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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.

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At the beginning of last year, Kevin and his wife, Cheryl, thought they were on their way toward financial security. Kevin had just gotten a $16-an-hour job at the SMART Papers paper mill outside Cincinnati – $4 better than he was making as a store manager at Dollar General. With their four young children, the couple decided to move out of their rented townhouse and into a trailer. It was supposed to be a temporary move, Cheryl explains now with a sigh, to cut costs and save up for a house of their own. But three days before Christmas, and two months after the birth of their youngest child, Kevin was laid off.

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"I thought, 'What are we going to do?' " Cheryl recalls. "I went out right away and got food stamps. He immediately started putting in applications. He probably applied at 100 different places."

A month later, he got a call back from Target, which offered him an early morning, part-time position. He took the job, but his take-home pay dropped from about $3,000 a month to $800 a month. He and Cheryl decided he should go back to school, in hopes that an information technology degree would help the family in the long run. But after a few months, they started slipping behind on their rent and their car payments.

Cheryl, who had been a stay-at-home mom, decided she needed to work. She took the only job she could find: a $7-an-hour position at a gas station. Now she starts work around 3 p.m., before her 9- and 7-year-old get back from school, and gets home at 10 p.m., after they're in bed.

Kevin has started taking over more child-care duties – getting the kids off the bus, feeding them dinner, taking them to baseball practice – and doing more housework. The change in roles has helped them keep the refrigerator stocked and develop new empathy for what the other does. But Kevin could do without the housework, and Cheryl says that while it's nice to have her husband better appreciate all she did as a stay-at-home mom, she'd trade that for her old life – instantly.

"I come home at night and I see my little baby here sleeping," she says. "I miss the older two because they're in school all day. I look at them and I just start crying. I hate this. I loved being a stay-at-home mom because everything was done around the house; I loved playing with them and watching them grow. I want to cherish all the time I have with them. But with the economy the way that it is, I feel like I'm robbed of that."

Manufacturing and construction might be among the recession's hardest-hit industries. But even outside those sectors, men have lost twice as many jobs as women; economists say they are seeing gender imbalances at all socioeconomic levels.

The percentage of men giving up on the job search has also risen sharply. Since December 2007, the male unemployment rate – the percentage of people who are looking for, but have not yet found, work – has increased steadily during this recession, hitting 9.4 percent in April. But the number of men who, each month, go from the "unemployed" category to not looking for work at all has also grown significantly.

Researchers say it will be months, if not years, before they have any solid data on what these men are doing – whether they are going to school, staying home with children, or simply giving up. All they can say for sure is that the changes are huge.

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