Dad-Mom Role Reversals
Amid bruised egos, resentments and confusion, families are struggling to find their footing as they cope with the financial, emotional and who-does-the-dishes-now restructuring of their lives brought on by the recession.
On a cold, rainy November morning, Christine Fruehwirth’s 5-year-old son showed up at preschool without a coat—or even a sweater. “The sweater was dirty,” says Christine’s husband, John. He also had taken their 7-year-old daughter out to run errands in the ballerina pajamas she’d slept in. “I didn’t know. I thought it was an outfit,” John says of the wardrobe mishap, one of several that have occurred since he took over many of the household and child-care duties two years ago. That’s when he lost his job as the managing director of a Washington, DC, private equity firm. To support their family of five, Christine began working part-time as a career consultant for George Washington University in addition to the career-coaching business she was already running out of their home.
Like many families coping with the turmoil brought on by the recession, the Fruehwirths have been fumbling to find their footing now that the roles of family breadwinner and household caretaker have been shuffled around. Though Christine, 40, had planned to work while her three kids were young, she was thinking one job, not two. But now she says, “Maybe this was meant to be.” She’s appreciating the chance to further develop her professional life. And although John is adamant that he’s not a stay-at-home dad—he’s developing a private equity company he purchased with his severance pay—he’s enjoying extra time with the kids now that he’s the one taking them to and from school and helping them with homework.
With job loss comes heightened anxiety, as well as recast parental and household duties, causing a major upheaval in many families. Working moms are increasingly logging extra hours in the office—and spending more time away from their children—while more men are finding themselves without an office to go to. Getting the bills paid and cutting back on nonessential spending is a strain for sure. Yet for many, the greatest challenge hasn’t been financial; it’s been psychological. Amid all the changes, moms and dads are trying to adjust not only to new daily schedules but also to bruised egos and growing resentments.
We talked to couples about how their families are coping with this shift—and learned what they’re doing to keep the peace.
For Stefania, one of the biggest disparities in this new structure is free time. She spends most of her day working and commuting. Darren—while doing handyman work and pitching in with the household chores—still spends a fair amount of time playing Flight Simulator on his computer. “This transition has been tough,” he says. “I started building houses when I was twelve. I’m used to working ninety hours a week. All I ever did was work.” Though he’s enjoying the time he spends with his daughter, he feels unproductive. “It’s difficult to go from self-sufficient to depending on someone, but we’re making it work,” he says. “It is what it is.”
The ego blow of job loss leaves many men unable to find fulfillment in their new role. In the months after Ron Mattocks was laid off two years ago, he admits, he had a tough time transitioning from his former life as a vice president of sales for a major homebuilder to Daddy Day Care. “I was an officer in the army and then an executive in the corporate world.
Suddenly, I’m packing lunches and making sure the kids have everything in their backpacks. My entire self-image pretty much got shattered,” says Ron, 37, from Houston. “I had to really rethink myself, and that’s been a long, discouraging process.” He misses the external validation he got through his work—the backslapping for a job well done—and is struggling to find that same sense of confidence internally. It has helped, however, to see his wife, Ashley, gain confidence in her career. “Though I don’t bring value to the family the way I used to, my role is important,” he says.
Wives should be mindful of the fact that a recently unemployed husband is in a fragile emotional state, says Ellen Ostrow, PhD, a psychologist who works with professional women reentering the workforce. “The psychological impact is enormous,” she says. This is one reason many men don’t automatically start picking up the scrub brush after a job loss. According to the 2008 American Time Use Survey released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployed women spend almost six hours a day on child care and household chores like cleaning and cooking, while unemployed men spend only three hours a day on such tasks—and also spend more than four hours a day watching television.
Often men with a very traditional view of gender roles will refuse to do housework, as a way to gain control, says Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. “They think that they have to compensate for their loss of masculinity by asserting masculine privilege in other ways.”
But the reasoning may be even more subtle than that. Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift, suggests that most men simply don’t see housework and child care as a vocation that could give them a sense of identity and pride, as many women do. “For a lot of women who lose their job, a pathway presents itself,” he says. “They decide, ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom. My job now is to take care of the home and kids, and I’m going to be good at that.’ But for many fathers, that pathway doesn’t exist in any well-developed way.”
