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.