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.

Fred Greaves/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Chuck and Lynn Northrop of San Diego.
Fred Greaves/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Chuck Northrop picks up his kids, Aiden and Claire, from school. Mr. Northrop, laid off last August, has taken over many household duties since his wife increased her work hours.
Stephanie Hanes
Since being laid off last fall, Frank Benavides of Long Island, N.Y., has become a stay-at-home dad to daughter Elizabeth – and loves it.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Ted Jablonski of Wellesley, Mass., has found more time to play lacrosse with son Matthew after his recent job loss.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Ted Jablonski, a former marketing executive, has used his recent layoff as a chance to start his own consulting business out of his house.
Stephanie Hanes
The Hamiltons of McGonigle, Ohio, relax on their deck. After Kevin (left) lost his job, Cheryl (center) went back to work. Kevin has since found a job, but it doesn’t pay as much.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

"We've never seen a gender imbalance like the one we're seeing now," says Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. "What we don't know yet is how this will play out in families."

"The whole generation of kids who grew up in that associated their mothers' work with their fathers' depression," Coontz says. "Instead of being proud of their mothers' work, they were embarrassed."

Those children grew up to be the adults of the 1950s, and even less open to mothers working outside the home, she says. Those women who did have jobs were taught to avoid any sort of employment that might be interesting enough to distract from family duties. They were also cautioned against taking raises. "The most important thing you could do was to protect the man's ego," Coontz says. "That's really changed in the last 30 years."

Women's involvement in the workplace has increased steadily since the 1950s. According to a recent Family and Work Institute study, younger women today are just as likely as their male peers to want jobs with more responsibility. The 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce also found that 79 percent of married or partnered employees live in dual-earning households and that the women in these couples earn on average 44 percent of the household income. Overall, while women still only make 80 cents to every dollar earned by a man, more than a quarter of women in dual-earning couples make substantially more than their partners.

This shift in earning power has made it easier for some couples to adjust to their new, recession-era roles. Chuck Northrop had been the lead graphic designer in the marketing department at Colliers International, a commercial real estate firm in San Diego, when he was laid off at the end of August.

"It was unexpected," he says. "Even though I had a feeling things were bad because of what was happening in the real estate market, I was in shock."

His wife, Lynn, is a clinical psychologist at Grossmont Hospital, treating severely mentally ill adults. She had been working less than full time – four days a week until 3 p.m. – but still made a higher salary than Chuck. After his layoff, she was able to increase her work time to 4-1/2 days a week.

Because of her hours, Lynn had been the one to pick up their two children, 12-year-old Claire and 8-year-old Aiden, from school, drive them to afternoon activities, and make dinner. Now, Chuck is the one who helps with homework, cooks, does the laundry, and straightens up the family's sunny home in the city's South Park neighborhood.

"Some days I don't get home until 6 or 7 p.m., so obviously Chuck has already prepared dinner by the time I get there," says Lynn, her hand over his.

Both say that their adjustment has been relatively smooth; Lynn remembers how Chuck supported her when she went through a job loss a few years back, and Chuck says that he has actually been "thrilled" to spend more time with his kids. "I think right now we are closer than we've been in a long time," Lynn says, looking at Chuck, who nods in agreement. "Sure, he's going to need to get a job and unemployment is going to run out. But right now, this new arrangement is good for us."

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."

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.

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