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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The way Chuck and Lynn have worked out their new gender roles can be a crucial part of surviving the recession. "You have to realize that when someone's laid off, the roles are going to be in flux," says Nancy Collamer, a career consultant and the author of "The Layoff Survival Guide," which she wrote after her husband lost his job in the tech industry. "It is critically important for you to communicate, and for you to keep communicating; and to recognize that as the situation evolves, there may need to be some renegotiation. What works for the first three months might not work for months six through nine."Skip to next paragraph
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So even though fewer Americans embrace traditional gender roles today – the Family and Work Institute study found a 32 percent drop over the past decades in the number of men who believe it is better "if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children" – these ideas remain deeply entrenched. Forty-one percent of workers today still believe in those traditional roles; of female responders, the figure was 39 percent.
Aaron Hardisty, who was unable to find a job after graduating from business school last year, says these perceptions were a factor in the end of his marriage. Although he was taking care of his 3-year-old son and trying to keep up the house, he says he could tell his wife was unhappy with his role. "What woman will say she doesn't want a guy who is home every night and cooks every meal and does all the shopping?" he says. "But eventually it becomes self-emasculating. People wonder, 'Where's the man?' "
Still, with so many fathers out of work, lingering prejudices may soften. "Men will be better able than any other previous generation of husbands and fathers to say, 'Look, here's the silver lining: I can spend more time with my kids,' " says Coontz.
Ted Jablonski, like Chuck Northrop and Frank Benavides, has embraced that bright side. Earlier this year, the Boston financial company where Mr. Jablonski worked restructured its departments, and Jablonski found himself without his marketing executive job. Since then, he has begun his own consulting business from home, while spending more time with his three teenage children.
"It's not just helping them with homework or going to their lacrosse matches or softball games," he says. "It's having real time with them ... talking about current events or the economy or sports or colleges. It's just great to be able to have that sort of interaction. And spending that much time when you're just not available 60 hours a week, or more – it's hard to do."
Many fathers feel that dilemma. According to the Families and Work Institute study, more than half of the fathers in dual-earning households report significant work-life conflict – more than women in equivalent situations. Ted and his wife, Susan, have used the downturn to talk with their children about politics, economics, and personal values.
"This past year has really forced people to step back and say, 'What's really important to us in our lives?' For a lot of people it's not buying a new car, taking a new trip, or buying a flat-screen TV. It's getting time with family and friends."
Coontz agrees. "We've been on a treadmill the last 15 years," she says. "Going cold turkey – that's not the easiest way. But some families will end up stronger."
• Eilene Zimmerman contributed to this report from San Diego.