Teaching the Basics
Kelly Sons says her marriage became rocky two years ago when her husband’s declining auto repair business forced her to support the family. The problem wasn’t the paying work—Kelly gets tremendous satisfaction from her freelance writing—but rather her second shift as the primary caregiver to their six children. “He assumed that I would handle everything. I was incredibly stressed out,” says Kelly, 40, of Morrison, TN.
Though working mothers have long grumbled that their spouses are slackers when it comes to housework in their dual-income homes, a husband’s refusal to chip in often becomes intolerable when she’s suddenly working longer hours and he’s home all day. Kelly’s very traditional husband, James, had to be schooled in the basics—like the fact that their sons’ black clothes should not be washed with the bathroom towels—but he did gradually step up. Today, he runs the household with pride. “He does most of the housework and takes care of our children and actually brags about me to his friends,” says Kelly.
Getting to that point was a long, painful process, says Kelly. Her breakthrough came when she realized that instead of fighting and nagging, she needed to make him a partner in finding the solution. “I told him we needed to figure this out—together.” With each would-be housework war, she stopped taking on full responsibility and instead turned to him for an answer. “If our family wanted to go to the local aquarium, I’d say, ‘I can’t go until I have this work done and the house is clean, so how is that going to happen?’”
Surprisingly, one of the most helpful influences came from an old movie. “It sounds crazy, but a lot of it had to do with Mr. Mom. Watching the Michael Keaton character struggle with his new role and then master it and eventually take pride in it had a big influence on James.” Kelly has also made sure to recognize her husband’s contribution—even though it was completely taken for granted when she was doing it. “That’s what made it so hard at first. Nobody ever told me thank-you.” Since James was sensitive to criticism, especially about his cooking, she always tried to find something positive to say and advises other women to do the same: “Find the good in it even if it’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten...Well, it smells good.”
In 1980, 29 percent of wives reported that their husbands did absolutely no housework; 20 years later, that figure dropped to 16 percent. And today, a third of American wives report that their husbands do at least half or more of either the housework or the child care.
“The more attached a man is to the size of his paycheck, the more difficult the transition will be,” says Coontz. “The good news is a lot of men have been discarding that kind of identity. They’re seeing themselves less as workers and more as husbands and fathers.”
Of course, it’s not just men who have a hard time letting go of old roles. Many women have a difficult time seeing Dad do his job a little too well. Dara Turketsky Blaker, 42, a music educator from Coral Springs, FL, says her heart breaks when her daughter wakes up in the middle of the night and calls for Daddy. “At first it was all about Mommy, and then suddenly it wasn’t.”
The question remains: Once kids get used to spending more time with Dad, Mom learns to appreciate his quirky housekeeping and parents value each other’s role, will it last when the economy rebounds? For the Fruehwirths, seeing how the other half lives has given them more empathy for each other. “We often laugh about it,” says Christine. “I’ll come home and say, ‘That commute was an hour!’ and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I remember.’ Or he’ll say, ‘The kids drove me crazy,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, been there.’” Whether or not roles revert back remains to be seen. But the growing empathy couples say they’ve experienced for one another cannot help but linger. They know firsthand that indeed the surest cure for judging another person is to walk a mile in their shoes.
Feeling the Pain
75% of the jobs lost during this recession were held by men. That has made the ever-growing share of women in the workforce even larger.
51% of all workers on U.S. payrolls are women, compared with 33% in 1969.
31% of working moms earned as much as or more than their husbands in 2008 vs. 11% in 1967. More women are now the primary breadwinner.
The Impact On Your Kids
Stay positive. Shield kids from any escalating fighting. Be honest but “use language that doesn’t scare them,” says Joshua Coleman, PhD, cochair of the Council on Contemporary Families. Say, “It’s going to work out. Dad will find another job.”
Reassure them. Assure kids that it’s not their fault if Mom and Dad are feeling a bit down right now. “Children tend to personalize things,” Dr. Coleman says. “If they can’t make a parent happy, they think there is something wrong with them.”
Enlist their help. Ask if they can think of ways the family can save money—like starting a garden or cutting back on soda. “Use it as a teaching experience that can show them that crisis is a part of life and this is how we deal with it,” says Dr. Coleman.