I was excellent, really. I am happy that Dear Wendy is non-judgment zone or qualified-judgment, for what I am about to say. What I mean is that, generally, I trust the judgment of Wendy’s readers. I’d guess that I was among elite earners for under-30 females back then, before I got pregnant (“fell pregnant”! lol. We were using condoms, BGM)
    Anyway, I loved my baby so much, before he was even born. I totally changed track, became a contractor, luckily started out with my current employer as first contract gig. I was able to support both of us entirely on my own, for which I am very grateful. When he was an infant, I worked every time he slept, and only slept every other night for only 3 hours. As he grew up, he chose to do a fully-accredited distance-learning private school, so, after 2nd grade he was home again, and we worked at home together.
    My son is such a super-intelligent, compassionate, caring person with a heart of gold. I thought that I was setting a good example by working so hard, but that is not what he learned from my efforts, and he chooses to work as little as possible, although, fortunately, he is smart with investments.
    Just my actual expenses for raising him were well over $500K and I’d guess that my loss of income is in the millions. To be clear– my concern is only that my son might have been a wealthy guy if I had continued on my career trajectory and stashed away savings for him instead of focusing on raising him.

    Reply Link
  • Kate October 29, 2021, 5:12 pm

    I think everyone does what is right at the time. If you worked hard at your career maybe you’d be regretting the lost time with him. No matter what you do as a parent, you probably question it.

    Reply Link
    • Helen October 29, 2021, 5:17 pm


      Reply Link
  • Just thinking October 30, 2021, 1:03 pm

    I am now a SAHM, previously a Mom who worked outside the home & I still struggle with people’s perceptions at times.

    I think there will always be feelings of guilt whatever role you have but I am trying to embrace the idea that it is okay to say “this is what works for our family right now”.

    Reply Link
  • Lissa October 30, 2021, 1:31 pm

    From a managerial perspective, all my colleagues and I do is worry about and work on addressing this – strategizing tangible ways to keep women in the pipeline right now (and people from other historically marginalized identities, which have also experienced disproportionate effects). I’m a biology professor at an R1 university (so not even physics or something that’s more male-skewed), and even we’ve dropped to 30% women faculty this year. Recruiting at all levels has become more difficult and it feels like a constant crisis. We worry about long term effects on the grad students, the undergrads, our peers, everyone, so we just try to support wherever we can – and that’s on top of our regular full-time work and childcare responsibilities (I have two, one is 7 and the other is 4). I think we are all just trying to prepare ourselves for recovery taking a long time, unfortunately.

    Reply Link
  • Lisah October 31, 2021, 12:07 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have been a part time employee for 20 years so I could do the bulk of household management and kid raising. A constant battle to my self esteem because the world didn’t value my contribution and sometimes those closest to me didn’t either. I’m back at work full time now that my kids are mostly grown. Now they need my money for college. It really feels good to write that check but at the same time I’ve been working hard for 20 years and would love to live in culture that values motherhood and all the hard work it takes. I’m 52 and I know it’s better for me than it was for my mom. I would love to see better protection for sahm or part timers like me. It can be pretty scary knowing that I could take a significant financial hit if my husband decided to leave. I know I would get 50% of our savings but my current earnings potential is less because I have been out of the work force. And alimony is pretty much gone nowadays. It’s things like this that decrease value of the sahm and make it a pretty scary choice.

    Reply Link
    • Classic October 31, 2021, 3:47 pm

      I agree with this so much and feel deep empathy.

      Reply Link
  • allathian November 1, 2021, 3:29 am

    Posts like these make it all the clearer that I’m very privileged because I don’t live in the US. We have single-payer health insurance, although employers can and do provide occupational healthcare for their employees. This is usually, but not always, limited to fairly regular checkups, and the ability to book emergency appointments at a short notice (same day) if you get too sick to work. We also have access to daycare at a reasonable price, we’re talking hundreds rather than thousands per month, and for particularly disadvantaged groups, such as low-income single parents, it can be free. Granted, we have high and progressive taxation to pay for these services, but personally I think it’s worth it, not least because I’ve benefited from it for much of my life. There’s still a significant gender disparity in pay, and birth parents are still a lot more likely to take parental leave than their partners, but at least we haven’t seen the sort of regression that’s happening in the US when it comes to women in the workforce.

    Reply Link
  • anonymousse November 1, 2021, 12:12 pm

    I am a SAHM. And now I’m kind of (but not really) looking at returning to the workplace, but I’m considered unskilled now, right? After 7 ish years of not working? And nobody wants to hire a mom whose schedule is tied to schoolchildren. I mean, if I had actually been looking for work, maybe I could have some care for them but it seems like every family I know is scrambling for care right now. Our school opened as new this year, and an aftercare place was supposed to open for parents, but they just didn’t. And they announced it about a month into a very hectic first month of school. I digress.

    I have medical issues that prevent me from working or looking for work right now, but I truly feel like America is not at all supportive to parents (moms specifically) socially, politically, in all the ways, really. American moms are getting screwed in the pandemic and I actually think that’s a really nice way to say it.

    Reply Link
    • anonymousse November 1, 2021, 12:21 pm

      And yes, the fear of my husband losing his job literally sent me into a panic attack this year. It’s not even a possibility, but the mere thought of it and me not having an actual career left to piece together put me in a panic.
      And yes, I willingly made these choices. I knew exactly what wasn’t going to be waiting for me on the other side of my early years with my kids, but I truly feel like the way my circumstances unfolded, I had no other choice than to give up my career for my husband’s MUCH more lucrative one. I know what I chose. I can accept that, but it’s still a shitty system.
      Also, my husband is a super hero and takes excellent care of all of us when he’s able. He does more than his fair share, I’d say. I’m lucky.

      Reply Link
      • Helen November 1, 2021, 4:03 pm

        I could have written this word for word

      • anonymousse November 2, 2021, 4:26 pm

        Fist bump, Helen. It’s fucking rough out here. Hugs.

  • Kate November 2, 2021, 4:33 pm

    My mom has some friends in Italy, and their daughter is having a baby. I think she lives in Germany though. You have to stop working 6 months from your due date, then you get TWO years off after the baby. BUT, I think it’s a bit creepy because you’re not allowed to even take an online course or do anything at all. They say you have to totally focus on the baby. You have to give up some autonomy.

    Reply Link
    • anonymousse November 2, 2021, 5:33 pm

      Wow, that’s crazy. I felt fancy going on leave like a few days before my due date, like before it was “necessary.” We are so backwards in so many ways.

      Reply Link

Leave a Comment