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How the recession is reshaping the American family

The downturn is forcing the man of the house to spend more time at home, altering roles everywhere from the laundry room to the child-care center.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 2009

Chuck and Lynn Northrop of San Diego.

Fred Greaves/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Rockville Centre, N.Y.

When Frank Benavides and Lynn Golder had their first baby last year – a cheerful little girl with wide, dark eyes – they agreed that it would be best if one of them could take care of her full time. But they argued, good-naturedly, over who should get the job.Four months later, the recession solved that dispute for them.

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In October, Frank, a designer, was summoned into the conference room at his Manhattan architechtural firm. His bosses told him that, although they hated to do it, they were eliminating his position.

"Oh," he said. "OK."

On the commuter train back to Long Island, as the New York City skyline disappeared behind him, he tried to think through his family's finances. Although Lynn had taken four months of maternity leave, she still had her job as a lawyer at an insurance company. If he stayed home, they wouldn't have to pay for a nanny. Maybe, he thought, this was a chance to do what he had talked about – to start his own business from home and take care of their baby girl.

The next Monday, Frank said goodbye to Lynn as she left for her office; turned his attention to baby Elizabeth; and started his new, post-layoff schedule: diaper change, feeding, play, feeding, nap. After that, if he had the energy, he could work on his own architectural design business. "It's been wonderful," Frank says. "She [Elizabeth] is so perceptive, so fun. I'm happy to be doing it."

The changes taking place in the Benavides-Golder household are being echoed in different ways across the country, as millions of families restructure their lives amid the worst recession since the 1930s.

Although economic shifts always affect the American family, this downturn, both because of its depth and the disproportionate number of men being laid off, is adjusting roles and relationships at home perhaps more than at anytime since the Great Depression. It is recalibrating who earns the income, who picks up the kids at school, and who makes the weekly trip to the dump.

Not all the changes are good: As family budgets have tightened and roles changed, tensions have risen, and some advocates worry domestic violence is increasing. But in other cases, families have forged new bonds and balanced duties in ways unseen even at the height of the feminist movement.

"We've never gone into a recession like this, with this configuration of family values, with so many women in the workforce," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and the director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families. "If it weren't so sad for so many families, this would be an incredible social experiment."

Some of this disparity can be explained by the deep cuts in the manufacturing and construction industries, which are predominantly male. (In construction, men held 87.5 percent of the jobs at the end of 2007, in manufacturing, 71.2 percent.) In these two sectors alone, some 2 million jobs have been lost – including Kevin Hamilton's.