Better Life Lab

How Mothers Get Caught in an Unemployment–Child Care Cycle

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Getty Images.

In New York, an unemployed mother left her two children in the car, air conditioning on, while she went in LaGuardia Airport for a job interview. The children were fine but told the cop who discovered them they didn’t know where their mom was. Local authorities stepped in, and the mug shot of the mother made its way across the country.

But what other options did Nidia Joseph-Delgado have? For a mom looking for work without childcare options, the obstacles are steep.

Caitlin Mahoney knows the frustration that comes from not being able to find work. She worked as a theater, English, and special education teacher before her daughter was born and intended to go back to work part time afterward. But she hasn’t been able to find a teaching position that will pay her enough to cover the cost of child care.

“The first year I stayed home I was totally happy,” she said, “but I have student loans and I started feeling uncomfortable that I wasn’t contributing. It would make me feel better to put my income in our Excel spreadsheet, [and] help it go to green.” She hopes to apply to teaching positions once again in the spring, when schools ramp up their hiring processes. In the meantime, she’s watching a friend’s baby to bring in at least a little bit of income to help with her feelings of restlessness. In a way, she’s become a stay-at-home mom and a part-time child care provider by accident. The intensity of child care demands for women with young children can be one of the greatest motivators for women to want to get back to a professional life and one of the reasons doing so can be difficult.

Elana Konstant, a career coach and consultant in Brooklyn, works with stay-at-home moms like Mahoney who want to transition back to work. She’s found that, for many stay-at-home moms, how they left the workforce, under what conditions, and how long they’ve been away affect their “professional self-esteem.” On top of the usual stresses of not having a job while needing one, being a mother to a young child presents an array of dilemmas, both practical and emotional.

“I call it ‘reclaiming your professional mojo,’ ” Konstant said. “Being a stay-at-home mom is rewarding, and so many do it, but there are others who expect to go back and wonder if they will be hirable again, or if their experience from before [having kids] is still valid.” And for many women, their work prospects are tied to their identity, making the job search process extremely fraught.

The number of moms staying home with kids because they cannot find a job has risen dramatically in recent years (six times as many in 2012 as compared with 2000). And while these mothers make up a minority of the moms who are staying home with kids, they are significantly more likely to be unhappy with their situation, which serves neither them nor their kids in the long run.

In an economy rife with long-term unemployment and skyrocketing child care costs, where women sometimes take breaks to raise young children, a balance of professional and family fulfillment can be tough to attain. The job search, as women like Mahoney know, can take months, even years. The average person looking for work spends 26 weeks unemployed, which doesn’t include those people who have dropped out of the job search. If you’re taking care of a young kid at the same time, this search can be even harder.

The unemployment rate for mothers with children less than 3 years old was 5.6 percent in 2016, slightly higher than the national average. These are mothers who are actively seeking work and cannot find employment, who have children at the ages in which child care is the most expensive. One study estimated that women lost between 4 and 10 percent of their earnings for every child they had, with women who worked in more affluent, competitive jobs losing more than those in lower-skilled positions. Women’s long gaps in their résumés for having and rearing kids significantly lower their lifetime earning potential.

Konstant said that concerns about child care are top of the list for moms who want to return to work—they worry not only about who will watch the kids once a job offer materializes, but also who will watch the kids while they go on interviews or even spend time online searching through job postings. She recommends that stay-at-home moms begin the job search process by reaching out to friends to let them know they’re looking, explore drop-in options at child care centers, or offer to swap child care duties with another family—“You take their kid two days a week. They take your kid two days a week. It’s hard to do that with a young child with you.” This requires all kinds of creativity. Even child care centers at gyms can be valuable, Konstant says, since a mom can leave her kids for a few hours, then go upstairs and job search online instead of working out.

Mothers cannot focus on finding a new job unless they have access to very affordable child care. “We need a plan in place for [people who go on unemployment] to have child care,” said Sarah Damaske, an associate professor of labor and employment relations and sociology at Penn State University “You don’t want people plunged too far into poverty that it’s a shock to the family, and prevents them from looking for work,” Damaske said.

Damaske’s research examined the physical and mental well-being of women at age 40 and found that job loss took a toll. As compared with women who opted for staying home with kids or those who worked consistently, the women who’d lost jobs fared worst both physically and mentally.

Konstant found that it comes down to a psychological barrier for many women: wondering if they’re hirable. “When I redo their résumé, it’s incredibly empowering for them,” she said. She’s created an online course geared toward women making the job shifts, Leaping Back. “That is why I created the course, [to] help people step back into themselves and their professional identity.”

Women may have made strides in most aspects of employment (and there are some fields where women’s employment far outpaces men), but we’re still falling short when it comes to making a successful work-life balance when relegated to the outskirts of the labor market. For women, mothers especially, who’ve felt that unexpected and unforgiving shove toward unemployment, that revolving door takes a fair amount of energy to push back open.