Back in February 2020, Kate worked full-time running her practice as a clinical psychologist. She saw patients for therapy in an office Monday through Thursday—often clocking in at 8 a.m. and wrapping up long after dinner. Fridays were reserved for administrative work and billing. Though the hours were intense, the setup fulfilled her as both a mother and a professional. “I was the mom who was so ecstatic when we found a nanny we loved and I could go back to work from maternity leave. The quality of the time I spent with my son was much better when I had a full-time working schedule. I could be more present and put all my work stuff to the side.… If I don’t have that work separation, I get stuck. I need that predictable division of: Here’s my work self, and here’s my mom self.”
When the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020 and her son’s caregiver could no longer travel to their apartment, Kate downshifted her career. “It was survival mode,” she says. Her husband’s company provided the family’s health insurance, so quitting wasn’t an option for him, though he did work flexibly to support Kate’s part-time work.
“I maintained this very weird working schedule,” Kate recalls. “I was on duty with my son in the mornings, and then would see patients for therapy during his nap windows or in the evenings.” The constant role-shifting, combined with the challenge of counseling people in a period of communal grief and uncertainty, exhausted Kate. Soon she was so burned out that she had to drop her evening hours and worked only during naps. “I could see patients or do notes or emails after my son goes to bed, but I don’t. My mental bandwidth can’t take it. I just need to disconnect,” she says.
Kate’s ambition hasn’t faded; she says that she still identifies as a clinical psychologist first and a mother second. Yet even though her son, age 3, has been in daycare for a year, she hasn’t brought back the workload that she dropped in 2020. “I’m not done recovering from those 15 months without a caregiver. I still need more room to breathe and find my way,” she says.
There’s no question that our society’s failure to subsidize childcare, value caregivers, and provide paid family leave is the primary driver behind a well-known and devastating fact: Women left the workforce at twice the rate of men over the past two years. And while men have recouped just about every job lost between February 2020 and March 2022, the workforce is still short about 1.1 million female employees, according to an analysis of data conducted by the National Women’s Law Center. In Motherly’s 2022 State of Motherhood survey, released just weeks ago, nearly half of Gen Z and millennial moms who quit or left their jobs last year said problems with childcare were the cause.
Burnout trails closely behind as a factor. A recent global survey, called Women in the Workplace, by the consulting firm McKinsey found that 42 percent of working women say they are burned out. One in three women has thought about leaving or downshifting their career in the past year. By contrast, when the same survey was fielded early in the pandemic, only one in four reported wanting to leave. In a new national survey released by The Ohio State University, 66 percent of working parents qualified as being in a state of parental burnout.
“A defining feature of burnout is the sense that everything is meaningless, and no matter what solution or action I propose, it will be pointless,” says Pooja Lakshmin, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and the founder and CEO of Gemma. “And the thing with burnout is that a good amount of this is coming from employers and systems where that might be true. When an organization has time and again shown you that they’re not willing to support parents or people of color in ways that matter or make a substantial difference, leaving really might be the right answer, if you have that luxury.”
For many Americans, the situation is enraging and harrowing, and it has inspired some to shout from the rooftops that women need a better deal. “We need social and political change so that you can take paid leave when you need to recover or care for your children. A lot of this energy needs to be directed at collective action,” says Lakshmin. Adds clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD, author of Loving Bravely and host of the podcast Reimagining Love: “If we lived in a world that truly valued caregiving, then stepping away from paid employment would evoke pride, not shame. It would be viewed as one of many choices rather than as either a noble choice or an embarrassing choice.” There are several organizations—including the Chamber of Mothers, of which Lakshmin is a founder—leading the charge on this issue.
