A household balancing act

Domestic roles shift when one spouse loses a job.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Family: Peter Baylies, right, chops vegetables for dinner while his children study. Baylies became a stay-at-home dad after he was laid off in 1992. His wife, Sue, left, is the breadwinner of the family.

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.

"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."

As a one-income family, they must cut expenses. Certain tasks they once hired others to do, such as yard work, will fall to her. "We're still in a transition," she says.

Transitions like these are déjà vu for Peter Baylies of North Andover, Mass. In 1992, he was laid off from Digital Equipment Corp., where he worked as a project specialist. In the beginning, he thought of himself as an "involuntary at-home dad," caring for the couple's infant son while his wife worked as a teacher. Eventually "involuntary" became "voluntary," and the Baylieses switched roles permanently.

That marked the beginning of a whole new unpaid career for Mr. Baylies. He founded the At-Home Dad Network to give guidance and support to men like himself who find themselves, by choice or necessity, full-time caregivers for children.

"Just like learning a job, you have to learn how to stay home with your kids," he says. "It took me about six months to get used to it. Some men just can't do it – they'll take any job. They don't have the patience for it."

For those who do stay home, life is easier now than it was when Baylies began. "We're over the Mr. Mom thing," he says. "Dads at home are accepted." Yet equitable divisions of labor take time. "Every dad I talk to, in the beginning they don't do enough. In time, the role reversal evens out."

US Census figures released this month show 140,000 full-time at-home fathers in 2008. Baylies calls those figures "close to meaningless," because they include only married men at home "who haven't earned a dime."

That would exclude Dave Moffatt of Winston-Salem, N.C. Although he has been at home for 13 years, caring for his two daughters, now ages 13 and 11, he also worked 20 hours a week for a fundraising consulting firm. In October he was laid off. Now he and his wife, a fundraiser for a medical school, have had to consider what domestic tasks he can take back that she assumed when he worked part time.

Sharon Meers, coauthor, with Joanna Strober, of "Getting to 50/50," offers reassurance that couples can achieve domestic equilibrium without nagging. "It's not easy, and there's lots of debate, but three steps couples are taking can help a lot," she says.

First, have a master plan. "Some Saturday, say, 'Is there another way we might run our household? I'm feeling overburdened, and I'm wondering if we might switch this around so it works better for both of us.' Often there's a sense that one spouse, frequently the wife, is doing more. But if you compare lists of what each partner is doing, you might be surprised."

Second, let go. "Respect the male point of view," Ms. Meers says. "We need to allow men to have a say in how the house works."

Third, show appreciation. Stay-at-home spouses are likely to do more if they feel appreciated.

Weiner-Davis also cautions against expecting a spouse to be a mind reader. Listing things that need to be done can avoid conflict. "It behooves people to recognize that everyone is experiencing the fallout of a failing economy," she says. "Everyone is undergoing change and sacrifice. It's important to pull together and band together, rather than see each other as opponents. Don't forget to take stock of what's really important in life. Schedule couple and family time and count your blessings."

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