A household balancing act
Domestic roles shift when one spouse loses a job.
As a two-income couple, DeAnna and Seth Starn had worked out what she calls a "somewhat balanced" arrangement for sharing child care and household duties. Then last November Mr. Starn was laid off from his job as a graphic designer. Now their domestic balance has shifted.Skip to next paragraph
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"He stays home three days a week with our infant son," says Mrs. Starn, a publicist in Toledo, Ohio. "He pretty much has kitchen duty every night and makes sure the laundry is covered, the grocery list is made, and dinner is made."
That kind of renegotiation is taking place in families across the country as layoffs have increased, sending the unemployment rate to 8.1 percent. With 82 percent of pink slips going to men, more women like Mrs. Starn are finding themselves the primary breadwinners, giving them less time at home.
"Many couples still have what resembles a more traditional breakdown of roles," says Michelle Weiner-Davis, a marriage counselor and author of "Divorce Busting." "The person unemployed or underemployed is expected to pick up the slack and often does so, but is often not enthusiastic about it."
If men aren't doing this good-naturedly, she adds, women have little patience. "They also get impatient if men don't do it the way they would, or don't think of doing a particular task that is part of women's regular routine. When these things happen, it creates a whole lot of tension."
For Starn, minimizing tension involves lowering her expectations. "The house is messier now, but not in a bad way," she says. "Because people are home three days, there are more toys around, and it's more kid-friendly. I've also had to try to be a little more understanding of Seth's circumstances – taking care of Nicolas and the house, and trying to look for a job and get some freelance work in. He's a champ."
Still, no one pretends these adjustments are easy, especially when combined with concern about money and jobs.
In April 2008, when Robin Vieau's husband was laid off as an insurance broker, she returned to work as an elementary school teacher. He now cares for their young daughter.
"He likes to clean, thank goodness," says Mrs. Vieau of Houston. "But we do have our battles. He thinks I should do more. I'm so exhausted I can't. I do what I can, but it's really hard. It's really stressful for him, too. He's going back to school to get his executive MBA. He has to study, take care of the house and the baby, and try to find a job."
Noting that life has been reduced to basics, she says, "It's been hard, but we've seen blessings from God."
Starn adopts a similar attitude. "We have tried to look at the positive and see where the hidden gifts are," she says. That includes having more time to spend with 10-month-old Nicolas.
Other challenges arise when women lose their jobs. Cristina O'Keeffe, a copywriter in Stewart Manor, N.Y., was laid off just before Christmas when the software company where she was a consultant cut all contractors for 2009. Her maternity leave was just ending, and she had been looking forward to resuming her career.
"I had very mixed feelings about my husband being the sole breadwinner," she says. Initially, she felt he did not take this major change in her life seriously. But now, Ms. O'Keeffe says, "After a few big blowout fights and discussions, he's very supportive."
Even so, she wonders how she can build a fledgling communications business on the side. "Staying home with two kids isn't going to allow much time. Not that it's bad to stay home. It's like a blessing that I got to spend way more time with the baby. In a lot of ways it's going to be wonderful, but I wasn't prepared for it."