But if you’re ambitious yet burned out, or one of the 67 percent of women who dreams of quitting their job, it may also be helpful to remember that every one of the 1.1 million women still out of the workforce has their own story. The twists and turns they took on the road to a career pause are nuanced and personal and extend beyond a daycare center closing or a salaried position that barely covers the cost of childcare. Learning about others’ experiences can provide a glimmer of insight as to what can happen to your identity, your worth, and your vision of the future if you have the privilege to choose to stop working. Privilege is a key word here: “The privilege is not staying home or going to work, but having the choice,” says Neha Ruch, the founder of Mother Untitled, a community and resource for ambitious women navigating a career pause or downshift. The stories of these women reveal the transformative power of taking drastic action that makes you feel better.
“The treatment for all this burnout is rest, and it’s not restful to be taking care of kids, working full-time, and looking for a new job. From a mental health, self-focused perspective, the smart way to go about it is to stop, regroup, and evaluate what you want,” says Christin Drake, MD, a perinatal psychiatrist in New York City.
Finding Value Elsewhere
Before the pandemic, career coach Megan Martin Strickland primarily made her living helping women return to work after time away. “Now I’m coaching some moms who need help getting out of the workforce, or who need help deciding to downshift into being home,” says Strickland, who is the VP of business development and community at ReBoot Accel in the San Francisco Bay Area. She says that in addition to contending with childcare shortages and urgent, pandemic-fueled concerns over the emotional well-being of their kids, many women she coaches are engaging in a values correction. “They are asking themselves, Is this fulfilling? Is it worth the money? Often, they aren’t stepping out of the workforce to be stay-at-home moms, but rather to take time away and then look for a new opportunity in a different space.”
Taking a career break requires developing flexibility in your metrics of personal success and having confidence that you will still grow and stay connected professionally, Ruch says. Shedding an ego-affirming title, salary, and sense of purpose is not a feat that every person can manage on a psychological level, even when their inner voice is screaming to make a change. The women interviewed for this story largely spoke of long, difficult reckonings involving conversations with family and their superiors at work. A few spoke of grappling with self-inflicted pressure to set an example for other women, care for the team they managed, continue important work that impacted the greater good, or avoid a résumé gap that could sabotage their future career prospects. And yet despite these sizable obstacles, all these women ultimately gave notice.
Up until a few months ago, Meredith Krannich was vice president and general counsel at a major biotech company in Salt Lake City. “I had the best in-house legal job in Utah; I believe that,” says Krannich. But in addition to a sneaking suspicion that the role held no further growth for her, Krannich was dissatisfied with her work-life balance. She was up at 4 a.m. every morning and home at 7 p.m.; two nannies managed the daily needs of her three kids. “We were living to work, not working to live,” she says. “It was an incredibly frenetic pace.”
When she told a younger female lawyer in her community that she planned to give notice, she was met with shock. At that moment, Krannich says, “I felt like I was letting people down. I thought, What is she going to think about me? What kind of example am I setting? Will she respect me? But I had to just power through it and say, I’m going to own it. I’m doing something that’s good for me and is true to me.”
Staci Bush in Durham, North Carolina, left her job just a few weeks ago. When she announced the news on LinkedIn—posting that she was choosing “health over wealth” and would only be seeking “opportunities to feed my soul”—she struck a chord and received thousands of responses. The post was viewed more than half a million times. Above all, Bush says, she wanted to spend more time with her 6-year-old daughter, whom she adopted at age 47.
“I used to think that you had to prove why you left a job. But you don’t. A lot of people made a lot of choices around Covid. Now you can just stop—no questions asked,” she says. While on family medical leave to care for her dying father-in-law, Bush says, she also realized that her importance in the organization where she worked had been exaggerated in her mind. “I didn’t feel enthusiastic about going back, but I felt joy going to my daughter’s gymnastics and tap dancing and ballet. I asked myself, Why am I not having joy in everything I do? Did I pride myself on the work I did and the achievements I reached? Yes. But if it was my definition of my value, then I had a lot of work left to do.”
Then there’s Anna, a family court lawyer in the New York City area, who just embarked on a career pause. For the past 12 years, she doggedly and devotedly represented low-income women in divorce, custody, child support, and abuse cases, a role she found emotionally rewarding but also very draining. She views her decision—which she struggled with for months—as a feminist act. “In my view, putting yourself first is radical. Women aren’t supposed to want to do that, because we’ve been told it’s our job to care for everybody else,” she says.
