Could men be doing more around the house when they lose their jobs?

Snapshots of life at home.
March 12 2009 6:46 AM

When Men Lose Their Jobs

Could they be doing more around the house?

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Robert says he and his wife are now dividing the chores "pretty evenly." He does the day-to-day "maintenance around the house, like dishes and picking up. She still does all the grocery shopping, and she usually does the laundry." They still have a twice-a-week housekeeper—a boon to domestic peace if you can afford it. Robert's wife still cooks. But he's learning. And, he says, "starting next month my primary project will be potty training my oldest." I like the "primary project" phrasing, which treats toilet training as the serious mission that it is.

Lest you think that all the responses I got were about men who are better adjusted than the ones you know, a woman named Jesse wrote in despair about her boyfriend. They've been together four years. He calls her "The Stuff-Doer," and when they were both working, she says, "most of the second shift naturally fell to me." It still does. Just more so. Jesse's boyfriend lost his job at the end of September, and now "he wakes up at 1 or 2 p.m., plays computer games, generally doesn't eat anything until I come home, [then] he resumes playing his game, I work out, go to bed, and he finally comes to bed around 4 or 5 a.m." She does the shopping, the cooking, the laundry, and all the bills, "even those in his name." She thinks that even if he finds another job, her boyfriend isn't going to kick in more help. And because he's had past episodes of depression, "I'm very hesitant about asking him to do his share fearing it will just add to the burden and push him back into the terrible state where he doesn't even make eye contact with me for days." But she's getting resentful. "I suppose I need to frame it as me asking for his support and being careful not to shame him, but even that makes me angry." That sounds like settling into a new reality—but miserably.

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Other women similarly report not wanting to further undermine their men's shaky out-of-work identity. The phrase "fragile male ego" comes up a lot in these conversations. One woman wrote in from Minneapolis, where her husband lost his job as a conservative rabbi. (Who knew clergy were on the recession chopping block?) She hadn't worked full-time in 10 years—she was writing a novel and taking care of their kids, ages 13, 8, and 5. Now she and her husband have switched. She's at work, and he's mostly at home. And she is still the grocery shopper, the haircut-getter, and the maestro conducting the household orchestra. When it came time to re-enroll the kids in school, her husband filled out the forms, but only after she told him to. They are both deliberately holding onto their past roles. "You're right, we don't want to shift things completely," she said when I probed a bit over the phone. "When he first lost his job, he was so uncomfortable about being home in the middle of the day, and my friend said to me, 'Don't make him into a house husband. Don't reinforce his upset that he's not working.' So I'm not."

That strategy is about having faith that this, too, shall pass. It means treating the unwelcome entry of employment as temporary—momentary, even. You'll go back to work soon; in the meantime, I'll stay in charge of the grocery list. You can see through the surface tasks to the deep reason behind this method of coping: One identity-shattering shift at a time, please. But it also made me think about an insight from a reader named Dave, who sees stay-at-home fatherhood in his future because his wife has more education and higher earning potential. "Men pay a high price for tying their identity too closely to work," he says. To be closely identified with one's career ambitions used to be a good thing. It meant commitment, follow through, work ethic. Women used to look for all of that in a mate. Some men did, too. Now, it seems dangerously rigid.

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My next question for readers: If you're in your 20s, how is the downturn affecting you? Is it making you think differently about work, relationships, maybe your parents? If you're just graduating from college or graduate school, what's next? And has the frozen job market reframed your choices? Send me your stories, at doublex.slate@gmail.com. E-mail may be quoted in Slate unless the writer stipulates otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.