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BALANCING ACTS

For families, layoffs shift responsibilities, roles

Women's earnings more crucial with men out of work

While looking for work, Lary Sack has been spending more time on household duties and caring for his children, Lydia, 11, (left) and Devan, 9. While looking for work, Lary Sack has been spending more time on household duties and caring for his children, Lydia, 11, (left) and Devan, 9. (Cheryl Senter for the Boston Globe)
By Maggie Jackson
February 22, 2009
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Wrangling over who takes out the trash is the least of their worries.

When Steve Hartel lost his second job in five years last June, his wife, Lisa Alecci, again became the family's sole breadwinner. Now, she may have to give up her chosen role as the go-to parent working flexibly and look for a better paying job. His vision of being the main provider for their family of five is on hold for now. Household roles have grown messy. Frustrations are high.

"We're really feeling the financial crunch," says Hartel, who was laid off from his job in client relations at Fidelity, a downsizing that cut the family's income 75 percent. The Andover couple has three daughters: one in college and 12-year-old twins. "Needless to say, this is causing lots of tension at home."

While confident that the family will "get through this," Alecci admits she's frightened and anxious. "I feel trapped," says Alecci, who works in fund-raising at a local private school. "I badly wanted to have this flexibility to spend time with my girls, to be at home."

With deep waves of layoffs predominantly hitting men, women's share of family earnings has become more crucial than ever. But the shift ing tides in male and female fortunes are shaking up relations in even the most progressive partnerships. Ultimately, the recession may further dismantle traditional gender roles and redefine what it means to be a "family provider" - but the gains won't be without pain.

"You're seeing a lot of families where he has lost his job and the responsibility for making sure the mortgage is paid is falling on her," says Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "It's really challenging for families. That's the American story for now."

Because steep job losses have badly hit male-dominated industries such as manufacturing and construction, there are fewer men working today as a share of the male population than at any time since the end of World War II, according to Boushey. Last year, women held 49 percent of the nation's jobs, and they may surpass men on payrolls if trends continue.

For families, the news is mixed. For years, women's financial clout has risen. In dual-earner families, more than a quarter of wives now earn more than their husbands, up from 17 percent in 1987. In all married households, wives contribute 35 percent of median family income, up from about a quarter in 1970. But women are more likely to work part-time and earn less than men for the same work - so families often suffer by depending on female breadwinners.

Then there are the psychological struggles, as pink slips and paychecks collide at home. For instance, men who involuntarily stay at home to raise kids struggle more to adjust to the role, according to research led by Aaron Rochlen, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "Men who have been able to do this by choice and with pride adjust more quickly to the role," says Rochlen.

Male self-esteem does "take a hit" after a layoff, agrees Rob Fitzgibbon, an Essex-based information architect and father of two who was laid off from a Boston-area technology consulting company earlier this month. It was his second layoff in six years.

Fitzgibbon said that for now his family will subsist on his wife's income as a freelance graphic designer - or about one-quarter of their earnings before his layoff. He predicted there would be tensions with the new "juggling act." Still, he was excited to spend time with his daughters, 8 and 6. "This is an opportunity," said Fitzgibbon. First stop: meet his daughter's third-grade teacher for the first time.

In general, husbands don't do as much housework or child care as their wives, even if both work. And the more married women earn, the less housework they do compared with lower-earning wives, possibly because they outsource chores, according to studies by Sanjiv Gupta, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Yet during a severe recession, squeezed families may do more housework themselves - a situation that will demand renegotiated roles.

The downturn "will almost certainly change the balance of power, or responsibility, within the home," said Gupta. "The harder question is what that means in concrete terms."

One thorny challenge for many couples, especially as their work hours ebb and flow, is "giving up" responsibility and authority for one's classic role to the other spouse. Fathers resent the fact that she is a capable breadwinner. Mothers bristle when he outshines her in cooking, carpooling, or back-to-school shopping. A jobless dad feels doubly scorned for doing domestic duty that steals her thunder and that takes time away from job hunting.

The "turf war" - that's how Lary Sack sees it. "There's some tension because I haven't found work," says Sack, a Hampton, N.H.-based construction worker who's been largely jobless for a year and has always earned less than his wife, a part-time lawyer. Somewhat burned out on job hunting, he puts more energy into cooking and housekeeping these days. "It's awkward," says Sack.

One recent Saturday, Steve Hartel and his wife, Lisa Alecci, had a few cross words when he offered to take one daughter shoe shopping, and she felt usurped as a mom. "For me, it felt territorial," Alecci said. "Before it would have felt laughable, now the tensions rise."

Yet the couple feel that their marriage, while sometimes shaken during rough times, is a "true partnership," says Alecci. "Way down deep, I know we will get through this. I don't know how, but I know that we will. When we do, as a family, like other really hard stuff, we'll be able to look back and say, 'Look at how strong our family is.' "

Maggie Jackson is the author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." She can be reached at www.maggie-jackson.com.

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