So When Might the Great Mom Resignation End?
While experts believe that many women will soon return to the paid labor force—particularly as childcare becomes more reliable—some women are very much on their own timeline.
“I don’t have a lot of answers yet, just questions,” says Anne, who worked in technology in Atlanta until November 2021, when she could no longer ignore the feeling that she wasn’t satisfied. Now that she’s caring for her two young children full-time, she says she is relieved to no longer be distracted by Slack messages or thoughts of how to approach the next day’s meetings and emails. But she also learned that full-time mothering is not the be-all and end-all for her. In her downtime, she has started to imagine a future in which she returns to the paid workforce. “I’m being intentional about not going back to the most obvious thing I was doing before. I’m thinking about how I want to spend my time, and what returning to work will look like,” she says.
As for Bush: “I’ve been telling people four days to four years,” she says. In an ironic twist, when Bush posted that she was taking a career break, the news alerted her network to the fact that she was on the market, and job offers—some of them quite dreamy—came in almost immediately. But, says Bush, she has budgeted this break down to the penny, and she won’t go back unless the position affords her a more balanced life and the work truly inspires her. Bush says that the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, inspired her to push her career forward at all costs. But a decade after reading it, her perspective has changed, and she realizes she needs to redefine success and ambition on her terms.
Faustine was working full-time as an attorney in San Francisco until an issue with her visa forced her to take a six-month break. One month before this leave was supposed to end, she gave notice for real. The new pace of her life—which included more exercise, daily creative writing, and more relaxed time with her school-age children—fulfilled her in ways she hadn’t known were possible. “I want to see if I can achieve something with my writing, so I am planning to take another year off,” she writes in an email. “It’s easy to feel pressured when people ask, ‘Will you start working again?’ But I do not focus on this. I know I am lucky to experience a slower life, and I want to make the most of it. It will end at some point.”
Recently Kate decided to do something that made her happy: She enrolled in a virtual yoga training program. Now that she’s a certified instructor, she hopes to incorporate yoga into her work as a therapist—a passion she never seriously entertained pre-Covid. And although she thrived in her old life of extra-long workdays, she cannot imagine going back to that grueling schedule. “I can see that I desire a shift in what full-time looks like, and I know that yoga will get infused into my work. I just don’t know much beyond that. I’m not done recovering from those 15 months without a caregiver. I still need more room to breathe and find my way.”
Over and over, women shared that while their ambition remains, the urgency to continually feed it or to pursue it traditionally has weakened. In a pause or downshift, Ruch says there’s an opportunity to exist in a gray area—to focus on time with your family but also to network, volunteer, or work part-time: “When women claim that in-between space, it gives them the ability to make the right choice for right now, knowing that they can reevaluate again and again.”
Krannich hasn’t ruled out returning to tiring full-time hours after her pause, but the burnout she experienced has led to a personal realization about work. “It has to be worth it for me to be that busy,” she says. Her priority right now is reconnecting with her kids. She spends a lot of each day driving them to activities. But she knows that her legal career is waiting, and she imagines a new role that gives her life more meaning—perhaps representing refugees in Utah. “What I hope to do over this break is reconnect with myself and kind of think about: Okay, I’m in my 40s. I’ve had the title. I’ve had a big leadership position. So what can I do now to make a difference?”
Anna, whose career break just started, knows that she eventually needs to reframe what work means to her. “I have wanted to do domestic-violence-focused work since I was in college, so when I finally stepped into a role in the family courts 12 years ago, the self-actualization was so powerful. I felt that I was where I needed to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do.” Now she’s looking for a new dream—and she knows there’s only one way to get there. “I have one ambition: to put myself back together and be a complete human again. I don’t know how long that will take, which is scary,” she admits. “But I’m very excited for this break to start.”
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