If you've been laid out and laid off by the downturn and your spouse is still working, how much do you rearrange your family life? Do you assume the hit you've taken is temporary and leave all the old roles in place? Or do you concede semipermanence and take on more household duties, never mind what went before or what it all means?
That's a question more couples are facing because the layoffs, so far, are largely affecting men. I put out a call a couple of weeks ago asking for their stories. I wanted to know, specifically, how couples handling a husband or wife's unemployment are also handling what's called the second shift—the work we do at either end of the day to keep our kids and our homes running. The responses suggest that, possibly, the interplay between this recession and "who does what" in the house may be more complex than past data about the behavior of unemployed men suggest.
This is all anecdotal, so it's way too early to know for sure. But what I've heard matches the instincts of Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and author of books on marriage and relationships. She is one of my favorite family experts, because she likes to question the premises that everyone else takes for granted. This time, it's the assumption—based, in all fairness, on time-use studies from the 1990s—that men who lose their jobs do no more and often less housework and child care than they did before, while women in that position do significantly more.
Coontz is skeptical that the old numbers apply to the new downturn because they're old and because they don't distinguish between men who are chronically unemployed and those who lose their jobs for a spell. She is sifting through the data to look for overlooked patterns that might relate more directly to our current collective state. I'll report back on what she finds. In the meantime, she says that her hunch is that a "sizable minority" of laid-off men are pitching in at home far more than they did before.
That's the kind of story I heard from Penny, a registered nurse who lives in Seattle. She says that she and her husband both used to have "flexible jobs—mine part-time, his full-time—and split the child care/house duties accordingly." Sometimes Penny felt as if she was doing more than her share, and she said so, "mostly because I HATE HATE housework," she writes. Her husband lost his job in October. Penny was pregnant with their second child. They had a "reality check talk," she says, about how "there's no chance for him to get another job in his field." Instead, she would go to work full-time, and her husband would be a stay-at-home dad. In other words, they decided to treat his layoff as semipermanent and plan accordingly. They could weather the change financially because Penny is the higher earner.
And at home? Penny was worried about her husband's state of mind. But so far, so good. "I've spent some sleepless mornings (I work night shift) thinking, what if he's not happy? What if he misses his job (which he loved)? When I've asked how he feels about it, he says that it's been a paradigm shift and taken some getting used to, but so far he likes it." Penny says her husband hasn't quite picked up the cooking and housework. "But he's figuring it out, and I'm sitting back and letting him."
Parity, flexibility—who says the unemployed man of 2009 can't put the old couch-bum rap to rest? Robert, who lives in North Dallas, says recession-era partnership is all about planning. He and his wife saw a layoff for him coming last fall, and though she had been home since their kids were born (they are 3 and 1, with another on the way), she went to work in November. In the end, Robert didn't lose his job. For a few months, he and his wife both worked full-time. But "I was looking forward to spending more time with my kids anyway," he says, and so he scaled back to part-time. When I caught him by phone, he'd just picked the kids up from school. He juggled giving them a snack with talking to me. And, yes, they got fed.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. E-mail may be quoted in Slate unless the writer stipulates otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.