With the influx of remote work opportunities, and a surge of businesses opting for permanent remote platforms, the work-from-home model (WFH) has resolved what many once saw as a mutually exclusive inquiry: the “work or kids” dilemma. However, it has also prompted a conversation surrounding the potential consequences and broader implications of this unprecedented shift out of the office.
How WFH Has Advantaged Working Parents:
It is not a coincidence that alongside the rising number of WFH opportunities, two other trends have followed suit: labor-force participation amongst college-educated women and fertility rates. Looking to labor-force data from 2019 to 2022, the numbers for college-educated women have remained steady for the first time following two decades of decline. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin reported that over 78% of female college graduates aged 25-34 with children were employed by the fall of 2021. During this time, the National Bureau of Economic Research also found a 6.2% increase in the U.S. fertility rate.
Time author and working parent Alana Semuels notes that the correlation between these trends is explained by the newfound flexibility of WFH and the resulting options that were previously unavailable to parents. Access to childcare is no longer a barrier for many, and eliminating the need to commute affords working parents huge savings, especially given increasing housing prices and limited availability of family homes in metropolitan areas. For aspiring parents, Forbes author Christine Michel Carter adds that WFH aids in fertility and family-forming, given the unpredictable and time-consuming nature of having a child.
Furthermore, this virtual wave has begun to chip away at the stigmas that historically surrounded remote work. The idea that WFH is any less legitimate or prestigious is, in the words of Semuels, “a false dichotomy leftover from the pre-pandemic world.” Semuels interviewed several ambitious professionals raising children, all of whom found remote work to be a catalyst for efficiency, productivity, and balance. From this lens, being a passionate parent and a dedicated professional are no longer at odds with one another.
Weighing Criticism & Concerns Surrounding WFH:
The WFH movement for working parents has generated a variety of responses, many of which are largely positive. Others, however, have taken a more critical lens, insofar as they point to potential implications and reasons for concern. Some experts have warned, for instance, that the growing tendency to opt out of returning to the office could actually exacerbate past stigmas. Specifically, WFH “could be stigmatized as an accommodation for mothers” due to the unequal utilization of remote work policies demonstrated by the aforementioned data. In turn, this stigmatization could have “professional consequences,” including curbed growth and underdeveloped connections.
In addition, several studies point to remote work as a hindrance to mental health, with working parents being one of the most impacted groups. Evidently, there is a lack of work-life balance stemming from integrating the home and office. A McKinsey survey indicated a commonality amongst WFH parents, in which many shared the feeling of “failing to live up to their own expectations across their multiple social roles.” Such a sentiment seems to contradict the alleged “flexibility” that is considered the primary benefit of WFH.
For many parents, WFH provides relief and balance, but given varied circumstances across households, this is not the case for all. Social trends surrounding parenting styles and roles show minimal uniformity, and per the CDC and Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are significant racial and ethnic disparities across WFH participants. It is also important to recognize that many parents face systemic challenges, leaving them with limited access to resources and support to maintain flexibility in a WFH environment.
Supporting Parents Amidst the WFH Movement:
The conversation around working parents must abandon this narrow, “one-size-fits-all” perspective and instead promote more inclusive, support-focused progress. While recent legislative changes have placed detrimental restrictions on reproductive rights and care, laws enacted prior to this regress can serve as models for support going forward.
In 2021, for example, SB-1383 revised the California Family Rights Act, which significantly increased the rights of almost all working parents in California by expanding eligibility, pregnancy disability leave, and full leave for both qualifying parents. The U.S. Department of Labor justified expansion as being “more inclusive of all parents.” Legislation backed by this kind of inclusive ideology is the foundation for positive change, which is more urgent now than ever.
Additionally, several businesses have taken steps to enhance support and accessibility for pregnant persons and parents. One notable example is a startup called Oula. With $22.3 million in venture capital, Oula is dedicated to restructuring the traditional maternity care model. In acknowledging the disparities in resources and preferences, Oula approaches each pregnancy with customized individual plans intended to “offset the pressures of becoming a parent.”
Moreover, employers themselves have begun to adopt support initiatives for working parents. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, this support comes from destigmatizing mental health care in the workplace and, importantly, “prioritizing inclusivity and access to culturally appropriate mental health care.” Further, many employers have introduced hybrid platforms, affording employees increased agency in scheduling. An article from the Harvard Business Review emphasizes normalizing “detours from traditional full-time employment,” including parental leave and sabbaticals.
Collectively, these developments represent a fraction of the evolving support methods for working parents. President of the Integrated Benefits Institute, Kelly McDevitt, highlights that “a single-model approach . . . may never satisfy the needs of all.” Thus, proper support must be adaptable and expansive. Inclusivity, in this way, requires recognizing a full range of experiences rather than placing all parents under one narrow lens.